Tuesday, 28 January 2014 05:59

24 Hours in Ho Chi Minh City

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Tour buses leaving Pham Ngu Lao




Good morning, Vietnam!

The overnight buses pull into Pham Ngu Lao early in the day, giving tourists pressed for time a clear morning before the hangover of the next. Though it’s a bit of an ask with a bumpy trip behind, those who spend their mornings outside are rewarded with the city at its most optimistic.


Coffee and Newspapers




Coffee Break


There is a Vietnamese proverb — duc toc bat dat, “haste makes waste”. Though the working day looms large, even at this early hour you can find the city’s corner cafés packed with people in no hurry to go anywhere.


Aerobic in the park




Working up a sweat


It’s an old tradition, obsolete for some in this age of gyms and Youtube follow-along-at-home videos. But in the parks you’ll still see the fitness oriented twisting and grunting in pyjamas and sweats, cranking along a simple mechanical rhythm on metal resistance machines.


Rush Hour




Rush Hour


Rush hour is in full swing by 8am, as the city’s arteries are pumped full with motorbikes. For some it’s too much, and they lean on their horns while those in front grimace behind facemasks. The secret to keeping your cool? Respect your neighbour, and avoid those traffic circles.


Praying in Pagoda




Pray before day


In practically every home and business, you’ll find a shrine, filled with the burnt ends of incense and some of the best offerings a kitchen can provide. This is ancestor worship in its most visible manifestation. But for some it’s not enough. They must escape the bustle of the coming day and head to the pagodas, incense in hand.


Rush Hour




The Beep goes on


Traffic in Ho Chi Minh City isn’t a time-constrained event, it’s a way of life. By 10am the roads have emptied of office and school-bound traffic, but they’re still strangely clogged. And the attention they attract is more than just due diligence on the part of the drivers — here the traffic is a spectacle, as flickeringly addictive as a game of Candy Crush.


Construction workers take a break




On the ground floor


Wherever a construction site springs up, an equally temporary space follows. Glass cases holding com binh dan and metal vats of pho speckle the boundary lines — giving workers comfort in food. Or maybe the workers just leave their place of work for a quick, late morning break.


Office Lunch




Office Lunch


Com van phong, or office lunches, originally started in the city’s cafes. A relatively cheap set meal in attractive, aircon surroundings was perfect for the growing quorum of office workers. But with the onslaught of food courts and sleek eateries, so the location has changed, as has the meal. It’s no longer just rice, rice and more rice. Now it’s a bit of everything.


 Xe om driver sleeping on his bike




Nap time for Mr. Xe Om


Well, he’s got to sleep sometime. And, with legs propped up on the handles he so deftly steers, Mr. xe om is more comfortable than he looks. He might have been a farmer or technician in another life, but he’s given that up to make his living off the streets.


shopping at Ben Thanh




The afternoon paddy whack


There’s no use avoiding it, tourist: bargaining at Ben Thanh Market is a rite of passage. Housed inside this architectural treasure is a square kilometre of tat, from souvenirs to fake suitcases to, erm, trinkets. T-shirt hawkers will pull on your T-shirt until you buy one of theirs. The savvy avoid the daytime mess and head there at night, when it’s that much more pleasant.


Nails salon




There's always time for lookin' good


Working all day does nothing good for the nails. So take a half-day off and enjoy one of Saigon’s live-like-a-king pleasures. Shell out as little as VND80,000 for a mani-pedi — it pays for itself in the free drinks you’re soon to receive.






The kids are alright


Those who remember what it was like to be a kid might bristle at the 10-hours-a-day, six-days-a-week school regimen Saigonese youth are subjected to. But go down to 23/9 Park or the pavement of Le Duan and you can watch this country’s future leaders cut loose, demonstrating a focus sadly missing on their end-of-term exams.


Food cart




The other rush hour


If rush hours have personalities, this one would be more hopeful than the morning’s — but somehow less patient. But patience is all a matter of perspective, and seeing other people’s live-and-let-live approach to the man cycling or pushing his food cart through the middle of a busy traffic circle puts a more sympathetic face on the commute home.


Sunset over the city






Watching sunset from across the river gives jaded city dwellers a context for the magnificent nature in which they live. Just across from the skyscrapers lies a landscape dominated by natural rhythms, and when the sun sets, life here grows calmer, as Saigon forgets the pressures of day.






Supermarket Sweep


Dinner doesn’t cook itself. Neither does it buy itself, as you can observe in Big C at this hour. Fresh off of a long day of work, hundreds crowd the aisles, a new challenge in front of them — this tomato or that?


Bia Hoi on Bui Vien




Bui Vien packs out


While the rest of the city is subject to the rhythms of working days and ladies’ nights, the plastic chairs on Bui Vien are never empty at this hour. Thirsty travellers and even thirstier Saigonese pack out the bia hois looking to forget the sun and drink away the night. 


Snails and seafood on the street




Dinner of the daring


It’s 9pm and your stomach is rumbling. Tentacles don’t go bad, do they? You take your chances with some bach tuoc nuong and never look back. Maybe next time you’ll try your luck on those tantalising oysters.


Watching Football at Universal




Football's on the TV - always


For some, the hour won’t matter if the EPL is in season. From expat haunts like Phatty’s, Baan Thai and Universal to the corner sets in the local joints across the street, these games attract diehards and a unique atmosphere. It’s a brief escape from the usual schedule — unless of course another game is on after.


Dried squid on the street




Dried Squid


It’s a simple fact of life. Dried squid served up with chilli sauce and the local version of hoisin just goes perfectly with a beer or five. And it’s brought right to your table, too, grilled to order. 


Night trucks




The Highways never sleep


As things slow in the city, trucks start to enter, setting up the commerce of the coming days. The highway of choice is the one winding 1,700km down from Hanoi, National Route 1A — which came in seventh in Lonely Planet’s World’s Best Cycling Routes last time they did one of those roundups. But at this hour, the cycles have cleared out and the rigs own the road.


Partying at Lush




Bass Drop


While the rest of the city is going dark, the nightclubs are entering their native states. There are a growing number of people whose closets contain fewer stiff collars than slinky dresses — except of course when their finery is being worn on the dance floor.


Transporting to wholesale market




The early bird gets the bid


While the city’s storefronts have trucks to bring in their supplies, the city’s markets depend on a less formal network. Motorbikes and riverboats bring in the lush goods from the Mekong Delta to the wholesale market Binh Dien, not too far from Cholon. These deliveries precede a flurry of buying and selling which will soon extend citywide.


Printing house workers




Still in print


The information age hasn’t left the city’s newspaper industry behind. It’s early and the printing houses are in action, running newspapers through their offset printers, before folding and placing each copy in bundles for the delivery men and women to disperse them around the city.


Flower Market




Flower Hour


Of all the pocket societies setting up in the pre-dawn hours, few bring as much colour to the darkness as the flower sellers of District 10’s Ho Thi Ky Flower Market. Coming in from the highlands of Dalat and the riverbanks of the Mekong, the flowers usher in hope for the new day.



Dragon Images


Word would like to thank DragonImages for their work on the Ho Chi Minh City photos for this story. The first professional stock photography studio in Vietnam and with eight years experience in the world market, the team behind Dragon creates some of the most popular and best-selling stock photo collections in Southeast Asia. Providing a wide selection of photography services for a full range of clients, for more information go to dragonimages.asia or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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