One of our storytellers has described late night Saigon as “strange.” Maybe we just steal that word.
Like Hanoi, Saigon really stays up late.
The lack of winter weather and the cool breezes in summer nights mean extra playtime and worktime, as if more than 12 hours of daylight were not enough. Even the rain can’t dishearten the players, as the urban wisdom goes.
Wandering around the city in early summer, we met the people who fix our streets, save lives, serve coffee and play music.
They live by night. They dream while they are awake. They make Saigon the city that we all know and love.
We actually had expected to find and interview many women. But Saigon after dark turned out to be a surprise.
A majority of the food vendors we talked to in the small hours were men, who said their female peers would generally take over the sidewalks during the day, when it’s safer. We reached out to hotels hoping to speak with a female night manager, but hotels said they tried to keep women out of the night shift. Then there were the sex workers, but they had reasons not to be visible. So we chose to keep them as background characters in these following tales of the night.
One of our storytellers has described late night Saigon as “strange.” Maybe we just steal that word. This, after all, is the city where some people drink coffee to stay awake.
We love our job, but it doesn’t love us…
Nguyen Van Diep, singing in Vietnamese
We are prepping so the engineers can come to install some new electricity wires. Then we have to refill the whole before sunrise. We can’t leave any mess on the street for traffic safety.
Each in our team earns around VND300,000 ($13) for eight hours of night work. The city life feels strange in these hours. We often see the “night women” walking around every night, if you know what I mean. There’re also many people sleeping on the streets. I didn’t see that back home.
I wouldn’t mind sleeping on a sidewalk myself. What worries me is how my family is doing back home. Who’s taking care of them?
The whole team is from Tien Giang in the Mekong Delta. We were bricklayers doing manual jobs. Whatever they paid us to do. But it’s very little money and not enough work. So we came here.
The youngest one in the team is just 19. He dropped out of school four years ago, going to the city with his elder brother to look for jobs. For him, all this hard work is better than being jobless back home.
This night construction job is really exhausting, but you don’t need an education or special skills for it. It’s all about hard work and some peace for the mind.
As the old saying goes, “The hands work; the jaws chew.” Life is as simple as that.
It’s hard to spend the night at work and not with your family.
Nguyen Quang Nghia
The hospital admits around 350 new patients every day, and most of the cases come rushing in the evening or later. That’s also when patients from remote areas arrive. As the biggest general hospital [Cho Ray] in town, we handle mostly severe cases of injuries or complications.
My night shift starts at 9 p.m. At night there are also a lot of emergency cases like traffic accidents, or gang fights. Some patients were violent and assaulted us and other patients. Even inside a hospital, they still wanted to deal with their unfinished business or take care of their “boss” or “brothers.”
There was this one patient who got stabbed badly. It’s critical. We were doing our best to save him, but his “brothers” in the same gang just refused to leave and said: “You’ve got to make sure he’ll live. If you don’t want to be stabbed.” As if there had not been enough pressure.
The biggest challenge? I would say it’s probably from the families. We have patients coming in and out all the time, but all families want their loved ones to be treated first. We know that, but we have to weigh the situation and treat those who need us first. Sometimes the families jump in and start fighting with the medical staff. It’s a mess.
I chose this career because it feels good to save lives, you know. My brother is a doctor, too, in another hospital. Sometimes we joke that we are like the sibling doctors in that the popular Korean TV show.
It’s hard to spend the night at work and not with your family. My parents are old. One night my mom had a stroke and my brother was also very sick. I couldn’t be there for them and my relatives had to rush them both to hospital.
My colleagues have similar stories to share. I guess we are just normal people living our lives like everyone else.
Before every shift I’ll do three shots of espresso to keep me through the night.
Nguyen Vu Anh Tai
I’m a college student by day and a barista by night. My shift starts at 11 p.m. and ends at 7 a.m. the next morning. Then I’ll go home and get ready for classes. Three afternoons a week I also join my popping dance team for practice.
Sleep? Whenever I can. Now and then I bumped into friends during the shifts. They were a little surprised knowing that I don’t live the normal human clock.
It’s tough when there are exams, but I’ve learnt how to manage my time. I need this job and the VND5 million ($220) monthly paycheck.
Before every shift I’ll do three shots of espresso to keep me through the night. Some bad nights I got the orders wrong because I was too sleepy. But it’s rare.
My passion for everything coffee started here. I was a waiter but a colleague taught me how to be a barista. He’s a really great guy who I consider as my first coffee master. I knew nothing back then.
I’d love to learn more. My eyes are now on a course called “Martial Arts for Baristas,” and probably a trip to the Central Highlands.
No, I haven’t told my parents about my plans. I chose to study finance and banking because of them. Of course they want me to have a stable career path. I will need to start practicing my speech before I sit them down.
Street performances don’t don shabby clothes. So here we go with the colorful and all.
Tran Quang Hung
Believe it or not, these guys were once in my audience watching me play on Nguyen Hue.
I was the lead singer of a band called “Music in Breath.” Then my bandmates left.
I talked with these guys on Facebook and it just clicked. Now our band performs on Bui Vien.
We go for the new hits, even K-pop songs.
And we need to spend money to look good. Street performances don’t don shabby clothes. So here we go with the colorful and all.
To be honest, I prefer singing on Nguyen Hue Street, where busking was easier. Just put out a box and people would leave their money. Here we also have to sell candies and cookies. So we have to take turns to sing and sell stuff.
We earn between VND40,000 ($1.8) to several hundred thousand a night, the whole team. Our best night was when we sang K-pop songs for a group of Korean tourists, and they gave us VND3 million. For rainy days, we can go home nearly empty handed, or sometimes with a broken speaker.
I live for the applause. The cheers really send chills down my spine, in a good way.
Difficulties? Ha, probably when some people in the neighborhood threw eggs and dirty water at us. But Bui Vien is known for the vibrant night life, with music playing and people partying. And we are nothing compared to the noise from the bars here. Anyway, when they did that, all I cared about was to protect the speaker.
This is just the beginning for all of us. We definitely will try to make it big in the music scene.
Thanh Nguyen, Nhung Nguyen