Understanding the Ecosystem that is Saigon’s Nightlife

practicalities - Saigon/HCMC: Feb. 14, 2019

Some cities around the world are well known for their nightlife culture and history. Berlin is known for its techno clubs and crazy parties, Amsterdam is popular for its trance events, and you can find some of the craziest marathon parties in Ibiza.

Although Asian cities have their fair share of popular events such as the legendary psytrance parties in Goa or the full moon parties in Koh Phangan, it wasn’t until recently that nightlife was established as an institution and a pull factor for tourism for some parts of Asia.

When “nightlife” is mentioned in Southeast Asia, many would point you towards the scene in Bangkok which has blossomed over the years, ranging from the infamous ladies’ bars to franchised international music festivals. However, not many would have realised by now that on the other side of the Southeast Asian peninsula, Vietnam, especially Saigon, is quickly gaining a reputation for providing the region with one of the most diverse nightlife scenes, with an increasing number of international DJs and producers performing live shows of various genres and subgenres in an increasing number of clubs and rooftop bars across the city.

And this is even before mentioning the home-grown, high-energy Vinahouse scene.

But when did it all start?

The evolution of the city’s nightlife scene is as dramatic as the history of the city itself. During the American War, the city saw a sizeable population of foreign journalists residing here as correspondents. They mostly frequented hotel bars, sipping on cocktails while churning out news reports pertaining to the war. Hotel Majestic, The Rex and The Caravelle were some of the most popular with the latter subsequently becoming the unofficial American media headquarters, as described in a journal written by Steve Somerville, a former correspondent for Reuters based in Vietnam.

evolution nightlife in saigonImage source: The Rex Hotel

However, nightlife in that era wasn’t just limited to foreign journalists. Back when Dong Khoi Street was still known as Rue Catinat, and subsequently Tu Do Street, there was a buzz developing in that area. Live music acts dominated stages across the stretch and one of the venues that achieved iconic status among the in-crowd was Tu Do Nightclub, at the junction of the present Dong Khoi and Dong Du Streets.

Tu Do Nightclub was the nightlife institution of that era. The club brought together American and Vietnamese patrons looking for great live music courtesy of legendary performers like Tuan Ngoc and Khanh Ly, among many others.

However, the facade and ceiling of Saigon’s nightlife was blown off unexpectedly in September 1971 when a bomb went off inside the club, killing 15 and injuring 57 others. This sounded the death knell of the music scene and nightlife in the city.

As post-war Vietnam grappled with economic sanctions and poverty, priorities were shifted towards survival and not much information has been recorded nor revealed about nightlife before the Doi Moi era.

Sowing the seeds

With Doi Moi, Vietnam embraced a free market economy in the late ’80s and early ’90s, effectively marking its growth as a nation. It also saw an increasing number of foreign businesses setting up base here. The city saw the return of establishments catering to music, alcohol and entertainment. One remnant from that generation that is still going strong is Apocalypse Now.

evolution nightlife in saigonImage source: Apocalypse Now

As the 2000s rapidly streamed past us, technology started shrinking things and music production tools got condensed into computer software programs. Young Vietnamese musicians eager to create their own sound began producing their own brand of electronic music designed to give you that extra pump in life and soon enough, Vinahouse was born. Its polarising reach did not stop beer clubs from popping up all across the city, much to the delight of young locals with a penchant for loud music and towers of booze.

Electronic music had, by 2010, become a global trend and Vietnam embraced it wholeheartedly. This also coincided with Saigon’s magnificent economic growth resulting in an increasing number of foreigners living and working here. In what could be seen as a genuine exchange of culture, they brought along their favourite music to the city. Clubs, lounges, bars and rooftop bars started opening across the city, providing a diverse range of music, both mainstream and underground.

According to Dan Bimong, founder of The Observatory, “I started The Observatory with the idea of having a venue where we can invite artists from all around the world that fit with my musical perspective that is clearly focused on a wide range of house, disco, techno and affiliated sounds”.

evolution nightlife in saigonImage source: The Observatory

At the turn of this decade, those genres were still only limited to small parties within common circles, mainly among expats.

“The idea was also to have a place that is fully dedicated to that activity with a decent sound system and a programme with international guests every weekend in order to give the opportunity for the city to see artists that never had the chance to come to play in Vietnam”, he added.

A thriving ecosystem

While clubs like Envy, SkyXX, Kasho and Chill SkyBar serve those who are looking for the mainstream EDM club experience, venues like Lush and Piu Piu go one step further by organising themed events featuring specific genres of music like hip hop and bass music. The Lighthouse and Arcan cater to those who are looking for purely underground electronic music genres like techno, house, drum & bass and psytrance with plenty of independently organised events featuring international DJs.

evolution nightlife in saigonImage source: Arcan

Teams like The Beats Saigon, dOSe, Jetlag, Heart Beat, Techno.vn and many others have been responsible for most of the movement in the city’s underground electronic music scene.

There has also been a massive increase in the number of young Vietnamese DJs and music producers in the city mainly due to a rising level of awareness and interest, with DJ academies run by organisations like Pioneer Music catering to them. This has created a revolving door of talented DJs playing in clubs across the country, performing alongside experienced foreign DJs currently living in Saigon, and even touring the region.

Locally produced music festivals have also brought big-name DJs and producers like Deadmau5, Ferry Corsten, Armin van Buuren, Hardwell and Steve Angello to the city, playing to large crowds.

Beyond the flashing lights and pulsating basslines, other components of nightlife have also started to gain traction here, from speakeasy bars to craft beers. Establishments like Drinking & Healing, Snuffbox and Firkin have provided residents and tourists with bespoke cocktails created by skilled bartenders and mixologists, all accompanied by specially curated music.

evolution nightlife in saigonImage source: Drinking & Healing

Homegrown breweries like Heart of Darkness, East West, Te Te, Winking Seal and at least a dozen others have opened more than just venues for beer aficionados. They have also created a scene that’s slowly gaining global recognition.

How far will it go?

Since nightlife is constantly evolving in Saigon, it has already started playing a significant role in the tourism industry with music lovers from across the continent travelling here to check out the increasingly vibrant nightlife scene in the city.

“We have noticed it at The Observatory while talking to our customers. Almost every weekend, we meet people from Hong Kong, Singapore or Bangkok just to name a few cities, who come here to enjoy our vibrant nightlife. It’s definitely growing, so let’s see what will happen in the next few years”, added Dan Bimong.

From the chaotic backpacker-filled bars of Bui Vien Street to glossy speakeasy bars, EDM clubs and rooftop bars, Saigon’s nightlife can be described as an ecosystem catering to almost everyone—locals as well as foreigners.

evolution nightlife in saigonImage source: zing.vn

However, whether the city’s nightlife evolves into a global institution or not will still heavily depend on factors such as its reputation, safety and security, quality of music, the people to keep it running and of course, the authorities.

But as of now, it’s back to being one of the most vibrant in Southeast Asia.

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