Vietnam’s nightlife has something for local people, expats, and tourists of all persuasions: ravers, lounge-lizards, Rock & Rollers, and hedonists. I can provide only a brief sampling here of the many nitespots in Hanoi and HCMC, but a browse through any issue of The Guide will fill you in on many more - all good value and highly recommended. The few I have chosen to write about have been selected to give an idea of the wide variety on offer.
Hanoi’s lively bars and swank nightclubs are conveniently set around Hoan Kiem Lake in the Old Quarter. Located behind the colonial-era Opera House is Minh’s, Hanoi’s oldest jazz club.
Minh is the grand patron of Hanoi’s small community of jazz performers and devotees. You’re likely to hear jazz standards performed by Hanoi’s finest jazz musicians, including Minh himself.
In the heart of the tourist area in the Old Quarter, RockStore is an atmospheric, vibrant venue with a mix of DJs and live bands. It looks like an American-style diner when you first enter, but the further you venture into its cavernous depths the more exotic it gets. The entertainment varies wildly - classic rock DJs one night, Viet techno another, alternative live rock another. RockStore’s staff are friendly and the food good.
Cama ATK is one of Hanoi’s newest and hippest clubs. This speakeasy-style joint is an alternative music and art space situated in the heart of the city. There’s always something of interest happening at Cama ATK, whether it be intimate live performances, DJ sets, or art exhibitions. It’s also smoke-free, which is rare for Hanoi.
And of course a night out in Hanoi is not complete without sitting yourself down in a noisy, street-front bia hơi and ordering glass after glass of cold draught beer.
The Vuvuzela beer club is a clone of Hooters, with waitresses in white t-shirts and orange hot pants - say no more. The popularity of this concept is borne out by the fact that, since the original Vuvuzela opened in 2A Tran Thanh Tong (the basement close its door now), five more have sprung up around town. There’s a wide range of drinks available, but it’s their Czech beer that gets the rave reviews. Trendy music is provided by the DJs, live music is available in some special occasions.
Now, let’s turn the spotlight on HCMC.
The city is awash with clubs and bars, from hole-in-the-wall dives and standing-room only taverns to chic and classy nightclubs. Most of its nightlife is concentrated around District 1, especially in the Pham Ngu Lao area, the most popular hangout for Westerners.
The Alto Heli Bar is one of the smartest places in town and also one of the highest, on the 52nd floor of the Bitexco Financial Tower in Ho Tung Mau. The strange platform clearly seen extending out from the building is the helipad, hence the bar’s name. The drinks don’t come cheap but the views across the city are second to none. There’s a great choice of beer, spirits and cocktails, and on weekends the hip DJs do their thing.
Right in the heart of the backpackers’ district, the Crazy Buffalo is on the corner of Bui Vien and De Tham. You can’t miss it; the sign is huge, the music is ultra-loud, and the crowd of revelers spills out onto the footpath. It’s the first place newcomers to the city go for a night out. The food is nothing to write home about and beer is VND50,000 a glass, but to offset this rather high price, for every two glasses you buy you get one free. Directly across the road is Go-Go bar, a sister of the Crazy Buffalo.
The International Tourist Club at 76 Le Lai is a well-established entertainment complex located in an annex of the New World Hotel. It’s famed for the Catwalk Club, which boasts private, hi- tech karaoke rooms with their own DJs, the highly stylised ‘Singsation’ karaoke lounge, plus quieter rooms for those looking to engage in a little conversation. Get swept away by the big hits in the Live Zone, where professional singers and bands play songs on request, or enjoy a flutter in Chats, the in-house casino that’s open 24 hours a day.
If you fancy partying the night away, head for The Observatory on the corner of Le Lai and Ton That Tung. Since The Observatory opened its doors in 2011 its DJs have made quite an impact on the city’s cultural scene. This is probably the trendiest venue in town right now thanks to the big name music stars that play there from time to time. You can dance your heart out to groovy house music and electronic vibes, and when it gets a bit too hot on the dance floor you can head out to the balcony and enjoy the cool city breeze.
If you still can’t get enough live music, go to the Hard Rock Café. It’s difficult to miss this world-famous franchise restaurant and live music venue - just look for the large, neon-lit guitar on Le Duan. Rock ‘n’ Roll memorabilia adorns the walls, including clothing worn by John Lennon, The Kinks, Rod Stewart and Jimi Hendrix, and the music swings from golden oldies to contemporary tunes. What keeps the crowds coming back to the Hard Rock are the resident bands, the friendly staff, and the Happy Hours (not to mention the best burgers in town). There are seats for more than 200 people, but even so it’s advisable to book ahead.
Jazz lovers are well catered for at the small, intimate Sax n’art Jazz Club at 28 Le Loi. Nightly performances by saxophonist, local jazz musician and the owner of the club, Tran Manh Tuan, are crowd-pleasers because of the way he blends contemporary jazz with traditional Vietnamese influences. And when Tuan’s daughter comes on stage to play alongside her father she steals the show. Sax n’art Jazz Club also has regular appearances from international guest artists.
For classical music lovers the Opera House at 7 Lam Son Square is the place to go. It’s a beautiful colonial-era building dating from 1899 and is home to the Ho Chi Minh City Ballet, Symphony Orchestra and Opera. It has recently been refurbished, and now boasts a state-of- the-art light and sound system. The Opera House has regular performances, occasional shows by international classical artists, and also dance and music presentations. One of its most exciting features is the AO show - an inspired combination of circus and dance.
A drink at the rooftop garden bar of the Rex Hotel is a must when visiting HCMC. At only five storeys high it’s not the highest rooftop bar in HCMC but is steeped in history. It was here that the US military brass gave their daily war briefings, referred to as ‘The Five O’Clock Follies’ by cynical journalists. The bar takes up most of the rooftop with wooden decking, potted plants and many tables spread out across its length and breadth. Some tables are under cover and others open to the elements. The unusual shape of the Rex Hotel Rooftop Bar also allows for a large stage and dance floor - perfect for the evening’s entertainment, which starts at 8pm, and, depending on the night, is provided by a Latino, salsa or Filipino band.