It’s easy to fall into the rhythm of life in Ho Chi Minh City, if only because it’s so all-pervasive.
You can’t argue with the weather, whether it’s hot or cool.
You can’t argue that Markets shouldn’t happen in the morning, because all that food has to get into a refrigerator or cooked as soon as it can.
You can’t argue with roosters. You… just can’t. Trust me on this one.
And so on and so forth. It’s an interesting and comforting phenomenon, because it depends heavily on many, many other people doing the same thing as you. There’s a built-in expectation of community inherent in the rhythm of life here, and while there are obviously people outside the realm of predictability, tradition and other factors tend to shape daily life with a heavy hand.
And so, here’s a standard day in the life cycle of a busy urban environment, as seen through the eyes of yours truly…
District 3, Ho Chi Minh City, August 2015
6am: I’m waking up. I mean, I’m sort of waking up. Ok, I’m awake, but I’m hitting snooze, like, once or twice only. I promise.
6:27am (3 snoozes): FINE – I’m awake! A quick (cold) shower and I’m ready to go. It’s already 78 F or so – so nice and cool. I pause to look out my window. This is the most beautiful time of the day for me – and for a lot of other people. The weather is almost always cool and breezy before 8am, and it’s glorious. This is a time for exercise, meditation, and preparation.
Four stories below me, women return home with their daily fresh food. The Market has already been bustling for 45-60 minutes at this point, with freshly-butchered carcasses, fruits, vegetables, and daily necessities being gobbled up by the surrounding families. Virtually every neighborhood has a strong central market, and it acts as a de facto community information exchange. Gossip, news, and more are traded alongside the banh cuon and pho bo. I rue the fact that I’m still a little scared of Market.
The neighbors have a bustling coffee delivery business running out of their homes, and as I get out my bike, alongside parents and their schoolkids up and down the block, I dodge their delivery guys. We share a few words, if I’m in a talkative mood, and then it’s time to go.
Traffic is lovely this time of day, and I revel in the cool air on my face as I zip out toward my day.
7am: Cafe time. A quick coffee or fruit juice and my daily lesson planning. As you know, coffee/cafetime is an integral part of the day for virtually every Vietnamese. I watch as the city roars to life around me. Right now, I am a rock in a stream… but eventually everyone must join the current.
8am: Most people with day jobs are at work now. A large proportion of the native workforce has crazy hours – oftentimes 6 days/50-60 hours a week. As a foreigner, I usually only work 20-30 hours a week (averaged over the whole year), so I’m very outside the norm. Pay is laughable for Vietnamese, and is generally not commensurate with the difficulty or necessity of the field (for example, teachers and doctors are both paid abysmally).
11:30am-1pm: In here is where Vietnamese find respite from the midday sun. A typical mid-day is a lunch (probably sit-down street food) and a nap – hammock or bed not required. I’ve seen naps taken on the floor, in chairs, on the grass, under tables… you name it. It’s simply too hot to do anything else, especially when you’re full! The pull of the tropical sun is simply too powerful to deny.
If you’re saving money, or have very strong familial traditions, you might head home for lunch with your family – typically a big affair with rice and some sides – followed by a nap in your own house. Students of all ages usually come home. Those that don’t sleep at school on pallets.
1pm: Back to work/study. Ugh. It’s still hot as hell, but at least now you’ve got a bit in your energy reserves. If it’s April or May, and your working in a place without Air Conditioning, now is about the time you think that perhaps you could have made some different choices in your past that would have avoided this sweat-stained dystopian hell. If it’s the rainy season, I hope you didn’t forget your poncho!
4:30pm: School is out, and the traffic nightmare begins. The area just outside all public schools becomes a disorganized crush of motorbikes and pedestrians, often seriously fouling up traffic in the main road. Careful planning is required to avoid these slow zones.
5pm-7:30pm: Work lets off for the day, and the roads become even more of a zoo than normal. Seriously, a big, messy, insane zoo, except instead of everyone being fresh and awake, everyone sweaty and gross and tired.
I try to avoid this time on the roads, unless I absolutely must go out. As for everyone else, there’s a mad rush to bakeries and street food, takeaway at its freshest.
6:15pm: The sun sets. OMG FINALLY.
6:30pm: People start congregating at street-level restaurants and bars, enjoying hotpot, bbq, and beers or fruit juice with friends and co-workers. The street life rages on, and the nightlife begins. Young Vietnamese in their going-out clothes are headed to parties and karaoke, or to their evening restaurant or hotel shifts.
9pm: These same guys on the corner with the hotpot are all pretty drunk right now. Time to stumble home!
I’m usually in bed and reading the news by 9pm. Unless I’m drinking beers with my roommates on the terrace, that is.
10pm: Silence descends upon my alley once more, broken only by the occasional motorbike or bike vendor. Blessed, blessed quiet in my residential neighborhood, once more.
As the city goes to sleep once more, the night crew emerges…
City workers are out in force, sweeping streets and removing trash (HCMC is remarkably clean, honestly). Sex workers are out. There are isolated islands of people drinking beers and eating late night takeout – fresh food (especially seafood) is available almost 24 hours a day. Bui Vien is, as always, partying until early in the morning, and young people zip between bars and restaurants. Ice manufacturers are chipping, cutting, and delivering all night long.
From far outside the city, tomorrows produce and meats start making their way into the HCMC markets, arriving between 4-5am. Butchers and breakfast ladies alike are waking early to prepare for tomorrow. Taxi drivers… well I’m not sure they ever sleep outside their cars, but they’re around, too. Thieves here and there… but night is still relatively safe.
And inside my bedroom, with a fan directly on my face, it’s time to roll over, put the iPhone on airplane mode, and drift off to tomorrow, through an unconscious brew of mental detritus and flotsam, faintly puzzling as I fall asleep, “I wonder if everyone has no idea what they’re doing, or if it’s just me?”
Maybe I’ll never know.
You know, I actually perfer the choir version of this one (I remember this, Mrs. Z!), but… that one doesn’t have Sammy Davis, Jr. Or Bob Fosse.