The Lessons Saigon's Nightlife Taught Me.
Updated: Jul 14, 2019
My friends were successful. They convinced me to go out instead of going dancing, Salsa, Bachata, and Kizomba. That is how I usually spend my nights when not staying home. I would get to know some new interesting people in town they told me. Fair enough, let’s give it a shot. I know it will get a bit fancier so happily, I dress up. I always enjoy that.
Ready for the night! In my usual manner, I am about to swing my butt on the bike, but then my inner voice tells me: ‘Manuel, I believe tonight you should stick to taxi…’ A bit disappointed about not being able to drive my bike through Saigon’s nights this time, I order a taxi.
We go to a nice upscale restaurant in town. Well, I have not eaten a proper steak for a long time, so why not? I greet my friends, sit down and we wait for friends of friends to arrive. I do not know them yet, so I am curious to find out with whom I will spend the evening. There comes in Jack. Jack is a cool dude and quite successful in what he is doing. He is accompanied by his new girlfriend, Cindy. Cindy wears a beautiful dress with high heels, which are a bit too high for her ability to walk elegantly on them. Cindy is Asian… with the nose, chin, and eyes of a European… and the décolleté of a… I don’t really know… American?!. ‘Manuel!’ I remind myself harshly ‘don’t be a judgmental asshole.’ I stand up and introduce myself to the new arrivals. After a robust bro-like handshake with Jack and I offer my hand to Cindy… uuhaah! Not again! ... A fish hand! You know, those handshakes were you have the impression somebody is not offering their hand but a dead trout from the day before. This weird, wobbly slightly slimy impression of a disastrously weak handshake. I quickly push the idea out of mind…
We enjoy tasty food, and good wine is ordered. ‘Damn it!’ I tell myself ironically, ‘what went wrong in my development that I never developed a taste for the sinful and pleasurable temptations of the world’s no. 1 lubricant for social interaction – alcohol?’ Knowing that to me even a $100-a-bottle wine would taste like dishwater straight outta hell I decline with thanks. Seems to me that I will again be the only not getting wasted tonight.
The table conversations are interesting, mostly around business and dominated by the men. I remember the teachings about being a good conversationalist and ask questions to let others talk most of the time. I do my best to engage Cindy in a conversation and find out a bit more about herself. I want to challenge my hasty judgment from earlier on. Well… I guess a puppet would have been a better conversation partner. Anyways, she seems to be busy with documenting the whole evening for her Instagram and Snapchat stories.
Suddenly the waiters serve dessert… ‘Wait for a second! Dessert? Already? I am not even half full. What is about those fancy restaurants that I leave hungrier than before but many dollars lighter?’ ‘Damnit, two Pho soups with extra noodles from the street restaurant around the corner’ would have done a better job of making hungry Manuel happy…
The consensus of the group is to go to a rooftop bar after dinner. – ‘Works for me. I sometimes even enjoy the atmosphere’ I tell myself. The security leads us to the lift, which catapults us with high speed to the top of the building. We are greeted by female staff in short dresses and directly surrounded by bass-boosted EDM music. I enjoy the fresh breeze on my face and feel the bass being absorbed into my body and giving me goosebumps. Together with the lights, it actually makes me feel a bit dizzy without having consumed anything. Not too bad. We sit down in a corner with a big sofa. The locals in our group are already ordering something. As a foreigner, I learned you never completely know what is going on. You just lay back and trust your company. Five minutes later, a horde of lightly dressed women is moving through the crowd towards us. They hold a couple of shiny bottles, and fresh fruits above their heads and sparklers illuminate the darkness of the dancefloor. Two bulky security guys are building a corridor on the dance floor and guide the way for the girls using their flashlights. ‘Okay, now everybody knows where the expensive stuff is going… I guess that is on purpose.’ I think to myself. One of the lightly dressed women offers to serve some liquor from the bottle directly into my mouth. I refuse thankfully while mumbling a ‘maybe later.’
I am invited to help myself with the liquor, and Jacks explains to me that it is 12-year ripened whiskey – exceptionally soft in the after taste. I think to myself and giggle in the inside. ‘Damn, you wouldn’t order this to me if you would know that this all tastes like gasoline to me... It would literally be casting pearls before the swine.’ The group drinks. People get looser. I can even recognize some emotional expression in Cindy’s face now. Interestingly that her face does not show any kind of winkles even when she is letting go of a short artificial laugh. ‘Damn, it must be a hell of a drug.’ I think to myself and smirk.
The music is too loud for having conversations, so I begin my favorite activity in bars – reading people. There is an older white guy at the bar. He looks like an Andrew, so I call him Andrew for the sake of simplicity. If I had to take a guess, I would say that Andrew is some General Manager for the Vietnamese subsidiary of a European or US-American company. He is in company with two attractive local girls. I figure they are around 20 – 30 years younger than Andrew. Let us call them Hope and Solo. The two of them look a bit like Cindy but in the ‘free of post-birth modifications’ edition. The trio really seems to enjoy itself. Over the next five minutes, I witness Solo getting a bit more progressive in her approaches while Hope takes over the more passive role while playing with her hair. ‘It is going well for Andrew. Good for him! I shouldn’t be too intrusive with my observations of the mating behavior of homo sapiens’ I think to myself and look for the next setup to practice my empathy.
It does not take me long to spot them in a corner close to us. May I introduce? Chu Phuc and em Trinh. Trinh wears an elegant black dress with a conservative neckline. Her leg-revealing outfit hits’ sexy but classy’ right on point. Chapeau! I converse to myself. ‘Well-chosen outfit!’ She is outspokenly attractive, although her bored facial expression gives takes away from the glamour. Phuc is sitting comfortably on the sofa. His relaxed and laid pack appearance makes me think that he actually could be the owner of this place. He is smoking a cigar while being orbited by both men and women from different age groups. Phuc and Trinh are obviously in some form of romantic relationship as Phuc’s right hand is resting on her thighs from time to time. Besides that, Phuc does not seem to dedicate much attention to her. Sometimes Phuc leans over and speaks into her ear so that he can pervade the bass-impregnated air. Trinh releases a short burst of a laugh, which I can detect as being fake from even 15 meters distance. Phuc does not seem to realize or bother. For lack of alternatives, Trinh dedicates her attention to her smartphone. According to her hand movements, she is scrolling through some news feeds. Her facial impression gets even grimmer. Now she is swiping sideways. ‘Is she tindering?’… What does it matter… But what I seriously ask myself is if she is happy in whatever she is doing with Phuc? She does not look dump, and she certainly does not look happy. ‘Maybe she just had a bad day.’ I tell myself.
My glance was hovering through the crowd and stopped by two girls sitting around a high table looking over to me. When I return the gaze, they look away. ‘Wait for a second’ I command myself quite amused. ‘Is that Cindy No. 2 and 3 or do they just have the same doctor and outfitter?’ Suddenly I am pulled out of my thoughts when Jack waves a cigar in front of my face. Original ‘San Cristobal de la Habana’ from Cuba. ‘My friend is the exclusive reseller here.’ he explains to me. ‘I would not even know if that is a $1 or $1,000 cigar, but hey I have never tried a cigar, so why not?’ I think to myself smirking. I take a drag. It confirms what I already expected: ‘Another of those fancy lifestyle things you can waste a ton of money on, which my body straightforwardly refuses to appreciate.’ I smile and hand the cigar back to Jack.
Our group now noticeably under the influence of some severe booze is about to head out to a club. Imagining standing around another high table full of alcohol and people slightly bobbing up and down while filming the professional dancers with their phones is dramatically decreasing my motivation. I bow out to everyone wishing them a good night. The group invites me to hang out on a boat tomorrow. I think about things I want to get done tomorrow and thankfully refuse. ‘What could be better than sunset and champagne on a boat?’ they ask. - ‘I go to the gym, have dance class and will write for my blog.’ - ‘You prefer THAT over a boat cruise?’ a girl inquires doubtfully amused as if I must be kidding. ‘I do’ I think to myself and say goodbye once again.
Standing alone on the nocturnal sidewalk in the middle this crazy 12-million-people city called Saigon, I experience a strange feeling of relief. Being by myself again, I focus on my emotions and experience a strong sense of relief. This strange obligation to prove my material wealth through lavish consumption in an artificial microcosmos of the self-declared elite is vanishing as I pulled myself out of the circle. Then I suddenly feel my basic needs knocking on the door again yelling at me ‘Manuel, damn it. You are hungry. Do something about it!’ - ‘Okay okay, you are right, I am. It is right about street food time.’ But with whom to eat?’ Shortly after going through my Messenger list and checking who is still online, I convince a friend of mine to join me. We have excellent conversations accompanied by tasty Pho soup on the street, followed by exquisite ice cream from Family Mart. For the money, I spent during the night (and I did not even drink any alcohol) I could have had two Pho soups every day, including ice cream for more than one month. And I would go home with a full belly and great memories of great conversations with great people about anything and everything…
We finish eating, and I want to jump on my bike just to realize that I left it home tonight. ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to have your bike with you know, Manuel? Riding through those empty streets with a breeze on your face that is a bit less heavy in pollution and cancer-causing particles? Whatever…’
I arrive home, washing off the Saigon smell with a refreshing cold shower and call it a night.
I wake up. Last night is unreeling in front of my eyes like a film. I ask myself, ‘so what’s the lesson?’
The fun and joy we experience with other people do not depend on the materialistic noise we create around our encounters but the people themselves.
Fanciness and the world of glamour itself are neither good nor bad. An elevation in lifestyle that is built on a solid foundation is like a designer coat covering a muscular physique. If you take off the shiny coat, it reveals substance built on values, dedication, commitment, and discipline. Vice versa, in case the coat is used to distract from a weak foundation in character, it will expose the truth when you take away the cover. It is like when you are opening a peanut, and you feel the disappointment of not finding the nuts. It is merely a shallow shell.
Throughout my life, I learned that adaptability is a crucial ability to thrive in life. Being able to emphasize different personality traits of yours depending on the environment you are in allows you to connect to your conversation partners better. It is like choosing which outfit to wear to an event or which make up to apply. You are still the same person underneath but lay the foundation of how people perceive you. I personally enjoy both the convenience and selection of food in a nice hotel as well as sweating over two (yes, I always order two dishes… ) bowls of noodle soup next to the chaos and noise of the street. In both cases, the people you are with make the difference between a regular and a cool night you will tell your grandkids about.