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Covid fear trumps love of nightlife

By Long Nguyen   November 16, 2021 | 11:23 pm PT
Though HCMC has entered the new normal after a prolonged lockdown, night-time activities remain scarce due to fears over coronavirus infection among urbanites.

It is a Friday evening but Bui Vien, Saigon’s nightlife central, is not filled with revelers, street food vendors, go-go dancers, and loud music like it used to be.

On the dimly lit street, bars and clubs have now been replaced by coffee shops with chairs and tables on the sidewalk and catchy music to attract passers-by.

But not many seemed to have succeeded. In many of the places, staff could be talking to each other under colorful lights and stage mirror balls, with few patrons to be served. Some are still closed.

At the street corner, a convenience store with a sign saying ‘Open 24 hours’ on its door has no customers.

A vendor in downtown HCMC when the city undergoes a social distancing campaign in April 2020. Photo by Bao Nguyen

A vendor in downtown HCMC when the city undergoes a social distancing campaign in April 2020. Photo by Bao Nguyen

"Night owls often hung out here after going to bars and getting drunk, but now all we have at night is silence," Nguyen Thi Kieu Trang, a worker at the convenience store, said.

In front of her are silent shelves and fluorescent fridges stocked with a myriad of colorful drinks, and no patrons.

The scene is a far cry from pre-pandemic times when locals and tourists had to jostle merely to walk on the street.

"This city never used to sleep during the weekend, but now night clubs, bars and other night activities are all gone," Nguyen Thi Hanh, a resident of Bui Vien Street, said.

Though authorities HCMC allowed most businesses to reopen in October, many night entertainment establishments have yet to shut.

The change is evident in many parts of a city once known for its nightlife.

Truong Quynh Nhi, a consultant at an HR firm in Go Vap District, said: "I miss having late night snacks or partying with my friends on weekends... Now they are just memories."

That Friday night, instead of heading for a night club, Nhi’s group went to a coffee shop on Pasteur Street, which had to close at 9 p.m. under Covid-19 regulations.

Sellers, workers, dancers, and other employees of the night-time economy also miss the pre-pandemic times.

The main reason for the slump in nightlife is fear of Covid infection in crowded places. After all, the city, despite a four-month lockdown, still has around 1,000 new Covid cases every day.

It has recorded over 448,000 patients and 17,000 Covid-19 deaths so far.

In the last few days, with the pandemic situation remaining uncertain, authorities have again been warning people to be vigilant.

City health authorities have warned about the risk of another outbreak if people ignore preventive measures.

On Tuesday the city allowed venues like bars, cinemas and massage parlors to resume full operations in certain areas based on their infection risk levels.

But many people are skeptical and worried, and do not want to take a risk at the moment.

"Closed area like bars or cinemas can be a hotbed for the coronavirus, I don’t think I will go to these places at the moment," Nguyen Hoang of District 3 said.

A bar on Bui Vien Street has turned into a vegetable and grocery store, Oct. 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran

A bar on Bui Vien Street has turned into a vegetable and grocery store, Oct. 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran

Move on

Some nightclubs have moved on by turning to selling food and groceries.

Like many servers and bartenders, Gia Bao, 32, used to love his job as a bartender until the pandemic struck. His eight years of working had been spent inside clubs and bars in HCMC, making cocktails and other drinks.

But now he sells food at a disco-turned-eatery, whose erstwhile dance floor is now filled with fruit and vegetable crates.

"This place used to be a crowded beer shop day and night," he said.

"But due to the Covid-19 business restrictions for bars and beer parlors, the owner switched to selling farm produce to cover daily expenses".

Some bars and vendors have started reopening but get few guests.

"No bar-goers means no night patrons for me," a man selling fish balls and squid in District 1 said, adding he earns around VND100,000 ($4.39) a day, a third of his pre-pandemic income.

Before the pandemic began the government had green-lighted a master plan for developing the night-time economy in Vietnam, allowing business establishments in major cities like Hanoi and HCMC to remain open from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.

The HCMC department of tourism also has plans like opening night markets and pedestrian zones across the city along with bars, nightclubs and coffee shops.

"Developing night-time economic activities can create big changes for the services and tourism industries, creating an impetus for economic recovery after the Covid-19 pandemic," it said.

A report by the department said in 2019 night-time activities by domestic tourists accounted for 15 percent of the city’s tourism income, while international tourists contributed only 5 percent.

But with the lingering threat of the coronavirus, Saigon nights could be silent for a bit longer.

Back in Bui Vien, inside a bar-turned-coffee shop, there is no jiving or cheering on the dance floor on a Saturday evening. A bunch of youngsters are having coke and bubble tea, nodding to the music while seated.

Behind the counter are two bottles of hand sanitizers, and two of the staff are playing games on their mobile phones.

"Saigon was the city of nightlife activities, but the coronavirus has changed it all," one of them sighed.

One month into HCMC's reopening after easing Covid restrictions. Video by Vu Thinh, Thanh Viet

 
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