Corner stores add vibrancy to Saigon night culture

By Long Nguyen   January 15, 2020 | 08:00 pm GMT+7
Corner stores add vibrancy to Saigon night culture
A foreign shopper chooses coffee from among a selection of midnight offerings. Photo by VnExpress/Hoang Huy.

Sprouting convenience stores are offering urbanites in HCMC the chance to shop or socialize 24/7, albeit the odd security run-in.

Thursday night, behind the glass door of a convenience store on Nguyen Thi Minh Khai Street in District 1, the smell of instant noodles permeates the air. Customers stalk food shelves and fluorescent fridges stocked with a myriad of colorful drinks. A small group of students are gathered around a table, drinking slurpees while talking or gazing out the window.

In the past few years, the number of convenience stores in Ho Chi Minh City has flourished, offering locals a chance to socialize or spend at any given time.

A survey by Japanese market research agency Asia Plus in May 2018 stated there were 995 convenience stores in HCMC, of which nearly 700 operated 24 hours.

For white-collar workers stuck to their desks by day, and their families by night, 24-hour stores provide them perfect conditions for a little me time.

"I am busy with my job and my family. I go shopping in the wee hours 3-4 times a week when it is not crowded and goods are readily available, unlike at the market," said Truong Thi Hong, a recruitment officer in District 1, while shopping on Nguyen Thi Minh Khai Street around midnight.

While her husband sucked on a cigarette outside, Hong busied herself purchasing instant noodles, milk, sliced fruit and yogurt, amid a throng of Vietnamese youngsters snacking out and expats doing the daily rounds.

To many young urbanites, Family Mart, Ministop, Circle K, and 7-Eleven are perfect for late-night rendezvous, studying or napping, free of the hot and humid conditions outside.

"We used to study at coffee shops before we discovered the convenience store. It has air-conditioners, wifi and cheaper drinks," explained student Tran Hoang, surrounded by friends at a store on Nguyen Trai Street. The sophomore at HCMC Medicine and Pharmacy University added they would usually buy noodles or cakes for breakfast at the store.

Not all youngsters are as industrious. In a store on Nguyen Dinh Chieu Street at 3 a.m., six night owls stare at their phones, three others napping amid empty plastic bottles and packages. Nguyen Thi Thanh Huong, who works here 2-3 nights per week, serves up to 30 customers every weeknight, with "around 50 percent remaining at the store after shopping."

"On the weekend, more people come to buy food or sleep off the effects of clubbing," she added.

Huong and her co-workers admit a busy night makes them feel less concerned over their personal safety.

Witching hour

Working and shopping at convenience stores at night can be risky with the majority saving on costs by employing only 2-3 night staff and no security. Clients are constantly reminded to lock their motorbikes and keep their eyes.

"I’ve had two young men enter the store, pick some bottles of beer and snacks then run off. As they might carry knives, I couldn’t do a thing," says Huong.

A group of friends in a convenience store on Dinh Tien Hoang Street. Photo by VnExpress/Hoang Huy.

A group of friends share a late night joke at a store on Dinh Tien Hoang Street, November 27, 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Hoang Huy.

Most night staff at convenience stores are students who earn around VND30,000 ($1.29) per hour, routinely threatened by local thieves and drug addicts.

With the number of 24-hour stores mushrooming in the past 2 years, robberies have also reportedly increased. Thieves generally enter a store in a group of five to 10 people, pick what they want and exit as a group to confuse staff.

In July 2019, some arrests were made after convenience store managers on Le Loi Street in District 1 complained to local police about a gang of youth armed with stones and sharp objects taking both money and goods at will.

Before arrest, the group had used a glass bottle to threaten an employee, stealing VND2.1 million ($90). Three days later, they returned for another VND1.8 million ($77.62).

A host of convenience stores in town rely entirely on CCTV for security. Last year, local police warned stores to enhance safety measures at night to deter thieves. However, according to Luong Hoang Tung, a staff member at a 24-hour store on Dinh Tien Hoang Street, hiring security at night is expensive.

"When you work during these hours, you learn to be both smart and brave," he added while labeling packages ahead of dawn, five young men talking and playing games on their cellphones beside the counter.

 
 
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