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    Saturday, July 21, 2012

    Vietnamese Communal Street Culture

    A typical small street in Saigon with mom-and-pop shops
    One of the amazing parts of Vietnamese culture is the "night scene." As in many societies - perhaps because of a lack of air conditioning and lighting - people typically take to the streets in the evenings and then retire early. In Vietnam this daily routine is codified as arising one or two hours before sunrise, starting to work about 6 - 7 am (sunrise), taking a siesta in the middle of the day, returning home about 5 - 6 pm, and hitting the streets. Because of the now "stable" electricity (rolling blackouts are the subject of another day), people often stay out past dark, but in general, the country goes to sleep about 9 or 10 pm.

    Saigon stays out a little later than the rest, maybe due to the expatriate influence, greater electric stability, westernization - who knows. Anecdotally, the majority of people in the city still go to sleep at 9 or 10 pm like the rest of the country, but their are enough people in the city that a vibrant culture from 10 to midnight still exists.

    A "hẻm" (small alley) during the day where most people live 
    This street scene is enhanced by the communal nature of Vietnamese family culture and the living proximity of people in the country. Vietnamese society, like most Asian societies, live in large family structures. Typically three or four generations in a household. This creates a large network of closely related people to interact with on a nightly basis. Also, it manifests itself in gastronomical ways: family dinners are usually social affairs where many dishes are placed in the center of the table for people to share as they talk and joke.

    Vietnam has a population density of 280 people per square kilometer, according to the World Health Organization. Ho Chi Minh City has an even higher population density - 9450 in 2006 - and according to Vietnamese research, the inner city (old Saigon) has approximately 30,000 people per square meter!*

    The same alley alive around dusk as everyone comes home 
    *In comparison, the United States of America's density of 34 people/sq. km, and the two most dense cities - Washington D.C. and Los Angeles - have densities of 3886 and 2750, respectively.

    What all this close living does is create not only a "night scene" as thought of in America - clubs, bars, restaurants, etc. - but a small community "night scene" with local alleys (hẻm) alive with children running and playing, women gossiping, families and friends eating, and old men drinking coffee or beer and playing chess. These "micro-communities" are the true social structure of Saigon, and any visitor would be remiss to not experience it.

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