One of the reasons I love living in Vietnam is that it’s a country buzzing with activity. Some countries you have to hunt for the action but in Vietnam the action comes to you. It’s right on your doorstep. Nothing makes me more excited to leave my house than the unpredictable environment of the streets.
Even the smallest of Vietnamese towns never really feel sleepy, except straight after lunch. No matter where you are in the country, you only have to step out of your accommodation to be immersed in Life. This makes Vietnam one of the world’s best locations for people watching.
People watching wasn’t something I’ve ever considered my hobby. Nor have I ever been conscious of doing it until I was leaving to work 45 minutes early to take a coffee and gaze towards a road junction. Vietnam has nurtured my passion for people, culture and life. Passive people watching may be a by-product of that.
People watching is relatively easy. Whether you are new to it or a hardened veteran, here are some tips that might help you on your trip to Vietnam and some places to check out when you’re in Hue.
Coffee Shops Make for Great People Watching Locations
The way that urban areas grow in Vietnam means that a lot more establishments are packed into much smaller areas than in most other countries. What’s even better is that, despite fierce competition, everyone that lives here either;
1) currently owns a coffee shop (or has a friend/family member that owns one),
2) has at some point in their lives owned a coffee shop,
3) dreams of owning a coffee shop,
4) drinks coffee or spends time in a cafe.
Coffee shops are everywhere and the Vietnamese people’s love for caffeine isn’t waning. The market feels saturated but the opening of new coffee shops hasn’t slowed down a bit. Even if you’re the most timid of travelers who has somehow ended up marooned in the industrial outskirts of Hanoi in a dubious pay-by-the-hour hotel, there’s going to be a coffee shop nearby (true story).
What makes coffee shops a great jumping-off point for your people watching endeavors is that most cafes utilize the pavement in front of their entrances. Chairs and tables spill out onto the concrete and you get a better view of the surroundings than if you were sat inside. Be prepared to sacrifice the comfort of air conditioning for a good view.
Sunrises are the Perfect People Watching Hours
Vietnamese society very much still runs on agricultural hours. Typically speaking that means; very early mornings, an extended lunch break with a short nap and reasonable hours to hit the sack. Vietnamese people also hate the heat that summer brings and those who are conscious in keeping their skin fair try to spend as little time outside as possible during daylight. So the time between sunrise and sunset isn’t going to provide you with much people watching. Better to aim for tourist hotspots at these times.
Many begin their days long before sunrise (around 5:30am) and for a lot of people, the first port of call is morning exercise. While gyms are becoming increasingly popular, the older generations still like to sweat it out in pedestrianized areas. Before sunrise, you can find large gaggles of the elderly, sometimes dressed in what can be best described as gang colours, practicing aerobics in parks.
Sunrise at the beaches is a flurry of activity. Some people even bury themselves in the sand for medicinal benefits. If my friends and I make it through a night in Danang, I always insist on catching sunrise at the beach. There’s nothing more thought-provoking than people watching on the beach at sunrise.
…Sunset is pretty good too!
Sunset is a busy period for Vietnamese streets. In the evenings, people regularly make plans with friends, family, colleagues or their respective sport’s club to eat out, drink coffee or crush beers. These activities involve a lot of sitting down so post-sunset isn’t necessarily as exciting as sunrise. My recommendation is to locate the city’s centre or walking street (if there is one) and perch nearby. Pockets of food stands or restaurants can usually bring enjoyment to the people-watching aficionado, particularly when there are hawkers or street entertainers around.
Forget Everything You’ve Ever Known about Staring
Foreigners that live and visit sometimes talk about how they are unashamedly stared at. It’s definitely more frequent in places where foreigners are seldom seen. I try to think of staring as the result of a ‘curiosity overload’. Whether you agree with that or not isn’t important here but what it does mean is that staring for the purpose of people watching isn’t going to get you in trouble. If drama erupts on the street, people aren’t hesitant to crowd around and watch how things unfold. Staring or watching isn’t taboo. This surely is a people-watching dream! The eyes may wander. Just people watch without sporting any questionable facial expressions.
Top 5 Places for People Watching in Hue
1. The Hue Train Station
The Hue train station never sleeps. Aside from the rush of travelers that pass through and the gaggle of taxis that await them, the brick and mortar cafes adjacent to the platform entrance are mostly always open. They are frequented by waiting passengers, cargo handlers, taxi drivers and hagglers. People also come here in the evenings to watch football or drink beers on dimly lit tables. Great ambiance with the right combination of liveliness and calm.
Google Maps: Hue Train Station
2. Le Loi Park
On Le Loi street is a park of the same name. Get there before sunrise and you’ll find yourself amid the early morning exercisers, street cleaners, breakfast vendors and maybe a lost soul or two who have yet to make it home from the night before. Behind the nearby Ho Chi Minh museum is a makeshift coffee shop that overlooks the river. One of my favorite spots in Hue. Bonus tip right there.
Google Maps: Lê Lợi Park
3. Tran Cao Van-Vo Thi Sau Intersection in Walking Street / Hue Tourist Area
Right in the heart of Hue’s walking street, this is definitely an essential night time people watching destination. The area is pedestrian-friendly from Friday to Sunday 5pm-11pm. When the weather is right, there’s a good mixture of local residents and tourists. It’s particularly amusing watching how tourists deal with hagglers. Even when the intersection receives traffic, the lack of traffic lights means that there are always a few near collisions. Four restaurants surround this particular intersection and they utilize the surrounding pavement by facing chairs and tables towards the road. Another place nearby for people watching in this area is the 2nd floor balcony of TA Cafe and Bakery.
Google maps: Tran Cao Van/Vo Thi Sau Intersection
4. The Outer Perimeters of the Imperial Palace
The perimeters of the palace inside the Royal Citadel measures at around 2.5 kilometres. Mass commerce is restricted and traffic is quieter compared to the opposing side of the Huong river. This has an impact on the kind of people that you’ll see around here. With the regimented foliage along the paths and roads, the Citadel simply feels more peaceful and thus walkable.
The Ngo Mon Square and surrounding grassy areas in the Citadel southside can get busy during sunrise and sunset and make for good people watching like Le Loi Park. The Ngo Mon entrance to the palace and Hien Nhon gate from it on the East have scores of tourists pass through these areas each day. Hien Nhon gate has several cafes opposing it. The northern gate of the imperial palace has a charming cafe called Chiều Cafe facing it which sees more traffic than it’s east-gate counterparts. In the evening, head East from the Citadel and towards Mai Thuc Loan street where there are lots of eateries and cafes for a high-level of snack and people watching activity within the Citadel.
5. Dong Ba Market
When I first moved to Hue, I didn’t like Dong Ba market. Too many tourists and hassling hawkers. When I learnt to overcome these small nuisances and consider Dong Ba for everything else it is, I began to really understand it’s charm. The market is a labyrinth of stalls and stands and even the ends of the smallest alleyways can have a surprising conclusion. The market’s long opening hours mean Dong Ba isn’t just a work place for most vendors and traders but a place where they spend most of their daily life. It’s a microcosm of Vietnamese culture densely packed into a finite area where every inch is precious. Great conditions for the people watching aficionado who will be treated to much more than just a few people selling fruit.
Google maps: Dong Ba Market