In October 2002, American Suzanne Lecht—a nine-year resident of Hanoi with a keen eye for ierging talent—opened Art Vietnam in a lavishly restored traditional Vietnamese home in the city's Old Quarter. The breathtaking space unfolds over three floors, throughout which are displayed contiporary paintings, sculpture, woodblock prints, and etchings, all by Vietnamese artists. Lecht is also a good source for advice on what to do and see throughout the country.
Nightspots here used to be split between defiantly local joints (run by older Vietnamese) and tony expat-and-tourist bars (often managed by Westerners or returning Vietnamese emigrants). Lately that line has blurred: foreigners are seeking out more authentic, unpretentious places while middle- and upper-class locals gravitate to high-end spots that once catered solely to Westerners. Indeed, some of the most fashionable restaurants and bars are now run by lifelong residents. While the older generation complains of encroaching Westernization—witness the Saigon-based musicians "Well-Hung" Hung and "Mean Man" Minh—the best clubs still have a decidedly Vietnamese, foreign-correspondent-club vibe. They may pour Johnnie Walker and blast Coldplay on the stereo, but they couldn't be found west of the Mekong.
H.C.M.C. still has the nightlife, from manic discos such as the infamous Apocalypse Now to cool, dim boîtes like Vasco's and Maya. After a three-year hiatus, in late 2001 Q Bar returned to reclaim the scene it had ruled throughout the nineties. The glitterati once again jam the terrace every night, seduced by perfectly mixed mojitos and sultry trance and Cuban jazz. On trendy Thon That Thiep Street, a discreetly marked, lantern-lit entryway leads guests into the gorgeous Temple Club, where colonial-era furnishings and a louche tropical ambience welcome you back to 1930's Saigon.
In contrast to those in sleek and sexy H.C.M.C., nighttime haunts in Hanoi tend toward the funky and unrefined. The hot capital nightspot these days is Highway 4, a rugged, locally run joint with floor mats and low rattan tables that is especially popular with Minsk motorcycle riders (it's named after a famous biker route up north). Here's the place to sample ruou, a fiery rice liquor infused with anything from durian fruit to geckos to insects; Vietnam's tribal minorities claim ruou can cure backaches, stomach ailments, and sagging libidos. On the edge of the Red River, beyond the dike that protects Hanoi from floods, the dive-like Phuc Tan Bar has become the late-night gathering place for a mixed crowd of hip Vietnamese and foreigners.
Of course, in both cities—and throughout Vietnam—the most devoted crowds (including locals and slumming expats and tourists) can be found at the humble bia hoi that spill onto the sidewalks every evening. Bia hoi means "draft beer," and while the brew is rarely ice-cold (it's served from sloppy plastic jugs), it's certainly cheap, and invariably accompanied by tasty snacks. Foot-high plastic stools and tiny tables on the pavient are as fancy as it gets, but the mix of balmy breezes, streetside energy, and a convivial clientele make a night at the bia hoi an essential experience.