Vietnam’s Ubiquitous Neon Signs
Vietnam is a developing country with lots of newfound opportunities. With just about everybody’s cousin going entrepreneur, it’s an environment that loves sales, cash, and storefront advertising. And you know what that means: lots and lots of neon lighting.
Vietnam’s neon signs are a core tenet of the local aesthetic. Whether you’re riding on the back of a motorcycle, hopping in a cab, or strolling through the market, neon tubing seems to yell out at you, “eat pho here!” and “see our travel guide!” and “bitcoin ATM!” This is especially true of Ho Chi Minh City, the sprawling metropolis of the South (formerly known as Sai Gon).
Business Neon Signs: Ho Chi Minh City
On most streets in Ho Chi Minh, the neon signs are an absolute necessity. Businesses line the streets, one after the other, as far as the eye can see. Competition is fierce; the customer is drawn in contending directions whenever he or she is out and about.
I lived in Ho Chi Minh for a year, on Le Van Sy street in district 3. To say that business neon signs are everywhere is not an exaggeration. From a customer’s perspective, they’re gorgeous to look at, and are even helpful, giving foreigners such as myself the tools to find that perfect “hole in the wall” without playing “Where’s Waldo.”
From the perspective of the Vietnamese entrepreneur, business neon signs are cheap and efficient. Money being what it is there – 500,000 Vietnam Dong is worth less than 22 USD – that is an absolute necessity. They’re also a great indicator of when the shop is open (a critical feature of nocturnal establishments).
Business Neon Signs: Pho 24/24
One of my favorite pho shops, a mom-and-pop place out in district 2, was always open. If you’re ever in Vietnam, one thing you’ll notice is that these kinds of storefronts will always have neon signs lit up. This makes them easy to pick out, even if the shop is just a food cart tucked away in an alley. Another thing you’ll notice is that their signs will say “24/24,” not “24/7,” as we’ve come to expect in the West. The first time I saw a 24/24 sign on a pho storefront, I thought the owner had made an error. But it’s everywhere.
Bar Neon Signs: Bui Vien Street
No article on Ho Chi Minh would be complete without mentioning the nightlife – and neither would an article on neon lights! As drunk tourists and locals alike stumble down the famous Bui Vien Street, they are barraged by bar signs, restaurant logos, and whirling lights. Here, intoxicating colors attract spendthrift partygoers like moths to a flame. Logos of neon tubing are often supplemented by the glow of LED strips. The careful observer may notice glowing mandalas perched on the walls as well.
If you ever find yourself on Bui Vien, look out for the Crazy Buffalo sign. It looms down on the crowd with its bright red face from several stories up. No one has walked past that sign and missed it. Everyone knows it’s there. The Crazy Buffalo sign is a testament to great advertising.
On a night out with some friends in Bui Vien, finding the atmosphere too chaotic, we went off the beaten path to collect ourselves. Meandering, chit-chatting, we nearly passed a quiet little bar nestled behind a corner. I caught a glimpse of the bar neon sign out of the corner of my eye, and we decided to go inside. It turned out to be a great dive, lively but not too crazy, with expats just relaxing at the bar top. If it hadn’t been for the sign, we would have missed it (if you’re planning to visit, it’s called TNR Sai Gon, and it’s a nice escape).
Custom Neon Signs: Religious Use (it’s not what you think!)
Here’s something crazy: religious shrines are decorated with custom neon lights. You may have seen churches with outlined crosses in the US. They have those there, too. But it gets interesting when you start noticing the Mother Mary statuettes with a glowing cerulean halo. Or when you visit a Buddhist pagoda, walking the hallowed, incense-scented halls to find a worship a room full of Buddhas with bright red neon celestial crowns! These lights look good enough on paintings and other flat surfaces, but the art form reaches a peak when you find a 20-foot-tall stone carving of a god with a neon hoop hanging behind his head. This three-dimensional approach brings religious artwork to a whole new level. It just goes to show that custom neon signs have uses that are still untapped in the United States.
There is no doubt that Vietnamese entrepreneurs understand the importance of marketing. Vendors assail the senses. Restaurants fan the thick smoke of barbecue chicken into the street; food cart vendors play recorded tracks through a megaphone, something to the translated tune of “get your fresh peanuts here!”; and, of course, business neon signs demand the pedestrian’s attention.
Vietnamese Neon Signs: Conclusion
All in all, I have to say that Vietnam knows how to use neon signs in creative and effective ways. Business neon signs help storefronts stand out in a crowded, competitive marketplace, bar neon signs grab attention and bring the customer inside, and custom neon signs apply new artistic twists on traditional religious art.