Why change Bui Vien if it’s one of Saigon’s most popular haunts for both locals and foreigners?
Foreign tourists on Ho Chi Minh City’s Bui Vien Street. Photo: Kha Hoa
While tourism is still growing in excess of 10 percent per year, with the economic slow-down Vietnam wants to bring in more tourists. From the (some say failed) attempt to entice visitors to Phu Quoc Island with the promise of a free 30-day visa, to the proposed “US$1 a day tourist tax,” Vietnam simultaneously manages to give with one hand and take away with the other in a confusing show of mixed messages.
And no message is more mixed than the government’s recent push to “clean up” the Old Quarter in Hanoi and the Tourist Quarter in Saigon, contentiously removing all the chairs and tables from Pham Ngu Lao Ward, the bustling but tiny hub of inner Saigon, home to over 420 hotels and responsible for over $1 million every day in income.
If you happened to hear the police vehicles driving around Pham Ngu Lao Ward and you speak fluent Vietnamese you might have noticed something strange about the message they gave. They were telling people that “the foreigners” want Pham Ngu Lao “cleaned up”. We have to clean it up “for the foreigners”. But has anyone asked the foreigners what they want?
Let’s call this what it really is; an effort to change Vietnam’s image. The government thinks that a cleaner, more modern, metropolitan city will attract more tourists, and possibly a better class of tourist. But they fail to see the point of view that the rest of the world has.
Yes, I know all too well that people who have not been to Vietnam have some crazy ideas. “Isn’t it a war-ravaged place full of poverty and prostitutes and infant mortality?” “Can I even get Internet there?” We all as residents know how far that is from the truth. Vietnam is a modern country with some of the highest standards in the world of literacy, Internet access, healthcare and political stability. But I can understand how the rest of the world might not know.
How many of us came to Saigon for Gucci handbags and luxury apartments and glitzy malls? I didn’t. I think most of us, and I have to pause to ask the professional expats of Vietnam to get off their high horse and not be judgmental about the “tourist scum” for a moment and just admit that we came here for a simple life.
A life without pretentious airs and grandiose lifestyle. We came for the ca phe sua da and the banh mi thit and the hot rock massages… and for the mot hai ba yo. Even if we “grew up” and moved out of Bui Vien to live in Phu My Hung or An Phu or even Go Vap or Cho Lon, a lot of us still recognize that those things are part of Saigon’s culture. It’s in Saigon’s blood.
Do you really want to ban street vendors in the “tourist area” of Saigon? Because when you ask anyone who’s visited or lived in Vietnam but now lives abroad what they miss about Saigon, they will be quick to tell you how much they’d absolutely kill for a glass of ice cold Trung Nguyen coffee and a banh mi thit or a bia hoi.
But where will we get any of those things if we eliminate street vendors in Pham Ngu Lao? Will we have to buy them from a shop? “Come to Saigon Subway and pay VND50,000 for banh mi thit or Highlands Coffee to pay VND80,000d for a ca phe sua da.” No no no. That simply will not do.
While the battle raged in the Facebook communities such as Another Side of Vietnam last week between the down to earth expats versus the stiff upper lip “I live in the REAL Saigon” stalwarts, arguing back and forth about whether Pham Ngu Lao was either a disgrace to Saigon or the very heart and lifeblood of the city, I saw one Vietnamese girl chime in at the very end of the lengthy discussion, after reading what must have been pages and pages of people calling both the foreigners and the locals disgusting for eating and drinking on the sidewalk. She said: “Eating and drinking on the street is part of our culture. We like it that way”.
And there you have it in a nutshell. We all know if we’ve visited Bui Vien at night that it is NOT just full of backpackers. In fact at 11 p.m. on a Sunday night you’ll be hard pressed to find one at all amongst the massive throngs of young Vietnamese drinking and eating heartily and toasting each other to good health and good luck.
So who are we cleaning up Saigon for? It can’t be for the locals because they love it. It can’t be for the foreign residents because they (for the most part) love it. Who is it for? Some theoretical foreign tourists with lots of money but who don’t want to visit Vietnam because they mistakenly think that Thailand or Malaysia are cleaner and safer?
I had a good discussion about it with some friends the other night. A Thai friend from my area who works and drinks at a local bar has been saying repeatedly lately “This is unique. People come here because this is unique. We don’t have this in Thailand or Malaysia or other places. This here… Saigon... it is unique. You cannot take this away or you will lose something precious.”
A Belgian who had joined our party weighed in on the discussion and asked me “Do you want this to be Khao San Road?” And I looked between him and my Thai friend and with a smile I said “If I wanted to live on Khao San Road, I would live on Khao San Road. Right?” My Thai friend said “Of course. There’s nothing wrong with Khao San Road, but it’s not Bui Vien.”
If we want to see France or Holland, we will go there. If we want to see Hong Kong, Tokyo or Singapore, we will go there for what that offers. I’m typing this on a plane to Singapore right now, but you know how long I’m spending there? No longer than it will take me to hop a train to Kuala Lumpur. Because I have no desire to spend SG$15 for some basic takeaway food or to queue for entry to museums and events. I’m headed straight for the heart of KL… Jalan Petaling where I know I will see happy smiles and street vendors and a smorgasbord of food served on the roadside. But when I had to say goodbye for a month to my precious Duong Bui Vien apartment this morning, I did it with a tear in my eye.
Do whatever you want to the Old Quarter in Hanoi. Take down all the English signs (as I understand is happening right now) and return it to its French Colonial glory if you wish and make it the sort of no-nonsense, tidy and respectful snapshot of history that you desire it to be.
But we don’t want Bui Vien to be Khao San Road. We want it to be Bui Vien. So if I can politely and respectfully give my opinion to the Vietnamese government, as a travel journalist and Saigon resident (with the Vietnamese wife and Saigon Dep Lam tattoo to prove it)… keep your hands off Pham Ngu Lao please and let’s let Saigons be Saigons.