Tây ba lô resident walks ruefully down memory lane

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Foreigners at a café on Bui Vien Street, the heart of the Tây ba lô (western backpackers) area in District 1, Ho Chi Minh City

I live in the Tây ba lô (Western backpackers) area, which consists of Bui Vien, De Tham and Pham Ngu Lao streets in District 1, Ho Chi Minh City. I do not work in the tourism sector, but since I live in such a special place, I grew up loving seeing tourists gather and walk around here.

When I was a child, the area had only a few Western tourists who often smiled and loved taking photos of Vietnamese children.

They often carried backpacks as big as rice sacks, so local people called them Tây ba lô, which means Western backpackers. Kids, including me, also called them "ong Tay, ba Tay" (Mr/Mrs. West).

At that time, in the 1990s, there were not many tourism services in the area, so foreign visitors mainly walked around the city with small but thick guidebooks in their hands.

Around the time I was able to speak English, give street directions and help tourists cross the street, everything began changing.

First, the yellow New World hotel was born, and soon followed by numerous four and five-star hotels. Then, restaurants, motels, bookstores and travel companies also sprouted like mushrooms. Even xich lo drivers started speaking English. The whole area quickly became a hub of services for backpackers.

Furthermore, from mostly Western tourists, the nationality of visitors became much more diverse, and we could see Arab, Chinese, Indian, Japanese, South Korean and African guests as well. It made the area look like some gathering place of the United Nations.

Local people at that time were kind enough to care for tourists during their stay as welcome guests, regardless of their race or nationality.

However, since then, things have changed drastically, to the point that harassing and ripping off tourists is the stuff of daily life in the area.

Many times, when someone asks me what to buy in the area, I am hesitant to offer advice. I am worried that if they buy things I suggest, they might be overcharged aka ripped off.

I am also bothered by the security available for tourists here.

Some time ago, a couple of tourists from Hong Kong had to sell their postcards to earn some money to go home after losing all their belongings to robbers. The story made headlines in local media, and the victims received a lot of help.

But what about petite Asian women who carry a handbag in one hand and a camera in the other, and are easy, regular pickings for robbers? Not to mention gigantic-looking Western men who also turn out to be fragile, almost killed, after being pushed off their bikes by thieves?

Who have helped them? Who will help future victims like them as the robbers get more brutal and violent?

Sometimes I think: If only officials from related agencies came here incognito and work as waiters and waitresses in local restaurants or walked around as tourists for some time, they would learn what was actually happening here. 

Recently people have talked about a video clip that can help promote tourism in Vietnam. They say such a clip could cost several million dollars.

However, such costly clip is just like an invitation to come to Vietnam, after all. Whether tourists stay in Vietnam or not, spend money here or not is another matter. How they experience Vietnam and what they think of the country is another matter, too.

And such matters cannot be solved with an expensive video clip.

We Vietnamese have a saying Tot go hon tot nuoc son, the English equivalent of which is: "Beauty is skin deep."

This is what Vietnamese tourism officials should realize. It is not the looks or the hype about the looks, but efforts to make visitors feel genuinely welcome and respected and protected that will decide how successful Vietnamese tourism will be in the long run.

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By Ho Cong Thanh
(The commentary was originally published in Vietnamese on VnExpress as a letter to the editor)

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