But after confiscating their tables and chairs, patrons elect to sit and drink directly on the sidewalk
Foreign tourists on Ho Chi Minh City’s Bui Vien Street. Local authorities recently absconded with the plastic tables and chairs that made up so many of the popular beer-drinking spots in the area… only to be faced with droves of drinkers now sitting directly on the street… Photo: Kha Hoa
Last Sunday evening, many backpackers found themselves sitting on newspaper and cardboard along Bui Vien Street, where foreigners and Vietnamese alike have for years gathered to drink cheap beer at small stools and tables.
Police had earlier seized motorbikes and the plastic chairs and tables from the beer and food shops in the heart of what is known as Ho Chi Minh City’s “backpackers’ area.”
The shops have been technically illegally occupying the sidewalks but they have also long since become a major part of “local” nightlife for foreign tourists.
“Did anything change? No. We just stood up and toasted every time the police went past. Or we sat on the sidewalk,” David Lyonz wrote on Another Side of Vietnam, a Facebook group of foreign tourists and expats in the country.
“One bright spark had the idea of spreading newspaper down and the whole street caught on and we papered the footpaths,” he commented in a post on the issue that attracted 119 comments shortly after it was posted.
The incident reflects a conflict between the demands of tourists in the city and poor management of recreational nighttime activities by relevant authorities, who have been accused of squashing popular tourism businesses in their drive to eliminate street vending.
In the 1980s, Pham Ngu Lao, De Tham and Bui Vien streets were quiet with only a few shops. Backpackers began to come to the area, only a couple of minutes from Ben Thanh Market, around 1993 when it was mentioned by Lonely Planet guidebook as a good place to find cheap lodging.
The neighborhood changed rapidly and most houses now host hotels, restaurants, cafés, bars, shops, motorbike rental services, travel agents and other tourism services. It is said you can get anything you want in “The Pham.” The sidewalks are occupied by stalls selling food and beer and motorbikes are parked everywhere that is not already full-up with crowds of people.
Pham Ngu Lao Ward now has more than 90 tourism companies, 247 hotels, 72 restaurants and 25 souvenir shops.
Backpackers can find a bed for only VND60,000 (US$2.85) or a room from VND250,000 ($12) per night.
However, local media have reported that the area has become a magnet for crime and local residents have complained about noisy bars and congested streets destroying the quality of life in the area.
Last June, District 1 authorities instructed the Pham Ngu Lao Ward to crackdown on bars that cause excessive noise following complaints from local residents.
Tran Trung Thuan, a 68-year-old man who lives in an apartment on Bui Vien Street, said a bar at the ground floor has adversely affected his family and neighbors.
“A teacher on the 4th floor couldn’t continue her tutor class. The children couldn’t do their homework. Many people have to sleep in the day after staying awake due to the noisy bar,” he said.
Pham Van Minh, deputy chairman of Pham Ngu Lao Ward People’s Committee (the local government), said local authorities have rebuked and fined bars for noise and other violations several times but they have not been deterred.
District 1 authorities have inspected 47 facilities in the area and found six bars generating noise of between 70-78dB, almost one and a half times the allowed noise level.
Pham Ngu Lao Ward officials have summoned the owners of more than 40 household businesses on Bui Vien, De Tham and Do Quang Dau streets and ordered them to stop violations including occupying sidewalks and streets, and causing excessive noise and pollution.
The ward has fined several eateries for violations including encroachment onto streets and several labor violations including employing people without labor contracts, failing to pay social insurance and ignoring their duty to provide for regular medical check-ups.
According to survey on tourism in the Pham Ngu Lao area released last year by District 1 authorities and the HCMC University of Economics, the area attracts 1,900 tourists every day, rendering revenues of more than VND8 trillion ($380 million) a year.
Although the city has planned to spruce up the backpackers’ area and improve relevant services, it has made little progress so far besides police raids that many say actually hurt local tourism.
Last year, HCMC authorities planned to “rearrange” the area after finding many eateries illegally occupying sidewalks and streets and bars playing loud music until early in the morning.
The District 1 People’s Committee has proposed that the city administration expedite the implementation of a plan to establish pedestrian-only streets, including on Bui Vien and Pham Ngu Lao.
Pham Ngu Lao Ward has emerged as a popular hangout for visitors from all continents and they mostly gather there after 9 p.m. It is therefore necessary to rearrange services for them more “logically” and avoid nuisances to local residents at night, the district administration said.
It proposed that the city convert a part of the nearby September 23 Park into a night food court.
Experts are urging the city to implement solutions to meet the demands of international tourists by carrying out a full plan instead of simply raiding popular household businesses on busy streets.
"Whatever happens to Bui Vien, the city needs fun local-style nightlife and entertainment,” Mark Bowyer, publisher of the independent online tourism site Rusty Compass, told Vietweek.
"Some change is inevitable in the backpacker area as the city evolves but a very lucrative tourism economy thrives in these streets and the crowded, chaotic, local feel is a big part of the appeal.”
But Boywer warned about the challenge of ensuring that proposed changes would not destroy the character of the place.
He advised the use of the languished Ba Son shipyard as an arts, fashion and entertainment precinct like Hanoi's now closed Zone 9.
“When Hanoi authorities shut down Zone 9 at the end of last year, they killed off a near perfect tourism and cultural asset with great potential. Saigon needs something like that too," he said.
Tim Russell, a Briton who lived and worked in Vietnam for 10 years and is now the director of sales and marketing of a travel agency in Thailand, stressed tourists’ demand for open spaces like on the pavement where they can watch the world go by.
“Go to any major city - Paris, London, Rome, Sydney, Singapore - and you'll see loads of people sitting outside at pavement cafés.”
“Most cities have pedestrian-ized certain areas to make them traffic-free and to enable businesses to put chairs outside. It is about time Saigon started looking at pedestrianization on certain streets, like Bui Vien, from 7 p.m. onwards, for example,” he told Vietweek.
Russell said a night food court in September 23 Park would only be a good start provided there was a range of dishes and vendors did not all copy each other.
“But tourists also want to drink in the evening and so properly licensed bars and pavement cafes are essential.”
Thanh Nien News (The story can be found in the March 21st issue of our print edition, Vietweek)
* Khanh An contributed to this report.