HO CHI MINH CITY | Bui Vien Street is the heart of Ho Chi Minh City’s tourist district and is and where you’ll find some of the most thrilling, energetic scenes in the city.
Historically there was nothing particularly special about Bui Vien but when the Vietnam opened up to tourism and international commercial trade in 1986, it wasn’t long until the backpackers began to arrive. They had more money to spend than the average Vietnamese worker made in a year but weren’t rich enough to stay at the high end hotels dotted around the city. Locals got smart fast, and converted the ground floors of their residences into shops offering goods and services that catered to the new tourists and things kept growing.
Today, Bui Vien is a busy street by day, full of backpackers moving in and out of hostels and tourists wandering around but by night it takes on a completely different dimension and become insanely hectic. As the sun goes down the bright lights come on, and many of the closed shopfronts open up to reveal bars, clubs and restaurants inside. Small plastic chairs and tables are brought out onto the sidewalk and soon the streets are filled with foreigners and locals alike looking to eat, drink, party… and more.
Street vendors wheel small carts selling all kinds of delicacies to those looking for a feed while dodgy looking characters on street corners sell other things that various individuals might wish to consume. Girls wander the sidewalk looking to lure naive men into ‘massage parlours’, while other girls wander the street offering other services. Shady characters wander down alleyways after darting looks and signals, and are soon followed by others. For the average visitor, though, booze is the vice of choice, and minding one’s business and ensuring that belongings are secure is all that’s required to avoid the more unsavory aspects of the area.
A small plastic chair on the sidewalk, beer in one hand, street food in the other, is the perfect way to experience Bui Vien. Scooters and cars try to make their way through the heaving crowds (during the week, between 7:00pm and 2:00am on weekends the Bui Vien is pedestrianised) and as the clock approaches midnight, things get more and more hectic. Street entertainers provide entertainment in hope of making some money, whether it’s someone juggling while on a unicycle, doing card tricks, or, as I once saw, a young girl breathing fire.
It’s an intense pressure keg of a street, and it feels like everything could explode, or implode, at any time. There’s no denying that it’s exciting however and the energy on Bui Vien is something else. It might be a tourist area, but there’s also a lot of locals here too, giving it an air of authenticity that you don’t normally get in these sorts of areas. Of course, Vietnam is changing rapidly and it’s likely only a matter of time before Bui Vien becomes a sanitised version of its former self, relying on the tales of old rather than the actuality of the present.
The changes have already begun. At the eastern end of the street, things are, while still hectic, a lot more calm, and the character of the restaurants and bars are different. There are craft beer bars, renovated buildings housing restaurants with slick branding, and streets that are a lot cleaner than just a few meters down the road. At the moment, the Bui Vien of old and new co-exist, and it remains one of the most interesting, vibrant parts of Ho Chi Minh City that any visitor can experience.