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End of an era down Bui Vien Street

Sunday, March 23, 2014, 13:24 GMT+7

Editor’s Note: Derek Milroy, a Scot, has lived in Ho Chi Minh City for four years. He got married to a Vietnamese wife and is working for an English-language newspaper in the southern city.

When I first arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, Bui Vien Street in the backpackers’ area in District 1 was a bustling place and, like many foreigners before me, I loved the novelty of the little plastic seated area on the street, chatting to travelers and expats alike who were mostly teachers. Normally, the ‘cheap beer on plastic seats’ participants numbered about 50 or 60.

When I went down the Bui Vien way in recent times, it was absolutely teeming with bodies and blue plastic seats. I was thinking myself it was getting a little out of hand but, of course, the demand from tourists and locals for cheap beer and food meant that it was a thriving location for local businesses.

No one seemed to be complaining – well those cashing in were not. In fact, I was actually wondering how far it would go. Would it be a traffic-free zone with seats and beer all the way down the right hand side of Bui Vien in the future?

The last time I was down, it took me a long time to pass through the bodies on my bike, trying to skip in and out of the taxis which were coming both ways to reach my destination quicker.

The huge crowds packing the backpackers’ area were obviously, as I said earlier, getting a bit much and city authorities have acted.

Apparently, earlier this week police removed motorbikes and plastic furniture from the area’s sidewalks. Witnesses said the city authorities have decided that having sidewalks you can walk on is more important than the profits from the neighborhood’s lively street drinking scene.

Bui Vien Street is a nightmare, granted. Why? Because the sidewalks are packed with bodies on the cheap beer, pedestrians have to fight with taxis and motorbikes in the small road resulting in severe traffic congestion.

However, the so-called Bui Vien beautification plan has split opinions. Hundreds of comments on Facebook have been both for and against the new legislation.

Some feel that the area adds character and excitement to the city while others are happy to see the area become a fading memory.

The city authorities have enforced a rule to ban all business operations on sidewalks in an effort to ensure street and street-side order and security from the middle of this month. As part of the regulation, all sidewalk shops on Pham Ngu Lao, Bui Vien, De Tham and Do Quang Dau Streets have been forced to shut down, according to Le Thanh Tuan, chairman of the People’s Committee of Pham Ngu Lao District, where the backpackers’ area is located. 

Vehicles are allowed to park on the sidewalks there and officials will consider allowing some locals with small houses or who are financially poor to continue running their businesses in some parts of the sidewalks. But there is no longer space for trade operations in the area at night with no night trade section in the plans of the District 1 People’s Committee to serve the thousands of backpackers and expats.

The news is also a blow to young Vietnamese revelers who love to pop down to enjoy the excitement that the area brings.

The HCMC People’s Committee had previously given a two-year license to Cuu Long Commercial & Investment Ltd Company to provide tourists with shopping and entertainment services in September 23 Park, close to the backpackers’ area.

The shutdown happened on March 15. Twenty-four hours later, an expat posted on Facebook a photo showing foreigners placing their bottles of beer on newspaper sheets on a sidewalk on Bui Vien Street instead of sitting in a chair to drink and relax as before. 

It is not just the cheap beer that matters to drinkers who are disappointed. A number of locals and expatriates alike absolutely love the street food in the area and this group might be lost to the scene if the street food is also out of bounds.

One local non-sidewalk business owner insists that the area is a bit chaotic and maybe the new rules will clean the place up a little on the one hand. However, he also acknowledged that some street shops make the Bui Vien area a little more colorful.

He believes that since the new regulations were adopted, the number of visitors to the backpackers’ area has dropped 30 percent. With the sidewalks more noticeable, onlookers have commented that it is a little less congested but still a pretty busy area. So although it is sad that the cheap-beer-on-the-plastic-seats era is over, Bui Vien will go on. It will be interesting to see what happens next.

Derek Milroy

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