As the sun sets over Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as it is popularly known as, there’s one street that is slowly waking up. Bui Vien Street.
If there’s one word that, to me, describes this street, it’s ‘Madness’. It’s loud. It’s bright. It’s seedy. It can get aggressive. And it goes on till the wee hours of the morning. It’s got to be one of the craziest streets I’ve ventured into. It’s no wonder, as it is also Saigon’s backpack quarter. Which means cheap hotels and hostels, and even more cheap beer and street food. Massage parlours flourish and disco lights light up the street through the night.
Named after a famous politician of the Nguyen dynastry in 1975, Bui Vien Street is in District 1. And while it may officially be known by this name, the locals prefer calling it ‘Pho Tay’, which loosely translates as ‘Westerner street’.
When Lonely Planet featured this street way back in the 1990s, it caught the imagination of backpackers, who made this area their base. In time, as the number of cheap hostels, hotels, bars and restaurants increased, it slowly transformed into what it is today.
Today, it is a mix of big and small bars and restaurants that. Both professionally run and family owned businesses seem to thrive on this one single street.
What to expect
If people watching happens to be one of your favourite pastimes, like it is mine, then I recommend you park yourself at one of the local restaurants, sit on one of those ubiquitous blue plastic chairs, order a round of beers and some snacks, and watch traffic go by. It’s not your usual traffic though. It’s fellow travellers walking up and down that same street.
As the evening progresses, it is interesting to see how the row of chairs steadily starts to creep towards the middle of the road from either side. Even more fun is to watch this crowd, which until a couple of hours earlier steadily streamed up and down the street, now form a single or two lines to walk. They gape at those sitting on the chairs as they make slow progress walking, while those of us sitting, watch them like they are aliens who being paraded merely for our satisfaction. Very satisfying, I must admit.
And if you are feeling chatty, you can make loads of friends too, simply chatting about something unique that both of you are watching for the first time in your lives.
A word of caution. Sometimes, when they deem it fit, the cops come on their rounds to bring a semblance of normalcy. When that happens, just make sure you’ve got your beer in one hand and food in the other. Those same blue plastic chairs that were creeping towards the middle of the road suddenly seem to vanish as the path is suddenly cleared. And yes, look after your belongings too.
It’s not for everyone
As far as prices go, while they are affordable, they keep varying from place to place. I did find the family owned small bars and restaurants a lot cheaper than the bigger ones, for a beer or to eat.
I would recommend a night out on this street. However, just a night is more than I could handle. Staying in a hotel just about 100 meters away, each time I stepped onto my small balcony, the loud music and louder screams was enough to drive me right back into my room. The rest of the nights, I craved for, and found myself a quiet little place where the beer prices were affordable, especially during Happy Hour, and where the food is delicious. Its name – NAM.