To any 21st century traveller, the notorious Bui Vien tourist strip seems as though it has always been a bustling centre of commerce. Business is integral to the way the street presents itself, and as you pick your way past bustling food stalls, shouting bar-boys, motorbike dealers and street touts, you can almost taste the money as it floats from tourist pockets to local hands. It’s hard to imagine the street without its activity. But before the city lights, there was quiet.
“When I was born, Bui Vien was just a place for living. There was nothing much here.”
Now 58 years old, Hoa is a tiny man. His back is hunched over warped thighs and skinny shins, ending in feet that look tougher than the tarmac they stand on. His hair is long and careless, and when he smiles he uses his eyes.
“This street has always been a rough place, even before the war,” Hoa says as he leans into the wall behind him and tilts his chin to one side. “Bui Vien was divided into many sections, each one ruled by a gang, and although the place was quiet in the daytime it was not safe at night.”
When the First Indochina War culminated in 1954, it hit the South hard. “The city became a battleground,” he says.
Hoa points down the street to what is now a panorama of backpacker bars and all-night revelry. “That intersection of De Tham and Bui Vien saw many conflicts. It used to be called the International Roundabout.”
By 1963 more than 16,000 American military personnel were stationed in Vietnam. While the nation ripped itself apart, a small bubble of commerce popped up on the previously residential Bui Vien, catering to American soldiers.
“When I was a small boy I used to hang around the De Tham end of the street. There were a few bars there selling cheap beer for the American soldiers,” Hoa looks up from beneath his war-green hat. “Those soldiers loved children. They used to play with us, offer us a few dollars and sometimes buy us some food. I remember eating a lot of chicken and rice.”
When the South was liberated in 1975, and America finally withdrew, the city was left to fend for itself. Ho Chi Minh City and the rest of the nation began to rebuild under the new regime, but what was once a brilliant city had little left to prosper on. “After 1975, this area was poor. Bui Vien was more dangerous than before, because people had no money and no hope.”
At that time, Hoa began to work. “I worked for my uncle at his business on De Tham, fixing motorbikes. Two years later I started my own business here on Bui Vien. I have had that business for 41 years now.” He gestures to where his bike-tyre pump sits in front of a backpacker bar. “I remember one old Australian man who came here every day. He had no bike to fix but he enjoyed my company — most of our conversation was “yes” and “no” because we didn’t share a language,” Hoa says, shaking his head. “One day he just didn’t come back.”
About a decade after the American War ended, the Vietnamese Congress introduced a new policy, the doi moi or open-door programme, which spurred Vietnam’s interaction with the rest of the world. This opened the door to tourism, and Ho Chi Minh City’s travel industry began to develop.
Tran came to the area in 1998, following his father. His aunt, Madam Kim, owned one of the area’s only backpacker cafés and his father came to work as a tour guide for her customers. “My father was a driver and a translator during the war. When we came to work in Ho Chi Minh City there were no official tours, so people would negotiate a trip over coffee.”
Tran remembers the area before it started to boom. “At that time the only people who came here were backpackers. They didn’t know where they were going because there were no guides — they just made it up as they went,” Tran says. “At that time the alleyways between Bui Vien and Pham Ngu Lao were dangerous — full of broken people and illegal substances. You could get lost in there and not come out. The local people were dangerous, very poor and quite desperate. There were no jobs, and petty crime was an issue.”
In the late 1990s, Vietnam reached a socio-economic turning point and international tourism began to find its feet. Over the following years, the thriving new industry brought in money, jobs and opportunity. “People began to pick themselves up — we started thinking differently,” Tran says. “That was just the beginning.”
Marc (name changed) came to Ho Chi Minh City in early 2000 as part of a six-month trip around Southeast Asia. With one side of the buildings on Pham Ngu Lao knocked down in the late 1990s to make way for a shopping mall that was never completed and a park, by this time businesses serving the budget traveller industry had started to move down De Tham.
“When I first came here all the action was on Pham Ngu Lao and De Tham; tourism hadn’t touched [Bui Vien] yet. It was all houses. When we reached Ho Chi Minh City, my partner and I were living off my credit card. We needed work and had been aiming to find it in Taiwan, but there was something about this city.”
At that time Bui Vien was quiet. “There was nothing special about it,” Marc says. “I remember a couple of com binh dan joints, a barber’s run by an older guy who spoke English, a small convenience store and an internet cafe. They had the fastest internet in the area.”
Before the opening of Go2 Bar in 2002, everything just stopped at the corner of De Tham and Bui Vien. “Back in 2000 a lot of older people still spoke French, and luckily so did I,” Marc says. “I remember them telling me about life after the war — about how difficult it had been and how poor they were then. Many of them would say that Ho Chi Minh City was better before 1975, because back then it was rich.”
Once Go2 opened and became a success, the businesses started to spread down Bui Vien. It started with the opening of new guesthouses. However, the real kick came in 2009 “with the arrival of the bia hoi joints,” Marc says. “Suddenly people were able to drink on the street for cheap. It was perfect for backpackers. But the thing I remember most about the street is its people.”
Marc tells us about a group of cyclo drivers he met back then. “We became good friends actually,” he remembers. “Very few people spoke English at the time, but because these guys were working with tourists, you could have a conversation with them. I would eat hu tieu and drink coffee near to where they hung out most mornings — on the corner of Pham Ngu Lao and De Tham. These drivers had it tough. They were all supporting families, and many were in debt to the local mafia — when they couldn’t find work they still had to eat.”
“One guy, Dat, spoke great English. His story was fascinating — he said he had been working for the Catholic Bishop of Saigon before the War, and after the liberation he had been taken to a re-education camp. There were no jobs for him because of his background, so he ended up as a cyclo driver. I remember his oldest daughter was bright. I wanted to help out so I paid for her to study English at SEAMEO, a language school on Le Thanh Ton. Last I heard she’s married and doing well.”