For nearly two months, the sidewalks of Bui Vien were lined at night with revelers forced to enjoy food and drink sitting picnic-style on the ground. Word on the street was that Saigon’s new head of police (rumored to be from the we-don’t-take-no-shit North) had taken a tour of Bui Vien and couldn’t believe how clogged the street became during peak hours.
And he perhaps had a point: previous to the seating ban, overflow tables and chairs from competing restaurants would stretch so far out into the street that no traffic could reasonably hope to pass; though a sight to behold at times, it could also be described as beyond cluttered — but not much worse than the scene seen above. Many restaurant and bar owners I spoke with were convinced that the police would simply never allow tables or chairs on the sidewalks again, that this was now the way things were. But a few weeks after I snapped this photo, the police lifted the seating ban and things returned to normal — whatever that means in Saigon.
A parking attendant holds his post outside an alley entrance on Bui Vien street, District 1’s den of vice. While most everything visitors (both Westerners and locals) are looking for is available along the main street, the seedier elements operate in the darker reaches of alleys such as this one.
There are few sales ploys more effective than having the adorable, smiling-though-still-somehow-sad child in tow. The book-and-bracelet barkers on and around Bui Vien street practice this tactic with unapologetic charm and finesse. Unless you have a heart of stone, it’s nearly impossible not to feel the tug of making just one small sympathetic purchase (old women and limbless men are similarly hard to resist). After all, it’s only a couple of dollars — “Good price for you!” — what can be the harm? The danger is that once you’ve made one such purchase, the flood gates of your benevolence are now thrown open and the rest of the knickknack charmers will smell your weakness and flock to you with relentless tenacity. There is no certain tactic that will turn them away.
Saigon’s backpacker row (aka Bui Vien), as seen from one of District 1’s cheapest rooftop bars, The View. In general, unless you’re just traveling through, this section of Saigon is best avoided — unless you enjoy mixing it up with clueless tourists, shabby backpackers, sketchy locals, and smarmy old men dragging reluctant “sexy girls” back to the nearest cheap hotel. But if people watching is your thing: my friend, you’ve found your Mecca.