Saigon book street: Calm in the eye of the storm

By Nafi Wernsing   August 10, 2019 | 11:00 pm PT
Saigon book street: Calm in the eye of the storm
People read books at Nguyen Thai Binh Book Street in Ho Chi Minh City's District 1, July 2019. Photo by Nafi Wernsing.
“There is peace even in the storm,” said Vincent van Gogh.

One place in Ho Chi Minh City symbolizes this statement.

Amidst the chaos and noise of a bustling commercial hub, the peace and calm is to be found in a small street that has the widest metaphorical spaces - Nguyen Van Binh Book Street.

Situated in District 1, which is the most urbanized part of the city, this street is a sanctuary hidden in plain sight. Just behind the famous Notre Dame Cathedral and opposite the shiny glass building of Diamond Plaza, this street has been designated for bookshops and has become the city’s Mecca for booklovers.

Somewhat fittingly, the city’s stately Post Office is just around the corner as well.

The street, more than 100 meters long, is lined by bookshops on both sides, and the icing on the cake is comfortable cafes in which one can read books in complete peace and quiet.

In fact, the Nguyen Van Binh Book Street can be seen as an outdoor library, both in terms of the wide selection of books and magazines and in the atmosphere of hushed silence that they are displayed in.

There are about seven to eight publishers here and a total of 21 different stores.

No matter what the genre, the street has a collection for prospective buyers. From newspapers, magazines to stationeries, action, comedy, drama and thrillers or books and manuals like the ‘For Dummies’ series - they are all here.

Books are displayed at Nguyen Thai Binh Street in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo by Nafi Wernsing.

Books are displayed at Nguyen Van Binh Book Street in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo by Nafi Wernsing.

The street adds considerably to its charm and attraction with many second-hand bookstalls. This is where it is possible to bargain with the store owners for a price that suits both parties. Apart from Vietnamese, there are books in English, Japanese, Korean and Chinese.

All the bookstall owners and staff seem to be very friendly as you stroll down the street. They greet people with warm smiles and are knowledgeable about their impressive collection of books. Browsing the books here, hours can pass without one noticing it.

Nguyen Duc, 23, a book vendor on the street, said the book street is also known for several cultural events. "Many exhibitions are held here," he said.

"This year, there was an exhibition to celebrate the 20th anniversary of student volunteers who help other people," he added.

Booklovers are always kept up to date with the latest releases too. Duc said that "every weekend, they present new books here."

However, being a bookstore owner here has its difficulties. The days are long and tiring.

Bookstores open at half-past eight in the morning and remain open until 9 p.m. "The bookstore owners are always busy," Duc said.

There are always people visiting the area, but at weekends and during festivals and other events, it becomes a livelier place. Perhaps, for many people, this is a great weekend getaway, where one can relax and enjoy a completely different atmosphere from the rest of the city.

The street’s products and ambience attract people of all ages and from all walks of life. The majority of people that come tend to be mainly students and adults. Since most of the books are in Vietnamese, most of the people here are locals as well. Several book lovers choose to read the books in faces that adjoin the bookshop. There is a play-space for children, and there are teenagers and young adults who sit and read books on the benches outside.

The spaces available to have a drink and read a book at the same time also make the street an ideal place to get a respite from the chaos of the city. It is a meditative space that exerts that influence on people who visit it, too.

You can enjoy reading with a drink along the street. Photo by Nafi Wernsing.

You can enjoy reading with a drink along Nguyen Van Binh Book Street. Photo by Nafi Wernsing.

The Book Cafe, for instance, offers a selection of beverages including local coffee, smoothies and juices. The café also has shelves stocked with books that customers can pick up to read while enjoying their drink.

Even if you do not have a lot of money, window shopping for books is a more enriching activity than the usual luxury items in shopping malls. And this street makes it fun, too.

A bus stands in the middle of the street, ready to take passengers to a "world of different stories." The bus allows you to borrow books for free, and many students do this.

A bus is exhibited on the street as a bookstore. Photo by Nafi Wernsing.

A bus is exhibited on Nguyen Van Binh Book Street as a bookstore. Photo by Nafi Wernsing.

The bookstore owners and staff on the street will also tell you that this is more than just business.

Ta My My, 20, at the Nha Sach Phuong Nam store, said: "It is an honor to be working here. There are many bookstores in Ho Chi Minh, but nothing quite like this street.

"It is in the middle of the city, and everything is about books, it is like a culture."

‘Never seen before’

Foreign visitors to Vietnam in general and Saigon in particular are also pleasantly surprised by the book street.

Kerry, 21, from South Africa, said: "A street dedicated to books. It is unique. Something I have never seen before."

One American expat in Saigon said he loved the book street. "I come here a lot, it is so quiet. I wish there were more streets like this in Vietnam.

"There are a lot of bookstores in my hometown in the United States, but no street dedicated just to books. I think it says a lot about Vietnam’s dedication to culture, arts and literature."

"There is nothing like this in the rest of the city," said another American expat.

"You can find special treasures here."

For me, personally, it was nostalgic to swing by the Nha Sach Phuong Nam store, one of the few that sells English books.

Just looking at "The Captain Underpants" series, "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" and Ronald Dahl’s books were a welcome blast from the past.

Childrens comic books. Photo by Nafi Wernsing.

Children's comic books at Nguyen Van Binh Book Street. Photo by Nafi Wernsing.

There are many places to visit, in and around Saigon. But there is no place like an open library that will take you places, sometimes beyond your wildest imaginations.

In creating such a space, the city has expanded its horizons within itself. You can go to the same place again and again, and each time, make new discoveries – be it an author, a particular book, artwork or simply an idea you’ve never had before.

As American novelist George R. R. Martin has said: "A mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone, if it is to keep its edge."

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