What will become of Saigon's backpacker district after street cleanup campaign?

By Vien Thong   March 11, 2017 | 01:01 am PT
What will become of Saigon's backpacker district after street cleanup campaign?
A night on Bui Vien in Ho Chi Minh City's backpackers corner. Photo by VnExpress/Van Trai
The area, known for its vibrant and messy culture, is now a headache for officials who want to tidy up the city.

Ho Chi Minh City’s sidewalk revolution has spared no one.

Over the past weeks, everyone or everything standing in the city's bid to become a Singapore-esque metropolis has been either reprimanded, pulled down or towed away. The goal is to clear up all the downtown sidewalks and streets for pedestrian safety.

And yet one big problem remains: the famous (or infamous) backpacker precinct where all the lines blur between private and public spaces, between grill bars and sidewalks, between streets and dance floors.

The tourist playground, made up by Bui Vien, Pham Ngu Lao, De Tham and Do Quang Dau streets in District 1’s Pham Ngu Lao Ward, is a major attraction recommended on many travel sites.

A government report said the enclave and its wide range of services pull in around 500 tourists every day, and 2,000 on its best days, earning more than VND37 billion ($1.62 million) a year.

District 1 officials have said the mission of cleaning up the city’s sidewalks will not allow any exception. But when it comes to Bui Vien and the surrounding streets, there will not be an easy answer.

Many have warned that if the neighborhood is tidied up and all the fun has to be pulled back indoors, the culture will die too. Then the tourists will leave, along with their money.

Local authorities said they will make sure there will be a happy ending for both the tourism industry and its sidewalk campaign.

For now, there are only mixed signals that point to an identity crisis, if not an unclear future for the backpacker area.

Several shops and restaurants on Bui Vien early this month received a notice from local officials asking them to keep their business off the sidewalks.

At the same time, the city has revealed a new plan to turn the neighborhood into a pedestrian-only area. Vehicles will be banned after 6 p.m., which means there will be more space for both pedestrians and businesses. However, no timeframe for this plan has been announced.

“The city will devise a plan to develop the area to make it more attractive, and at the same time, civil and polite,” said Tran Vinh Tuyen, the city’s vice chairman.

Ho Chi Minh City is one of the most popular destinations in Vietnam. It received 5.2 million foreign arrivals in 2016, a 10 percent increase from the previous year.

The city hopes to have six million foreign visitors this year.

Among various plans to bring in more tourists, the city has announced its intention to create a floating market, similar to the famous markets of the Mekong Delta, and launch weekend fireworks shows.

A special light festival is being planned for November.

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State of the sidewalks: How cleanup campaign has changed Saigon

Best Saigon restaurants and food streets for night owls

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