In this part of Saigon’s District 1, there are two parallel streets: Bui Vien and Pham Ngu Lao. While both are on the cheap and nasty side, Pham Ngu Lao caters more to foodies, whereas Bui Vien is a pedestrianised street where it seems anything goes: massages, sex, drinking… no wonder so many backpackers in Saigon head down here!
If you Pub Street in Siem Reap or Khao San Road in Bangkok were bad, then you’ve seen nothing yet. Bui Vien Street in Saigon is one of the most dirty and tacky areas I have seen in any South East Asian city. While I saw nothing illegal going on or being sold, I nevertheless came to understand the reason why so many backpackers – of all ages – descend on Bui Vien after dark to enjoy themselves (in more ways than one).
Nearby Pham Ngu Lao is a much better option if you’re in need of some classic Vietnamese street food such as Banh Xeo or even some Pho, and I did consider dashing two blocks away to this comparative haven in Saigon’s District 1. Yet part of travelling is to get out of your comfort zone and experience things you haven’t seen or heard before. Fancy unhealthy cocktails? You can order them here at the bars. Fancy a massage? You can get easily one here at Bui Vien Street. Fancy a bit more than a massage? You can also get that here, too, if you’re that way inclined.
As a solo traveller, I am sometimes uneasy about spending time drinking with strangers, but on other occasions I am more than willing to enjoy a pint or two and people-watch during the day (or check Instagram where available). At Bui Vien in Saigon, I tried to enjoy myself at both times of the day. In the sunlight, Bui Vien is awash with construction vehicles and workmen repairing shop fronts and broken lamp posts, and that in itself is enough to ask the question: “why am I drinking here?”! Yet at night, your dignity takes a step downward when you realise that a peaceful drink before heading home to your hostel is perhaps not something that you can achieve easily at Bui Vien.
Or maybe I’m just getting older?…