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Bui Vien Street in the backpackers area of Ho Chi Minh City represents many different things to many different people. For those who love it, Bui Vien is a spectacle of vice that makes for some of the best entertainment you can buy. In the daytime, Bui Vien Street is an eight-minute walk through a valley of malignant infrastructure and sheer cement walls.
There are restaurants, massage parlors, hotels, hostels, pubs, souvenir shops, go-go bars and travel agencies. Visibly hungover tourists wander through the wet heat with a constant look of fear as hawkers prowl for the more gullible among them.
Traffic roars by at dangerous speeds, and a hint of exhaust lingers in the hazy air. For backpackers, Bui Vien is a Vietnamese Mecca. Bui Vien grew out of the post-war stagnation by offering accommodations to those new global travelers who could afford plane tickets but not the pleasure of staying in places with names like Majestic, Continental or Caravelle.
When Vietnam began encouraging tourism, after it opened its economy in the late eighties, foreigners showed up with more cash in their pockets than a Vietnamese farmer made in an entire year. Families converted the bottom floors of their homes into places catering to tourists. Nothing can compare to walking down Bui Vien around midnight in the middle of peak tourism season—dozens of shops hiding behind metal security gates, crowds in tiny plastic chairs on the sidewalks, and music vibrating your organs with overlapping beats from all the pubs, bars and clubs lining the street.
Below you, strewn garbage and filth. Above, an orange sky and schizoid power lines. Bui Vien feels like a powder keg, full of people either about to unleash some primal desire, or those who stand to profit from the transaction. Bui Vien is first and foremost an industry that feeds off money, and as far as the locals are concerned, addicts and perverts have money as well.