I snap away and the revelers react. They photo bomb, they raise their beer to give me a cheers, the atmosphere electrifies. As the motorbikes edge their way through the packed streets, the bia hoi drinkers are in their element — ecstatic. They’re a mix, too. Foreigners of all ilks and a growing quorum of young Vietnamese, who go as one twenty-something put it, “for the atmosphere, the cheap beer and the chance to speak English.”
But my bike has been moved. Not once, but twice, and now the irate gestures are coming — a woman is motioning at me to get out of there. I’m not spending money so I have to leave.
Fast forward to now and the sidewalks have been cleared of the plastic chairs. It’s not just the one-metre sidewalk rule, where bikes and businesses can stretch out onto the sidewalk as long as there’s a metre free for pedestrians. It’s everything.
This isn’t the pedestrianisation being experimented with in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, it’s the nuclear option. The once growing numbers of street food stalls, the kebab joints and the new-school likes of JJ’s Fish and Chips on De Tham (now operating a delivery service, 5pm to 10pm nightly — call 01262 909077) and Burrito Revolution on Bui Vien (now on vietnammm.com), have moved on. Legends like all-night noodle maker Lam, who used to shake his wok on the Bui Vien side of Crazy Buffalo, have left without a trace. The place is a ghost town.
Speak to business owners operating elsewhere in Pham Ngu Lao, and for many there is a widespread sense of relief. The sidewalks were originally cleared in November 2013. The idea was to create walking space, a place to breathe, and to let the traffic flow freely on Bui Vien. But within a couple of weeks they were packed again and the chairs quickly reappeared.
The problem was not so much the overflowing thoroughfares — although they are frustrating for anyone trying to drive or walk from one end of Bui Vien to the other. Instead it was the competition. As owner after owner attests, the bia hoi on the street was being sold so cheaply that it affected the rest of the bars and restaurants in the area. How can you compete?
Battling for Survival
“Most of the restaurants in this area don’t have enough customers because a lot of people were going to Bui Vien and sitting on the street,” says Tran Thi Thanh, otherwise known as Chi from Chi’s Café. “There they could drink beer for VND12,000.”
Although she’s frustrated by what was the equivalent of dumping — predatory pricing, below the costs others in the market can bear — Chi has created her own mini empire. Without it, like other restaurant and bar owners in the area, she would struggle.
First on the Pham Ngu Lao scene in 1999 when she found a job working for her cousin, who at the time ran Café Van, Chi didn’t speak a word of English and much to the frustration of her cousin’s English husband, was constantly making mistakes. 15 years later, Chi owns two restaurants, a hotel with 12 rooms and 300 motorbikes, all for rental.
“13 or 14 years ago, maybe around this area there were 10 different restaurants, not many,” she recalls. “Café Van, Saigon Café, Margarita and Sinh Café. Now it’s grown so much. The quality of the food has improved a little bit, not much. But the design is getting better, nicer.”
Part of the change to the area has been the arrival of the food chains — the likes of Subway, Wrap & Roll and Burger King are in the area, and McDonald’s is about to follow.
Says Mark McGrath, the development agent for Subway, the arrival of the food chains has been part of a general expansion. Around the millennium, The Pham stretched down De Tham only as far as the crossroads with Bui Vien. Now it encompasses a much larger space.
“Geographically the area’s getting bigger,” he explains, “which bodes well for tourism. Expats often say they don’t want to go down [to The Pham], but they still head down there once in a while. There are more foreign-style bars, more food options, more hotel rooms. In every scale, everything has grown.”
However, so has the rent. For many business owners in the area, this is the biggest problem they face in their quest for survival.
“It’s become more expensive,” says Chi. “I used to rent Café Van for VND6 million a month. Now that place is [over VND60 million] per month. But the menu prices are all still similar. We still make profit but the rent is the boss. I think because lots of travel agents, whatever the rent is, they just pay it. So that’s why every year [the landlords] just put the price up.”
Adds Mark. “[The area] is still one of the most affordable places in the city. For a beer, food and a hotel room, it’s as affordable as it was eight or 10 years ago. This definitely gives it its appeal.”
However, there’s a difference between affordability and, as with the bia hoi joints, being too affordable.
A New Era?
It’s now the end of March and once again I drive down Bui Vien. First during the day and later, at night. The contrast is stark. The ambience, the electricity and all the revelers. The people aren’t all gone — those who venture down to The Pham are still there, they’ve just moved indoors.
It’s good for the businesses that don’t rely on trade coming from customers sitting on street. And it’s good for the ones who are paying the high rent and struggling to survive — even those who are doing a roaring trade. And it certainly gives the area some welcome breathing space.
But as one Bui Vien regular laments, it’s like the place has gone back a decade. Although he understands the rhyme and very solid reason behind the change, it seems that an era of streetside hedonism may be over. Whether it will stay this way remains to be seen.