A couple of weeks ago I went to Siem Reap in Cambodia. Expecting a typically chaotic South-East Asian town, I was pleasantly surprised to find a clean, prosperous, friendly and well-organised little place which, in tourism terms, leaves Vietnamese cities in the dust.
The things that make Siem Reap such a nice place to spend a few days are not difficult to achieve. A well-preserved old centre with a market and streets where pubs, bars and restaurants have been allowed to concentrate; streets close off to traffic after 6pm so visitors can stroll in safety without being knocked over or hassled by motorbike cowboys; a dedicated night market with food stalls and bars; and local people who seem to have a genuine appreciation of the economic benefit of being nice to tourists rather than trying to squeeze every last dollar out of them.
A Dream World
Come with me, if you will, into a temporary dream world, where De Tham and Bui Vien are closed to traffic every night and the streets are lined with pavement cafes instead of aggressive Honda oms; where the Pham Ngu Lao ‘park’ is transformed into a bustling night market; where local traders treat tourists as potential repeat visitors and word-of-mouth marketers rather than wallets on legs. The area instantly becomes more appealing to locals, expats and more upmarket tourists, and boosts Saigon’s image as a tourist destination.
Sounds good doesn’t it? And if cities like Beijing, Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Siem Reap and others can get it right, there is no reason why Saigon can’t. And yet after returning from Siem Reap and walking along the assault course that is Le Thanh Ton/Thai Van Lung, dodging potholes in the temporary pavement surface, motorbikes driving straight at me, impromptu street restaurants and security guards who see pavements as their personal living rooms/gambling saloons/spittoons, it seems that such a civilised idyll remains a long way off, certainly for as long as local people tolerate such a mess without complaining.
Looking after tourists during the day isn’t enough; they need things to do at night and most of them don’t want to be stuck in their hotels. To get them to come back, and to get them spending more money and thus benefitting the local economy, Vietnam needs to take a long, hard look at its street life. The chaos that is exciting and charming at first can wear thin pretty damn quick.