A Love Letter to Bui Vien
The filth, the tailpipes grazing against your calves, the never-ending harassment by hawkers of all things useless, the palpable aura of indecency — all good reasons to never go back. Yet here I am, the sunrise pouring through my window after another long night on Bui Vien.
For me, it’s human theater — or social voyeurism, I guess. Bui Vien lets me watch the underbelly of society, the stuff done behind drawn curtains in the West. The characters on this stage are a weird breed of villains: local gangsters, dealers fronting as xe oms, dirty backpackers, old(and young) perverts, sloppy drunks, skittish junkies, rapacious bar owners, hilariously corrupt police, and slack-jawed dopes holding empty balloons. Normal people stand out the most on Bui Vien, which is why many of them spend their mornings bribing the police to give a shit about their missing [expensive, poorly guarded item].
Bui Vien is almost universally reviled by expats here longer than a couple of months. Hell, I can feel the resentment churning in the minds of this city’s Respectables right now — and I’m glad. If Bui Vien was a place where yuppies and families gathered, it wouldn’t be fun. Even in my two years in Vietnam, some of the edge has gone. Sidewalks littered with knee-high seating and street carts are being pushed out for neon beer clubs and franchise restaurants. Thus is progress…
The predawn hours are my favorite, because anyone with self-respect has already gone home. Walls of closed security gates line the street, the schizoid power lines above intersecting the sky’s orange glow. At these strange hours, the full spectrum of mental baggage comes out to strut. No fakes. No wannabes. Just disgusting human beings following their whims. Like the cockroaches skittering over the heaps of trash, the lowest forms of life find solace in the quieter hours before the new day.
At its peak, around midnight, Bui Vien is a fantastic stretch of immorality. Walking from the cluster-fuck end nearer the Ben Thanh market, to where the street jams into a burnt-yellow wall, you will — if naive enough to accept them — receive a dozen menus for massage parlors (Results may vary if you are a woman). And provided you fit the look, leathery old men with sunken eyes and unnatural smiles will sell you anything the pharmacist won’t. [Editor’s Note — No drugs were harmed during research for this article] You might even get caught in the middle of a barrage of flying bottles, tossed between groups of young Vietnamese wasted on two beers. Like one newcomer said to me: “It feels like I’m in a movie!”
I’ve seen lady-boys stomp a gang enforcer with high-heeled shoes while an old white guy with a prosthetic arm reassured the crowd with: “Oh come on and sit down, folks — just another night, nothing to get excited about. Enjoy your drinks and take in the show.” A skeletal druggie once told me, through clenched teeth, “…stay out of my way, and we won’t have any trouble. I’m the second most dangerous man in Hanoi, and you don’t want me as an enemy.” I thought about giving him a pep-talk to strive for number one, but his methamphetaminic spasms had me a bit worried he might actually stab me.
When I asked a fairly well off Vietnamese woman what she thought about the area, after she’d spent a night there to indulge us new arrivals in the city, she simply gave me a professional smile and said, “I love it!” When I prodded further: “It’s dirty and dangerous and I hate it.” You can see it in the eyes of taxi drivers. Locals give each other knowing looks when they hear you mention the name. My security guard can pretty well guess where I’ve been by how ragged I look when I hit the buzzer.
“Bui Vien?” … “Đúng rồi.”
Trust me, I know. But the way I see it, Bui Vien is an oasis of feces in a desert of routines, a reprieve from decent living for a night, or a week — or maybe a few years, depending on your constitution and/or the depths of your woes. Sure, there are hopeless degenerates injecting and fucking anything to satiate their minds out of a sad, recursive loop of self-loathing. I’m just glad they do it somewhere where I can watch. You can have your reality TV, filtered through producers and PR folks. I’ll take reality — any day.
The Weird of Bui Vien can catch you unsuspecting after a while — complacent, even. “I’ve seen it all on this street,” you might say. Then a jacked gangster with dragon tattoos and silver chains does a flying spin-kick over a table to crumple some poor, drunk, moronic tourist — and again, I remember why I love Bui Vien.