Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as it’s affectionately known by locals and expats alike, is Vietnam’s commercial hub, a home to 13 million people and 7.3 million motorbikes as of March 2017. This statistic is the reason why the sounds of bike engines and honks make up the ubiquitous soundscape of the city.
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Compared to other cities in Southeast Asia, tourism isn’t its strongest selling point. Bangkok has its shopping, nightlife and the reason why it’s known as the sex capital of the world. Singapore is known for its stunning high-rise structures and cheap electronic products.
Saigon is usually the city most travellers stop by for a day or two before heading to other nearby tourist spots in the south of Vietnam such as Da Lat and Mui Ne.
The Event Draw
However, efforts have been made to change this mindset. Over the years, the city has invested in organising cultural and pop events attracting masses from all over the world. Locally-produced electronic music festivals like Ravolution for example, held their 2018 edition at the walking boulevard along Nguyen Hue with renowned international artists like Nervo and Ferry Corsten playing to a crowd that did not even have to pay a ticket fee.
International franchise events such as the Color Me Run also had an edition in Saigon, attracting participants from all over the world.
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Domestically, there has been a surge in promoters and organisers independently working towards a very diverse nightlife scene in Saigon. From underground techno events like Heart Beat to regular bass music shows with Bass Republic and even new specialised entertainment venues popping up across the city like Arcan, Saigon is starting to attract a younger demographic to a country that already has one of the youngest populations in the world.
However, beyond the flashy lights and the relatively low cost of living, Saigon has its fair share of problems that affect tourism, especially returning tourists.
From Rain to Robbery
From May to November each year, residents in Saigon are well aware of the importance of umbrellas and ponchos. However, not all tourists come into the city wearing or packing waterproof boots, and the perennial flooding situation during these months is something that has yet to be addressed.
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Due to the city’s drainage and sewage system’s inability to keep up with the intensity of the monsoon rains, certain parts of the city turn into a mess of brown water that could even reach levels so high, you’d mistake your own backyard for a wading pool.
Other issues that are often brought up are the overcharging of services to foreigners, aggressive vendors demanding to provide a service such as shoe shining and often intimidating tourists enough for them to end up forking out close to a million dong just to get their shoes shined, fake taxi operators that prey on unsuspecting customers and charge them over 10 times the correct amount, snatch theft and even robbery. Typically, issues that will stick in the memories of those who have been here and have decided not to come back, thus hurting the tourism industry in Vietnam.
From Sidewalks to Sidesteps
Steps have been taken recently by the authorities, such as clearing up the sidewalks of food stalls, motorbikes and other assorted items that should not even be there in the first place. This still remains one of Saigon’s most enthralling drama series to date.
The operation headed by Mr. Doan Ngoc Hai, vice-chairman of District 1 People’s Committee started off brightly, earning polarised reactions from residents and amused tourists alike that eventually resulted in him earning the nickname, Captain Sidewalk. However, the operation didn’t last as long as one would expect, and then the food stalls and motorbikes reappeared and pedestrians were once again relegated back to the roads, sidestepping other pedestrians and motorbikes going against the flow of traffic.
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Although not as dramatic, other steps taken include enforcing a higher degree of food safety regulations on street food vendors. With the establishment of Saigon Street Food Market located near Ben Thanh Market, vendors are now congregated under one roof, much like the hawker center model in Singapore, making it easier for authorities to monitor them. Another move that’s currently ongoing is the conversion of selected zones of the city with heavy tourist traffic to walking streets over the weekends. The ever-popular Bui Vien Street is one example of this scheme. As things stand, there is still a lot more work to do to turn Saigon into a tourism capital of the region.
E-Visas Increase Numbers But Will They Stay Up?
In the first five months of this year, an estimated 3.2 million people have visited the city with a notable 10 percent increase by Canadian citizens.
Vietnam’s new e-visa policy targeted to North American citizens has also started to gain traction and the city is expected to welcome an increasing number of tourists from the continent.
This new policy has also been extended to European citizens with a three year extension of visa exemptions, leading to an increase in arrivals from European nations like France and Belgium.
The upward trend here, of course, is also dependent on how soon these common problems get fixed, and whether the plans to expand the city’s international airport goes according to schedule.