Back Stories » Saigon » [Photos] Inside a Ben Thanh Devoid of Tourists, Forlorn Kiosks and Mass Closures

[Photos] Inside a Ben Thanh Devoid of Tourists, Forlorn Kiosks and Mass Closures

Plump mangosteens, cheap iPhở shirts, freshly ground coffee, and paper cut-outs of city landmarks — there was a time when the northern gate of Ben Thanh Market was lined door-to-door with dynamic shops enticing tourists to sample their eclectic range of products.

That was just six months ago, when Vietnam was basking in an unprecedented amount of attention from international visitors. According to the General Statistics Office of Vietnam, January saw the arrival of 1.99 million foreign tourists, the most the country has ever hosted in a month on record. Unfortunately, the golden period didn’t last long, as just a month later, the world came to a halt after the COVID-19 pandemic grounded international flights, emptied personal savings, and cast serious doubts on the very concept of globalization.

Like the rest of the world, Vietnam’s tourism sector was badly damaged during the first five months of the year, when the novel coronavirus wreaked havoc locally. However, not all is lost. For the past two months, with heavily restricted entry and sterling efforts to contain the virus internally, Vietnam’s domestic travel is in full swing, as anyone who’s been to Tan Son Nhat recently would tell you.

Alas, the economic healing seems to elude companies and businesses that make a living from inbound tourists, which remain bruised by lack of foreign travelers and are necrotizing away as we speak. Back in June, I decided to head to Ben Thanh Market and the surrounding streets, one of Saigon’s most prominent tourist quarters, to assess how local vendors are faring. The sight is disheartening.

Restaurants and shops catering to Malaysian tourists on Nguyen An Ninh Street west of Ben Thanh are closed during the day.

Along the market’s northern edge, only a handful of kiosks are open for business, including flower shops, a fruit store, a souvenir shop, and a coffee store. For-Rent notices, which have now become the unofficial symbol of Saigon’s COVID-19 economic downturn, are scattered across the metallic gates.

Upon entering the eastern side of Ben Thanh, visitors are greeted with the casual wear section selling ready-made outfits, watches, and other accessories. Half of the business slots are either closed for the day or sectioned off with cloth.

At 4pm, the inside of Ben Thanh is desolate. Some kiosks are open, mostly those along the main path and on the periphery; the glare of their display lighting is jarring in contrast with the rest of the lanes filled with tightly shut doors and darkness.

For-rent notices continue to infest rows of shops; most only contain a phone number, though quite a few are a few months old, dating back to the worst times of the local epidemic. The tenants just never came back.

The canteen vendors seems to fare much better than their peers focusing on footwear, travel trinkets, and banana T-shirts. A dessert stall and a juice stall still attract ample foot traffic to their counter.

Even then, the number of visitors is not sufficient to support everyone.

A merchant is closing up for the day. Her handmade bag shop is the only occupied slot in this row.

Along the central walking path, well-lit stalls are still holding on, though attendants outnumber prospective buyers. They gather in groups to shoot the breeze or are engrossed by YouTube series on their phone.

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