It’s dusk in Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as it is still locally known, and the haze of the last ounce of light from the crimson setting sun is smothered in smog. The thousands of motorcycles and scooters that clog the streets of Saigon turn on their headlights lighting up the entire city in a glow of traffic.
Pham Ngu Lao is to Saigon what Khao San Road is to Bangkok. It caters to the backpackers of Southern Vietnam acting as a tourist information hub and bus terminal. There is a wide variety of budget restaurants and Asian trinket shops spread between dozens of ultra discounted clothing retailers. However, a quick turn down one of the alleys off of Pham Ngu Lao and De Tham St. reveals a much different world. These one and a half meter wide alleys shift through small neighborhoods of clustered homes with open doors, loud televisions, and louder residents. There is an anthill of movement, babies crying, and the occasional crossing chicken. The stir of Mahjong chips and smiles sets a jovial atmosphere to the otherwise intangible background static of the labyrinthine cement corridors.
When the hotels along the main strips of Bui Vien and Pham Ngu Lao St fill up during peak season travelers can wander down the dovetailed back alleys between these parallel running streets to discover a host of inviting open doors with hand painted hotel signs. Many of them are simply homes that use their spare bedrooms as a means of extra accommodation when the impending tourist boom busts at the seams.
With four stories above the living room space, Thanh (84/26 Bui Vien St., Pham Ngu Lao Ward, Dist.1 HCMC, 836 84 87) is one of the many hotels that cater to budgeting backpackers looking to stretch their Vietnamese Dong. The smell of fish sauce continuously leaks up the smooth wooden-railed staircase into the rooms. A baby’s playpen, a hodgepodge of kitchen utensils, and Buddha luck charms stand opposite a small desk next to the sliding metal front door.
I’m offered a pen to write down my passport information and suddenly startled by the touch of oblong fingers. As the man walks behind the desk with his bowlegged hunch to grab another pen, he suddenly swings back around revealing his right hand which is clearly connected to his bicep, lacking a forearm, elbow, and any resemblance to the form fingers usually move. He smiles back at me with his crossed-eyes and I hand over the slip of numbers and letters.
Agent Orange victims are reminiscent of a war that is gone but certainly not forgotten in Vietnam. Pictures of the graphic mutations resulting from this biological weapon are put on display in the Saigon War Museum and amongst some of the people.
Directly across the street from a few watching, waiting women on the corner of Bui Vien and De Tham St is Go2 Bar, (187 De Tham Street, Pham Ngu Lao Ward, District 1, HCMC, 836 95 75) a well designed rock bar with a great array of local and international cuisine. The patios are often filled up during the afternoon with travelers and locals alike drinking the day away.
When the incessant smell of motor oil overtakes the night, it is hard not to feel the debauchery and decadence most commonly associated with Saigon’s nightlife. The infamous Apocalypse Now Club (2C Thi Sach St., Saigon, HMMC, 825 61 24) dutifully lives up to its name, however there are no cameos by Marlon Brando in this version. Apocalypse Now is one of Saigon’s oldest clubs and hosts a variety of popular music for the revolving door of travelers that spin through Saigon. The blurring faces on the dance floor create an amicable ambience, inviting to every transient looking for good music and a rowdy crowd. Be forewarned that Saigon is a hot bed of women practicing the oldest profession in the world. Foreigners, naturally having more wealth than the average Vietnamese resident, are looked at as walking ATMs and presentation is not always made perfectly clear in the midst of the club.
Despite the range of poverty in South Vietnam the people are still generally happy and willing to guide travelers with friendly advice. There are also personal tours that can be conducted if you find the right guide. There are lots of motorcycle drivers for hire throughout the city and some of these smarter entrepreneurs with enough English ability offer personal guided tours of popular sites. It is slightly more expensive but offers a view of the “real Vietnam.”
A walk in one of the beautiful colonial French parks surrounding Pham Ngu Lao can lead you to one of these guides if your timing is right.
“Welcome to Saigon,” a small man greets me from out of a tree’s shadow. With a portfolio of pictures and signatures from travelers around the world, he introduces himself as a Saigon travel guide. For a fair price he offers personal tours of Saigon and the attractions.
“You can see Saigon better on the back of a bike,” he chuckles.
He begins to translate one of the bright red and yellow billboards on the side of the road. “Work harder for the people,” one such sign reads. On the roads outside of Saigon villagers toil away in passing fields donning Vietnamese-style rice paddy hats shielding them from the mid-day heat while motorcyclists wear them in place of a conventional helmet. This style of hat is an unmistakable site in Vietnam. The Cuchi Tunnels (http://www.cuchitunnel.org.vn/), located about 45 minutes outside of Saigon, are a series of hollowed out subterranean corridors used by Vietnamese soldiers during ‘the war.’ Visitors are welcomed to crawl down these pitch black hideouts if they have the stomach and lack the girth. Whole kitchens, infirmaries, and infantry quarters have been made viewable from the surface for those unwilling to meander through the humid maze. My guide informs me these particular tunnels are about twice as big as most of the original ones utilized during the war. There is also a firing range for those so inclined to let off a few rounds of archived arsenal.
Over a hot bowl of Vietnamese Pho noodles, my guide clinks his beer with our sit-down waitress. She kindly gets us some more drinks and vegetables when needed while providing conversation for our dinner to slowly wind down our busy day.
As the smoldering red sun sets yet again over Saigon we buzz past by the gates of Reunification Hall, the site where North Vietnamese tanks crashed through on April 30th 1975, marking the fall of Saigon. The heart of Saigon is as unmistakable as the back alleys of Pham Ngu Lao. It is jovial, gritty, and welcoming if you are up for the ride.