We arrived here a couple of days ago, and suffice to say I hardly recognise the place at all. We arrived in by local bus from My Tho in the midst of a monsoon downpour at the Cholon bus station and then jumped on a couple of cyclos for the 30 minute ride across town to Pham Ngu Lao St -- Saigon's very own Khao San Rd. Sitting in the cyclo, whirling between the waves of motorcycles, under Saigon's towering tree-lined streets was a wonderful introduction to this fascinating town.
The backpacker's ghetto of Pham Ngu Lao centres around the stubby De Tham St -- far smaller than Khao San Rd, yet with 105 hotels (I've already drawn the map and counted them) within a couple of hundred metres of the epicentre, it is even more congested than Khao San. The range and quality of accommodation is simply amazing and the volume of rooms is making sure that the prices stay low. If you're planning on staying for more than a couple of days, be sure to say so as the rates will drop straight away.
We're staying at a mini-hotel on what is fondly known as mini-hotel alley -- an alley running parallel to De Tham St and which is so known for the 20+ mini-hotels that line its 100 metre length. For $10 you can get a spotless, often brand new room with air-con, tv, fridge and a hot water bathroom.
In fact it is difficult to see a room that doesn't have all those features.
The area is packed with tour agencies, a bunch of small tourist knick knack shops and some truly awful restaurants, yet it has a far lower key feeling than Khao San -- locals still live on the street and not every business is given over the westerners -- or not yet anyway.
As we arrived late in the afternoon we didn't do any sight-seeing and instead did some bar research and I started the unenviable task of shifting through the many hotels. There is so little to separate one from another -- it is tempting to just say XYZ hotel has 15 hotels beside it that are all identical, save the paint job. Oh and the pastel brigade has made it here with the hotels a range of hues from ochre yellow, to purple, green and the continuing popular baby blue -- I did see my first pink one yesterday.
One of the best ways to see Saigon is by cyclo and so the other day we hired cyclos for most of the day and covered many of the key attractions -- Cholon and some of its markets and pagodas, the distant Giac Lom pagoda, what was originally the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes (now called the War Remnants Museum), the Art Museum, the History Museum and a bunch of other stuff. Travelling by cyclo is easily the best way to experience the city as you're moving slowly enough to really take in the sights, you can start and stop as you wish, and the drivers often speak very good English, so you'll get the commentary for free. Just remember to agree of a firmly fixed price before beginning.
That evening we hooked up with a ThornTree regular and headed out to of all places a Czech beer hall where we got stuck into a few too many dark beers. Before the beers we'd had an outstanding Vietnamese meal at an open air restaurant called Bao, just walking distance from Pham Ngu Lao. The steamed chicken in salt was simply amazing -- Holly reckons is was the best chicken she has had in her life. The soft shelled crabs were also delicious and the restaurant, totally packed with Vietnamese was a highlight of our food stay so far.
We're leaving Saigon for a few days today, heading up to the beach strip at Mui Ne -- looking forward to getting some sand between the toes.