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Exploring Saigon from Pham Ngu Lao

Pham Ngu Lao is the backpacker area of Saigon. From here we observe life in Saigon, and we explore some sights in the former capital of South Vietnam, nowadays renamed as Ho Chi Minh City

Pham Ngu Lao, the backpacker area in Saigon

Officially named Ho Chi Minh City, Saigon is the former capital of South Vietnam, and still the largest, busiest, and wealthiest city of Vietnam. In 1979, after the invasion of the Communist troops from the North, its name was changed into Ho Chi Minh City.

More Adventure travel tales in Vietnam:
Halong Bay
Mekong Delta
Other Asian Tales:
Lake Baikal, Siberia
Great Wall of China
Angkor Wat temples
Kuching, Malaysia
Hill tribe trekking
Tana Toraja, Indonesia

But the name Saigon lives on, as the name of District one (small part of the entire area of HCMC), and as the unofficial name used by the south Vietnamese disagreeing with the name change. Only officials mention HCMC, on the street the city is still called Saigon.

After the descent from the mountains, the bus from Dalat quickly enters the outskirts of the huge area called Ho Chi Minh City. Remarkable is the numerous Christian churches we notice around. Every 100 yards a new one appears, and most of them are big and modern.

When we arrive in the actual city (lets say Saigon), we see the top of the cake of Vietnamese churches: The Notre Dame. We know little of its original in Paris, but it looks very different. Quasimodo is not around, the virgin Mary stands in front of the cathedral instead.

The bus moves along a few other sights in Saigon before it arrives in Saigons backpacker area: Pham Ngu Lao. Inevitably, we are immediately attacked by several touts offering hotel rooms. Since we can leave our backpacks behind, we take our time to visit several of them. The Saigon version of the Notre DameEventually, we end up at a family that is renting a few of their rooms. Nice and cozy in the back of a small alleyright in the middle of Pham Ngu Lao.

Before coming here, we were warned about Saigon. It was supposed to be more crowded than Hanoi, where the motorbikes made us go mad. And it would be dangerous, too, with robberies, drugs, etcetera. Since we already disliked the cities of Nha Trang and Dalat, we come prepared. But we are relieved to see it's not that bad. In fact, we like the atmosphere around the backpacker area, it has the nice feel as many backpacker areas have. We spend the rest of the afternoon and evening exploring a bit and sitting on a terrace.


The next day we head into town to search for a bank, and we add a little sightseeing walking tour. We see the statue of Tran Nguyen Han (who the f*** is that?), the Hotel de Ville, the Notre Dame again, the post office and theatre. All of them are beautiful buildings, remnants from the French colonial period. We spend most time, however, on the flower market, especially created for the coming Tet celebrations. It seems like a temporary small piece of Holland´┐Ż

Observations from the terrace

After our walk, we settle down on a terrace in Pham Ngu Lao again, next to a few ice vendors. It is fascinating to see how these people chop down a huge lump of ice into little pieces to sell, mostly to bars and restaurants. Buyers come by on their motorbikes to pick up the ice. In a few hours, the ice is gone and the vendors go home. Yet another day in the office, aka street.

Chopping ice on the streets of Pham Ngu Lao, Saigon

Another interesting observation is the chaos in traffic on the crossroad. In Vietnam they have the family motorbikes, 4 people on one bike is no exception. The cyclo's are often packed as well, with6 people in the passenger seats. And all those motorbikes, bicycles, cyclo's and cars race across the crossroads, taking instead of giving way. Once in a while small near accidents happen, but nobody seems to care.

In the meantime, on the sidewalks we see a lot of white middle aged men walking with Vietnamese girls. At first, we think it's real love, but we soon realize there is a lot of prostitution going on here. Naively, we are amazed, we didn't expect this until Thailand...

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