Such weekends invariably begin at 4.30pm on a Friday when we squeeze on to the company minibus which ferries some of our Vietnamese colleagues backwards and forwards to Saigon on a daily basis. The length of the journey is very much dependent on the weather and traffic conditions, but we are usually deposited at Turtle Lake (I think this is our nickname - I'm not sure what this landmark is really called) in District 3 sometime around 6pm. From there, we grab a taxi to Bui Vien in the Pham Ngu Lao area of District 1. This is better known as the backpacker district and is teeming with both long and short-term travellers of all ages, nationalities and backgrounds. As a consequence, the streets are crammed with inexpensive hotels, bars, restaurants, tour operators, bespoke tailors, hairdressers, massage parlours, ATMs, 24-hour convenience stores and souvenir shops – everything the weary traveller could possibly want or need.
When we first moved to Vietnam, we tried staying in lots of different parts of Saigon during our weekend jaunts, but we were invariably drawn back to Pham Ngu Lao, not least because we found Baba's Kitchen and wanted to eat there regularly! Some friends and colleagues prefer to avoid this area, believing it to be dangerous and rather seedy. It probably is, but if you take the necessary, common-sense precautions you would take in any big city, you shouldn’t have a problem. We love it because it’s cheap, it’s vibrant, it’s interesting (the best place for people watching!) and we can find everything we need there.
We are well past the age for clubbing, and loud music is an anathema to us now. Indeed, we are usually in bed by 10.30pm even at weekends! Even so, the backpacker district is still our destination of choice. After all, central Saigon is walkable and, for slightly more remote areas, taxis are inexpensive and numerous.
So, where do we stay in Pham Ngu Lao? Well, we’ve tried several hotels over the months, and, for a while, we were regularly staying at the Duc Vuong Hotel at the far end of Bui Vien. This is a friendly, family-run, three-star hotel with comfortable, well-equipped rooms and a good breakfast included. We had no complaints on any of our seven or eight stays there (except once when we had a street-facing room and it was very noisy!), but a room will cost you between $28 and $40 a night and we discovered that you really don’t need to pay that much!!
Now, our hotel of choice is Kim Hotel 1 on Bui Vien Street, a small alley linking Bui Vien to Pham Ngu Lao. The staff here are very friendly and the rooms are spotlessly clean and have everything you need for a short stay. They don’t include breakfast in the room rate (which is between $12 and $20 a night), but they can supply it if you want. Alternatively, there are many restaurants offering breakfast in the vicinity.
As for eating, as well as the previously mentioned Baba’s, there are so many restaurants in the Pham Ngu Lao area, serving a range of food from all over the world. A couple of others that we particularly like are the Vietnamese kitchen on Bui Vien and Cappuccinos (great pizza, but there are two branches – the one on Bui Vien is better than the one on De Tham).
During our weekends in Saigon, we often have other ‘chores’ to do, all of which can be accomplished in the backpacker district. We have both found places to have our hair cut that we are happy with. I have had several garments made at the same tailors and, if we’re heading straight home by taxi on a Sunday afternoon, then there’s even a little shop that will sell us a slab of Diet Coke cans (impossible to buy where we live)!
All in all, we enjoy our lively, interesting weekends in Pham Ngu Lao and return to our quiet lives in Binh Duong New City feeling energised and ready to face the week!
You can see more of my photos of the backpacker district here.