Footsteps in Vietnam – You came to Saigon with adventure in mind, a Carhardt teflon backpack, a tight budget, and maybe a friend or two. Passing through customs was hitchless, you extracted your bags from the luggage carousel, and picked up $60 in local currency – Vietnamese Dong, at 16,000VND to the dollar. You’ve done good… but what now?
Allow me to introduce a couple of ideas.
The Backpacker District
The first thing you did right was standing in front of the airport looking clueless, because by now you probably have three motorcycle taxi drivers asking where you want to go. If they haven’t found you yet, try feigning confusion, putting your hand to your chin and opening your eyes wide – your best impression of a clueless foreigner. Great – here they come! Now is when you say “Pham Ngu Lao,” pronounced fam new lau. No matter how badly you butcher the famous street’s name, they will know what you mean. It’s the main street and entry way to Saigon’s Backpacker District, home of the cheapest lodging, food, drink, and tour packages this side of the great, blue Pacific Ocean.
Don’t let the motorcycle taxi driver charge you a jot above 25,000VND each. If you think ahead, you can ask for small bills at the currency exchange desk – keep a light blue 20,000VND note and a dark blue 5,000VND note in your pocket, ready to whip out and cinch the deal. He’ll highball you at around 30,000VND, you’ll lowball him at 20,000VND, and before you know it, you’re standing safely downtown wondering what to do next.
Find a hotel. Don’t touch one of the big ones, at upwards of $30.00 a night. Instead, duck into one of the long, wide alleys and look for the “Khach San” Hotel sign. They’re everywhere, and the proprietors often stand outside beckoning potential customers inside. When you find one that suits you, you’ll inevitably be hit up for $10.00 a night. This is preposterous! What are you, made of money? Try simply looking pensive at the thought of ten whole dollars a night, and the price will drop to nine. By suggesting that you might stay for several days, the price will fall to eight, and presto! You just made your motorcycle taxi fare back, and change for a pastry snack.
Take your key, slough off your backpack (as a rule keep your valuables on you), and get out for some fresh air. The Backpacker District is barely six blocks wide, and two deep, formed by the parallel streets of Pham Ngu Lao and Bui Vien, connected like an “H” by De Tham Street. You’ll find all the same shops as lie near the posh jetsetter hotels over on the Saigon waterfront, at half the price. But in the meantime, are you hungry? Thirsty?
Allez Bouz Bar – on Pham Ngu Lao and De Tham, this rockin’ bar doesn’t begin to shut down until 4:00AM. It’s a pricey menu, but you’ll meet people, hear great music, and enjoy a lively atmosphere. The banana pancakes are a must – but only one! The bar always has a drink special going on.
CyberCafe Saigon – owned and run by a Japanese gentleman and a Vietnamese staff, CyberCafe Saigon has fair prices and excellent iced-milk coffees, wickedly sweet and utterly addictive. After trying one of their Japanese specialties, try a caffeine drink. When the buzz kicks in you can go upstairs to the computer room and, for thirty-five cents an hour, fill the family in on your exploits thus far.
Le Vang – go down De Tham Street and hang a right on Bui Vien. Walk three blocks and you’ll find the three-story Le Vang on the left and on the right – one kitchen runs two restaurants. The thirty-page menu is reliable and contains a very well-priced drink selection. Perched on the balcony three stories up, you can observe street life on the Backpacker District while you devour delicious Vietnamese omelettes, ore you can sit across the street and partake in local life yourself. Fifteen-thousand VND will get you a backrub from a passing specialist, and they know what they’re doing!
Go Bar – this joint is featured prominently on the corner of Bui Vien and De Tham, and is as famous for its Tiger draft buy-two-get-one-free special as it is for its waiters’ penchant for forgetting your count and accidentally passing you a free round. The music is loud, you sit by the street, and if you get up the nerve, you can try the dried-squid vendors’ spicy ‘delicacies’ for a mere 2,000VND each.
Before you get carried away spending almost nothing for the best pan-Asian food and drink you’ll ever come across, be sure to stop in STA Travel before it closes at 10:00PM sharp. Their deals range from a $7.00 day trip to a $25.00 overnight to the Mekong Delta – and all come highly recommended. But buy some snacks from the 24-hour minimart on the corner of De Tham and Bui Vien, across from Go Bar, before taking any tour. Most guides earn kickbacks by pausing at only the priciest roadside stops along the way.
Above all else, enjoy yourself. Keep those valuables close. And do talk to strangers! If you wind up having to pull out cash from a nearby ATM, above the $60.00 you came in with for two days, you’d better either a.) have bought a trunk full of souvenirs or b.) be living like Lichtenstein royalty. Best of luck, and have fun!
(by Robert Harrison – voices.yahoo.com)