Pham Ngu Lao: The Changing Face of Saigon’s Backpacker District
The whole industry of backpacking has exploded in recent years, with hundreds of holiday companies now vying for the very lucrative business of providing budget holidays to a mainly young clientele. The main aim of their target audience is, of course, to see those special places in the world that used to be the preserve of the ultra-rich. It is not so many years ago that the idea of a young student from the UK travelling to Vietnam, Thailand or Cambodia was almost unthinkable. Slowly but surely that image has been erased from the travel landscape. Bangkok alone receives 18 million visitors per year and a huge number of them are backpackers.
So in this brave new world of budget travel, how does the Saigon backpacker district stand up against the other hotspots in the region? The area between the parallel streets of Pham Ngu Lao and Bui Vien has become the mecca for backpackers, but it is currently undergoing the biggest change it has witnessed in years. It always has been a busy, overcrowded place where many expats never venture, it will be interesting to see how these changes affect things.
Pham Ngu Lao is not unique in Southeast Asia
Thailand’s Khao San Road has for years been the most well known backpacker street in Southeast Asia. I lived in Bangkok for almost five years and went once. It is shall we say, not for me. It’s a seething, noisy mass of humanity where just about anything can be bought; watches, foreign and Thai driving licences, any kind of official paperwork, including passports, and all fake of course. Knock-off DVDs and girls, everything comes at a knockdown price.
Pub Street in Siem Reap gets a bad press. Sure, it’s the epicentre of backpacker nightlife in the town, but it all works rather well to be honest. Angkor What? is the most well known bar among the young and penniless, but the street has much more to offer. Here the backpackers, tourists and expats all mingle perfectly well. During the day the street is the best place to get good food at a good price and there is a lot of variety.
In Jakarta, the area around Jalan Jaksa is where it’s all at for backpackers. The area is quite small, which you would expect as Jakarta isn’t normally the first word on a backpacker’s lips when travelling to Southeast Asia. By comparison Bali, which is a tiny fraction of the size of Indonesia’s capital, receives far more travellers. On the island of Bali just about everywhere is Backpackerville.
In Laos, prices are so cheap that it never really had a backpacker area as such. Vang Vieng developed into a monster backpacker draw due to the river tubing. Many illegal bars sprung up and the behaviour of the travellers grew worse by the month. Zip lines and swings were erected and the whole place became an accident waiting to happen. Nobody had to wait long after many serious accidents including a lot of high profile deaths occurred, and the government stepped in and closed it down. Tubing is still enjoyed now, but on a much smaller scale and in a more sensible manner.
So what of Saigon’s Backpacker District?
A year ago, take a trip down Bui Vien at night and you would come across a seething sea of humanity. By day of course it’s mainly shops, massage parlours and travel agencies but at night it transforms into an immense street party. Small impromptu bars spring up and thousands of people pour in for cheap beer and fun. Then in March 2014 the government decided that they were going to claim the pavements back. The thousands of tiny plastic chairs that spilled out into the road were cleared, as were the hundreds of parked motorbikes. Overnight Bui Vien became an almost normal street again. As part of the new regulations, all sidewalk shops on Pham Ngu Lao, Bui Vien, De Tham, and Do Quang Dau were forced to shut down at night. The edict was issued by Le Thanh Tuan, chairman of the People’s Committee of Pham Ngu Lao District.
Whether this was in light of the upsurge in street crime that undoubtedly happened or not is unclear. But whereas a year ago the plastic chairs spilled way past the pavements and almost completely blocked the road. Now it is entirely different. It is still chaotic, but nowhere near on the scale that it used to be. Many of the bars in Saigon are still here, but it has changed.
Just recently another change has taken place as Bui Vien looks to move completely away from the locals and to concentrate on the backpackers scene. Two long standing bars that generally catered for expats and holidaymakers alike have been sold. The 24 hour Universal Bar which was always a centre of attraction for the late night mid-week football crowd has been sold and turned into a Pho restaurant and bar. Another real Saigon institution, The Spotted Cow operated by the Al Fresco Group closed its doors in October and has been swallowed up by the bar next door and turned into a large modern sports bar. The ‘Cow’ was one of the best bars in Saigon. It’s ok now, but it will never be the same. This is a huge loss for the expats as this was definitely the busiest bar in the entire city for watching the weekend English Premier League matches. It is now twice the size that it used to be and yet the one area that needed a massive update, the toilets, has been left exactly the same. The Al Fresco group recently opened the new D2 Sports Pub and many of the staff have transferred there. Whereas the Spotted Cow was terrific for fans of English football, the new venue is a very Australian centric sports bar.
The whole of Pham Ngu Lao area is changing but it remains the centre for backpackers in Saigon, and that doesn’t look like it’s changing anytime soon. There is just so much to do here and all at a budget price. Beers at half a dollar and food for about the same make for a huge draw for those on a budget. The local September 23 Park is a great place to sit during the day, though not the safest place after dark. The shops are excellent as are the bars and restaurants. The Saigon Backpacker district has a different feel to other parts of the city. You’ll either love it or hate it.