As explained by the hostel front desk, the bus company departing from Phnom Penh will not only provide the transportation service but will facilitate on the process of border crossing- they will collect our passports, bring them to the immigration office and return back the passport, all these as the whole bus of tourists sleep our way to Vietnam.
True to the description, the bus company takes care of everything. The only time we went down from the bus was to show our faces to the immigration officer at both side of the border and to have our fingerprints collected.
I don’t travel with a guidebook in hand though I do research in advance using the unlimited sources available in the web. Using my little notebook, I usually write down what I deem as the most important information and it usually a response to the first question in my mind upon entering a new city- Where are the budget accommodations? So, I wrote down Pham Ngu Lao and Pham Ngu Lao is where I am heading.
Within the stretch of the touristy area of Pham Ngu Lao are perpendicular streets of air conditioned rooms with a daily rate of as low as 15 USD and for a fan room for a price of 10 USD. I don’t require much, I just need somewhere clean and cheap for a few days stay in Saigon.
With my backpack full of hope, inquiring on one hotels after another, a man approached me with an offer of a room for 8 USD a day and that I can check it and decide later if I like it. I’m worried with this kind of transaction, can be a scam after all, but since it was mid-afternoon and I feel generally safe , I decided to follow him on one of the many small alleyways of Pham Ngu Lao.
True to his initial description that what he is offering is legitimate, I was greeted by his wife Chin-chin and was shown the topmost floor vacant room. I really like the room, it is spacious and I had a balcony view of the surrounding dense buildings with similar business of room for rent. I took the room and became friends with Chin-chin and his family.
These “room for rent” on the narrow streets surrounding Pham Ngu Lao are family-owned houses converted to a few storeys of very narrow building. They are clean and safe with a license issued by the government, though I will advise anyone who wants to follow the same as what I did to always take precaution.
Two things I am looking forward in Vietnam- Vietnamese coffee (black coffee with condensed milk at the bottom) and eating Pho. Adding to the mix of my food adventure are the baguette sandwich stands, these three are just perfect complement with each other. Despite the warm weather, I can eat the same meal day after day, sipping coffee and slurping Pho noodles like a pro.
Pham Ngu Lao with Park 23/9 in front and the parallel street of Bue Vien is a tourist haven indeed. Everything that a foreigner needed is available- restaurants, bars, shops, tour operators and bus companies.
At daytime the streets are quiet, but at night time the lane of Bue Vien is one party place. For less than 1 USD (12 Vietnam dong, VND) you can have a bottle of Saigon beer while for a 20 VND, you can have a glass of Coke &Rum and the best thing apart from the cheap drinks is you have the whole lane as your view.
Sit at one of the plastic chair while several street vendors passing you by and offering array of snacks (peanuts, dried squid, mangoes) while on the background, you can hear everyone just busy chatting up with their group about their previous and future travels, with some completely falling in love with everything about South East Asia while others passionately hating everything about it.
I have to warn you about the plastic chairs drinking system of Saigon, they are run and owned by generation of ladies and this is their business and yes, they mean business.
You have to sit where they ordered you to, you have to order and replenish your drinks once done and it is not allowed to sit, linger, chit-chat with an empty beer bottle in hand. I saw one guy decided to fight back and insist that he choose where he wanted to be sited, he didn’t win, angrily left with a bruised ego while toppling the chairs on his way.
If you take things lightly, it is kind of funny actually how all of us are under the strict rules of plastic chair drinking.
Exploring Saigon on a budget is as easy as any other SouthEast Asian country. All you needed is to have comfortable shoes for hours of walking, ability not to faint on the afternoon heat and courage to cross your way with hurdles of zooming motorcycle left and right.
Bravely run across a major intersection, ended up in a bus station, considering the option of whether I should ask around for bus direction or should I continue to walk instead. So I continue to walk instead and ended up visiting the remarkable Vietnam National Museum of Fine Arts.
The less than hour spent inside the air-conditioned museum was a good break. Continuing my walking adventure, a stroll along Le Cong Kieu Street or popularly known as Antique Street. Though no plans to buy anything, I snooped around, found a good camera vintage shop and considered buying the lighter for my uncle but the price is quite high without any assurance if they are the real deal antique lighters recovered and refurbished from the war.
Ho Chin Minh is not a city of skyscrapers and Bitexco Financial Tower is a standout for that reason. Parallel at Bitexco ground floor is another outdoor market, in a way offering a contrast of both new and the old financial institution.
If you asked me, within this stretch of Duong Dong Khoi is where you will find more reason to love Saigon- the architecturally pleasing Notre Dame Cathedral, Saigon Central Post Office and Saigon Opera House.
In these day and age of email exchanges and instant messaging, it is a true treasure to find an old-styled post office so outstandingly beautiful, yet relevant and fully functional. I have this urges to stay inside Saigon Post Office for the whole day, write as many letters as I could and just feel the satisfaction of closing the envelope and pasting stamps.
I’ve seen a lot of Ho Chi Minh City for a day and was happy to be back at my “penthouse” accommodation.
Now I need to rest for a while and head out later tonight, not for another plastic chair drinking session but for some fruit shake instead.