Anyone arriving in Saigon by bus from neighbouring countries or even other cities within Vietnam will have a good chance of Pham Ngu Lao being their first Saigon experience. This is where all the tour buses arrive and many other buses as well. For example, all the many different buses from Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital will arrive here.
Pham Ngu Lao is a street in the centre of the backpacker district in Saigon. It is a long thoroughfare with a park running the full length of one side and shops, cafés and hotels filling up the other. The street is eponymously named after a national hero, who was a General in the 13th and 14th centuries. He married the daughter of a Prince and proved to be a superb tactician on the battlefield.
Pham Ngu Lao is in many ways Saigon’s answer to Khao San Road in Bangkok, it is vibrant, noisy, full of backpackers, wandering around looking for cheap accommodation, of which there is plenty. It is busy 24 hours every day. As street vendors selling just about every conceivable item try and squeeze that last dollar out of a weary traveller as they arrive or just as they are about to depart. It certainly has a vibe all of its own.
The gardens on the northern side of the street are called 23/9 Park, in honour of the date on which former French prisoners of war, reinstated into the army, ejected the Viet Minh, in a coup in which two French soldiers were killed. It runs the full length of Pham Ngu Lao, from the famous Ben Thanh Market at one end to the roundabout where the street is joined by Le Lai, Cong Quynh and Nguyen Trai. The park is pleasant enough by day, but a popular haunt for call girls and tricksters at night, be careful.
Pham Ngu Lao is not generally liked by the seasoned expats within Saigon, but to be fair as a starting off place for the casual visitor it is terrific. Just be sensible, pickpockets and tricksters are here in numbers. However I don’t think it’s any worse than in any other major city. People have been known to be tricked into playing cards in the park at night and losing lots of money. You really have to question why anyone would wander into a park with perfect strangers at night to play cards, but it does happen.
The street has a few semi famous watering holes none more so than Allez Boo Probably the most well known back packer haunt in the city. Not everyone’s cup of tea, it is a quiet place to grab a coffee during the day and a vibrant wild bar running late into the night. There are many travel agents along the street, all offering trips to the many places of interest around southern Vietnam and beyond. They are all pretty much of a muchness and generally speaking the trips are fairly priced and extremely worthwhile additions to any holiday.