HCMC Dining Guide

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Quality Pham-ily Time

There is a neighborhood in Saigon's District 1 that is unlike any other in all of Vietnam. It might as well not even be considered a part of the country. Called Pham Ngu Lao, or simply "the Pham", this slice of life is bordered by Nguyen Thai Hoc, Pham Ngu Lao, Tran Hung Dao, and Cong Quynh. Most of the action actually takes place on narrow Bui Vien and several alleys connecting that street to Pham Ngu Lao, along with De Tham. This area is Saigon's backpacker hub, and it is jammed full of cheap hotels, guesthouses, bars, restaurants, travel agencies, and whatever other businesses serve the global wandering class.

I guarantee that every expat in the city has spent time here at some point, whether it was in a hotel before they found an apartment, or during a night of drunken escapades. Any budget traveler will also most likely end up staying here, leading to such a concentration of foreigners that you would have a hard time telling you were in Vietnam were it not for the Vietnamese signs.

Here are some pictures:
Crazy Buffalo bar/club. The larger buffalo head that lit up at night (depicted in the next picture) burned a few months ago

Bui Vien, a cramped stretch of $8-a-night hotels and so-so restaurants

A typical "tube" hotel on Bui Vien: very narrow, but deep and tall

One of the many alleys in the area. These are often filled with more hotels and restaurants.
The presence of so many foreigners, as well as the numerous restaurants that offer Western fare, in the Pham means it is an obvious place for newcomers to the city to hang out. Menus are in English, the staff at most places speak at least some English, and there are a lot of native English speakers to talk to. The group of friends I made during my TESOL training in 2010 spent a lot of time here during our first couple of months in the city. Drinks are cheap, and many of the bars stay open practically all night, whereas the rest of the city shuts down by 1 or 2 a.m. It is at night, in fact, that this neighborhood is at its most interesting (or off-putting, depending on your outlook).

One of the unique things about the Pham is that it is basically a free-fire zone for behavior that isn't normal in other parts of the city. Just as many women as men can be seen drinking. Walk past a xe om driver and he will offer you three things, in this order: a ride, marijuana, or a "girl". Prostitutes are rather common. Almost every time I've walked through the area on my own I've been approached by a young woman (or women) on a moto offering me "a massage", "a girlfriend for one hour", or "boom boom, one hour". As mentioned Vietnam's conservative closing hours are thrown out the window, and it is perfectly normal to see obnoxious groups of people cavorting in the streets at 4 a.m.

It is also possible to buy almost anything you need without leaving the chair you are sitting in. Many of the bars in the Pham simply set up chairs on the sidewalk, and as soon as you sit down the roving hawkers (many of whom are children) will begin to approach you, selling cigarettes, lighters, photocopied books, hard-boiled quail eggs, peanuts, shoe shines, sunglasses, gum, and numerous other items.

All of this does wear thin after a while though. The main reasons I venture into the Pham now are to eat at one of my two favorite Indian places; get a hair cut; eat at Sozo; or to go to trivia night at Le Pub. If you spend enough time there you will quickly discover that most of the food is actually very mediocre, and not actually that cheap; everyone thinks you are a tourist; and it is isn't actually Vietnam. Still, I've spent many an alcohol-fueled night there, so to illustrate the potentially debauched nature of the Pham I'll share a few stories.

Easily my most intense stretch of time spent in the Pham occurred when two of my friends from back home visited Saigon last April. For some reason we decided to stay out until at least 3 a.m. all but one of the nights they were here. As a result, most evenings ended with our table looking something like this.
We consumed so many "big" bottles of Tiger during that week at a place called 185 that the next time I visited the bar, several weeks later, the waitress immediately assumed I wanted one.

One of those nights at 185 we were playing Jenga inside, when a young man went into the bathroom. Two minutes later a "lady of the night" went in as well, and a few minutes after that they both emerged. The guy swaggered off, while the hooker came over to our table, put her face next to one of my female friend's face, and exclaimed "I CAN PLAY?!". We were all horrified, but we let her remove one piece, and she then walked away. We also overheard a conversation between three men and the bar owner. I thought they were negotiating a price for pot, but then I heard one of them say, "So that's three for 1 million?" (As in 1 million dong, or $50.) We quickly realized that they had just bought three hookers for that price.

For another visual illustration of how much we drank, here is a picture taken on one of those nights. My one friend found it on his phone the next day. We have no idea where it was taken, except that it was somewhere between the Pham and my house (a 15-20 minute stumble); and we have no idea who took the picture, since no one else stayed out with us that late.
In another episode, last January, one of my roommates decided to get me completely annihilated, since she had never seen me in such a state. Selflessly, she drank just as much as I did. The night began with beers at a restaurant we used to frequent, after which  we moved on to pitchers of vodka and orange juice, then vodka and red bull, and finally tequila straight from a bottle. This led to us joining a bunch of people in dancing on top of a bar, before our friends threw us into a taxi (which I vomited in) and dragged us into bed. I then went to work the next afternoon. To be sure, I've cut back hard on such nights, for a couple of reasons. When I was home in August a blood test revealed a worrying enzyme figure regarding my liver; and I also work in the morning every day of the week now.

I do still drink in the Pham every now and then, usually because other options are either closed or more expensive, but I haven't stayed out until sunrise in a while, something that couldn't be said for my first few months in Saigon. (Though I will be doing that tonight, when I plan to go to the 24-hour sports bar to watch the Saints playoff game, which starts at 3:30, and then go straight to work.) While the Pham has worn out its welcome on me and most of the people I know here, it does still have its uses, and it is an endlessly entertaining place to people watch: you'll see travelers from all over the world from every walk of life in every imaginable clothing style and body shape; as well as the city's odd couples of overweight old men walking arm-in-arm with lithe, good-looking young Vietnamese women. Ultimate proof that money can make anything happen. That being said, make sure, if you visit Saigon, that you venture out of this area, because it is certainly not your standard Vietnam.


  1. 3 pictures from my cell phone made it on this post. I'm very excited. I have only 1 thought. I'm pretty sure after we got over our disgust at the "lady of the night" touching our jenga pieces (no sexual innuendo implied) and we got over our argument about whether or not prostitutes are actually disgusting (one of the more ridiculous arguments I've ever been a part of) no one wanted to or did touch the jenga pieces anymore.

  2. I have one more thing to add:

    "Don't be an embarrassment"

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