There is no time for sleep in a small area of several square kilometers in central District 1 in Ho Chi Minh City, which is occupied by foreign ‘backpackers’.
Locals call it "Khu phố Tây ba lô" or Saigon Backpackers’ – a hot spot for foreign tourists to stay in Vietnam.
It is becoming more and more popular around the world as the ‘town’ of guesthouses, restaurants and an abundance of other services for low priced tourism.
The area is bounded by the streets of Pham Ngu Lao, De Tham, Bui Vien, and Do Quang Dau. It is criss-crossed by dozens of small alleys connecting the ends of the area to form a ‘labyrinth’. Given its small size, it takes a backpacker less than an hour to walk around the ‘labyrinth’.
The streets and alleys are home to over 90 travel offices, 247 hotels and guestrooms, 72 registered restaurants and numerous eating tables set up along pavements, and 25 fashion and gift shops.
Knocking on the door at midnight
Foreign backpackers are seen strolling round, eating, or drinking any time, day and night, in the ‘town’.
One of the ‘specialties’ of visiting the area is the languages – English, French, Spanish, and Japanese. But the most attractive language of the ‘town’, which does not really have a name, is the mixture of body language, Vietnamese and a given foreign language during a chat.
Different from alleys in other areas, alleys in the backpackers’ town are busy from the midnight until early in morning, because this is the part of the day when cheaper international flights arrive in Saigon.
Alley 104 on Bui Vien Street, which is less than 1.5m wide and 200m long, has more than 20 mini hotels standing next to one another. The colorful neon signs of the hotels and other services light up the alley all night.
“This is the first time I’ve come to Vietnam, and I didn’t think this street would be so narrow,” said US backpacker Anmada Taylor, who booked a room in the alley in early June via the website Agoda.com. “But it seems OK as I see people drinking and chatting over there at night. No worries.”
In the sitting room of another hotel in the alley, a Scottish tourist named Edward Davis is playing guitar and singing while eating dried peanuts with iced beer.
Foreign tourists are drinking beer and playing guitar in the sitting room of a hotel in the 'Saigon Backpackers' town' in District 1, Ho Chi Minh City (Photo: Tuoi Tre)
“I’m here for a month, I like it here. It’s friendly, I think it’s easy to live in Vietnam,” he told Tuoi Tre.
At another table, some backpackers were surfing the internet and checking Facebook at 3:00am – four hours before the start of a working day.
Not only hotel rooms are available, as tourists can choose cheaper dorm rooms – a nine square meter room for a maximum of six people. It has triple bunk beds.
De Tham and Pham Ngu Lao Streets are the ‘domain’ of travel and car booking offices, while Bui Vien Street is mainly for hotels and restaurants, and Do Quang Dau is the street of bars, coffee shops and street food.
At the bars, visitors can not only listen to international music but also watch football matches from the English Premier League, La Liga, Bundesliga, and Champions League.
Visitors can also take advantage of other services such as tattoo and massage parlors, as well as spas at the intersection of Bui Vien and Do Quang Dau. The corner is full of cigarette smoke and women staying up late.
Most foreign tourists staying in the Saigon Backpackers’ town dress like locals do while walking along the streets – a T-shirt, shorts, and slippers. They greet one another as friends.
Some struggle to use chopsticks to eat. They drink Vietnamese coffee, which is different from elsewhere in the world, as it is mixed in boiling water to produce a thick black liquid after going through a filter.
Most tourists stay in the backpackers’ town for several days, and it serves as a transit location for foreign tourists before departing for other areas such as the Mekong Delta, Nha Trang, Da Lat, or flying to neighboring nations like Cambodia and Laos.
On average, hotels in the area cost US$12 -22 a day, but may be lowered to $7 sometimes. The peak season for Westerners is from August to January, while Asian visitors often come in February – April.