Pham Ngu Lao St is HCMC’s backpacker/tourist district, supposedly the local equivalent of Bangkok’s Khaosan Road. Hopefully Pham Ngu Lao never becomes as loud, seedy or notorious. While it’s great that hotels, restaurants, and travel agencies fill Pham Ngu Lao, one of the best things is that a major market and some fine historical buildings are just minutes away.
Ben Thanh Market is HCMC’s biggest market and during the day it’s filled with vendors selling clothes, coffee, food, and souvenirs. At night the building closes and a night market forms outside on both sides, with mostly clothes and souvenir vendors catering to tourists. Especially notable are the many “brandname” backpacks on sale for amazingly low prices. North Face is a very popular one, and at first glance can seem genuine (I’ll have more on this later). Another notable thing is how persistent the female vendors can be in trying to get you to buy something. During the day, I went inside Ben Thanh Market and while walking through the narrow lanes in between all the stalls, female vendors constantly called out while a few even touched my arm with slight caresses. It felt nice, but of course not everyone might feel that way. At night, the vendors may not be as touchy-feely, but they will call out prices, lower it, then even pull up a calculator and tell you to name your price. As a last resort, some women will block you from leaving their stall while looking at you with sad puppydog eyes while begging you to buy – “please, pleeeease buy from me. If you don’t buy, I won’t let you go.”
Looking back, it seems so comical and flattering, but at times it was a bit too much.
On the flipside, I had a male vendor ridicule me in Vietnamese to his fellow vendors after I asked him about some magnets and then walked away without buying. He spoke some Vietnamese in what sounded like a mocking tone and his fellows burst out laughing.
Besides the market, if you continue walking along the main road you will hit a really fancy part of town where you can check out the City Hall and Saigon Opera House, both colonial buildings. The City Hall is very nice and you can walk right up to it, situated at the end of a driveway with luxury brandname stores on both sides. The Saigon Opera House has an arched doorway and a long rectangular shape, which I didn’t see properly since it was in the night. There’s also the Hotel Continental Saigon, a hotel famous for its role during the Vietnam War for being the haunt of American journalists.
Back to the market, when you cross the street to an open space and face a roundabout with a statue of a man on a horse (14th century Vietnamese hero General Tran Nguyen Han), there’s a fine view (the first photo in this post) of the Bitexco Financial Tower, Vietnam’s tallest skyscraper. Shaped like a leaf, or a dagger, and lit up at night, it’s a very nice sight It’s also a reminder of HCMC’s economic vitality and how Vietnam is a nation in flux, communist but following a similar path as China.