Saigon/HCMC Vietnam: Pham Ngu Lao-cious

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by Beej McKay

23/9 Park in the Dark. Image (c) 2014 Benjamin J Spencer

23/9 Park in the Dark. Image (c) 2014 Benjamin J Spencer

The 23/9 Park across from Pham Ngu Lao street in Saigon’s backpacker district is swarming with activity from 6 am on.

This being a large Vietnamese city where authority is centralized, most of the activity is pretty tightly regulated. The first day we’re there, dozens of organized groups are kicking the shuttlecock around; the next day, everyone – I mean everyone – is rollerblading, and it’s as if the shuttlecock never existed.

The slight oddness is amplified doubly by the fact that we’ve arrived while the entire park is being used as an advertisement for Vietnam’s tourist industry. A garish live concert, as loud as at any arena, is being held at the east end. Vietnamese pop singers extol the wonders of the country’s natural beauty in song while images of waterfalls and beaches are projected on a giant screen behind them.

The singers strain their hardest to get the packed and seated crowd worked up. They dance and sing with tremendous flair and energy. This being a reticent Southeast Asian country, though, and not prone to outward celebratory expression, the pop stars’ raised fists and triumphant smiles at the end of every song occasion no uproar.

No, instead there is dead silence once the music falls silent. Not one spectator betrays any sign that they have just witnessed a performance at all, no matter how slam-bang the spectacle. It makes me feel bad for the performers giving it all, but I’m sure they’re used to it.

Pretty sure this girl was there? Not positive.

The rest of the festival is mostly just booths hawking Malaysian cruises and temple tours and such. The only other highlight occurs when we run across a large group little kids dancing to a  great DJ spinning hardcore hip-hop tracks (think an F-bomb every five seconds) while their parents look on. The DJ is so good, in fact, that Stax and I have a hard time stopping ourselves from joining the kids. The dour expressions of the parents as they stand around put a damper on these inclinations, however.

Despite these peculiar goings-on, the park is very pleasant at most hours and usually full of Vietnamese students  eager to speak English or French with foreigners. Don’t deny yourself this experience – you will get more out of the exchange than the kids themselves probably will.

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Since we returned to Saigon from our mountain retreat in Dalat, we’ve been staying at the Vy Khanh Guesthouse down a maze of  back alleys just off the main street.

Shadows in the back alley. Image (c) 2014 Benjamin J Spencer

Shadows in the back alley. Image (c) 2014 Benjamin J Spencer

Vy is really nice and helpful and her guesthouse is too fancy for what we are paying. She’s also great to talk to, and the setting of her place is pretty awesome.

The alleyways of Pham Ngu Lao. Image (c) 2014 Benjamin J Spencer

The alleyways of Pham Ngu Lao. Image (c) 2014 Benjamin J Spencer

The steaming narrow alleys of Pham Ngu Lao, jam-packed with guesthouses and family residences and noodle stands and herb shops, wouldn’t be out of place in a movie like “Big Trouble in Little China”. I could easily picture  Lo-Pan and the Storms facing off against their rivals right outside our guesthouse.

Big-trouble-in-little-china-big-trouble-in-little-china-30907475-853-480

Ah, my dear misadventurists…make yourself at home in my Saigon alley. There is nothing to fear!

Why, thank you Lo-Pan! What a nice older gentlema....AHHHHHHHHHHH!

Why, thank you Lo-Pan! What a nice older gentlemAHHHHHHHHHH MAKE HIM STOP

Stax and I waste no time in finding the best Pho and the best fruit and yogurt smoothies in the neighborhood. The stage is set for a very pleasant five days in Saigon before we head  across the border to Phnom Penh. But as soon as I open my guitar case –  for the first time since our bus trip from Da Lat – I realize that not all will go as smoothly as I hope.

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Part Two of Saigon update soon!
To Be Continued…