Pham Ngu Lao…

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Pham Ngu Lao’s alleys are rabbit warrens.  Barely wide enough to walk through, they are a bustle of activity.  They are also the backpackers alleys, where guesthouse upon guesthouse can be found.  Ho Chi Minh buildings, typically are one room wide and packed in here, one guesthouse after another.  Cars cannot drive down here but scooters and motorbikes still try, despite the lack of space and the various vendors selling in the morning and early afternoon.

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These vendors are not selling tourist stuff, but rather food for locals.  Raw meat on a board close to the ground greets us as we leave our place every morning.  Vegetables and fruit or ready-made pho and spring rolls abound.  They pack up when the rush is over and sweep the alley behind them.  They Pham Ngu Lao alleys are also a great way to see how people live in this area because everyone’s home is open.  The ground floor, obviously where the entrance of the house is located, is usually two gates that are closed and locked if no one is home, but if occupied, these rabbit warrens are open to any nosy onlooker like myself.  Let’s just say they make Tokyo apartments look palatial in size. 

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Some of these ground floor rooms have about as much space as a large dining room table.  In there, you may see a small bed or someone napping on a tiled floor, always a television, perhaps a small shrine for their ancestors.  Some of them have even less space.  There is one place close to ours that is the size of a closet with water bottle crates stacked up high on both sides of the wall where a man sites on a chair in between the two stacks, watching a wall mounted TV.  A small ladder goes off to the left for access to the upper floors.  Other times you might see the tiniest kitchen (even by my Tokyo standards!)  It really is amazing, the utilization of small space.  I’m not sure what they do with the other rooms above but I assume they are for family and the bottom floor is essentially a sitting room.  Of course the guesthouses have a much larger ground floor with space for their family to meet, eat dinner and watch TV.  I havent been able to get very good photos of these alley ways without being intrusive but hopefully you will still find it interesting and hopefully visit yourself some day!

Ho Chi Minh and Bedbugs…

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(journal excerpt-February 14, 2012)

Well, we’ve been in Ho Chi Minh City for a week now and we are enjoying taking our time exploring the city, despite a few setbacks along the way.  We had made a reservation online for our guesthouse which is something we don’t usually do, but it’s peak season and after seeing how incredibly busy it has been in Thailand, we didn’t want to take the chance.  We were curious about the place we stayed at the last time we were here and hoped we could book there but couldn’t find it anywhere on the internet and no way to book it online.  As it turns out, we found out later it has been closed down, the whole building is currently abandoned.

Anyway, so we booked into the same Pham Ngu Lao area of the city but in the packed guesthouse area of the alley networks, an area I didn’t even know existed when we were here the last time.  Pham Ngu Lao is the backpacker area of HCMC-it’s full of great restaurants with a tonne of international food, bars with the ever-present old white dude with his prostitutes, tour companies and guesthouses.  Standards of accommodation are way higher in Vietnam than what you get in the rest of Southeast Asia and for about the same price.  Rooms are usually very clean and cleaned daily with aircon, free wifi, satellite TV and a refrigerator all standard.  Most of the accommodation in Pham Ngu Lao is of a colonial style building and the architecture here is quite beautiful.  A narrow, skinny building, usually four or five stories high with two rooms per floor is quite common, with one room facing the street and the other the back, with a tiny winding staircase between.  It makes carrying the backpacks up quite fun! The bottom floor is where the reception area is and is also often the common area for the family that runs the house, whose kitchen and other rooms are at the back of the main floor.  Many rooms have balconies and extra furniture like wardrobes and desks.  In a word, great value compared to the rest of Southeast Asia.

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Our first place was good and we based our decision on reviews we had read that said they didn’t push tours which can be quite a problem in Vietnam.  The family was nice and friendly with limited English but upon check in we found the mother already handing us the tour brochures.  We tried to stay on for a few nights,  paying in advance but we were told to come down in the morning and check availability each day due to their online bookings.  By the third night we were told we wouldn’t have a bed the next day due to no space and we couldn’t help but wonder if it was because we didn’t go on any tours and mentioned we had been to HCMC before.  But don’t worry, she assured us! She had a friend who ran a guesthouse we could stay at the following day.

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The next day we moved over to this next place and checked in.  Not as nice, but looked clean enough and it would do.  We went out for the day as usual and came back in the evening to watch bad movies on HBO.  By 5:30am, M woke me up to tell me he was getting eaten alive by bedbugs.  We found one on the floor where he was standing and pulled back the blanket to find another big fat one, full of our blood.  I also had bites on my foot and leg.  Well there goes our sleep.  We sat awake until daylight when, armed with further good online reviews, I went out searching for our new “home” while M stayed with the bags in our room.  Everywhere I looked was full but we finally found another place.  We brought our bags in over from the last place, explained to the staff why we were leaving and that they needed to spray the room.  They were really apologetic and sweet about it and it’s actually not their fault but I will cover all that in my next public service type, bedbug post! I’m becoming quite the expert! Anyway, we hadn’t even gone down from this new room to check in when we found two more bedbugs in this new place, one on the wall and one in a nail-hole of the molding by the bed.  Argh!! So frustrating! We decided after much deliberation to try a different room here and tell of the problem.  She seemed surprised and didn’t really understand us at first but after I showed her the “carcasses”, she and her cleaner? sister? knew what I was talking about.  Now we’ve been in this current room for three nights which brings me to our one week in HCMC and so far, knock on wood, no more problems.  We had to wash every item of clothing that was out of our backpacks in the last room and we are just hoping nothing followed us here…