De Tham Saigon – Backpacker central

In the mid-1990s, Vietnam was still off the radar of most world travellers, especially those who like their comforts, as the country’s infrastructure was not prepared to deal with the demands of upmarket Western visitors. However, budget tourists began coming in numbers, and almost as quickly as they arrived savvy locals opened tour companies offering ‘open-tour’ tickets around the country, as well as cheap hotels and restaurants that catered to backpackers.

The region of this development was in District 1 about a kilometre west of Dong Khoi, Saigon’s main street. It is often referred to as Pham Ngu Lao, the name of the street that runs along the northern edge of the district. However, in this guide we refer to it as De Tham, since this short street which links Pham Ngu Lao with Bui Ven is in fact the epicentre of budgetsville.

In the few years since those first cheap hotels opened, the area has undergone an incredible transformation, and is still changing at a rapid pace. There must now be over a hundred guest houses and cheap hotels within the few blocks that the area occupies, some of which offer a bed in a dormitory for as little as US$3 a night. More on hotels and guesthouses.

Many of the properties that do not have rooms for rent operate as restaurants, bars, tour operators or shops selling souvenirs, cheap clothing and knock-off CDs – basically anything a backpacker might buy. Visitors who base themselves in this district need never wander outside – except to go sightseeing, of course.

Because De Tham is such a good place to meet other travellers and exchange travel anecdotes, lots of travellers plan the rest of their stay in Vietnam while in the area, and often buy their travel tickets from the cut-price tour operators that line the streets.

‘Open tour’ buses, which allow travellers to hop on and off buses several times with a single ticket, start from here and arrive here, heading for all the country’s top destinations – Nha Trang, Hoi An, Hue and Hanoi. Normally these deposit passengers at a commission-paying guesthouse, and you could face a battle to head elsewhere.

Restaurant prices are noticeably cheaper here than in other parts of the city, though cooking standards are generally high, and drinks prices in the bars are also much cheaper than downtown. If these aren’t enough reasons to attract you to stay here, add the fact that the only bars open after midnight are around De Tham, some of them buzzing till dawn.

How long De Tham will remain a backpacker haven is debatable. The area’s success has caused property prices to rocket, and many guest houses are now giving themselves a facelift, re-branding themselves as boutique hotels and charging US$50-70 a night.

Whether this will change the area’s character remains to be seen. For the moment at least, there’s enough curiosity about Saigon’s backpacker ghetto that it draws curious Vietnamese and well-heeled Westerners to hang out in its quirky bars and cafes.