Pham Ngu Lao

Flashback to the 1990s and the focus of Saigon’s budget area was Pham Ngu Lao. Named after a 13th-century general who fought for the Tran Dynasty and repelled Mongol invaders from the north, as the 20th century came to a close his namesake street was now attracting foreigners of a different sort — backpackers.

Bringing vital revenue into the city, the 1997 emergence of a Taiwanese-invested construction project in the park between Pham Ngu Lao and Le Lai saw the destruction of the houses, shops and seedy establishments on the north side of the street. In its place was built an uncompleted shopping centre — a monstrosity that sits there to this day.


Because of this alteration in the landscape, the businesses that once lined both sides of Pham Ngu Lao began gravitating down the alleyways and onto De Tham. It was the first phase in the spread of the Backpackers’ Area.


Today, The Pham is once again extending its reach. Having taken up one half of De Tham — at the intersection with Tran Hung Dao it comes to an abrupt stop — it has gradually moved down Bui Vien and Do Quang Dau, an evolution that started in the 2000s. Now it is unfurling its tentacles onto Cong Quynh, the road at the end of Bui Vien linking the busy thoroughfare with Thai Binh Market.


The Risk


But trying to bring business beyond The Pham’s labyrinth of alleyways and narrow roads has not always been a success. A couple of years ago, a kebab shop opened on Tran Hung Dao, a few doors from Pizza Hut. It was always empty. A Viet Kieu even earlier in history tried to open a backpacker-style, café-cum-bar on Le Thi Hong Gam, 100m away from The Pham. Within six months he closed. A few entrepreneurs have tried their hand on the non-touristy end of De Tham — the only business that seems to have thrived there is Galerie Quynh. And on Cong Quynh, the location of the now-expanding budget area, in 2011 Lisboa Café brought Saigon its first taste of Portuguese fare. Their downfall came at the hands of bad management, non-existent marketing and a lack of aircon. The premises are now inhabited by Circle K.


While location is important, so is timing. And now it seems Cong Quynh is ready for boomtime. Five ‘foreigner-orientated’ businesses have now set up there. Godmother Bar — the pioneer — Crumbs Bakery, Zeus, Wings and The Hungry Pig. That they are attracting walk-in customers is partly due to Cong Quynh lying on the normal, round-the-edge-of-The-Pham walking route of the exploratory-minded traveller. Taking them from Bui Vien, up Cong Quynh, through to Thai Binh Market and then along Pham Ngu Lao, the new locations on Cong Quynh are a natural stop-off point.


But it’s the numbers that are really making the difference. With five businesses already there, two or three more added to the mix will make Cong Quynh into a destination. And destinations get customers. — Nick Ross

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