Dana Filek-Gibson escapes Saigon’s urban bustle without leaving the city. Photos by Vinh Dao.
The engine cuts somewhere outside of town, not far from either muddy, palm-fringed riverbank. Floating south, away from District 7, a pair of brightly-hued wooden fishing boats rock on the waves that move between their boats and ours. Save for a blur of traffic, Saigon stands stock-still in the distance and so does the sun, beaming overhead, lighting up every corner of this riverine landscape.
After the steel-grey Yamaha motor comes to a halt, Kha, our guide, steps in to fill the silence left behind. “We’re still in Saigon,” he reminds us in impeccable English, tinged with a hint of the American south.
On a murky brown river, among trees, fishermen and silence, it’s a difficult statement to reconcile with our surroundings. But as we meander along the waterways of Can Gio, the city’s southernmost district, heading toward its namesake UNESCO-protected biosphere reserve, Kha is correct: we are, technically-speaking, still in Saigon.
Earlier in the day, our motorboat sped away from District 1’s Bach Dang pier with surprising ease. All whirls and clicks, we cruised past apartment blocks and under bright red bridges. Barges crowded the riverfront, their shipping containers forming colourful mosaics above the water. Free from the looming shadow of the Bitexco tower, the high-rises of District 4 climbed ever skyward, dwarfing a row of ramshackle tin houses perched on wooden stilts, stretching away from the land.
As we tucked into breakfast sandwiches and icy ca phe sua da aboard the boat, familiar city scenes began to adopt a hint of the Mekong Delta. At the concrete docks of Can Giuoc Market, we officially made the crossover to the countryside.
Now standing, briefly, in the province of Long An, we disembark to wander the market. A web of shops stretches from the docks outward for a few blocks each way. As we walk, Kha points out knives and cleavers made from recycled Toyota suspensions. Baskets of sweet garlic and morning glory, purple mint and other Delta-specific vegetables form a colourful patchwork of produce along the street. Everywhere we go, our guide makes a point of sharing everyday anecdotes, from the importance of betel nuts at a Vietnamese wedding to the particulars of rice farming in the Delta to the reason behind the rows upon rows of paper-and-cardboard iPhones, BMWs and concubines for sale in one corner of the market.
Back at the docks, it’s another short jaunt to the bat sanctuary at Vam Sat Ecotourism Centre. Though they sleep during the day, the reserve’s fruit-eating bats will fly as far as 25 kilometres at night in search of food and can grow to have wings up to one metre long. In low-lying wooden canoes we sit sentinel, our binoculars trained on the surrounding treetops, as a boatman propels us around the outer edge of the tea-coloured pond. While the bats aren’t especially active at this hour, Vam Sat’s tranquil atmosphere, encircled by spindly mangrove roots and lush green cover, make the slow, laid-back journey a perfect antithesis to Saigon’s urban chaos.
Our meander on the water soon slides into lunch as we arrive at Vam Sat’s main complex. Within the cool dining pavilion we tuck into seafood and claypot fish, bright green veggies from our morning market visit and fresh fruit. Then it’s down the road to meet the reserve’s most exotic residents.
Outside a large, pale blue building, Kha spreads his arms, a plastic bag of bananas hanging from one wrist, and waits. In no time at all, one monkey comes clambering down from the pavilion roof, followed by another and another. Soon a crowd has gathered, eyeing the fruit in Kha’s hands and the strange visitors with cameras. While the creatures are certainly wild – and not to be toyed with – Kha handles the pack of monkeys, particularly the alpha male, with confidence and care.
But if the monkeys out front are comical and, at times, a little cheeky, their next-door neighbours are no joke. To meet Vam Sat’s freshwater crocodiles, we board a pontoon boat whose walls are reinforced with three layers of chainlink fence. This is a safety precaution you begin to understand when Kha extends a fishing pole out of the boat. Though wild crocodiles were once residents of the Can Gio area, hunting has diminished their numbers so that today the only creatures still present are held in captivity. In a single motion, a once-dormant crocodile opens its jaws, lunges for the meat at the end of the line and closes its mouth with a startling snap. Though their initial attempts seem clumsy, these creatures are incredibly swift: blink and the food on the end of your line will disappear.
From here, the afternoon begins to wind down. We return to the main complex for a trip up the reserve’s watchtower. Though its rusting staircase doesn’t inspire much confidence, the view from the top is well worth an uphill trek, and so we make the journey skyward for a glimpse of the full expanse of Vam Sat. By the time we make it back down to solid ground, Kha is waiting for us, the speedboat’s engine humming once more. Our return trip feels like a dream, traveling in reverse back toward the city, watching palm trees turn into streetlights, fishing boats to barges, wooden houses to office buildings and retail shops. The Bitexco stands above the fray, guiding us as we round a bend back to Bach Dang Pier and the buzz of Ton Duc Thang Street and then we’re there, back on land in the heart of Saigon, feeling like we’ve come home from a long trip without ever having left town.