Fast forward to the 21st century and the lifeblood of this city still runs through its watery veins. But the canals that once flowed down the centre of Nguyen Hue and Le Loi have long since been filled in, and transportation, commerce and the daily life of this metropolis have all moved on land.
In search of the roots of this city, we take a journey down the Saigon River, from the disputed location of its source to the dubious site of its mouth. In the process we find a waterway and countless canals that with work could offer new focus and breathing space for this growing city.
From The Source To The Mouth
Trace the start and end of the Saigon River on a map and the only thing that becomes clear is uncertainty surrounding its borderlines. Depending on who you speak to and the resources used, the results are subjective. For a country unused to reading maps and cartography, it is no surprise.
But even Wikipedia seems to be off the mark. According to the online encyclopaedia, the Saigon River “rises near Phum Daung in southeastern Cambodia” and flows “south and south-southeast for about 140 miles” before eventually emptying into the Nha Be River, via the Dong Nai River. This assessment has been accepted verbatim by multiple websites.
Others claim its origin lies at the foot of the expansive Tri An Lake, south of Cat Tien National Park, in Dong Nai Province, before ending just past Phu My Bridge in Saigon South, while Google Maps suggests that Song Sai Gon actually emanates from the vast Dau Tieng Lake in Binh Duong Province, and doesn’t stop until the mouth of the South China Sea is reached.
Any of these interpretations can be argued for and against, with one’s particular locale along the waterways determining the overriding, though inconclusive, perspective. The Saigon, Dong Nai and Nha Be Rivers are essentially the same waterway, tributaries of the same body of water, and as they head to the sea so they split up into a marshy delta.
On the advice of Saigon natives, we decided to head to Dau Tieng Lake. Located just under 87km away from the centre of Ho Chi Minh City, this source of the Saigon River should take no more than 90 minutes to reach by car, though in reality takes nearly double the time. Exiting the city via Cho Ba Hoa, in Tan Binh District, an area populated by people from Da Nang and the central region of Vietnam, we soon veer off Highway 22 onto Highway 15 in order to follow the trail of the Saigon River.
The bulk of the journey consists of negotiating Cu Chi District, past the original An Phu and Phu My Hung areas, where the snaking bends and chicanes of the potted, uneven road mirror that of the Saigon River itself. Admittedly, large portions of the river are obscured by overgrown countryside, and it’s not until we reach Ben Suc Bridge on the border of Ho Chi Minh City and Binh Duong that we get our first glimpse of the Saigon River proper.
Surrounded by green, marshy swampland and corrugated iron shacks, the scenery is sparse, which serves to only centre your attention on the river itself. Wide in breadth, the water is a murky brown, with random patches of broken tree branches being pushed along quietly by the gentle current. A sign reads co nuoi, which means the grassy areas along the riverbank are being cultivated.
A lone, camouflaged-clad fisherman hunches over one side of the bridge, with his rod cast over the edge. Though tight-lipped, he intimates that this particular spot has yet to yield his bounty of the day. In the unwavering quiet and solitude, patience is not only a virtue here, but also a bedfellow. Underneath the bridge, a small stony path leads onto the river basin. An elderly woman stands atop several rickety old fishing canoes, picking water hyacinth stems that will eventually be sold to make furniture. You can tell she’s done this all of her life. Quite literally out in the sticks, this is how livings are made.
A further 35km finally brings us to the source, and it’s hard to believe that we’re looking upon the same river that runs through the city. Trenched into a narrow, winding canal that feeds off the through flow from the stunning Dau Tieng Lake, and hidden by lush, verdant, rolling hills and exotic, colourful flowers, the water is crystal clear and clean, with not one piece of rubbish spoiling it. In spite of the weather-beaten sign that reads cam tam (swimming forbidden), the urge to jump in is almost irresistible.
It’s a wondrous and idyllic secret of a place; beautiful enough to act as a scenic backdrop for lovey-dovey newly weds. A clay-red dirt track shrouded by huge shade-supplying trees runs alongside the river, leading back out into the rural wilderness, perfect for rambling or cycling. The foreboding outline of Nui Ba Den (Black Widow) Mountain can also be made out to the west. A couple of derelict water towers, of Soviet-era design, stand out, adding some peculiarity to the area, while a small café on the banks of the lake provides another picturesque spot to enjoy the blissful surrounds.
Go East My Friend
Back in Saigon, we arrive at Bach Dang Port on Ton Duc Thang, opposite the Tran Hung Dao statue, ready to board a speedboat that will take us roughly 50km from the heart of downtown District 1 to the mouth of the Saigon River. Our guide for this part of the trip is former American hedge fund broker-turned-Vietnamese-river-enthusiast, Ian Fogg, of Saigon River Express.
Originally set up in 2010 to provide a city-based water-taxi service akin to the type developed in Bangkok, Ian quickly discovered that neither the required level of infrastructure nor customer demand was in place, and reformed his business model to provide daily tours by boat to the Cu Chi Tunnels and weekly jaunts around the Mekong Delta.
As we depart, the unsightliness of this section of the Saigon River is unavoidable. However, unlike the popular misconception that places the blame on rising pollution levels, the reason is the natural ecology of the area. This is a harbour, and like all harbour water across the world it is biologically active, meaning that perpetual rising and falling tides keep the water stagnant, hindering it from flowing naturally. Hence the sewage-like appearance that unfortunately blights the most commercially visible part of the river.
Still, it doesn’t take long for this to change. Passing battered, old fishing boats that have seen better days, monstrous shipping vessels with names such as ‘Prime Skipper’, and huge yellow and blue-coloured cargo cranes, the scenery drastically improves by the time we pass through the industrial corridor of the river, on the outskirts of District 7.
The river suddenly transforms from a cloudy brown to a majestic turquoise. The sun glistens off the water and thick, luscious trees surround us on either side. The air is also fresh, and, unlike in Europe or North America, there are hardly any other boats around, resulting in near-complete isolation. Make no mistake about it, these are pristine waterways.
Though serene, there’s not much in the way of activity yet so we press on toward the mouth. En route we pass several floating fishing villages somewhere between Can Gio and Tan Phuoc. Fenced off by barbed wire and patrolled by snarling guard dogs, the locals appear wary of outsiders and only a couple reciprocate our smiley advances with an intrigued wave. As opposed to those living and working on the main arteries of the Mekong Delta, foreign faces have not yet become familiar here, so their trepidation is understandable.
Undeterred and determined to meet some of the people that earn a crust off the water, we continue to the point where the Saigon River (or the Nha Be River, depending on your persuasion) meets the East Sea, and head east towards the province of Ba Ria-Vung Tau until we reach Long Son Village.
Having docked and successfully navigated a creaky wooden footbridge to reach the mainland, we encounter a road flanked by rows of shop houses. Many of the buildings are tended by women drying freshly caught nautical delicacies in the mid-afternoon sun. It’s a small, sleepy sort of village, soundtracked by spluttering fishing boat motors, where the men fish by day and drink by night, and where the women oversee the day-to-day running of their local businesses while putting the world to rights.
72-year-old Le Thi Bach is one such matriarch who has lived in Long Son all her life. Widowed, but with many relatives still residing here, her husband was a fisherman and oyster farmer. According to Bach, who uses her wealth of life experience and local knowledge to “fix all problems”, fishing has been the lifeblood of this village for as long as she can remember, though the trade has experienced a boom in recent years thanks to an expanding tourism market. She points to nearby construction work and explains that the people of this once desperately poor settlement now earn enough money off the sea to build brick houses in place of their former bamboo-made shelters.
Another Long Son lifer is 67-year-old Ba Rau. A former fisherman turned local tour guide, he possesses what could be the best moustache in Vietnam. Ba Rau says that due to the limited number of fish in the area, which is mainly consumed by the village’s residents or bought in bulk by dong-fisted traders and tourists, Long Son is where young fisherman come to train and hone their skills.
Over yonder lies Long Son Floating Village. Opened four years ago, it’s a seafood restaurant that sells a variety of fish, including catfish, lobsters, and some of the biggest, thickest oysters you’ll ever see. Popular with Vietnamese holiday makers, the restaurant is surprisingly large and exudes a ramshackle charm as lopsided and cracked wooden planks combine with split-open rubber tyres to form makeshift walkways around several miniature farms housing all kinds of strange-looking sea life. And at just over VND400,000 for a kilo of shrimp it’s pricey too, but the food is as fresh you’ll find.
While heading back to Saigon, we divert our course through the Can Gio Biosphere Reserve. Listed by UNESCO, this 76,000-hectare area of wetland and mangrove forest is located 40km southeast of Ho Chi Minh City and is said to be home to over 150 botanical species. The intertidal mudflats and sandbanks are an important habitat for migratory shorebirds and the area performs many valuable ecological functions, including coastal stabilisation, and protection against coastal erosion, oil spills and storm surges. The mangrove forest is also a source of fuel wood and construction materials.
And yet it feels almost surprising to encounter human life here, such is the unspoiled natural beauty and tranquility. Apart from the odd bare-chested fishermen attempting to flog a bag of crabs, your only company (to the naked eye, at least) comprises mudfish, more crabs, king fishers and butterflies. Taken at a relaxed pace, Can Gio is an absolute delight for those needing no more than Mother Nature to enjoy themselves. Naturalists such as David Attenborough would be proud.
Upon returning to Bach Dang Port area, where so many of us limit our Saigon River experience to the confines of riverboat dinners, the odd ferry taxi to District 2 and hydrofoil to Vung Tau, it becomes clear that regardless of where the boundaries lie, there’s a whole lot more to Saigon’s waterways than its reputation purports. And though some may argue that an increase in commercialised tourism may disrupt or harm its current natural beauty, if developed sensitively enough, it can only lead to a win-win situation for all involved.
Bridging the Gap
For a river of its length and size, the Saigon River is badly catered for when it comes to river crossings. The Thu Thiem Bridge and Thu Thiem Tunnel are welcome additions to the mélange, but as it stands, only 10 bridges and one railway bridge traverse the whole of the main river. Not a great figure. But with both sides of the waterway kept separate, it means that what you find on the Ho Chi Minh City end is completely different to the developments and towns in Dong Nai and Binh Duong. Which all adds to the diversity and, of course, the need to explore.
Mention the words canal and Saigon in the same sentence and your mind is instantly carried to the putrid waterway running through District 3 (Thi Nghe Canal) and the canal separating Districts 1 from District 4 (Ben Nghe Canal).
And yet, not including the outlying suburban districts, this city probably has about 200 waterways. We just never see them, or if we do, it’s from the road or the bridges above.
As part of our journey along the minor waterways we start on land at Thi Nghe Market opposite the modern day zoo. Once the location of the original central market, the north bank of the Thi Nghe Canal was home to the main civilian settlement outside the citadel. It was this area that was apparently known in local vernacular as Sai Gon. These days Himlam Driving Range, the apartments of Pham Viet Chanh and Saigon Pearl sit where there were once swamps and wooden stilt houses. And the canal is rancid and full of sludge. All traces of the past have disappeared.
Hitting the canals outside of District 1 we first enter Rach Chiec in District 2. Running between Thu Thiem and District 9, the water level is surprisingly low, but regardless, there is still a fair amount of life along the river — factories, fishing boats, tugs, areas cleared for development and more. Heading back to the Saigon River we then go down Rach Go Dua. Here we find ourselves in the countryside, surrounded by water palms, farms and with only the occasional house located along the river. One villa seems properly set up for using the waterways, with three boats including a speedboat moored up outside. It is a rarity. Nowhere else in our afternoon journey along the city’s canals is taking such advantage of the water.
But the special moment comes when we enter a tiny waterway in Thanh Da Island. Lying almost opposite An Phu, we come across what had been described by our guide as a bamboo village. Mooring the boat and scrambling up the banks of the river, before us we see a collection of two wooden, banana-leafed roof farms. Lying below the river level but surrounded by steep banks, it is astonishing to think that such a settlement exists in modern-day Ho Chi Minh City. Before the French came, much of the city would have looked like this.
Respite on the River
With so much water in close vicinity, it seems strange that so few resort owners have taken advantage of the river. Bangkok has getaways aplenty, but until last month, Saigon only had one — Binh An Village.
That all changed with the arrival of the top-end An Lam Saigon River. Propped on the banks of Thuan An in Binh Duong (opposite District 12), besides its seven villas and guest rooms, there are numerous dining and drinking facilities. A spa and detox therapy adds to the mix as does a speedboat shuttle service — taking only 15 minutes to get to District 1. Which all makes An Lam a perfect hideout for anyone looking for respite from the city. And you don’t need to stay the night either — just call 0650 378 5555, book for lunch and dinner and the resort will arrange the rest.
Thanh Da Island
With the construction, concrete and uneven roads, there's a tendency to take Thanh Da Island at face value. It is after all yet another dilapidated, badly designed and unseemly part of this chaotic city. Isn’t it?
Make this mistake and you miss out on a unique part of this metropolis. Part paddy field, part mangrove, and with tiny waterways full of blue and red fishing boats, there is an uncanny resemblance to the Mekong Delta here. This is still Ho Chi Minh City, right?
But the only island of any note lying in the Saigon River, it is also just the section by the main road, Binh Quoi, and near the bridge leading to the island that is built up. Take the side roads and you are in the mangroves, paddy fields and fish farms.
Unfortunately, most island visitors tend to end up at one of the three, manicured Binh Quoi Resorts. Attractive in their own right, except for bordering the river, these places are anything but Thanh Da. They could be found anywhere in southern Vietnam.
To see the uniqueness of this island, take Rach Dua Café. A stilted coffee shop in the swamps, this back alley café lies down a concrete road just past the serviced apartments of Saigon Domaine. Sit on a thatched stilt house over the canal or relax out back with a view of the swamps, jungle and greenery beyond. This is not the big city. There's silence here, too.
Fishing enthusiasts will also be in their element. We counted over 20 ponds set up as fishing restaurants. Here you can eat your catch or alternatively get the places’ chefs to cook for you. A few years ago this writer ate ca tai tuong chien xu (deep fried elephant ear fish) in one of the fishing spots. A Mekong Delta speciality served with rice paper, fresh herbs, chilli and fish sauce, it remains one of the best dishes this writer has ever tasted in this city.
We decide to drive down as many side roads as possible and taking the right-hand fork just before Binh Quoi 2, we immediately find ourselves away from the city. A development company has tried to build an area of luxury villas. Only two have been completed and the rest is overgrown wasteland encroached by jungle.
Further on we stumble across a pagoda, but the residents (and their dogs) are an unfriendly sort. We’re not allowed to look inside the main building or take photos. This is a place of pilgrimage — outside the temple sits a man who has driven that morning from the Mekong Delta — but the welcome provided by the people of this 300-year-old building is hardly gracious.
The roads are sand, clay and gravel tracks. Small bridges over canals break up the flatness of the terrain, and from lily ponds to rice fields and fish farms, the full range of agriculture is present. Eventually we get back to the main road and take lunch out by the river at Saigon Domaine before heading down to Binh An Village. Constructed with Indochine style and imperial glamour, this is the jewel in the Thanh Da Island crown. With its lush gardens, antique, reproduction décor and glorification of Vietnam’s past, it’s also the kind of place you can come for a day to eat and relax or stay overnight for a break from the city.
Take a trip down to the city’s various piers — Bach Dang and Nha Rong — and you’ll notice the absence of any organised public transport along the Saigon River. Except, that is, if you want to take the hydrofoil to Vung Tau, do a tour to Can Gio or The Mekong Delta, or take a dinner cruise. As it stands, river transport is a private invested affair and with the Thu Thiem Tunnel now open, even the publicly run ferry that conveys cars and bikes from Bach Dang to Thu Thiem in District 2 seems set to go.
A trip with Ian Fogg on one of his 25-seater speedboats that form the fleet of Saigon River Express shows how beneficial public transport along the river could actually be. The journey time from Riverside Apartments in District 2 to Bach Dang Pier on Ton Duc Thang takes a mere seven minutes. Imagine that in rush hour. No need to negotiate Saigon Bridge or Thu Thiem Tunnel — a 45-minute or one-hour journey made fast. From District 9, close to the borders of Dong Nai and Binh Duong, the same journey is only 15 minutes. For a city struggling with congestion, public transport along the river could be an easy solution. But it needs widespread support. At present, all the progress in this area is generated from the private sector.
According to Fogg, many of the new developments sprouting up around the city have taken note. “They’re offering speedboat transfer to District 1 as part of their apartment or house buying package. Unfortunately they don’t have any boats yet.” Fogg, of course, hopes to capitalise on this.
At present, of the out-of-town residences, only Saigon Domaine and Riverside Apartments offer speedboat transfer to the city. And only three restaurants —The Deck, BoatHouse and the restaurant at Thao Dien Village — can also provide this service, but it needs to be arranged in advance.
So when will Ho Chi Minh City finally go down the route of offering a river service like that available in Bangkok? The cities are similar in size and while the Chao Phraya River is well covered in this area, the Saigon River is not. Fogg reckons that it will all start to happen over the next couple of years. As a way to ease the burden on the city’s already crowded roads, let’s hope he’s right.
Two companies presently offer speedboat tours to Cu Chi Tunnels and The Mekong Delta. Ngoc Phong Speedboats (www.saigonrivertour.com) and Saigon River Express (www.saigonriverexpress.com). Both also offer private speedboat hire.