"Oh it’s so nice to get out of the city,” says Kyle with a yawn, as he stretches out on the boat.
We’re on our way back from a hot but well-worth-the-effort day trip to Can Gio, the mangrove swamps to the southeast of Ho Chi Minh City. Often called the lungs of Saigon due the abundance of untouched jungle, the islands of Can Gio act as a buffer between Vietnam’s largest metropolis and the sea. They are also home to a diverse array of wildlife.
Unfortunately for this outer district of Ho Chi Minh City, Can Gio is known by many for its waste-of-time beaches — mixtures of river silt and sand that are best left undeveloped. Monkey Island, although a typical stop-off point, should also feature low on the must-see list. The macaques are vicious, the penned-up crocodiles hungry. The place is so badly set up that rarely will you see a visitor leaving with something to write home about, unless it’s negative.
But our trip by Les Rives speedboat is different. Starting at the temporary port on Ton That Thuyet in District 4, we race past shanty houses before speeding along the canal towards Trung Son, RMIT and Phu My Hung. Then we head south into the Mekong Delta and the market town of Can Giuoc.
Leaving the road behind us is liberating. It allows us to experience a part of the city that you never see by car or bike. And with the wind blowing through our hair and the cooler air, you realise that Ho Chi Minh City is not just a growing mass of concrete, metal and glass.
Market trips for the over-initiated are of the been-there, done-that variety. In Vietnam, once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. But this little excursion to Can Giuoc, the first part of our trip, is different. The reason? The people. The market area is clean, too. Surprisingly clean.
Unlike your typical, acerbic market trader in Vietnam, here the stall-holders are full of smiles and laughter. Not fake smiles, like you may get in other nameless nations elsewhere in Southeast Asia. This is real. Our visit excites interest. As we wander through the various sections of the market, our guide Kha points out a range of fruit and vegetables that most of us — even hardened Vietnamophiles — have never seen before. Quickly you become struck by the diversity of this country. It’s a diversity that is easily missed in the big city.
As we leave I regret not buying anything. After taking pictures of the betel nut seller, we moved on. Hundred-year-old eggs anyone?
Wildlife and River
We then boarded the boat and zoomed our way into the confines of Can Gio, passing swift farms — concrete and windowless, these air-conditioned buildings are used to harvest bird nests — before arriving at Vam Sat, the other and by-far-superior of the tourist traps in Can Gio.
What we saw in the two Vam Sat sites we visited went something like this:
— Poison mangrove trees
— Fruit bats hanging upside down in trees
— More birds
— More mangroves
— Long-tail macaques
— Fish that have gills and lungs and can walk on land
— More birds from a 72-step-high watchtower
But let’s take a step back. Despite the amazing abundance of wildlife — and we were here only at the start of the bird season — the sites that make up Vam Sat lack organisation and are in need of repair.
Yes, we all know that Vietnam needs to work on its state-run tourist sites. It’s not a secret. Yet there is a weird kind of pleasure to the lack of slickness of here. Not every tourist attraction on this planet needs to be glossy and designed with space age precision to make it worth a visit. Vam Sat is typical of old Vietnam, the country we are losing so fast. Visiting it was like walking into another world.
Back to Reality
As we head back into town I am strangely tired. I lie down on the speedboat and try to sleep. But after 10 minutes I raise my head. Take your eyes off the river for just a second and you may miss something. The sites here are such a feast on the eyes that I don’t want to miss even the smallest rowing boat or the latest high-rise development.
We were only out of the city for seven hours. But as we return to Ho Chi Minh City, it feels like it could have been days.
On the Boat
We took our trip to Can Gio with Les Rives — lesrivesexperience.com. The speedboat-cum-tour company runs a range of trips on the Saigon River and along its tributaries, including sunset cruises, trips to Cu Chi Tunnels and the Mekong Delta. Check their website for details.
Word is running a competition to win two (2) one-day trips for a family of four to Can Gio with Les Rives. The prizes are worth from US$200 (VND4.5 million) each. For information on how to enter, please go to wordvietnam.com/win/navigate-the-swamps