(No.9, Vol.3, Oct 2013 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)
On Vo Van Kiet Street.
Photo: Viet Binh.
Traffic passing the aptly named Riverside Hotel.
Photos: Pip de Rouvray
Cannon along waterfront
Undoubtedly, the best way to get to know a city is on foot. The trouble in Ho Chi Minh City is that walking is regarded as eccentric behaviour in which only foreigners would engage. The pavements have been commandeered by hawkers. Obstacles such as rubbish dumps, chairs from improvised eating stalls and clumsily parked motorbikes hinder your progress and even force you onto the road. Some motorcyclists also drive on the pavements and will even have the shamefaced gall to honk at the pedestrian to give way. I have also had a bag snatched by a pavement rider. I am happy to inform you his heist was a sandwich and some photocopied â€˜Letâ€™s Goâ€™ books for young learners of English. Yet there is one pleasant urban walk that is nothing but a joy and which will provide you with insight into the lives of local people as well as into the origins of this great commercial megapolis. I am happy to share this with you here.
The stroll at a leisurely pace will take you around thirty-five minutes. All along the way, you will enjoy scenes of river life with its multifarious vessels from ocean liners to dugouts and the banks of Districts Two and Four. Should you stop for refreshment from the many vendors and cafes along the way and should you engage in conversation with the locals-many of whom are all too eager to practice their English-your ramble could turn into several enjoyable hours.
It starts abruptly in a shady corner which has an improvised tea stand opposite the Ton Duc Thang museum on the street of the same name. In amongst a file of coconut palms you can see cannon and grappling guns at defence of the river. Huge rock cannon balls stand to attention at their sides. Also, this is the end of the repair dock for ocean-going vessels and you can observe welders at work. This first one-hundred-metre section is a popular place for fishing and a rendezvous point for Saigoners looking for rest and relaxation. You will find a lot of motorbikes, but they are harmlessly stationary and quite neatly parked.
Section two is a large bonsai garden cum nursery which also has a waterside restaurant on its premises. There is a large pond which has enough colourful flowers planted around it to attract beautiful butterflies. After this, there is a booth and wharf belonging to a sightseeing and dinner cruise company. Then there is a river police station with river police boats docked alongside it.
You now are forced briefly to walk alongside the road and you come to section three, now calm, but a few years back was eternally thronged with our dear friends the Saigon motorbikes. This was the Thu Thiem ferry to District Two. Now it is another river cruise wharf and the building is a restaurant. On the other side of the road is the Riverside Hotel, which I had barely noticed before passing by on foot or in a vehicle. From this aspect you can enjoy its facade of classical friezes with its nymphs and cherubim. At the top, there is a placard in Vietnamese indicating that this old colonial building was originally The Saigon Cong Thuong Bank. There is a date given-1954.
Then again, after a few roadside steps, you turn into further gardens. Here berthed you will find two floating restaurants. The first is a converted passenger ship which features a sharkâ€™s mouth bow. At a gateway, there is an announcement of one-hour river cruises departing nightly, Chinese, Vietnamese and European dishes and live performances of traditional Vietnamese and modern music on separate floors. The second ship, clearly named La Perle de Lâ€™Orient (Pearl of the Orient, the old nickname for this city) is a three-tiered Chinese junk which could have been hauled from Halong Bay. Also from this standpoint, you get an excellent view of Saigonâ€™s tallest building, the soaring Bitexco Tower. At the end of this section is the popular resting place marked Cafe Kem.
Section five with its ATM machines will briefly bring you back to a more normal reality as taxi drivers and touts hustle for your custom. This is the Vung Tau high-speed ferry terminal. Thankfully, this lasts for a mere fifty metres. There is another ornate classic hotel frontage to be enjoyed; that of The Majestic Hotel, child of the â€˜art decoâ€™ era.
Inevitably, there needs to be a space to store the two-wheelers and section seven is a motorbike park; thankfully well-ordered. It is built around some small gardens.
Coming to part seven there is tiny port for small vessels only and then you come across the berth for one of the new wonders of Vietnam; a huge Chinese junk worthy of the explorer Cheng Ho, complete with gossamer sails, a top deck house and an even higher poop deck. You need to time you arrival well, as the junk is in dock here only after three p.m. in the afternoon. If you miss it, you will still be able to see it further along alongside the Ho Chi Minh Museum across the water in District Four.
You walk alongside the road again and the last and longest part of your stroll is clearly demarcated by a most welcome low-lying set of chains to keep out motorbikes. I met very few people on this half-mile. There were some girls walking their chihuahua, some lone fishermen and a group of boys playing football. I hardly felt I was in the heart of a big city.
Then, a gem of a discovery which I have never seen in the guide books. In amongst a shrubbery garden, there is a small yellow rotunda building with the national flag flying proudly from a tall mast. I went up to it for close inspection and there is an exhibition of panoramic photographs of this section of the river now and in former times all around it. The flag is significant. I had stumbled upon the old semaphore station. There is a notice at the door explaining it was built in 1865 just before the invention of radio and restored in 1900.
It is situated at the junction of the main river and a tributary. This would have been a very crowded waterway and some form of communication with shore was vital.
With District Four now on the other bank and buildings such as the Ho Chi Minh Museum and the City Law University in view, you pass under the arches of the recently built Khanh Hoi Bridge. The well-tended gardens are now very wide and the red brick pathway is flanked by dark green lamp posts from another time. Looking across the road, there are neo-classical bank buildings. This is the very essence of the existence of this city. It was born as the commercial hub for the immensely rich-at least agriculturally speaking-Mekong region and once you got your goods to these many wharves the banks had to be at hand in order to settle accounts.
Some may lament the fact that the banks of this smaller watercourse have, in recent years, been cleared of hundreds of houses on stilts that were part of the atmosphere of old Saigon and now can be seen only in photographs, but you have in its place a beautiful walkway and a haven of peace.
I chose to end my walk at a stunning cantilever bridge, a further legacy of the French. It is painted bright green and is now for pedestrians only and closed to vehicles. In the early years of this century, this was the main bridge to the south and I remember it was absolutely and constantly chock-a-bloc with traffic. By the bridge, there is a huge block of a modern building. There is no indication what it is, but I approached and heard a loud humming noise. I assume it is a power station. The pathway goes on for miles and the more adventurous may chose to wander and explore further.
I hope you have enjoyed my description of an urban stroll without tears. Should you undertake to walk it yourself, you will not fail to enjoy the daily life of Saigon both on land and river. You will also gain an intense appreciation of the history and origins of this vibrant city at this point where land, river and easy access to the sea are at their optimum point for commerce. Oh, and do not forget to take it in your stride and have a chat with the locals and partake of a nice cup of coffee and an ice cream along the way. Bonne promenade!
A park along waterfront
A ship on Saigon River
Ho Chi Minh Museum. Photos: Viet Binh