Can Gio Forest is a hidden gem of peace and nature in Saigon. But before you access the land, you'll have to go through a very different Saigon - an unknown part of the city.
If someone tells you that 2 days in Saigon is enough for the city, they’re completely wrong. Saigon has more than the Chinatown, Cu Chi Tunnel, historic sites, sky bars, tropical fruits, and a hundred kinds of tempting street food. For a 4 or 5 day trip, you can cruise downstream on the river to visit the lush, claustral delta landscape with precious traditional values of the Mekong Delta. For visitors who don’t have that much time, a day trip to Ben Tre or Can Gio Forest will be like a perfect escape from city life to a peaceful nature.
If Ben Tre, a coastal province in the Mekong Delta, is a popular name, Can Gio Mangrove Forest is still a secret to visitors. Located 40 km southeast of Ho Chi Minh City, this wetland contains a high degree of biodiversity, an oasis of calm and tranquility, and can be reached either by motorbike or bus. Or by speedboat, as I did.
I visited the biosphere reserve on the last day of 2019. Choosing to go by speedboat turned out to be a great decision. I not only avoided the traffic but also learned so much about the other side of Saigon that has changed my perspective on life. This city isn’t as glittering and dazzling as it is seen at night from the 22th floor of a rooftop bar. Our boat moved through polluted, black water of the Saigon River where slumdogs living in poverty along both sides. It demonstrates the best gap between the rich and poor in urban Saigon. It wasn’t a nice feeling for me to see these informal settlements mostly made of waste materials such as cardboard, tin, and plastic, closely packed in a situation of deteriorated infrastructure. Many clusters are just as small as the size of a double bed, lean into the shadows of lavish skyscrapers and high-end complexes. I could easily notice a mid-age man leaning sadly on the wall looking out of nowhere. Some children were seeing our boat cutting through the water, creating a pattern of waves along the vessel’s sides with curious faces. Their life must be much easier than their parents’. They don’t have to think about what to eat tomorrow or when their houses will be torn down for modern buildings while the compensation is insufficient to buy a new place.
Although the city takes up just 0.6% of the country's land area, the slums contains 8.34% of the population of Vietnam. You can see slums on District 4, Distric 8, and on the two banks of Saigon River where a large number of poor residents living in the shadow of Ho Chi Minh City’s high-rises.
On the other side of the river, there is cluster of tattered boats. Each of them holds a family with children.
The Japanese man in our group looked sadly to the slums. Many houses (if they can be called houses) are just as small as the size of a double bed.
Our group, including a Britain, a Japanese man, a Swiss family of 8, and me, stopped along the way at a riverside market. This is a great place for anyone who likes authentic local experiences. The market sells everything from flowers, vegetables, many kinds of meats that meet the daily shopping habits of Vietnamese people to local specialties. Kha, our local guide, is an interesting guy. He knows all the sellers in the market. He smiled, made some jokes, and talked to them closely as if he was one of their family members. Kha made our trip so much fun. He showed us many kinds of eggs and how the locals cook them, explained the difference in use of each knife that were sold by a friendly old woman. Our group was interested in the jackfruit wood cutting board so much that 8 cutting boards were sold at the drop of a hat. Kha made us laugh when he said he would think of selling cutting boards in his next tours because it seemed soon become a prospective business.
We stopped to visit Can Giuoc Market. As other parts of the country, people here go to the market every morning to buy food for the day.
As the main food of Vietnamese, rice is sold widely in every market. In the South, rice is grown mainly in the Mekong Delta.
Woodcutting board is very popular in Vietnam. Not like the wood cutting boards in the North which are very heavy, the ones selling here are made from jackfruit wood, giving them a light-weight.
Another 15 minutes cruising from the market took us to Can Gio. I was in awe of the beautiful scenery that I can never expect to find in a place that isn’t too far from the city. It was like stepping from the life of millions of people, polluted air, and vehicle horns to a land of green and peace. The emerald of water and mangrove jungles stretched mile after mile in front of my eyes that I couldn’t do anything but look with admiration on the creation of nature. We landed, disembarked, and entered Dam Doi (Bat Swamp). Kha unfolded to us the characteristics of mangroves that are principal coastal features of tropical climates before we rode a rowboat to see the bat. Bats in this area are fruit bats. They live on the tree and eat fruits. When the sun went up and shined the upper canopy, hundreds of bats flapped their wings in unison, flying downwards to avoid the light, breaking the quiescence of the swamp.
It's hard to believe that, just 40 kilometers from a noisy and polluted Saigon, there is an oasis of green and beauty
This area isn't receiving cell-signals. See the red phone on the left of this photo? It's a message that you can leave your phone off your life for a moment to enjoy nature.
The soil in shallow areas of mangal forests is typically flooded during high tides, the trees in Can Gio mangrove forest have aerial roots to take up oxygen from the air
Each of mangroves has its own special characteristics added to the fruits and plants to help increase survival of offspring. With this mangrove in Can Gio, the seedling grows out through the fruit to form a ready-to-go seedling (photo). Once mature, it will drop into the water to form a new mangrove. The seedling can survive for over a year before arriving in a suitable environment.
This mangrove looks so nice and green? Be careful! Its sap can burn your skin.
There were three wooden boats waiting to take us to the bat area
This is the wonderful land for someone who is looking for a getaway from the busy daily life. This bird didn't show any fear when our boats were rowing by.
A paradise of nature and an oasis of peace...
... when the loudest sound was the flapping of the bats when they were flying downwards to avoid the sunlight. The fruit bats here can weight to 2kilograms. Every night, they fly down the Mekong River up to 15 kilometers to find the food.
Rowing a boat on the quiet swamp was definitely my most favorite memory of the trip.
From the Bat Swamp, we cruised 10 minutes backward to Vam Sat Park where we learned about its ecosystem, animal, bird, and plant life. From our tuk-tuk, we drove deep inside the island, breathed in the pure fresh air of wild nature. We saw Kha holding a big bag of fruits walking in front of us. Thirty to forty monkeys, big and small, running after him like following their elder brother who just brings them good things. Kha instructed us to feed a shy female monkey whose tail is broken. Her short tail prevents her from jumping from branch to branch to find the food and she is always bullied by other monkeys. That is the reason why she is so close to Kha who always saves the best food for her on his every visit. We also visit the crocodile reserve which provides a living environment for the saltwater crocodiles so they won’t attack fishermen. If you visit Vam Sat from April to October, you will have a great chance to observe thousands of birds flying back to the mangroves to build their nests and lay eggs. November and December are the best time to visit Can Gio due to cool weather, but these two month are also the migration season of the bird.
There are many monkeys on Vam Sat. They are playful and wild so we just sat on the tuk-tuk watching them.
The monkeys are familiar to Kha. They ran to him when he called them.
Kha's best friend: a broken-tail female monkey.
I don't remember how many crocodiles live in this swamp but four of them are handicapped. One with a broken tail, one is left eye blind so we had to feed him from his right. Because the crocodiles have attacked and killed humans, they moved them to this reservation to protect them in a natural living space.
Rowing a boat was enjoyable, learning about the mangroves was fascinating, and feeding monkeys and crocodiles were amazing, but our trip was incomplete without the riverside lunch that the British guy insisted that was his highlight of the trip. Located on a vast area of 5 acres, the restaurant looks to the windy fields and ponds where you can go fishing if you want to. Vietnamese cuisine was well cooked and sufficient to make the lunch delicious but not wasteful. We spent 1 and a half hour there, half of the time was relaxing and enjoying the cool breeze coming from the fields: Wonderful moment that you might want to stay forever. Family members of the landholder are trained to cook for visitors so they can afford their living instead of selling their home. That’s what we call travel sustainability: We enjoy authentic travel experiences while giving back to the local people.
Leaving the mangrove forest, we cruised 10 minutes on the way back to the riverside restaurant where we had lunch. If you visit Can Gio from April to October, you can climb up the observatory to watch the birds.
We had lunch at the thatched-roof house on the right. The smaller one is the kitchen where family members prepared the dishes.
The fishes we ate were caught from one of these ponds. Vegetables were grown here too. This was a kind of farm-to-table experience.