An Afternoon at Saigon Zoo and Botanical Gardens
Meet some birds of a different feather
If the sunshine and heat of Saigon’s streets becomes a little too much to bear, keep your head up and make your way to the shady refuge of the always peaceful Saigon Zoo and Botanical Gardens. Established in 1865 by a French Veterinarian, it’s now one of the world’s oldest and the largest of its kind in Vietnam.
Home to some 590 animals and 1850 trees and plants it’s an ideal spot to spend a relaxing morning or afternoon but be warned – it can get a little busy on weekends and public holidays. Saigon Zoo is a hugely popular place for Vietnamese families, especially those visiting the city from the countryside who never see foreigners, so expect a few more curious looks directed at yourself too! Everyone’s happy at the Zoo and I personally find the complex one of the friendliest and most joyful places in the entire city.
There are actually two entrances to the zoo, but the one you’ll probably find the easiest is the main one at the end of Le Duan Street (the opposite end to Reunification Palace). It’s quite easy to spot, just look for the huge leafy trees and a few parked taxi’s that are usually under the big letters reading “Thao Cam Vien Saigon” (the parks name in Vietnamese). Inside the main gates you’ll also find the Vietnamese History Museum and a memorial dedicated to Vietnamese who died in World War I.
Firstly, when you visit the Saigon Zoo, I’d recommend it be with an objective outlook. Being one of the oldest zoo’s in the world, in what not too long ago used to be one of the world’s poorest countries, the enclosures and facilities are not quite up to our ‘western standards’, yet they’re constantly being improved upon. The zoo promotes itself as a centre to educate the public while helping to care for and conserve endangered species so rest assured, the animals here are treated with ample love and care from their dedicated keepers.
The Botanic Gardens and Zoo are intertwined but easy enough to navigate so after passing through the gates don’t feel confused about which one you should visit first. Turning left will lead you clockwise to the giraffes, rhinos and further on to the reptile house. Taking the path to the right will take you past the butterfly house, bonsai’s, the orchid house and onwards to a large lake that hosts a variety of lilies and resident birds.
Most of the ginormous dipterocarp trees scattered throughout the park are aged well over 100 years old and are some of the oldest in Saigon. They tend to pleasantly distract and you’ll find it hard not to be stopped in your tracks to slowly gaze upwards in awe at these leaved beauties.
Further on from the man-made lake are numerous aviaries housing dozens of birds from around the world that are placed, maybe in some kind of cruel joke, next to the big cats! A visit to the lions and tigers are always the highlight to any day at the zoo and the enclosures here are always surrounded with the amazed faces of kids and adults alike.
The zoo’s rare White Bengal tigers have recently become proud parents to a litter of 3, which is a great achievement, not only for them but also for the zoo. Needless to say, the fairly bare and concrete enclosure they reside in should be receiving a make-over in the near future.
Walking past the orang-utan enclosure, crocodile swamp, some hippos and along the canal side of the zoo you’ll find the home of half a dozen or so well-fed elephants. Nearby the elephant paddock is a monumental, colonial-era cage (almost as old as the zoo itself) which houses a variety of gibbons that spend most of their days eating, playing and screaming out to each other as they curiously watch us watching them. Monkey’s are always fascinating but the cage itself is so wondrous that it can easily distract your attention from the cheeky animals inside!
Located beside the Thi Nghe Canal, the zoo is also home to a healthy population of rats who have no doubt lived in harmony, ‘sharing’ food with the caged animals from inception but don’t worry, they tend to stay away from us humans!
As far as zoo’s go, it’s not huge and the shady paths make it an easy place to stroll about and get lost in the inner-city jungle. For those with young children, physical difficulties or for those just those who want to enjoy the ride, there are several small hop-on hop-off ‘trains’ which are usually stationed just inside the parks ticket booth, beside a small and vibrant amusement area for kids.
Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) is a fast growing city always looking to the future. Amongst its many projects on the drawing board is a plan for a ‘safari park’ about 50kms away to house some of the larger animals that simply need more space than the current zoo can provide. After this, Saigon’s Botanical Gardens and Zoo will then receive a massive upgrade to all animal enclosures and park amenities, with a goal to retain its classic charm.
Location: The main gate is at the intersection of Nguyen Binh Khiem and Le Duan streets, District 1
Opening Hours: 07:00 – 20:00 (May close earlier if it’s a quiet day)
Price: 50,000VND (US$2.20)