30. Where the Wild Things Are

The Saigon Zoo & Botanical Gardens, one of the oldest such parks in the world, shares its urban campus with a wonderful history museum.

A leopard takes a midday nap in its enclosure at the Saigon Zoo. (JGA photo)

“Something tells me it’s all happening at the zoo,” American singer-songwriter Paul Simon opined in the mid-1960s. “I do believe it. I do believe it’s true.”

I have always loved visiting the zoo. Beginning with some of my earliest memories at The Oregon Zoo in Portland, famous for its elephant breeding program, I have been thrilled to support zoological parks all over the world. From New York to San Diego, Tokyo to Melbourne — and even in lesser-known zoos such as Bukittinggi, Indonesia, and Colombo, Sri Lanka (remember The Life of Pi?) — I have been privileged to observe creatures that I will never see in the wild.

It was inevitable that during my residence in Ho Chi Minh City, I would become somewhat of a regular at the Saigon Zoo and Botanical Gardens. Not only was it a short walk (about half a mile) from my apartment in the Binh Thanh District; it also offered an oasis of ample greenery within the concrete jungle of a city of 13 million people.

The view across Ben Nghe canal from Saigon Zoo includes Binh Thanh district and Landmark 81 tower. (JGA photo)

Spread across 50 acres on the south bank of the Thi Nghé canal in District 1, just above íts confluence with the Saigon River, the botanical garden opened in 1864, with its initial animal habitat completed the following year. That makes it the eighth-oldest, continually operating zoo on earth. Part of a French colonial building frenzy that also included the Ben Thanh Market, the Nôtre-Dame Cathedral and the central post office, it was nevertheless conceived from the start as a place to conserve native plants and to breed rare Asian animals. Today it has an added mission of providing environmental education.

And it shares its acreage with the Museum of History of Ho Chi Minh City, where visitors can learn a little about the 300,000-year history of Vietnam before Europeans and Americans got so unceremoniously involved.

An Indian rhinoceros tramps through its pen. Vietnam’s last native rhino was killed by poachers in 2011. (JGA photo)

It’s Just My Nature                                                                                     

The gardens claim about 3,000 trees of 260 species, a few of them planted in the 19th century. There are also precious collections of native orchids, cacti and manicured bonsai.

The zoo is home to nearly 1,000 animals of 125 species, including all the usual suspects: elephants, giraffes, lions, tigers, rhinos, hippos, crocodiles, and African savannah hoof stock such as zebras and antelope. The primate domains are particularly popular, with their chimpanzees, orangutans, macaques, gibbons, langurs and doucs.  There are dedicated flamingo and butterfly gardens, a mini-waterpark and a redeveloped children’s playground with a Ferris wheel and roller coaster.

A feral cat is at home in the light foliage near the elephant enclosure. (JGA photo)

I don’t always see what everyone else sees. I seek out the rhinoceros, knowing each time that its species will not survive on this planet very much longer. I’m fascinated by the feral cats that cling close to the elephant enclosure. I’m concerned when I see that the gate to the captive home of the Indochinese tiger — a notorious man-eater, of course — has been left wide open. I’m curious if the fortune tellers plying their trade beside a small café can tell me where the tiger has gone, or if its diet might include feral cats.

Eyes of a Child

On my most recent visit, I was accompanied by my friend Phong Lan and her 10-year-old son, Huy. Being joined by a bright and well-behaved child, of course, added a whole new dimension to my appreciation of the zoo.

The rarely seen binturong, or bearcat, has a home at the Saigon Zoo.. (JGA photo)

Unsurprisingly for a lad of his age and gender, Huy liked the reptile house. Black cobras and gray-green iguanas were his favorites. A dozen large crocodiles, chomping at the bit near the children’s playground, were another pick. Sun bears, wild boars, hyenas and the rare forest-dwelling binturong also drew Huy’s attention.

I don’t think he even missed the Indochinese tiger, indigenous and endangered, as there were a couple of Indian white tigers in another enclosure. Mostly, he liked eating lunch — sitting near the elephants enjoying his mom’s homemade sandwiches with carrots and cucumbers.

The Museum of History of Ho Chi Minh City stands near the Saigon Zoo’s main entrance. (JGA photo)

History Comes to Life

Within the zoo’s boundaries are two other buildings of note. The National Hung King Ancestor Temple was built in 1926 to honor Vietnamese soldiers who fought and died for France during World War I. It was rededicated in 1955, after the ouster of the French colonists, to the memory of Vietnam’s founding dynasty.

You can learn about the Hung kings, and so much more, just across the quadrangle in the Museum of History. Built in 1929 as a museum of Asian art, it was expanded in 1975 to showcase Vietnamese history. That was more than 4,800 years after the Hung kings’ progenitors — Dragon Lord Lac and his consort, Fairy Âu Cơ— sired 100 sons from a single egg sac, as legend would have it. Their Bronze Age leadership peaked with the Dong Son culture of the 8th to 2nd centuries B.C

Huy is fascinated by the intricate pattern in a Hindu carving of Champa origin. (JGA photo)

My young friend Huy learns his country’s heritage in school. He showed great interest in many of the interpretive exhibits in the museum. Much of the history is represented as great land and sea battles against China and other invaders like Hindu Champa. But there are also engaging displays of stone and bronze sculptures and wood carvings from Champa and the 2nd Century A.D. Óc Eo culture of the Mekong Delta region.

I love a good museum. I love the zoo even more. I will certainly return again.

A fearsome Indochinese tiger once lived here. (JGA photo)
Bronze chimpanzees encourage visitors to hear, think, speak nor see evil. (JGA photo)

Published by John Gottberg Anderson

Writer-photographer specializing in travel and food subjects ... member of the Society of American Travel Writers for more than 20 years ... former editor for the Los Angeles Times and France's Michelin Guides, among others

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