New Year’s Day 2015
As the the inner districts of Ho Chi Minh sprawl to nearly 500km2 , and I live pretty close to the centre, it is hardly a hop and skip to see something a little greener than the concrete jungle. Thumbing through guidebooks and internet pages Cần Giờ Mangrove Forest and the Vam Sat eco centre only around 50km for the city and so hopefully ‘doable’ in a day. With maybe just a little help and local knowledge from friends.
My first experience of public transport Vietnamese style. Riding my motorbike I have developed an aversion to buses, their bulk and fumes being nothing but a nuisance; being in one was a different story. Rickety, old and at times crammed. Yet they ran on time and at less than 20p for any journey they were certainly an economical option. Our number 20 bus was there when it should be and all three of us managed to get seated for the first leg where the journey was bisected by the Saigon river.
Ferries crossed and recrossed constantly so within five minutes we were climbing up to the foot passenger deck. Cần Giờ province begins as you step on to land. Passengers being met with a bustling market. Food and drink ‘to go’ being sold from shops and stalls. Sugarcane juice, coconut, ice tea or water. Bánh mì and delicious pork dumplings.
Milling crowds clambered and squeezed on to busses and we shoe-horned our way on to our first stop ‘Monkey Island’. ‘Interesting’ is the best I adjective I can find. Monkeys have been fed and teased to a point where they have no fear of humans.
They will steal anything which remotely looks like food. Ice creams, water, even hats with buttons. Animal empathy is not high here and so thieves were met with kicks and shouts and beating sticks from the very humans who were laughing at their antics a few minutes before. Some animals, including monkeys and porcupines were kept in cages with no stimulus and little food and water.
Suffice to say we did not stay long at this ‘Tourist Attraction’ but headed, once more by bus, to the Cần Giờ reserve. From where we were boat was the only way into the visitors centre. Where the bus dropped us was little indication there was even a forest, let alone a swamp. But down a dirt track and past some rickety shacks the forest and river unexpectedly appeared.
We’d all misread the price of boat hire and at first it looked as though we were not going to go as we didn’t have enough cash and cards were not accepted. But with a few minutes debating and a phone call we were given a discount down to our pooled resources.
Blue, green and open sky. Fresh air and quiet. Such a contrast to the city. The boat ride the best experience of the day. Eco tourism is not yet a strength.
The centre had little to offer bar feeding crocodiles, lunch and a rather incongruous memorial bridge, leading to nowhere but with a viewing platform high above the forest.
En route we were detoured round a bat colony, sadly still being netted and hunted so numbers are declining even though the colony itself is protected. Now is not the best time for birds but egrets, herons and other waders fished on the side and in shallow areas.
Some large barges lumbered along the river but otherwise there was little traffic to disturb the wildlife and I am sure it would be worth a return in the nesting season between April and October.
If you find yourself with a spare day it is worth a trip. I would skip Monkey Island and head straight for Cần Giờ reserve.