Can Gio is a family friendly escape from the city with something for everyone

Text by James Pham

Images by Quinn Ryan Mattingly

Heading south from the Bach Dang Pier in District 1, a cruise along the Saigon River is an exercise in serenity. City life incrementally gives way to country. Bridges get less ornate, more utilitarian. The familiar view of tall Phu My Hung apartment blocks morph into stilted houses in an oddly pleasing geometric patchwork of unintentionally colorful metal siding. In mere minutes, we suddenly realize that not only are there no high rises, but no buildings whatsoever break the low treeline. We are out of Saigon.

A stiff breeze rushes through the speedboat, carrying away with it motorbike honking and urban smells as we leave the haze of the city behind. In its place, family groups pull up nets from their small boats, a haphazard collection of fish, eel and the occasional monitor lizard their reward. Repurposed styrofoam coolers mark where the 30 meter long nets have been left overnight. As the river widens and narrows, we slow down so as not to disturb barges laden with fresh water servicing local families who only have access to the brackish river water. In a play on words, they refer to it as doi nuoc or “trading water,” instead of the more treasonous “selling water” which also translates to “betraying your country.”

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We stop for a quick walk around the market of Can Giuoc where the vendors are refreshingly unjaded by the presence of tourists. Old women offer toothless smiles for the cameras, egging each other on with playful banter across the aisles about making it onto television (even though there are no TV cameras in sight). In this riverside market, fishing nets are as much at home as feather dusters and kitchen utensils. The people here are the salt of the earth; a woman nonchalantly snips the heads off still live frogs while chatting to a neighbor. Another tends to her crates of fluffy chicken and duck chicks.

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The journey itself is every bit as engaging as the destination. We pass high concrete structures totally unadorned and unfinished with a solitary window at the top. They’re nesting sites for swallows, complete with loudspeakers which play chirping sounds to attract the profitable birds whose nests fetch up to USD3,000 per kilo, popular with Chinese ladies recovering from pregnancy.

Birds, Crocs, Monkeys and Bats

By late morning, we reach Can Gio, the only trapezoid of green on a Google map of the area. A 714 square kilometer expanse of mangrove forests connected by 800km of waterways, Can Gio was declared a world biosphere reserve by UNESCO in 2000. Previously a battle zone then a re-education camp, the government-owned site is now home to a Noah’s Ark of animals, great and small. We pull into the jetty at Vam Sat Nature Preserve and set on a walk of the dense, woody forest, exposed roots protruding downwards like many discarded umbrella frames. Rustic wooden bridges built over a maze of canals recall every cai luong karaoke video ever made. The air positively hums with bird calls of every kind. But only when we climb the 10m tall viewing tower does it become apparent that practically every treetop is heavy with migrating waterbirds. Dark cormorants, snow white herons and snake-eating crow pheasants (often found in medicinal wines, feathers and all) provide a raucous soundtrack so conspicuously missing from city life. A short walk takes us to crabbing ponds where we try our hand at slowly lifting the baited rods, gleefully scooping up our prize which is later steamed for lunch.

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Before this trip, I was somewhat dreading what I would find at Can Gio. “There’s beach, but it’s very dirty. You can’t swim there,” my Vietnamese friends told me. For them, sea equates to swimming. “The animal abuse at the monkey circus is horrendous,” warned my foreign friends. As an animal lover, I was pleasantly surprised to see the atypical tasteful restraint displayed in the parks and sanctuaries that dot the area. We wisely avoid the animal circus at Monkey Island, instead opting for a visit to the crocodile enclosure where we take a pontoon out to see the animals up close. I am thankful for the security railing when the surprisingly agile crocs launch themselves out of the water, twisting in tight coils, making multiple snaps in search of a snack. The powerful jaws clap shut with a thunder-like bang. Being that close to the wild animals is at once terrifying and exhilarating.

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Soon enough, we stop for lunch at the Nghe Doi Bat Sanctuary. While a feast of claypot dishes and seafood, including the mud crabs from the morning’s expedition, is being prepared, we’re rowed in small boats to see the red and black mangrove forest up close. Furry fruit bats with 1m wing spans hang from the trees, watching the boats silently glide through the forest.

After a late lunch, we make our way back onto the boat. Too soon, the jungle greens and avian whites are replaced by steely grays and urban browns. It’s been good to have spent the day where the river meets the sea.

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Can Gio riverboat tours are operated by Les Rives and can be booked through Exotissimo by visiting www.exotissimo.com