ATTRACTIONS - District 11

Campy and brash and holy and seedy – if you’re looking for an unusual day away from tourist hordes and the more jaded parts of Saigon, go to District 11.


Bug, Dam Sen Park, SaigonGoofy but well-kept, western Saigon’s Dam Sen Park has been Saigon’s Disneyland for years, where kids come to ride water slides, ferris wheels and bumper cars, and newlyweds pose in front of lush gardens and fountains. For a day in part of town that still is wide-eyed at the existence of The Foreigner, it makes for a great few hours (particularly on the weekend) – and can be easily combined with a few nearby sites for the bulk of a good day. The center of the park is Dam Sen Lake, where fishers put in a couple lines and is surrounded by a funny monorail that stops at two stations (a ride is 15,000D; US$0.95). Going around the lake in a clockwise direction, you’ll see the lovely Royal Garden with bonsai, traditional pavilions and ponds; a bird sanctuary with a steamy glassed-in observatory to watch long-beaked storks walk about; a fake waterfall; several rides and places to get bun bo Hue (spicy beef noodles; 14,000D (US$0.90); a water ride that floats agonizingly slowly till the pay-off slide; a dinosaur park; the busy water-world of DAM SEN WATER PARK; some giant bug statues that couples sit and chat on; and – in the exit passage – sculptures of dragons and birds and elephants made of spoons and plates. Pretty cheesy, but quite fun. If you’re not a local, you’re likely to get invited into a few photo shots or get a wide-eyed giggle.
Dam Sen Park: tel 969-3272, Lac Long Quan & Hoa Binh Q11, admission adult/children 18,000/12,000D (US$1.15/0.75), open 7am-9pm. Dam Sen Water Park: admission 45,000/30,000D (US$2.80/1.90), open 9am-6pm.


Dam Sen Pagoda caligraphers, SaigonTwo pagodas nearby are worth dropping by afterwards. About a half a mile south, Lac Long Quan St veers west, where an alley sign leads down a cobbled road to GIAC VIEN PAGODA, about two centuries old. In a poor area, the crumbling pagoda is certainly atmospheric, with funeral tablets lining dark walls in the entry and altars with ornate Buddha statues and smoking incense sticks. Several monks live in the premises, some paint the gold Chinese lettering on the wooden planks; one young one told me, ‘I don’t know what it says, it’s in Chinese!’ while an elder shook his head disapprovingly. A little over a mile north along Lac Long Quan St (past the Au Co St intersection and to the left), GIAC LAM PAGODA is Saigon’s oldest and far more well-kept than Giac Vien. Founded in 1744, the pagoda gets noted on some foreign visitors’ itineraries. Inside you’ll see ornate tables with teapots where you’re free to sit – and have tea – and chat. To the right, and out the doors, is where the monks sleep on open wood beds. Note two 10-panel illustrations along the right wall. The first, showing an ox gradually growing from black to white, follows the road to ‘truth’; the second traces the grisly sides of Hell, ending with the six types of reincarnation. Back in the main pavilion, prayers are led in the far room, past the tea tables; take your shoes off before venturing on.
Giac Vien Pagoda, open 7-11.30am, 1.30-7pm. Giac Lam Pagoda, open 5am-noon, 2-9pm.


Horse Race Gamblers, SaigonDon’t tell the monks, but a good next stop – on the way back to the center – is three-quarters of a mile southeast on Le Dai Hanh St, PHU TO RACE COURSE, a fun art-deco-styled race track with food stands, coffee shops, and ballcapped guys squatting over the race sheets (in Vietnamese and English). GIs spent free time here during the French and American wars; the communist government closed the bourgeoise practice in 1975, then reopened it – to crowds – in 1989. Races go on the half-hour and hour, preceded by looks of the horses (some jockeys can’t be over 12) on the paddock. Some betting windows can help place bets in English. It’s OK if you just want to bet a few thousand dong.
Tel 962-8205, admission 5000D (US$0.30), races from 12.30-7pm Sat & Sun

Planning: If you’re driving yourself on a motorbike, it helps to have a good-scale Ho Chi Minh City map. It’s probably better to arrange a xe om guy who knows the way (they cost about $2 per hour); hiring a car with driver runs $45 or so. You can leisurely see all the sites in six or seven hours (more if you’re really into swimming or gambling). The best place to eat is at Dam Sen Park.

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