MY EXPERIENCES: Saigon’s District 11

From my research trip in late 2006…

I had been hearing about Dam Sen Park for years — the cheesy ‘Disneyland’ of Vietnam, where families went to hear pop songs, ride bumpercars and newlyweds to pose for photos in the Orchid Garden in front of bonsai plants and ancient-styled pavilions and fake waterfalls. I hadn’t gone — the 30- or 40-minute ride to the eastern neighborhood of District 11 had been too much of an obstacle for me on my lazy weekends, when I was living here in 1996-97. Yesterday I met up with Lonely Planet author Regis St Louis and invited him along.

Dam Sen runs along a amoeba-shaped, rather murky lake, where locals plop a few fishing lines in and swan-boat paddle boats for rent go to and fro. The sites of the park — the garden, sculptures of dragons made of tiny porcelain spoons, bird-watching areas where storks cannibalize smaller birds, a dinosaur parks, a ‘log ride’ past Vietnamese heroes of 1000 years ago, a full-on water park, and giant bugs you can sit on — run around the lake, as does a goofy little monorail that whips about ever 10 minutes or so.

Out here, locals are less accustomed to reddened foreign faces than in central Saigon, and wide-eyed kids yelled ‘hello’ and adults beckoned us for their photos every few steps — the sort of treatment you used to get in central District One that’s now mostly faded away with the mass of foreign visitors coming in.

Half a mile or so south is Giac Vien Pagoda, a 200-year-old crumbling pagoda in a poor neighborhood that’s reached by a snaking potholed road that was still flooded a few days after the last rain. About 10 monks live here, as do some apprentices. I entered the dark pagoda as they were re-painting the gold lettering of scripture on large cherry-stained wood planks that set aside Buddhas around the pagoda. I asked one what it meant, he said ‘I don’t know — it’s in Chinese!’

Another place I always wanted to see is the Phu To Race Course, where GIs gambled on horses during the Vietnam/American War (and many locals too) — it’s still there, cream-and-gold bandstand gives a faintly art-deco vibe, as food stands at the base of the bleachers do brisk business with the ballcapped guys who squat over the racing sheets (in English and Vietnamese). We were the only foreigners there, and a few guys came up to see what we were betting (for curiosity, for luck) and shook their heads disapprovingly at my No 8 that I staked 75 cents on. I came in second to last. Should’ve listened.

The race track is only open weekends (from 12.30pm to 7pm). Races go every half hour. It’s about $3 to enter. Dam Sen costs about $1.50 and is open daily. The water park is another $3.