The hypnagogic and psychedelic Suoi Tien (Fairy Stream) in District 9 is worth the slightly long drive it takes to get there. A theme park paying homage to Buddhism and 4,000 years of Vietnamese culture, giant sized sculptures of sacred dragons, tortoises, monkeys, phoenix, lions, tigers and bears fill the venue. The centrepiece of it all is the Statue of Bodhisattva with a Thousand Eyes and Arms that was erected in 2010 at a cost of VND8 billion.
Suoi Tien is believed to be a “legendary place, an uninhabited land that has a natural stream flowing by [and] has become the land of four supernatural creatures”. This spiritual atmosphere prevails throughout the sprawling leafy grounds. Roller coasters, an enormous water park, lakes with peddle boats, a crocodile kingdom and a dolphin palace with actual dolphins doing tricks. These are just some of the features of this ongoing project. But what sets Suoi Tien apart from the rest are the mass prayer ceremonies and Buddhist festivals held here every month. — SC
To experience the good times, visit suoitien.com
Go Club Thumping
Your shoes are sticking to the floor, your drink is more ice than alcohol and the overloud music is making the air shimmer before your eyes. This is a typical Saturday night at a local club in Saigon — lounging in a VIP booth with a bottle of spirits, getting served by evening gown wearing hostesses and then waiting until enough alcohol has entered your bloodstream that it’s suddenly time to dance like someone’s chasing you.
Going clubbing may sound rather innocuous in terms of a bucket list activity, but Vietnamese clubbing is a class apart and a great place to people watch with different orientations, ages and classes all moving to the beats thrown down by the DJs.
These clubs are well worth a look, and we dare you to dance. You never know, you might even start something. — JA
Keep on the Grass
One of the more unusual leftovers from colonial era Vietnam is grass skiing (truot co). While it may sound relatively harmless, it’s not for the weak-hearted. Depending on your disposition, you can roll down the first hill on a six-wheeled sledge using reigns to guide you safely. Or not so safely, as the case may be — we witnessed three guys crash and overturn their sled. Alternatively you can strap on white ski boots that are locked into stubby, wheeled skis and slalom down the second hill using ski poles to give yourself the illusion of control.
Rides down the hills cost VND15,000 during the week and double that on the weekends. Both mounds are gently graded and the rides are kid-friendly. Although nothing quite compares to the adrenaline-pumping ride up the Hanoi Highway to get to Vuon Xoai (Mango Garden Resort, 114 Ap Tan Cang, Phuoc Tan, Bien Hoa, Dong Nai) where it’s all located. — CB
Ice? In Saigon? From sunrise to sunset it rarely dips below 300C and sweat pouring down your face is a daily occurrence. However, Skateland offers an alternative reason for you to perspire. Okay, there’s no real ice and the rink is smaller than the standard ones in the west, but the room is kept air-conditioned at a decent 180C. If you squint you can almost believe it’s the real deal. It’s pleasantly surreal when you’re ice-skating in a tropical climate.
Skateland is located on the third floor of the Youth Cultural House (4 Pham Ngoc Thach, Q1) and is open from 8.30am to 10.30pm. It’s a cheap date, too, costing VND60,000 for 90 minutes, which includes skate hire and basic instructions for beginners. — SC
Find Inner Peace
The city’s a pretty crazy place and anyone who’s had to battle bikes in traffic or battle off pushy sales ladies can attest to the need to exhale some steam. But there’s no need to head off into the wilderness to find solace and serenity because the Vietnam Buddhist Research Institute is located conveniently close at 750 Nguyen Kiem, Phu Nhuan. Van Hanh Pagoda is home to a weekly meditation session that is attended by local Buddhist devotees as well as interested attendees from overseas. Join 100 peace seekers for a service and meditation session on Sunday mornings from 7am.
Sessions are free of charge and led by Mr Tam Duc, vice rector of the university. The sessions begin with a walking meditation followed by a Dhamma (truth taught by Buddha) talk then a sitting meditation. Guidance about concentration is provided for newcomers. It’s the perfect chance to discover a little more about a powerful yet very individual and personal practise. Participants emerge from the sessions relaxed, refreshed and ready to dive back into the city. — SC
Catch and Release
Every evening people gather with fishing rods on the banks or bridges overlooking the Saigon River and the many canals and creeks that feed into it.
On a good night, amateur fishermen like electronics salesman Bach will catch a healthy anabas (ca ro), pangasius krempfi (ca bong lau) or catfish (ca tre) to take home for the hot pot. But most nights they’re more likely to throw back something not yet large enough to cook or a vast array of sodden plastic bags.
Night fishing here is more about socialising than becoming the latest pin-up in The Angling Times. At the mouth of the canal separating District 4 from District 1, a lone vendor does a slow trade in the black beetles and crickets the fishermen use as bait (VND10,000 for a packet of 10). It’s a quiet night.
Nonetheless several fishermen sit around in pairs or small groups, smoking cigarettes and sipping beer. They’ve caught nothing besides plastic bags — and each other’s lines — but they seem to enjoy the camaraderie of men enjoying respite from work and the predictability of domestic life.
“After work time, I love to come here, just to relax,” says Bach. “I can enjoy fresh air, the breeze, the serenity and it’s exciting when the fish bite.”
If he does catch a large enough fish, Bach will take it home to cook, but only after he soaks it in fresh water for 24 hours to ensure the toxins from the river system are cleared from its bowels. — RS
Puncture The Pain
Those without health or medical insurance take heed because this little-known gem could save you and your wallet from a world of pain.
Located in District 1 at the end of Nguyen Trung Ngan just off Ton Duc Thang sits St Paul’s Monastery, a vast and beautifully designed French colonial-era Catholic house of worship that somehow manages to evade public attention.
Within its grounds is a small clinic run by ten sweet, elderly nuns who provide specialist acupuncture treatment and Chinese herbal medicines to those who can’t afford modern medical care. Open since 1982, the Dan An Acupuncture Clinic is open Monday to Friday from 7am to 11am. No appointment is required, and all manner of ailments can be treated, from stress-based disorders, muscle and joint pains to cardiovascular and circulation problems, and post-stroke rehabilitation.
Though treatment is essentially free, the nuns ask those with enough cash spare to pay for their care in order to help with the clinic’s running costs. And considering a pack of acupuncture needles sets you back only VND50,000, it’s a small price to pay.
The acupuncture sessions last 15 minutes and involve two styles of treatment depending on the type and severity of the problem/injury; the needles are either inserted into the affected area of the body freely with a Chinese deep-heat numbing spray applied and a heat lamp placed overhead, or connected to a machine where a gentle electrical current passes through the needles to stimulate and release endorphins for the purpose of pain relief. — JT
Attend a Countryside Wedding
A lot of fuss, pomp and ceremony is thrown into Vietnamese weddings in Saigon. However, forget the red carpet, champagne fountains, celebrity MCs and on-stage speeches. For the real deal you need to attend a wedding out in the sticks.
The night before the ceremony represents the closest thing to a stag and hen party in Vietnam, with the bride and groom retreating to their respective family homes for an entire day’s worth of drinking, dancing, eating and hedonistic revelry with their friends and relatives. Well, at least, that’s what the groom does.
Those unfamiliar can be forgiven for feeling slightly overwhelmed by all the festivities. If you’re (un)lucky enough to be the only foreign guest, prepare to gorge on a seemingly infinite supply of delicious home-cooked food and imbibe as much rice wine as you can physically stomach, and then some. Everyone will want a piece of you and they do NOT take no for an answer.
The live entertainment often includes scantily clad ladyboys stepping up to the mic, serenading the masses. The sight of inebriated country folk grinding up against transvestites while pushing fistfuls of dong in between their plastic breastplates is simply unforgettable. Politically incorrect? Very. Bizarre? Oh yes. Hysterical? Goes without saying.
And following a ridiculously early (and hung over) start the following morning for the all-important nuptials, the whole routine begins again. It’s intense, overwhelming, relentless, exhilarating, not to mention exhausting and the most fun you’ll probably ever experience at someone else’s wedding (or even maybe your own). — JT
Give Your Time
Doing volunteering work is a good way to step outside your everyday routine of work, nighttime dining and bar hopping. It’s certainly not for everyone and it can be quite the rude awakening, but the side of Ho Chi Minh City that was previously in shadow brightens up and suddenly your perspective changes. The city, and you, too, begin to grow. You won’t save the world, you may not even get a thank you, but that’s not really the point.
Volunteering at a charity organisation, whether it’s an orphanage or hospital, could inspire you to give more of your time. Then again, it could also inspire you to run far away, write a cheque and never return. Either way, it’s worth the time and effort involved in finding out.
There are those who believe they have nothing to offer, but luckily being a human and just showing up is all that is generally required. Everyone has something to contribute even if it’s just their compassion. Volunteering may not be for everyone, but giving it a go is the only way to find out. Many couldn’t live in Saigon without it, volunteers included. — JA
I Heart Snake
While this culinary experience will definitely not go down well with animal rights activists, consuming a cobra’s beating heart is a rite of passage for any man who wants to prove his might in this country.
Speciality restaurants stock the snakes alive and usually in a deep concrete basin in the back of a restaurant. When a customer orders this slivering dish, a charmer pins the snake’s head down and firmly holds the jaw shut.
The first part of the meal consists of the snake’s blood. To extract it, the tip of the tail is cut off and the blood drips into a bowl of coconut juice to prevent clotting. After a sufficient quantity is collected, it is mixed with rice wine, and the soup of blood and wine is now ready to be served as an appetiser.
For the main course, the still living snake is sliced open and its cardiac organ quickly ripped out. The heart, still beating, is then rushed over to the table and dropped into a glass of wine/blood/coconut milk concoction. The heart must be consumed before it stops beating, and when both your heart and the snake’s are inside your body. Et voila, your virility and manhood is solidified. — Christine Van
Brave eaters searching for their very own rite of passage can find snake at Huong Rung (371A Nguyen Trai, Q1) or Tri Ky (82 Tran Huy Lieu, Phu Nhuan)