The lily pond in Công Viên 23 Tháng 9, surrounded by an isolating and deeply relaxing grove of palm trees.

Today I want to take you on a tour of the park where I meet several of my clients, as well as my own personal Vietnamese tutor. On concrete benches beneath the shade of palm trees, in a section far away from the mosquitos that live in the pond, I learn and teach languages. Coupled with a ca phe da (iced coffee), banh mi, and folders full of language notes, my students and I learn languages together in the morning heat.

Leslie Knope would be proud! This repurposed park is today a thriving civic hub, one that I visit at least three times a week.

Located in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City’s District 1, Công Viên 23 Tháng 9, or September 23rd Park, is a long strip of greenery that brings a much-needed site for relaxation, exercise, socializing, and play to one of the city’s most hectic and international areas.

The park itself is long and relatively thin – only a block wide – and stretches from Quach Thi Trang Square to the enormous (and touristy) Ben Thanh market along Pham Ngu Lao street. It qualifies as a genuine social hub for many local residents as well as a beautiful relaxation site for tourists sipping coffee, smoothies, eating street food, and waiting for buses to destinations all over southern Vietnam and Cambodia. Interestingly, while I often see white people here, the only people that reliably talk to my while I wait for my tutor/students are Vietnamese – curious as always. Several times, in the middle of my lesson with my tutor, women stopped less than a yard away from us and just stared and listened to me butcher vocabulary words. Weird.

The park was once the site of the 19th century Saigon Railway depot, but after 1975 the station was demolished and relocated to its current home in District 3. Most of the site of the station was reconstructed into this park, which houses a lily pool, several hundred trees, potted sculpted plants, several public motorbike parking areas, festival grounds, a public pool (I think that’s what it is, at least), pavilions, sculptures, exercise equipment (like most municipal parks here), multiple coffee and ice cream shops, public toilets, and shady concrete benches every few feet.

Sidenote: just because there are public toilets available doesn’t mean people use them… of all the times I’ve seen people urinating (OR POOPING!) in public, this park is where I see it the most. I do not understand. There’s hardly a day that goes by when I don’t see a guy peeing on a tree or in the bushes somewhere. It’s really weird… especially considering I never see locals with water bottles.

Southern gateway to the overflow parking/festival grounds.

The residential areas directly surrounding the park are a mix of local Vietnamese homes, mid-range hotels, and backpacking hostels. This park is a mere 1 block away from the anything-goes-alley that is Bui Vien. There are travel agencies everywhere, bars, restaurants of a million different descriptions, currency exchanges, clothing and electronics retailers, tailors, ice cream parlors, hookah parlors, and, of course, coffee shops. Cafes everywhere (although this is not unique to this area)!

Several large-scale construction projects have been begun and abandoned due to economic reasons, including the locally-infamous Saigon Cultural Center (the “black hole of Saigon”), begun but abandoned in the Asian economic crisis. HCMC is currently in the middle of a mini construction boom, with several large-scale projects being developed in Districts 1, 3, and 10, and these will only serve to increase traffic to this vital stretch of greenery in an increasingly hectic city center.

Every tree on municipal land is numbered,
catalogued, and cared for by the city.

Buses used to be housed at the western end of the park, until the Ben Thanh bus terminal was set up at the opposite end, across from Ben Thanh market. Today, the perimeter of the park is wide and paved in the decorative cobblestone typical of downtown Saigon, and it’s difficult to walk up or down it without hearing the constant cry of “Motorbike?! Motorbike!! Where you go, sir??” from xe om drivers desperate to catch a fare. It’s also a reliable hangout for cyclo drivers, pedaling slowly up and down, waiting to take tourists on a one or two hour tour of the city. (A cyclo is a three-wheeled bicycle taxi, which first appeared during the French colonial period after a failed attempt to introduce the rickshaw. I haven’t taken one yet, but it’s on my list!)

Assorted flowers, pines, and palms line most parts of the
perimeter of the park.

Overall, the park is an excellent example of land that could have turned into a permanent construction-slum and was instead transformed into a beautiful, functional gateway to the rest of the city. Decorative arches at the center of both long sides welcome tourists and locals alike to the biggest event held here of the year, the Annual Spring Flower Festival. I have no doubt that the proximity of such an intense crush of tourists played a part in determining the development of the land, but I have no complaints. This park has served me well in the last two months, and I expect I’ll spend much more time in it in the years to come.

Personally speaking, while my tutor, students, and I originally started meeting in the AC of the Highlands Coffee across the street, we eventually moved to the park – cheaper, breezier, less distracting, and, ultimately, a little bit of much-needed nature in the chaos of the urban center.

Like I said, Leslie Knope would be proud!