Recently, I visited a place I told myself I’d never go again. On my previous excursion, it was the most depressing zoo outside of Minnesota (looking at you, Little Falls, MN): the Saigon Zoo and Botanical Gardens. And here I was again, ready for round two.

We weren’t even supposed to be there!

But, alas, the History Museum was on naptime lockdown (sigh. I feel I’ll never get used to that) for an hour and a half, and, with no where else to go, my friend Kasia and I ventured into the zoo next door to take some pictures, stroll around, and generally be snarky and judge-y about the whole thing. We’d both been there before, and, unlike her, I wanted to return to capture the sad on my upgraded camera. We were both afraid of being bummed out, but with nothing else to do, we reluctantly drifted in.

What a shock we had. Merely four months ago, this place was a decrepit wonderland of depression. Animals were skinnier and more despondent, attendance was lower, and it felt kind of run down. This time, admission prices had doubled (from a scant 6000 VND to a slightly less scant 12000 VND, or about .60 cents USD), the grounds had been given a makeover, several new habitats were under construction, and there were people! People everywhere! The most exciting animal in the park!

Continue on to see a few of my favorite pictures and my suggestion for a plan…

The lions (when we finally found them!) were still pretty listless and sad, but I have to admit that zoo appeared improved in many ways. Aesthetically and emotionally, it went from “definitely stay away, because it’s sad and the worst” to “bring a picnic and spend half a day relaxing in an urban oasis” status. The nearby History Museum and Buddhist Temple only add to the experience.

That’s progress. It appears that an increasing amount of disposable income among the growing middle class has the potential to revitalize this place. (Sidenote: Vietnam recently reported a pretty great financial 2013 – good for you, Vietnam!)

Admittedly, the zoo has a long way to go. Cages and environments on the whole are fairly tiny, the elephants and lions are the saddest ever, and for some reason the porcupine pit is bigger than the hippo’s whole environment… but it’s progress, I guess. And in a country developing as rapidly as Vietnam, it’s a mark of pride to have a historic landmark like this already established. This is an asset that deserves attention… and, somewhat surprisingly, it appears to be getting it.

The zoo has a seriously impressive bonsai collection – this is just a fraction. There were dozens and dozens!


My suggested itinerary:
Bring a blanket and picnic lunch about mid-morning. See the animals and stroll about the gardens, finishing with a lazy lunch and nap on the grass, then spend your early afternoon (after 1:30) checking out the adjacent History Museum and temple at a leisurely pace. Done by 2:45 at the latest.

Peeking through the shrubbery approaching the very old orchid house.

The gardens were lush and appeared to be well-maintained, but honestly, it’s sort of hard to kill plants here… unless you forget to water them (like I’ve been known to do).

I don’t think I’ll ever, ever get over sights like this: bizarre palm trees make me feel like I’m on alien soil!

Everything in its place and a twisting stone walkway. A glimpse of still
more of the bonsai collection and the orchid house in the background. Beautiful.

There are over 1000 plant varieties in the garden’s collection, some valued
quite highly. All I know is that they’re real purty.

The not-in-season orchid house – beautiful even when not in bloom! 

People are jerks. Find a gazebo to doodle on,
you hooligans!

I used to call Pink Flamingos “Pink Bingos” when I was little. These were
more like Light Pink Bingos. Did you know that knobby thing on their
legs is where their ankles start?
“What’s a baby hippopotamus called?”
“…A hippolet?”
“It is now.”

The property is dotted with gazebos and shady benches
for relaxing. Families were making the most of these
on my second visit. …and seriously? C’mon, hooligans.
The elephants were pretty sad.

The Vietnamese elephant population is on the brink of total extermination – most estimates state that there are less than 70 in the whole country, and some predict less than 15. It’s unknown if they can be saved. Government programs are woefully inadequate and the state has no proven track record with environmental protections of this nature (whomp whomp). There is also no current NGO working toward this goal in Vietnam, as far as I can find. It appears that unless drastic actions are taken (many of which would impact the livelihood and day-to-day routine of small villages), the vietnamese elephants days are numbered. So enjoy the three this zoo has, I guess.

A magical castle that leads to a magical deer-viewing walkway.

Turtle parade! Look at that goofy one balanced on the others back in the upper left.
How did he even get up there??

Look at this handsome feller!

I love porcupines, but do 3 of them need more space than the lions?

DERP DERP. Lots of hand-painted signs in the older parts of the zoo.

I CAN HAZ…Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. …a nap, I guess. Yes you can, Lion.

This guy has the right idea (as do those lions!). With the zoo boasting as many chill-worthy lawn spots as it does, the grounds make a great and cheap way to get out of the hubbub of the city and re-center yourself – especially given the great District 1 location. Far enough away from Bui Vien to keep out the riffraff, but central enough to provide a great environment for city-dwellers and visitors making the extended rounds.

The Botanical Garden’s collection is impressive and a good example of the tropical plants of SE Asia. The animal habitats are OK, but you can tell that many of the animals do not have as much space as they’d like. Many looked listless and bored, and a lot were skinnier than similar specimens I’ve seen in the past at other zoos. If you can look past that, I’d urge you to spend a morning strolling around and supporting this pretty, historic site.

Here’s hoping the improvements continue! Given the construction areas roped off, it looks like that will happen. Next up, will we see animal dwelling upgrades? I’m looking forward to see if this zoo has the same development momentum that has been sweeping through the city. Stay tuned!