Home to a whopping 13 million inhabitants, it is changing so rapidly that buildings seem to grow of their own accord, fed by sunlight and rain, while new streetside businesses open seemingly overnight. There is excitement in this expansion, however, it comes at a cost: more development means the city’s already scarce natural spaces are being swallowed up whole. Even innocent roadside trees are sacrificed to make room for this monstrous expansion.
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Though there’s no shortage of food, culture, or history, stay here for longer than just a few days and it gets easy to forget the natural splendor of the rest of the country. From the magnificent multi-colored rice fields that dot the mountains of Sapa in Ha Giang Province to the breathtaking waterways weaving amidst the infamous limestone cliffs of Ninh Binh Province, or the fresh and fertile valleys of the country’s Central highlands – plus so many others – there’s no denying that Vietnam’s got lots of green to go around.
Image source: Saigon Zoo
Unfortunately, that's not the case for Saigon. Though there is much to wish for, the situation is not totally bleak. Fortunately, city dwellers have the Saigon Zoo and Botanical Gardens--a place where nature and history have been enshrined in a way that is bittersweet but necessary.
The HCMC Zoo and Botanical Garden: A Brief History
The Saigon Zoo of today is teeming with history. At 150 years old, it stands as one of the oldest zoos in the world, and a time capsule for some of the country’s most impactful eras. Commissioned in 1864 by the French Admiral Pierre de la Grandiere, the zoo, like many other colonial artifacts sprinkled throughout the city, reeks of an era of global European Dominance through colonialism, industrialisation, and the exoticism of people, artifacts and animals. The zoo has stood through two of the countries most defining periods of war– the fight for freedom from French oppression, and the American-Vietnamese War.
Image source: Saigon Zoo
Originally, the zoo was designated by the government for conservation efforts. As poaching, trophy hunting, and the illegal animal trade started to take a toll on the regions endemic species, the Zoo was created to help conservationists. The intention was for a space to learn about and breed animals found in the surrounding countries. Five years later in 1869, the breeding grounds opened its 20 hectares of exhibits and gardens to the public. At that time, the young zoo boasted just over 500 animal species.
During the mid-1920s, the Saigon Zoo underwent a period of great expansion. It incorporated another 13 hectares from the northern bank of the Thi Nghe canal, ushering in a new era of history, flora and fauna in the park. A botanical garden featuring a wide variety of plants from far-off places was added. Exotic cacti and aloe vera, bonsais and unfurling ferns, magnolia and banyan trees, allowed visitors to meander through the foliage of the world without the boundaries of cages and bulletproof glass.
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During the same time, the Hung Kings Temple was erected to commemorate fallen soldiers who fought to free the country from French Colonial rule. The temple sits at the entrance to the zoo and is hard to miss with its Chinese inspired architecture of upward curled tiers. The aesthetic intentionally defied the architectural norms that defined most landmarks erected during French colonial rule.
Over time the zoo developed a well-intentioned effort to emphasize conservation and education. Between the 1980s and 2000s, many planning strategies were implemented to help improve the living conditions of the animals, though visitors from Western Countries might find it hard to believe.
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The Zoo of Today and Tomorrow
At the intersection of the wide, Parisian-esque Le Duan street and tree-lined Nguyen Bien Kiem, the Saigon Zoo and Botanical Gardens are recognizably the green jewels of the city. Upon entering two large yellow stone and cast-iron Victorian-era gates, you are transported from the rush of the city into an earthly escape where suddenly you are transported to the heavenly nature that the country is well known for.
Just a take a few steps past the Hung Kings Temple and Vietnam Museum of Natural history, and the garden hits your senses. Nearly 260 species of matured plants cast a visual overgrowth of biodiversity that feels age-old. Pathways meander through gardens of different sorts, ponds filled with lilies and lotuses and other local and exotic plant species.
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The familiar unfurling branches of ficus benghalensis hide amidst dense shrubbery. Thickets of bamboo reach for the sky from a melting pot of green with speckles of white, purple, and pink flowers peppered throughout. The songs of birds ring out into the air, creating a meditative stillness—an absolute rarity for Saigon.
The transition from plants to animals can be nauseating. Though the zoo has made efforts to boost the living conditions of its nearly 600 resident animals, it is easy to see their distress. Elephants sway back and forward in anxious repetition, otters scratch at their irritated fur and rarely do you see an exhibit with adequate space for creatures meant to be mobile.
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A Case for Calling the Saigon Zoo a Necessary Evil
However depressing the animals' visible state may be, it is not all bad. The zoo has made a slow, imperfect yet vital transition to a place of conservation and education. In the 1990’s the Zoo joined the South East Asian Zoo’s association as part of a coordinated international effort to share resources and regulations for animal conservatories in the region.
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A ten-year plan to upgrade the animal’s living conditions was implemented in 1993 and completed a decade later. More importantly, in 1999 the conservation and education department of the Zoo spearheaded efforts to educate the younger generation on the importance of protecting endangered species. Currently, the zoo hosts over three thousand school children a year.
As the children of this city enter an era where many of these animals may not exist in the wild, we must support this cracked window view of nature as a necessary evil.
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HCMC’s Zoo and Botanical Garden Remains a Must-See
Though many people criticise the zoo for its treatment of animals, it still has much to offer in terms of public education, history, and conservation. Not to mention that the Botanical Gardens are easily the most beautiful scenes of nature of any park or green space in the city, making it a great destination for people feeling a bit caged. As the city struggles to protect its few green spaces, we have to care for what little we have.
So, go ahead, see the Zoo for yourself! I would suggest starting with the botanical gardens first, and if the animals in cages are upsetting, feel free to skip them all together (That’s usually what I do). Overall, regardless of its flaws, the HCMC Zoo and Botanical Gardens remains a place to see in Saigon.