A morning’s walk through history

Old Saigon <Tao Dan Park to Saigon River> – Part 1

I began my walk that morning – a continuation of a Lonely Planet city walk in their Vietnam tour guide – down Truong Dihn toward Ben Tranh Market. As I exited my hotel, however, I saw a group of young people kitting up for the Lion and Dragon Dance. It was great to capture them just before they started on their parade.

Tao Dan Park was still buzzing with holiday activity days after the actual holiday, but it was worth getting past the main crowds and loads of parked motorbikes to discover some of the park’s interesting sculptures. It was a very busy morning, but I managed to capture a few of the pieces along with locals finding some peace and quiet.

After passing south of the massive park (part of the Cong Vien Van Hoa Park), I ventured past a few local temples, along with the very colorful and well-decorated Mariamman Hindu Temple. It was very full of worshippers, so I didn’t bother them and kept on walking toward the market.

I crossed the massively chaotic roundabout to find 23/9 Park, which used to be a railway shelter back in the day. Crossing yet again, I scoped out the neighborhood around the Fine Arts Museum, where I found my first taste of pho bo at a street stand restaurant cart.

That fortified me for a walk down Le Cong Kieu, a picaresque alley-like street filled with antique shops and people out in front in lawn chairs or stools listening to radios. One building in particular caught my eye – it reminded me of Ta Prohm temple in Cambodia in the way that trees had starting growing on its roof, the ruinous roots leaking down over the building like the tree was spilling over.

I headed back out to the main street, Le Loi, and briefly looked over Ben Tranh Market. However, it was closed for the holiday, but the outside was still quite beautiful to observe without the hoards of shoppers milling about. The neighborhood around it was very lively, and street carts and balloon sellers abounded.

Ben Tranh main gate

Passing the market, I continued down Ham Nghi, a former canal, marveling at the wide boulevard flanked by trees. I turned into a street with a market, enticed by the noise of people and hawkers, later to find out it was called Ton That Dam, which led into Huynh Thuc Khang. I loved wandering these tight streets, full of holidaymakers and revelers. Children went after the massive piles of balloons and the candy floss creators.

I found a coffee shop to get Vietnamese coffee and to refresh myself with bingsu, a Korean import dessert consisting of shaved ice and fruit toppings. As I would come to find out during the week, this could often be quite elaborate and take some time to create. However, bingsu was the perfect treat for a hot afternoon – or evening, if nothing else suited my fancy. There’s so much fruit and toppings that it’s a meal all its own.

It was a nice complement to a morning full of walking … though I was still iffy about the thought of avocado coffee.

After leaving the market streets, I found the Bitexco Tower and all of the holiday decorations around there. Nguyen Hue was only a stone’s throw away, so I walked up the half of it I hadn’t been to before and marveled at the amazing flower decorations. Nguyen Hue was also once a canal. It seemed like a lot of canals had been converted to boulevards here, but the result is no less stunning.

I roamed on the waterfront of the Saigon River, which isn’t the most scenic river running through a city, but the colonial-style hotels flanking it made up the ambiance. The beautiful Majestic Hotel and Riverside Hotel were both quite striking in their old world glamour way. The Majestic was used once as war barracks when the Japanese were there, but now it sat a quiet sentinel over the boats in the river.

I found myself another coffee place – a good cafe is never far away in HCMC – and settled in to decide on my afternoon’s course of action.

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