Sunday, December 19, 2010

In defense of Saigon Zoo

We are having a very gentle introduction to Vietnam. 

Today is our fifth day.

On the first day we arrived at night time, and stayed up as late as we could then slept.  The jet lag has been very good.  Most people coming from New Zealand wake up at 3am, but we haven’t been doing that.  We’ve been sleeping a solid 8 hours each night, from 10pm to 6am.  The last couple of nights we managed to stay up a bit later and wake up a bit later, but we’re out of  bed by 7:30 each day.  I have been tired though, and when I wake up I have dark marks under my eyes and generally feel hung over even though I haven’t been drinking at all.  

Tip for anyone flying to Vietnam from NZ – don’t get a Vietnam airlines flight unless you have a lot of time in the changeover in Australia, or not much luggage.  We carefully weighed all our luggage to be sure we were under the 30kg limit that Vietnam airlines has, only to be pinged by Qantas for excess baggage at something like $70 a kilo because they have no agreement with Vietnam airlines, and the weight limit is actually an (unadvertised) 20 kg per passenger.  Very annoying.  Also, there was a very short time between when our Qantas flight arrived in Sydney and when our VA flight left, and our luggage didn’t make the connection.  So on our first day, we had no luggage except our carryon.  

So our second day was spent waiting for luggage to arrive, and swimming in the pool and playing with the kids.

Our third day, (in fresh clothes!) was spent in the city. 

Saigon gardens was once one of the finest botanical gardens in Asia, so the guidebooks say.  The French were interested in collecting rare species and developed these gardens close to the centre of the city. If you know what you’re looking for I’m sure you can spot lots of amazing botanical treats – but we didn’t have a clue.  We enjoyed the tall trees, and the bonsai forest, and the animal shaped topiaries.  I have heard a rumour that the gardens are going to be demolished to make way for a motorway, but I’m not sure if it’s true. 

The garden contains a zoo. So, the thing is:  this is not a Western Zoo.  We adjusted our expectations accordingly, and so we enjoyed our visit. I know that others have not had such a good time at the zoo because they conditions seem barbaric in contrast with the standard in Western countries. To be fair, the Vietnamese government seems to be treating this zoo as a conservation effort, and not as a circus.  I am sure they are doing the best they can with the resources they have.    

Some of the animals were very friendly indeed.

The cages are old and out of date.  It is not particularly clean (there are rats running around), though I have seen worse. With the exception of perhaps the orangutans, the larger cats and the large birds, the animals did not seem to be under any distress and overall the zoo was not smelly.  All the animals appear friendly.  Although there are signs in Vietnamese asking people not to feed the animals, all the animals seem to expect to be fed.  I wouldn’t feed them, but I think on my next visit I might take some toys for the otters.  Their enclosure is old-fashioned though not terrible, but they looked a bit bored. 

In the same grounds there is also a museum and a temple.  The museum is the Vietnam History Museum.  It features antiquities and art objects from pre-historic times until the early 20th century. There is a good textiles collection displaying beautiful handcrafted hilltribe clothing – showcasing the intricate embroidery that they are famous for.  Sadly this section of the museum is not airconditioned or protected from the light, so it is probably very difficult for them to preserve these artifacts as carefully as I am sure they would like to.  

This vase was interesting to me.  Doesn't the pattern around the top remind you the patterns you find on tapa cloth from the pacific islands?
Here's a close-up:
Actually from Vietnam c. 18th century

The rear wing of the museum contains the oldest objects and this section of the building has been modernized.  Somebody has done an excellent job of curating this collection- objects are well labeled, and carefully and artistically displayed – in logical order.  The rooms are airconditioned and smaller objects are protected behind glass and well lit – though thankfully there is no natural light. This section contains lots of religious artifacts from the pre-buddhist era – including an impressive collection of phalluses.  We couldn’t take pictures inside the museum so I can’t show off the row of cocks, sadly!

Opposite the museum is a temple. I had expected to walk in and see a collection of Buddha’s at the back, but there wasn’t even one – which shows the difference between Vietnamese Buddhism and Thai Buddhism.  The lovely attendant there told us we could take one or two pictures, but they both came out blurry and we didn’t want to abuse the camera privilege!  The steps leading up to the entrance of the temple are guarded by a pair of brilliantly painted dragons.  The photo doesn’t do them justice. 

There are lots and lots of butterflies in Vietnam – even here in the middle of city. I have seen at least 20 different varieties float past either singly or in pairs.  I can’t imagine what a paradise this place must have seemed like in the days before the big smoggy city and Agent Orange must have taken care of a great chunk of the natural biodiversity in the region. 

Oh, and before I forget - last night I saw a bird catch a lizard's tail. 

1 comment:

  1. Glad you guys made it safely. I'm waiting for the food posts :-)