Story: Minh Hong

Photos: Jet Huynh, Nguyen Bao Quan

Deeply engrained in memories of Saigon, “the harbor up there and vessels downstream” is a saying that alludes to the once bustling trade in Saigon Harbor.

Through ups and downs, the Saigon River has been a witness to historical milestones. Having ridden on the coat tails of the emerging tourism industry, this river is a living cultural heritage of this megacity.

Sunset on the Saigon River and Thu Thiem Bridge

Origins and historical significance

 The Saigon River boasts some unique and striking historical badges of honor. A notable turning point took place in 1698, when, at the behest of Lord Nguyen Phuc Chu, General Nguyen Huu Canh marched southward to expand the territory. After establishing his headquarters in the Eastern District – the most robust harbor in the South in his day, he continued to explore the geography and economic potential of this region, founding Gia Dinh Province, which ushered in the foundation of Saigon.

  The branch of the river that flows through Ho Chi Minh City is just 80km long, branching out across the city with interlacing canals and tributaries. However, the total length of the Saigon River is 256km, crisscrossing various provinces and cities. This river was the international maritime hub of Indochina over 100 years ago, and also home to the Ba Son shipbuilding factory, the cornerstone of the city’s illustrious shipbuilding and ship repair industry.

  Nowadays, beyond its economic and commercial roles, the Saigon River is also a must-visit for 5-star cruises. It also presents domestic and foreign visitors with a wide range of premium tourist services.

Another side of Saigon on the waves

  There’s a viral joke in Vietnam’s travel industry that “even traffic jams are part of the Saigonese identity”. Once you are tired of piercing bike horns and dusty pollution on land, jump in a water-bus and spend the day discovering Saigon’s waterways. This brand new service began operating in early 2018. Water-buses make different stops. The overall route carries you to key landmarks, such as the Nguyen Hue Pedestrian Quarter – Bach Dang Harbor, Thao Dien Ward in District 2 and Thanh Da Peninsula – two rare green oases in downtown Saigon. If possible, catch the earliest boat to admire the breaking dawn or pick the last route of the day to savor the breathtaking sunset.

The Khanh Hoi Bridge crosses the Saigon River near Nha Rong Wharf

Serene oases on the outskirts

  As the skyscrapers around Bach Dang Harbor dissolve into clouds, take a deep breath and enjoy the beloved natural gem of Thao Dien, a green oasis. Here, a busy compound of 5-star restaurants and resorts has been exclusively designed to include boat harbors. The resorts and restaurants feature a nostalgic mix of old and new architecture, particularly in the form of French colonial villas. Boats plow through the waves past riverbanks draped in green coconut trees, evoking the most romantic scenes in the famous film “L’amant”, based on the book by Marguerite Duras.

Couples and newlyweds longing for rewarding, private moments can book exclusive, tailor-made boat tours. A dining table draped in white, sparkling glasses of champagne, and golden candlelight seem even more wonderful when gazing upon the kaleidoscope of Saigon at night.

A section of the Saigon River near Ba Son Port

New sports for outdoor enthusiasts

  Over the last two years, river sports have grown increasingly popular among Saigonese youngsters. One of the more enticing sports is SUP – standup paddle boarding (this involves propelling a long float through the water with a paddle, while standing). Colorful SUP boards boast unique designs, making them even more irresistible. Enthusiasts usually opt for smaller canals with less boat traffic, which are safer, such as Tau Hu canal (also known as Thi Nghe canal) or down the embankment of Thao Dien Ward. For maiden visitors who wish to experience scenes of daily life, this is a great sport and a fun way to make friends with young, easygoing and genuine Saigonese youngsters.

Poised for greater transformations and integration

  Once home to a robust international harbor that faded into obscurity due to the vagaries of history, the Saigon River has been making a comeback thanks to heavy investment in infrastructure along its banks, as well as its emerging waterway travel niche. The quiet times are long gone, giving rise to a more modern Saigon, as befits its prime location, poised for further and stronger development in the future.

Members of the Saigon SUP Club practice on the Saigon River