CAPPING A LONG-HAUL
I always make it a habit to have an off the beaten track experience when I visit a place. For this long haul trip, these are as enumerated:
My Tay Ninh visit will cap this Indochina trip, including documentation of this particular travel in this blogsite! You can only imagine the big sigh of relief as I write 30 a few days from this post! Nabuo ko rin (I’ve completed it)! Yeay!
When I arrived in Saigon from Phnom Penh, I have been setting my sights on what Lonely Planet describes as “Quirky Saigon”. The place is called Dam Sen Park, located at the Hoa Binh District of Saigon. My guesthouse reminded me that the park is particularly far from the tourist belt (District 1). It will be an expensive taxi ride, but she nevertheless strongly recommended the taxi. Nah! I’ll wing it. I asked how much a xe om (motorbike taxi) would ask for a one-way ride going to Damsen. It should be around 25,000 dong ($1.50 or PhP72) among locals – but foreigners would find it hard to bargain below 40,000 dong. As fate would have it, I was able to approach someone from a corner in Bui Vien where I didn’t have to haggle much. Am not good at it. He asked for 35,000 dong and I said 25,000 dong – and we easily shook hands on it. Of course, I was nervous with the easy negotiations. After all, some things that are too good to be true may be too good to be true.
We cruised several districts of Saigon as my xe om took me sightseeing through places not listed in my guide book. This ride went on… and on… and on…. and on. Good thing I was forewarned. In 45 minutes, we pulled over in front of a huge welcome sign that said Dam Sen and its Vietnamese translation. That was a relief. I was pleased that I ended giving 40,000 dong ($2.40 or PhP117) to my driver. I was just grateful to get there without cutthroat negotiation.
History of Damsen Park
In the mid-70’s, the land where the park currently stands was an uncultivated marsh. The government thought of cultivating these marshlands by mobilizing people to clear the area. Soon, the cleared 30 hectares of water surface and greenery were further expanded by the 11th district of Saigon. By the late 80’s designs were gradually put up for a recreational park that was to cater to the local population.
Fast forward to the present. We have a vast recreational park that administers a dose of bizarre fun. Giant animals made of coconut shells compete against those sculpted out of used cd’s. Near the entrance, a huge dragon made of porcelain plates stands beside other intricately designed “animals”. There are landscaped gardens embellished with lakes, pagodas, falls, bridges, etc. In another section, there stands imposing structures resembling the Stonehenge. There is a roller coaster ride, a ferris wheel, an elevated “train”, some buggy rides, and restaurants. There is a Nordic Castle much like the Walt Disney Castle; a Statue Garden, a European Garden, and a Cactus Garden.
More attractions include: a dinosaur park, an ice lantern area, a fishing area, a crocodile park, a mini-zoo, a laser show with a musical fountain stage, and a spinning coaster. All these - for only 25,000 dong entrance for adults and 15,000 dong for children. During holidays, these rates are hiked by 10,000 dong.
I didn’t know where to start, or which way to go! I could get lost in this park and enjoy the different attractions all day. This was a place that not a lot of the backpacking horde visits. I spent my whole afternoon just trying not to get lost.
One of the best things that I experienced about visiting the park was taking my very first commuter bus back to the Pham Ngu Lao area along with other Vietnamese. I just hailed an oncoming bus traveling the opposite direction; shouted “Ben Thanh?”, and when I got several nods, I hopped in and settled into the soft foamed seat beside an open window. We have better non-aircon buses in Manila, but I love Vietnam for inexplicable reasons. I take offense when people compare it to Quiapo.
Riding that non-aircon commuter bus was a thrill. It was like losing myself in a foreign land. and finding contentment in the anonymity of people, the unfamiliarity of mores, and strangeness of my surroundings. It’s hard to explain, but moments like this make it all worth while. These moments define some of my rawest moments of sheer happiness – away from the luxury, stability and comfort of my otherwise great Philippine life.