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City Pass Guide




The Ho Chi Minh City Zoo and Botanical Gardens are an age-old part of the modern city’s rich history. As Vietnam’s most populous and prosperous city, Saigon is an omnivorous creature of the rambunctious sort. And it’s an animal that’s growing fast.


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 street side 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.


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.


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.


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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.


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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.


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.


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 stillnessan 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.


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.



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.


HCMC’s Zoo and Botanical Garden Remains a Must-See

Though many people criticize the zoo for its treatment of animals, it still has much to offer in terms of public education, history, and conservation. Not to mention 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 altogether (That’s usually what I do). Overall, regardless of its flaws, the HCMC Zoo and Botanical Gardens remain a place to see in Saigon.



At the beginning of January, Tao Dan park, normally filled with people exercising, walking and practising tai chi, began its annual transformation into one of Saigon’s most popular Tet venues. The usual calm of this green space will, for the holiday period, be replaced by a festival atmosphere as families gather, many of them in their traditional Vietnamese dress, to enjoy the beautiful displays of flowers and live performances.


The main entrance on Truong Dinh always features a scene of animal sculptures representing the new Lunar Year. In 2018, a family of dogs made of shrubs was placed there; this year you’ll find a collection of glistening golden pigs set against a backdrop of giant flowers made up of hundreds of yellow chrysanthemums.


Photo Ops and Family Fun Abound at the Tao Dan Park Flower Festival

The colorful floral creations and magical animal sculptures throughout the park provide an ideal setting for Tet photos. You may have to wait a while to get that perfect shot but it’s nowhere near as crowded as the Flower Street Festival on Nguyen Hue. Add to that the impressive collection of bonsai trees, displays of interesting rock sculptures, and the ornamental fish tanks all set in the relative cool shade of the park’s majestic trees, and it’s a pleasant way to experience the Lunar New Year in Ho Chi Minh City.


Rides and activities

At the corner of Tao Dan park closest to Nguyen Thi Minh Khai Street you’ll find a collection of amusement park rides, merry-go-rounds, inflatables, a ball pit and simple fairground attractions for young children. Adjacent to this is the boat pond where aspiring young sailors can take a turn in one of the brightly decorated crafts. Look out for the family of piglets at the center of a raised flower bed as you make your way there. Disneyland it isn’t but then neither is the entrance fee.



Dragon dances, calligraphy and food

Pathways winding through the manicured grounds are lined with booths selling local artisanal products such as honey, incense, wind chimes and lucky money trees made of semi-precious stones. There is also an opportunity to see calligraphers at work using their traditional brushes to create works of art and marvel at the carefully choreographed dragon dances.


Food stalls offer a variety of freshly cooked Vietnamese street food including the deliciously crispy rice flour pancakes known as banh xeo, noodles, fried rice, grilled sausages, pork and squid, as well as packaged snacks, ice creams, soft drinks and intriguing-looking jelly drinks.


Grab a bite and a drink, find a comfortable spot and join the Lunar New Year celebrations. Tet in Saigon can be a wonderful experience. In the meantime, those fond of their early morning or evening stroll at this popular park in the heart of District 1 will have to look elsewhere.


Dates: The festival is usually held on for 10 days during Tet, which take place between the 20th January and the 15th of February each year.

Entry Fee: Adults VND30,000. Children under 12 free of charge.


A program of events for each day, in Vietnamese only, is posted at the entrance. Tickets for the rides and fairground activities are available at the booths inside the park.




In the centre of the Saigon’s famous backpacker area, 23/9 Park is a must know for anyone who travels to Ho Chi Minh City. This park is a great introduction to the vibrant commercial hub that is Saigon. Take a seat outdoors and watch or talk with a range of people from all over the world, speaking all sorts of different languages.

The Saigonese use this park as an exercise ground, a meeting spot and a classroom. Groups of people gather here to talk and relax in the evenings, families bring their children to play under the trees and young couples hide in the shadows. On the weekend 23/9 Park is especially full, and every evening a number of ladies’ exercise classes take place which, with their booming dance beats and krumping middle-aged mothers, are seriously a must-see whilst you are in Ho Chi Minh City. Feel free to join if you wish!

Groups of students studying English also visit this park regularly to talk with travelers who seek refuge in its cool shade. Grab a bite to eat and a drink of water and take a seat next to the grass to wait for someone to approach you. They’re all very friendly and nice to talk to, and most will talk with foreigners in groups. They may even invite you for a beer or a smoothie after, or take you to their favorite eatery!


Given its many groups of students, families and other locals, 23/9 Park is a good place to learn about local life when you visit Ho Chi Minh City. Sit in the shade of a tall tree and relish a momentary break from the chaotic streets of Vietnam’s busiest city, chat with someone new and learn about their life, plan your travels or enjoy a cool drink as you get ready to speak English to a smiling student.