Can Gio Biosphere Marine Reserve
At approximately 40 kilometers South East of Ho Chi Minh City, the Can Gio Mangrove Biosphere Reserve is an interesting day trip for those looking for an outing to a less visited tourist site. Also known as “Monkey Island,” the trip cost is roughly USD 90 per person and can be easily booked at most travel/tour agencies around town. Pick-up time is 0800 AM at your hotel and transport is normally by way of air-conditioned mini-bus. Although a relatively short distance patience is advised as the congested roads, all the way to the outskirts of the city, make the trip to the site longer than expected. Total travel time (there and back) is about 4 hours and includes a ferry boat ride across one of Saigon’s outlying rivers. The trip price also includes a nice Vietnamese seafood lunch at a sea side restaurant.
Although locally known as Monkey Island – and there are Monkey’s to be seen – the real stars of the mangroves are the crocodiles. In fact, compared to the rather tame crocodile shows one sees in Thailand, the crocodiles at Monkey Island are as real as anything one may see in the wild. To make things perfectly safe for sightseer’s the local tourist site authorities have installed a strong, and secure, viewing platform where one can safely look down on the large beasts wallowing in their mud-filled home. As an added bonus – and a great incentive for some good action shots – eels, with their heads cut and tied to a pole, can be bought from a vendor on the platform to feed the crocs. As you dangle the lifeless eels over the side of the platform the prehistoric beasts are soon roused from their slumbers and snapping at the tasty morsels. At 4 – 5 meters in length, some of these beasts are impressively large and one can be thankful for the heavy steel guard rails providing protection from the snapping crocs 3 – 4 meters below.
The crocodile enclosure is actually the first site you visit after disembarking from the mini-bus and, in that regard, the tour guides might want to have a rethink about how the day’s outing is structured as, for me at least, seeing the croc’s was actually the high point and everything else which followed seemed a bit tame in comparison. Perhaps the crocs would be best left as the last stop on the tour? No matter as the rest of the day still provides a degree of interest with the historical VC camp to be visited. Following the viewing of the croc’s you are then taken to waiting power boats and given a thrilling, fast paced ride through the mangroves to the next point of interest, the VC camp. The distance is approximately two kilometre’s and as you fly along the narrow winding channels it’s not hard to notice the mangrove encroachment is total and complete; the dense mangrove thickets are almost impenetrable. Little wonder the local parks and wildlife authorities have designated the area marine biosphere, the fact is very little else could be done with such a low-laying area of waterways.
Within a few minutes of careening through the mangroves one is eventually stepping off at a small wooden jetty which leads on to a more expanse construction of walkways, through the jungle, to the historical VC site. According to my guide the historical camp, although having been restored, is pretty much as it was during the war with the Americans; some forty years previously. The boarded walkway is raised approximately 1 – 1.5 meters above the gooey mud of the mangrove swamps below and as you follow the trail into the central area of the camp, it’s hard not to see why the VC who lived there, were left largely untouched by the Americans. According to my guide, aside from the odd bombing raid the Americans figured the place too much of an effort to penetrate into due to the fact there was a high risk of being devoured by a marauding croc. The threat of croc’s in the area was ever present and many of the VC themselves were gobbled up by the hungry beasts.
Fifty meters or so from the small jetty the boarded walkway leads to a small village of wooden huts, on raised platforms, and joined by branching walkways. The huts are a historical presentation of the daily life of the VC troops and their families as it was all those years ago. Within each hut are groups of mannequins set in a historical re-enactment of the activities they were involved in. There is an operations planning hut with a group gathered around a map. There is also a hospital hut with a re-enactment of how the wounded were cared for. The most interesting hut was the one where the munitions team were going to work on an American UXO. According to my guide, once again, it was common practice for the VC to chop up the unexploded bombs and use the powder to make their own land mines. No doubt this was a high risk activity but the VC, having limited resources at their disposal, probably thought it was worth the risk to build their owns munitions. In the centre of the plat-formed area there is a large statue which is a throwback to the communist idealism of the day. No doubt it’s there as a genuine remembrance of the struggles of their forebears but the fact is a good deal of the citizens of the south I’ve spoken with have quietly mentioned they still don’t trust those from the north. The VC camp is a worth a visit to get a full appreciation of the harsh life they endured to succeed in their fight to liberate the country from foreign influence but, as with most things in life, there’s also a story behind the propaganda.
For those who want to see something of the story of the Vietnam War (the Vietnamese call it the American war) but don’t feel like crawling through the cramped tunnels of Chu Chi, the historical VC camp at Can Gio is a good alternative. All in all, a good day out and well worth the time and cost involved of going there.