It is about 3.15pm when we get to the Nhieu Loc River. The Dien Bien Phu bridge lies inconspicuously across the water; there is nothing remarkable about this place. The city around us is typically Saigon — the people stare as they always do, the pastel buildings bake in the sun and the air is thick and warm.
The Saigon Boat Tour Company manages a series of boat trips and cruises that run for various lengths along the Nhieu Loc — Thi Nghe Canal, passing through four central districts. According to our tour guide, Thuong: “When the water level is low you can watch the fish dance, and when it is high you can see the city around you.”
There seems to be about 10 too many people on the staff here. The pace is slow, no one rushes, and as we sit, a tall man takes two fresh, wet coconuts out of a room and down to the water.
The Nhieu Loc was once known as the Black Canal. During the war, many people from the provinces moved to the city for work, and at the time there was no proper drainage system on Saigon’s rivers, so the canal soon became badly polluted.
“It was named for its smell and its colour,” Thuong says, but as we bob upstream, oared by a stringy young man at the back of the boat, the water is more pleasant green-brown than black. “The government made a new initiative to clean all the river systems here, and the river is beautiful now.”
In 2001 the World Bank’s HCMC Environmental Sanitation Project installed and replaced over 400km of sewers around the city, adding a 9km wastewater interceptor to the canal system. “It was a big project,” Thuong smiles, “and now there is a rubbish boat that comes twice every day.” As she speaks a fresh plastic box of just-nibbled noodles floats past us downstream. It must be hard to keep such a huge stretch of water clean when so many people live around it.
Our boat is low to the water. We sit on a large square seat under a small canopy, equipped with a life jacket and a bright white non la straw hat for each guest. As we move so does the photographer — up and down the craft trying to get the best shot and the best angle. Locals flop their limbs over the railings at the edge of the water and young boys squat close to the bank with fishing rods.
“Fishing is illegal here,” Thuong says. “If the police catch them they take the nets and rods — and the fish.”
As the minutes pass we make a slow trail round a bend in the canal. On our right is a little alley of water, full of stilted slum shacks and makeshift shanties. Who knows how many of the inhabitants are not on the state records. We turn the corner, and another long boat sits in front of us.
Traditional Vietnamese music emanates from its sides and three musicians sit on its deck, playing to each other in impossible Asian modalities. We pull up to their boat and listen for a while, before floating lazily up the river again as the sun slaps the canopy above our heads.
Soon it is time to turn around, and with the wind behind us the journey back is easy. We nudge our way up to the boat house, take our bags and step back onto dry land. It’s almost 4.30pm and rain is in the air. Time to go home.
For more information, click on saigonboat.com or call (08) 3911 8987
The boat leaves from Hoang Sa Park, opposite 1 Hoang Sa, Q1, Ho Chi Minh City. The trip costs VND220,000 per person (minimum of three people, maximum of five) and lasts up to 90 minutes, depending on the tide. The cost of the guide, music and light refreshments is included in the price and boats run daily from 8am to 8pm. Bring sun screen, and book an evening tour for a cooler, more romantic experience.