Back Arts & Culture » In Plain Sight » On a Boat Ride Through Nhiêu Lộc Canal, a Fish's-Eye View of Saigon

On a Boat Ride Through Nhiêu Lộc Canal, a Fish's-Eye View of Saigon

Could your life in Saigon be made into a quirky indie film? 

Are your afternoons spent rambling around the city with fashionable friends; snacking on photogenic pastries at comfy retro cafes; and swerving through traffic beneath shady trees, as a particularly whimsical band with clever lyrics and tissue-paper vocals titter in your headphones? Do you consider yourself awkward but adorable? Are your memories coated in the warm shade of brown unique to recycled paper used for expensive journals filled with handwritten notes and lists? Do you encounter middle-class problems and conventional challenges that can be addressed in a quick 90 minutes? If so, it seems your life is ripe for low-stake, small-budget flick treatment. And if this movie were to be made, then certainly a scene should take place in the middle of the Nhiêu Lộc–Thị Nghè Canal aboard a small boat.

The Thị Nghè canal exists like a seam; a thread suturing the city’s disparate districts together, and thus, it is not a part of the city itself, exactly. Who doesn’t long to exist in a liminal space, indulge innate alienation and assimilate into the marginalia? If you’re like me, you’ve often gazed at the canal with wistful desires to voyage out on it. But how? Finding and buying a boat, cultivating rudimentary piloting abilities, researching licensing and preparing bribes is a hassle and a half. It’s better to employ an expert. So Saigoneer took our recent trip on the canal via the Nhiêu Lộc Boat Company (NLB), the canal’s seemingly singular operator of commercial water vessels from 2014. You will pass by one of NLB’s two stations whenever you drive over the Thị Nghè Bridge into District 1 via Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai. The fact that you’ve likely never noticed it enough to consider a voyage makes them perfect for an article for our In Plain Sight series because they are particularly splendid. 

Pleasure is the sole purpose of a boat trip on the canal. This separates it from the city’s Waterbus which operates on the Saigon River and was initially launched with aspirations of providing viable public transportation services. So while it’s nice to daydream of daily commutes to and from work aboard one of the NLB boats, that's simply impossible. It exists solely to bring joy to riders and it succeeds remarkably well with these modest aims. I’d go as far as to put it on my top five list of Saigon activities. 

NLB has a fleet consisting of from five-person Phoenix rowboats up to 35-person yacht-style boats that it employs for a variety of services that include packaged public tours with food and entertainment that include music performances and opportunities to release paper lanterns as well as options to rent the boats with a captain on a per-hour basis. The latter fit the Saigoneer team’s needs and a Turtle boat (Thuyền Qui) was waiting for us when we arrived at the dock for an arranged (you must book in advance) 4:30pm departure. Between 4:30pm and 5:30pm is the best time to schedule the one-hour journey between NLB’s two docks — one near the border of Districts 1 and 3 and the other across from the Saigon Zoo — as the gathering dusk creates an ideal atmosphere, and atmosphere is the journey’s main draw. 

Dusk braises the horizon in rose, orange and ochre. The sky smears soft light like a blam across the crags and imperfections of buildings that line either side of Hoàng Sa and Trường Sa. Between the roads and the water, wide strips of grass with trees offer shade to benches, exercise equipment, and sidewalks. The unmistakable scent of blooming sứ trắng hovers around the occasional bend. At this hour, nearby workers are heading home, local residents are walking their dogs, youths are gathering for gossip and horseplay, and street restaurants are opening for the evening. It’s as if the neighborhoods lining the canal have collectively finished work for the day and are casting off their uniforms for a few minutes of rest and unencumbered loafing before plunging into the hectic rush of Saigon nightlife. I’ve long claimed that the area around the canal is Saigon at its most charming and this is best witnessed via a boat at dusk.

In addition to the general vibes, a boat ride offers unique vantage points for viewing some notable city landmarks as well as personally cherished places. Landmark 81, that grotesque clutch of mismatched chopsticks, looms in the distance. The Vạn Thọ Pagoda, an understated and tree-shielded site of Buddhist worship kneels just a ways down from Pháp Hoa Pagoda, an ornate and lantern-filled spectacle near where our trip began. The bright blue Sawaco water tower, a curious insect specimen pin speared into Bình Thạnh, is likely to arouse inquiries as to its purpose from some of your fellow passengers. And then there are those sites that might not be on a typical tourist itinerary but hold private meaning for those who lived or spent time near the canal. For me, it is my favorite coffee shop, Lão Hạc Cafe; a beloved Greek restaurant whose owner still sends me the occasional random Facebook message and generously offers complimentary off-menu treats when I pay a rare visit; a particular bench near my old apartment where I would spend evenings reading and even the balcony where I spent COVID-19 lockdown watching the giraffes in the zoo. Perhaps we can only love a city once we’ve become attached to some of its insignificant elements.

Photo by Paul Christiansen.

Okay, so you can soak up the vibes and savor some nostalgic sightseeing if you happen to have a personal connection to the areas along the canal, but is there anything to actually do during the boat ride? Well, if Saigoneer’s behavior is any indication, the experience provides a terrific opportunity for taking selfies. Group shots, solo shots, candid shots, action shots; the light combined with backdrops and perspectives rarely encountered amongst tired social media locations make the boat ride perfect for taking photos. I would even suggest that those needing professional shoots (weddings, product launches,  music videos, etc.) consider it. 

The boat can jostle, so secure your camera while waiting for the selfie-timer. Photo by Khôi Phạm.

And since we are now on the topic of suggestions, I have a few. Bring food and drinks. If you book some of NLB’s packaged cruises they include dinner, but if you do as we did and simply rent the boat and captain you can take whatever you would like on board. Pizza buffet? Chilled beers? Selection of the latest novelty chips? Whatever your heart desires. Ditto for what type of music to play, but definitely bring some Bluetooth speakers and prepare a breezy playlist to accompany your trip. There is no need to bring cards or board games as you can satisfy such urges by inventing games that make use of the surroundings. For example, why not create a game that involves evaluating and ranking the different names and architectural styles of the various bridges you will pass beneath? Indeed, architecture buffs will enjoy them for their historical significance, but even the uniformed can enjoy debating the merits of various aesthetics. The undersides of many of the bridges feature original artwork, both officially commissioned and unsanctioned street art. Finding them feels like discovering Easter Eggs the city has hidden specifically for you and other purveyors of the canal because they would be difficult to notice otherwise.

And on the topic of objects being easy to spot, I wouldn’t suggest bringing binoculars. There’s no need. I took mine thinking I might find something neat along the way that demanded closer inspection but other than pulling them out once to attempt an identification of a dead fish floating beside us, I didn’t use them and they were rather heavy to lug around. Your naked eyes will be enough to notice floating detritus and trash on the canal, of course, but it’s nowhere near as bad as it once was. It certainly isn’t worse than any other public space in Saigon and shouldn’t discourage you from the experience. Similarly, word of mouth or past experience may lead you to believe that the canal stinks. It does not stink. If anything, the relative distance the space offers from the city’s oppressive noise pollution and general density of commotion makes the middle of the canal feel fresher and freer than just about anywhere else downtown. 

Of course, as with many under-promoted and largely ignored Saigon activities, a boat ride on the canal is not without sources of whimsy. Most obvious are the strange, plastic-encumbered vessels anchored in the canal. One features painted plastic bottles assembled into crude pinwheels while another has a small hut built out of clear bottles. Like many sources of whimsy, their intended purpose is unfathomable. Another surprise awaits at the end of the journey, at least if you are disembarking at the zoo-adjacent dock. As we approached a large fountain system erupted. After 6pm, the jets of water would be accompanied by colorful lights, but instead, it was just clear canal water arcing up into the sky and falling back down unceremoniously. The overture intended for our arrival was a little pathetic in its lacked grandeur, like three people performing a round of applause in an otherwise empty conference room. It felt fitting though, as whimsy always travels with a lump of disenchantment in its shoe, like sand carried in from the beach. 

Whimsy is never too far removed from danger, either. Genuine risk of injury is my fondest memory of a boat ride on the canal. Back in 2018, I joined a group of friends for an identical ride and midway through our voyage, the engine erupted in great flames. They pawed and scratched at the boat’s wooden roof while we rushed to the front with provided life jackets in hand and discussed who could swim and which side of the canal we should head for if we needed to jump off. Thankfully, the captain was able to put the blaze out with shirts dunked in the canal water. The engine no longer worked but we were able to float back down to the dock without a problem. It was a beautiful night. 

Related Articles

Paul Christiansen

in Environment

Charting the Flow of the Nhiêu Lộc Canal From Start to Historical Start

When I fall in love with an album, I seek out the artist's first mixtapes and demos. When I come to admire a poet, I hunt down their early poems and chapbooks. I even linger over the old highlight ree...

Brian Letwin

in Saigon

Every Morning, I'm Grateful for My Carless Ride to Work on Hoàng Sa Street

In the decade-plus of Saigoneer’s existence, we’ve had six offices strewn across different parts of Districts 1 and 3. Over that period, my homes have been located in Bình Thạnh and Thảo Điền, requiri...

Paul Christiansen

in Saigon

The Nhiêu Lộc-Thị Nghè Canal's Comeback Story

Water has no hometown.

Paul Christiansen

in Architecture

The Pedestrian Bridge That Teaches You the Values of Patience

“We need the sweet pain of anticipation to tell us we are really alive.”

Khôi Phạm

in Society

Nhiêu Lộc Canal Hosted Trudeau's Night Run. Why Is It Not as Famous as Obama's Bún Chả?

You know how much Vietnamese culture revolves around food by the fact that one of the first questions we pose to any foreign visitor is “What’s your favorite Vietnamese dish?” Asking about other aspec...

in In Plain Sight

Amid Phố Cổ, the Unassuming Cultural Exchange Center Tells Stories of Hanoi's Heartland

In the heart of the Old Quarter, the Hanoi Cultural Exchange Center carries a rich repertoire of knowledge and stories of the city’s architecture and history.

Partner Content