Công Viên Lê Thị Riêng (Le Thi Rieng Park)
What a treasure trove of community life in Saigon!
If you’re in Saigon and wondering how to spend a free day – and if you’d like to take a peek at “real” Saigon (rather than a tourist street or a propaganda museum), considered spending some time at Le Thi Rieng Park.
A few years back, when I first began searching for a place to live in Saigon, I specifically asked my friend Tan to help me find an apartment near Le Thi Rieng Park. I needed Tan’s help since this was NOT a tourist/expat neighborhood and the housing here wasn’t being marketed in tiếng Anh (English). That’s not surprising since I’ve only ever seen three non-Vietnamese faces here – and one of those was a reflection in the Park’s small lake.
Luckily for me, I had discovered Le Thi Rieng Park a year earlier when I routinely took the bus to my favorite swimming pool in Saigon. Bus #30 would drop me off right at the park entrance on Cach Mang Thang Tam street in District 10. I’d stroll through Le Thi Rieng Park, then through the Bac Hai cafe district, and finally, I’d pop on my goggles, jump in the Olympic size pool and begin my laps. Thirty minutes on the bus, 30 minutes strolling through the Park and Bac Hai, and an hour of aquatic bliss. Yes, life WAS good. I had to live near here!
Tan delivered! Within 2 weeks we found my new place, and I’ve lived happily ever after – at least, so far.
So, each day now, without any bus time required, I can run down my four flights of stairs, cross busy Cach Mang Thang Tam street, and I’m in the Park!
Actually, depending upon what time of day or night, Công Viên Lê Thị Riêng is many different parks.
LATE MORNING SERENITY
On those days that I lounge at home in the a.m., and don’t quite make it out to greet the world until late morning, Le Thi Rieng Park is a quiet, almost deserted oasis beside Cach Mang Thang Tam’s traffic chaos. Arriving that time of day, the only sign of life is a few guys sitting on the lake’s edge dangling their fishing poles over the murky water.
For sure, late morning is the most relaxing time at the Park. Maybe the only time if you “want to be alone” in Saigon. After sitting on the bench a bit, watching the seldom-successful fisherman, sometimes I continue my peaceful stroll to Hội Cây Đa Quán, a thatched, open-air restaurant in the middle of the Park overlooking another area of the lake.
The food here is mediocre, but the setting serene and I can enjoy quiet cafe su da (iced coffee) in peace.
A. M. / P.M. RUSH HOUR MADNESS
By far, the most fun times each day at Le Thi Rieng are from 6 – 8, a.m. or p.m. Those are the Park’s rush hours! Everyone in the neighborhood, young and old, male and female, workers and students congregates before and after work or school to partake in their favorite exercises or daily past times. Side-by-side with each other, middle-aged couples circle the center plaza area practicing the day’s featured dance step;
“men” play bocce ball (mnnn?, I thought that was Italy??);
young marshal arts athletes kick high and flip their classmates to the ground; Saigon’s emerging middle class whack their tennis balls at each other; families enjoy ban mitten together; and the masses power-walk in a continuous counter-clockwise stream around the park’s perimeter. And the người nước ngoài (foreigner) – that’s me – enjoys it all and wonders where he fits in best.
MID-DAY SCHOOL ACTIVITY
Sometime around lunchtime – although I’ve never timed it right to be there for the mass arrival – hundreds of teens swarm into the park, completely filling most of its plazas and walkways. Masses of brightly-colored high school and college uniform shirts give the park a festive feel.
It’s time for gym class! A series of lightweight (seemingly meaningless) exercises and short sprint races comprise the various schools’ physical ed programs.
Then there are the political lectures to the amassed students. Actually, to be fair, I have not been able to comprehend the message being lectured in tiếng Việt (Vietnamese). But, observing the stars, bars, and medals hanging from the military uniforms of the speakers; the deadly serious tone and look of those delivering their messages; and the total lack of interest in the subject matter being shown by the bored students, I’m assuming some propaganda irrelevant to the lives of the captive audience was being espoused by the powers that be.
The one time I did note that the students were very engaged was the day I saw them running through the Park’s bushes and trails toting cardboard rifles! An apparent war games exercise, preparing for … ? … a Chinese invasion??
EVENING CARNIVAL !!
Finally, when all the day’s dancing, exercise, military drills, and fishing is complete and the sun sets over Le Thi Rieng, the carnival begins!
Light the lights! Rev up the Tilt-a Whirl! Bring out the vendors of steamed corn, bbq’d squid, ice cream and grilled fish balls. Again, the Park fills. This time with greater numbers of families with small children to enjoy the new amusement area of the Park and with teenage couple seeking romance time along the park’s walkways and lakeside benches.
Great fun for everyone until 10-11 p.m. when the police begin blowing their whistles to clear the romantic strollers and the lights go out on the merry-go-round.
The end of another day “real” Saigon day at Công Viên Lê Thị Riêng.
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