You know those annoying people who, after totally and unquestionably having failed at a stated goal, will pretend that it’s what they wanted all along? “No, it’s actually better this way! Seriously, we’re glad it worked out like this!” Well, we’re going to be those guys. Because finding Giác Viên Pagoda closed for renovation turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Really!
Giác Viên is one of Saigon’s most historic temples, originally constructed in 1789. It’s located in District 11, on the western outskirts of the city. Kind of a journey, but having read so many positive reviews of the place, we thought it would be worth the effort.
Our motor-taxis dropped off in front of the Dam Sen Amusement Park. We might have been tempted to visit, but this happened to be the day of the Hùng Kings Festival, and half of Saigon was waiting in line for tickets. That was fine — we had just visited a different amusement park, and weren’t keen to relive the experience.
Instead we ventured into the maze of alleyways to the south of the park. Maybe it was extra boisterous because of the holiday, but this neighborhood served up one of the most entertaining slices of local life we’ve yet seen in Saigon. By simply sitting down at a small cafe, we caused a commotion… everyone wanted to shake our hands, and then a woman ran into the house and trotted out an enormously chubby toddler for our approval. For breakfast, he was given a giant meatball stuck onto a chopstick. It looked like a really gross lollipop.
Before leaving, we asked about the pagoda. In perfect unison, three women pointed down the street, then to the right, then a left and another right. Okay, that seems … confusing. We weren’t exactly surprised to soon find ourselves lost at a dead-end, with the street blocked by a construction gate. Back into the neighborhood, we go! Another coffee (just $0.50), another slice of hilarious local shenanigans, another ridiculous set of directions… and another dead-end.
This process was actually more fun than it had any right to be, but a measure of frustration was creeping in. We decided to ask about the temple in a more determined fashion. Soon enough, we were following a man who had offered to walk us there. He led us straight back to the first dead-end road, which had blocked by a construction company’s gate. “Oh! Temple closed! So sorry!” The Giác Viên Pagoda, apparently, was undergoing a massive renovation.
It was disappointing, but at this point, we hardly cared. Saigon’s temples can be truly impressive, and are certainly worth checking out, but the best reason to visit a far-flung pagoda is the chance to discover a new area of town. The neighborhood surrounding the Giác Viên turned out to be such a highlight, that finding the temple closed was a minor concern. If anything, we were happy to have the extra time to continue exploring the small streets around it.
– Vietnam Tip #1: Never Ever Travel Without Travel Insurance