The pace of life slows down considerably – and the odours of cut grass and frangipani blooms replace the smell of exhaust fumes – when you duck into the city’s Botanical Gardens, accessed by a gate at the far eastern end of Le Duan, and bounded to the east by the Thi Nghe Channel. Established in 1864 by the Frenchmen Germain and Pierre (respectively a vet and a botanist), the gardens’ social function has remained unchanged in decades, and their tree-shaded paths still attract as many courting couples and promenaders as when Norman Lewis followed the “clusters of Vietnamese beauties on bicycles” and headed there one Sunday morning in 1950 to find the gardens “full of these ethereal creatures, gliding in decorous groups, sometimes accompanied by gallants”. In its day, the gardens harboured an impressive collection of tropical flora, including many species of orchid. Post-liberation, the place went to seed but nowadays a bevy of gardeners keep it reasonably well tended again, and portrait photographers are once again lurking to take snaps of you framed by flowers.
Stray right inside and you’ll soon reach the zoo, home to camels, elephants, crocodiles and big cats, also komodo dragons – a gift from the government of Indonesia. Unfortunately, conditions are very poor and some animals look half-crazed, so it could be a harrowing experience if you’re an animal lover. There’s also an amusement park that is sometimes open, and you can get an ice cream or a coconut from one of the several cafés sprinkled around the grounds.