Set on more than 500 hectares (1,200 acres) northeast of the city, Thanh Da was originally a peninsula that was turned into an island by a man-made canal. Located in Binh Thanh District, Thanh Da is bordered by Thu Duc to the north and the expat enclave of Thao Dien to the south. With just one bridge linking Thanh Da to the rest of the city, it feels out of the way, a weekend playground for Saigonese who come for the greenery of riverside restaurants and cafes.
Known as the “green lung of Saigon”, it’s well worth exploring for its scenic rice fields and quiet, countryside vibe, especially if your itinerary doesn’t include a trip to the Mekong Delta.
This little slice of countryside right within the city has been spared urbanization because there have been big plans to develop this area for decades. Blueprints for a supercity complete with high-rises, universities, exhibition spaces and shopping malls have come and gone for the last 20 years. In anticipation, the government has severely limited construction by the residents to minimize compensation when the eventual deal comes through.
So other than a few apartment blocks and restaurants (Thanh Da is known for its duck porridge and seafood joints), there’s not much on the island, especially as you travel further along the main road.
About a kilometer in, look on the right for a small Cao Dai temple that’s been around for about 40 years. The Cao Dai religion is a distinctly Vietnamese one that combines elements from Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism. The main Cao Dai temple in Tay Ninh (three hours xx of Saigon) was famously described by Graham Green in The Quiet American as "Christ and Buddha looking down from the roof of a cathedral on a Walt Disney Fantasia of the East, dragons and snakes in Technicolor".
Visit the small Cao Dai temple for a glimpse of this unique religion. There are separate winding staircases for men and women on the way up to a colorful room dedicated to God the Father, or check out an altar to the Mother Buddha in an adjoining building. Visitors are welcome, but please be respectful, especially if there is a ceremony taking place.
Continue down the main road and take any of the small roads branching off to the right, leading to the interior of the island. Roads turn into narrow paths, some paved and others not, where the only traffic you’ll encounter will more likely be the odd pig or chicken rather than a car. Many of the residents here live off the land, planting rice or raising chickens and ducks. Ponds are often stocked with fish and seeing someone climb up a palm tree for a fresh coconut wouldn’t be out of place.
With its many ponds and streams, Thanh Da is also a popular fishing spot. You’ll find people fishing by the side of the road for tiny fish in the flooded rice fields, where a handful might make for a simple lunch, especially when caramelized with fish sauce.
Or head to one of the commercial fishing ponds where for just USD 1 an hour, you’ll be provided with a bamboo fishing pole, a bit of bait and a shady hut to try your luck. These establishments also serve refreshments and food, so families often come and make a day of it – fishing, playing cards or just chillaxing in a hammock.
For a more packaged experience, try one of the three government-owned Binh Quoi Tourist Villages strung along the main road to the left. These riverside eateries recreate scenes from the Mekong Delta from monkey bridges to water wheels for the perfect Instagram backdrop.
Thanh Da is easy to get to from EMM Hotel Saigon by taxi or public bus. However, to explore the extensive network of narrow lanes in the island’s interior, it’s best to have a bicycle or motorbike. Feel free to wander to your heart’s content and when you’re done, friendly locals can always point you back to the main road.