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Are you looking for a fun, family friendly activity or attraction in Ho Chi Minh City? Let me give you some hard-earned travel advice: Do not go to the Ho Chi Minh City Zoo.

In our last few days in Vietnam we were back in Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon, as I often refer to it) and cooling our heels while we waited for our Thai visas to come through. We had done all of the big sights in Saigon, and frankly we were looking for some non-war related activities to fill our final days. There had been enough guilt and tears so far for one vacation. So after browsing the guidebook for a full five seconds, we settled on the innocent seeming Ho Chi Minh City Zoo, a relatively small blip on the map in the midst of some urban gardens.

When we arrived we giggled at the tickets that shows elephants, lions and tigers. Sure, we thought. Like you’re keeping animals that big in this teeny zoo and charging us 8,000 dong (less than 50 cents) to see them.

a sad otter enclosure

Imagine our surprise when we nearly walked into a giraffe enclosure. There was no signage and the fence around them was fairly pathetic, but they seemed decently cared for. It would all go downhill from there.

We moved on to the reptile house. Now, I am somewhat of a zoo aficionado. I sniff them out wherever I go. So it’s a big deal for me to say I’ve never seen reptiles so active in their cages before. Most of them were up against the glass, almost trying to crawl out.

I might do the same if my cage was filled with feces, made of cement, and lacking stimulation or life-like environment. I was a bit bothered by what we saw, but I brushed it off by telling myself I was applying my Western standards to a foreign country. Ironically these were some of the best sized/tended to enclosures we would see that day.

Do any animal experts have any explanation for why all the reptiles would be pressed up to the glass like this? It was very odd to see them all that way.

After walking through some sketchy waiting-for-a-lawsuit looking amusement park rides and a pod of severely undersized wild cat cages, we stumbled upon the elephants. At this point I could no longer avoid the truth that we had made a mistake in coming here.

From the photo below you can see the basic size of the enclosure where FIVE elephants are meant to live. Some of the elephants were locked into the “pens” in the background, while the one who was lucky enough to be out front was also chained by the foot.

Even sadder was this (male?) elephant isolated on the other side of a wall, tied down so tightly that all he could do was pace forward and backward, forward and backward for as long as we could bear to watch.

My stomach tightened as we took in the scene. The whole space was barely big enough for one adult elephant, nevermind the 6-7 they seemed to have pens for. Elephants are intelligent creatures capable of compassion, and yet no one had enough compassion for them to provide anything to stimulate their minds.

I couldn’t take it anymore and we walked away. Only morbid curiosity at this point kept me moving. We walked by depressed looking hippos with a dirt pond of water. “Let’s get out of here” I said. We started moving towards the exit.

Our our way out, we saw a huge crowd gathered by a large glass window. Curiosity got the best of us and we pushed up to the front. Inside the barren cage was a rare white tiger cowering and hissing in the corner like a scared housecat. I’ve never seen an animal in a zoo (or anywhere that I can think of) under such visible stress. This tiger clearly felt it was in danger, as it showed with its periodic lunges at the people behind the glass. After it would retreat hissing back to a corner with its hind legs down, like a dog who has been swatted with a newspaper.

I left the Ho Chi Minh City Zoo feeling a little bit dirty. I know they are becoming controversial among animal lovers, but I truly believe that a zoo done right can educate and inspire. My beloved adopted hometown New York City’s Bronx Zoo and Scotland’s lovely Edinburgh Zoo are two examples of that. Even in South East Asia, great things are possible, as I learned during my visit to the Phnom Tameo rescue center in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. There’s just no excuse for the stress and neglect that I saw in Ho Chi Minh City. Worst? I think we were there on a good day, from what I learned from after the fact.

Perhaps the admission fee is too low, perhaps the space is too small, perhaps the compassion isn’t there for the magnificent creatures being left to pace or panic themselves into a frenzy all day. I’m sorry that I supported this zoo with my visit, and I hope to help others avoid the same mistake.

Edited to add: Long after visiting the zoo I was still disturbed and felt the overwhelming desire to DO something. With some internet searching I found , an international animal welfare watchdog group, where I was able to report what we saw. I encourage other travelers that witness animal abuse to do the same.

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So. Hopefully I’ve dissuaded you from ever visiting that sad excuse for a zoo. Are you still looking for a fun, family-friendly activity or attraction in Ho Chi Minh City? Let me offer an alternate suggestion: The Ho Chi Minh City Museum of Fine Arts.

Just a stone’s throw from the Pham Ngu Lao backpacker’s district and a pleasant walk from downtown’s upscale hotel scene, this attraction will only set you back 10,000 dong (about 50 cents).

There is a mixture of traditional art and modern galleries full of the works of today’s generation of Vietnamese artists.

The range of work is vast, the investment of time and money low, and the reward of supporting the fine arts high.

It might not be MOMA or the Louvre, but at least you won’t leave trying to plan an elephant heist.

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51 Comments...
  • Yvette
    January 30 2012

    Ugh, sorry to hear you had such a bad experience there!

    You’re right in that zoos when done well certainly can provide good- my sister used to work for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums in the USA that would accredit zoos that only had minimum space/enrichment/etc for their animals conservation/research to help the species there, so that was only a small fraction of ones in the US (so Bronx Zoo is a member, Bob’s Discount Safari isn’t).

    Needless to say, the Ho Chi Minh Zoo doesn’t exactly qualify for such things. Really a pity to hear that they’re not even making an effort. 🙁
    Yvette recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      January 30 2012

      Thanks for commenting, Yvette. Interesting perspective with your sister’s job. After this visit I looked around for an international version of that but couldn’t find much. I just hope I can warn a few travelers away from visiting!

  • I literally have tears in my eyes. I want to free those animals!!!!!!!!!!!!
    Andi of My Beautiful Adventures recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      January 30 2012

      I know I did that day 🙁 The white tiger really got to me. I can’t imagine living in terror all day like he seemed to be. I can’t imagine how people see something like that and don’t feel extreme compassion.

  • Kathryn
    January 30 2012

    Heart-breaking. Rage-making. Isn’t there something “viral” that could be done to stir up outrage and motivate the city to change the conditions? Or there must be an animal advocacy group somewhere in Viet Nam.

    • Meihoukai
      January 30 2012

      Well, hopefully this post will go viral 🙂 I did send a report to this group: . They are an international organization though.

  • Jen
    January 31 2012

    Oh this makes me so sad… I’m tweeting your post to hopefully spread the word.
    Jen recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      January 31 2012

      Thanks Jen! The more people who hear about it, the better. I wish I had known.

  • KIm Meihoukai
    March 7 2012

    Folks, I run a group called ARC and we deal with WAR in Ho Chi Minh city, Viet Nam when we rescue or see wildlife being abused. Unfortunately many animals are classified as being ‘licensed’ and that means people cannot do too much to ‘help’. Over time, a group of animal lovers managed to move Ny from the circus at Pham Ngu Lao into the Saigon Zoo which may seem strange but this is still a step up from the circus, believe me.
    As an ARC member in the field, I see the brutality and cruelty towards animals every day. With education and awareness we hope to change the perception of animals to a positive one BUT its going to take a LONG time. Another group worth taking note of is Animals Asia . Thankyou for caring about the animals in my adopted country.

    • Meihoukai
      March 8 2012

      Hi Kim,
      Thank you SO much for this comment. There are lots of great groups here to support and be aware of. I had no idea there was a circus on Pham Ngu Lao, I didn’t see it while I was there and I’m glad. Thanks for all the hard work you do fighting animal cruelty!

  • Bob
    November 27 2014

    I was there when adopting my son. We were there during a hot day but we thought it might be a trip worth making and it was only a block and a half from our hotel. It’s a sad thing when the petting zoo was the highlight of the trip…well that and watching a bad Vietnamese *Nsync ripoff group at the pavilion. First thing I noticed was the elephants swaying, a sure sign of lack of external stimuli. Second was the very small hippo enclosure. Honestly the only thing we remembered there was the heat and humidity and trying to dodge Saigon’s notorious traffic to get back to our cold refreshing pool. I was not happy abut it but chalked it up to that’s how it is in 3rd world countries. I’m glad somebody else noticed.

    • Meihoukai
      November 28 2014

      Well, zoos are undoubtedly different in third world countries where there are just different levels of resources. But I’ve been to decent ones that make an effort, and this one was far from it. One of the saddest I’ve seen in my travels! Thanks for sharing your experience as well.

  • Jimmy
    January 5 2015

    You’re writing is sensationalist, unfounded and bad and so are your ideas. I agree though, sad zoo. Giraffes were nice. I fed them.

    • Meihoukai
      January 5 2015

      I’m confused…. do you agree with me about the zoo or think my ideas are unfounded? 🙂 Either way, thanks for reading — but please don’t feed zoo animals unless it is their natural diet!

  • katharina
    January 27 2015

    I had the exact same impression when I visited the zoo this summer. Normally I avoid zoos completely, but since it said “botanical garden” we thought it might be worth a visit. The elephants were still behaving the exact way you described. We must not support zoos with our entrance fee in the future. Only this way it might change some day…

    • Meihoukai
      January 28 2015

      I’m really sorry to hear nothing has changed for the better since I was there, Katharina 🙁

  • Amanda
    February 17 2015

    You have just confirmed my thoughts about the Saigon zoo. I am sitting here thinking what can we do today with my 9 year old daughter, well ! Let’s look at the zoo on line and not be too judgemental !!!!!!
    Living in Singapore as we have been for ten years ,we have had many a wonderful experience of visiting the Singapore zoo and night safari’s beautiful animals in what can be as best environment as possible for us to learn and provide breeding programs etc.
    Thankfully on looking at Saigon zoo on line and then seeing your comment made me believe in my heart and not go and spend the pittance of 15cents to enter into this terrible state of care for these precious animals .
    Let me just take this opportunity to make people aware of the Bali zoo, please think twice !

    • Meihoukai
      February 24 2015

      Hey Amanda, thanks for sharing — I’m glad to hear the Singapore Zoo is a worthy facility (and not surprised.) I will check it out next time I am around! Thank you for researching!

  • Ieva
    April 10 2015

    I completely agree with everything you say about the zoo. I was unfortunate to visit it during tet and was disgusted by people behaviour there, they do not have any compassion for the animals, the accessible cages were full of trash even though there are plenty of trash bins in the zoo. I even saw a crocodile with plastic bottle in his open mouth….

    • Meihoukai
      April 11 2015

      So sad to hear this is still going on, Leva. Thanks for sharing your more up-to-date experience so anyone who stumbles on this post knows it’s still at this level!

  • Angie
    April 17 2015

    Sitting in our hotel room in HCMC at 9.30PM and wondering what to do with the the kids (4&2) tomorrow. Really glad I stumbled on your post as I was really debating as to whether the Tripadvisor reviews were exaggerated (as they often are) and the kids love zoos (and I REALLY want an easy day!) However your photos and descriptions have convinced me it is a depressing place to be. Hopefully more tourists will vote with their feet

    • Meihoukai
      April 17 2015

      I’m so glad you did some research, Angie! That’s exactly why I wrote this post — makes me happy to hear it’s being found.

  • Vietpete
    June 27 2015

    You make no allowance for the difficulties in maintaining the Zoo, whilst the Country was abused for 10 years by the US, and punished for a further 15 years by a vicious punishing embargo. Your comments regarding the Zoo demonstrate an incredible ignorance of Vietnam.

    • Meihoukai
      June 28 2015

      Hey Vietpete, I don’t think that’s really a fair assessment. I’ve been to zoos in very poor countries that treat animals with infinitely more dignity than was shown here. This was, hands down, the most atrocious public treatment of animals I’ve seen in the thirty countries I’ve visited around the world. I’m sad that I supported it and I hope that by writing this post I brought some attention to the issue and perhaps prevented other people from inadvertently doing the same.

  • jp
    November 1 2015

    Perhaps you’ve never been to the Bangkok Zoo. I lived in HCMC for nearly six years and visited the zoo on numerous occasions. I would say that what you point out are isolated incidents, as the animals appeared well cared for, and I should point out that I’ve been to smaller zoo’s in the U.S. that were far worse.

    • Meihoukai
      November 2 2015

      Hey JP — if you read the Tripadvisor reviews for this place you will see that my experience was not an isolated one. I don’t think that pointing out other zoos that were equally as bad or worse makes it any better, either.

    • bullshiet
      October 25 2017

      I’m with Meihoukai. This is not an isolated incident. Why are you in denial?

  • Briana
    January 16 2016

    I am so sad to read this! We are going to Ho Chi Minh next and were looking at things to do. We are animal-lovers and don’t want to see the animals being treated badly or support the place (though I also worry that the animals will not be fed if enough people don’t visit?) I wish there was more that could be done! I am so bothered by the inhumane treatment of animals that is so common over here (yes, I know it is somewhat of a problem everywhere but there is an obvious difference when you look at both attitude and treatment). And what I have read about dogs in Vietnam! Horrible! () It seems as though awareness in these countries doesn’t even matter when the people don’t care about the welfare of the animals.
    Briana recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      January 17 2016

      I wish there was more to be done as well. But I do think voting with our dollars is powerful! I do share your concerns about what will happen to these animals if people stop visiting altogether but, harsh as it is, I think sacrifices sometimes need to be made in order to break a cycle of abuse.

  • Dave
    February 17 2016

    How do you think Vietnamese people feel when the foreign owned factories treat them worse than the zoo animals. They earn a dollar or two an hour if lucky.
    They at least are able to drink clean water!
    Let all kind hearts pray and work for kindness for all creatures.

    • Meihoukai
      February 17 2016

      Hi Dave. I have endless empathy for those working in deplorable conditions. But I can also have empathy for animals that are being mistreated in tourist attractions. As this is a travel blog, the latter is a more appropriate topic for this venue.

  • Anton
    March 28 2016

    2016 and the elephants appear to be starving!!! All have pinched up concave stomacks and very little energy! Please help report this to international organisations like PETA. The more that do the quicker these elephants will get help and food.

    Not one of the elephants had a bowel movement in the three hours we were there, this is highly unusual for elephants, who process bulk vegetaion rapidly only absorbing a minimum from their gross intake. Even a slightly reduced intake of bulk plant matter will have serious consequences which seems to be what is happening. They’re just not getting enough food and slowly starving to death.

    • Meihoukai
      March 29 2016

      So sorry to hear the conditions have not improved, Anton. I recommend reporting your experience to the organization I linked to in this post.

  • Daniel
    November 1 2016

    They are still in there. It´s really depressing…

    • Meihoukai
      November 7 2016

      I’m sorry to hear that, Daniel :-/

  • Christy
    January 6 2017

    Talk is cheap just left the zoo and elephants roaming over and back still .tigers still in the corner. the only hope they have is death then they are free

    • Meihoukai
      January 12 2017

      Very sad to hear this place is still in business. Hope this post will discourage some from visiting 🙁

  • Ian caseley
    March 24 2017

    I notice you refer to Thai visa. Have you written about the widespread abuse of elephants in Thailand? My 3 yrs of living in Thailand allowed me to witness many sad sights regarding the abuse of elephants and other animals. It would be good to give a balanced view of animal neglect in the indochina peninsula.

    • Meihoukai
      March 24 2017

      I have indeed, Ian. You can find my review of Elephant Nature Park in my archives, which highlights a lot of the terrible situations other elephants around Thailand are in. However, in my eight years of traveling and living in Thailand I’ve never seen any abuse quite so horrific as what I saw that day in Ho Chi Minh City.

  • Clare Alderson
    April 26 2017

    Visited Saigon Zoo, Feb 2017 for the same reason – ‘Botanic Gardens’ sounded like a pleasant place to relax away from the traffic on our last day. The conditions – elephants, bears, hyenas, tigers were exactly the same. These animals have lived like this for years. I looked that majestic white tiger in the eye and promised I would do something to help. It’s desperate.

    • Meihoukai
      April 28 2017

      So sad to hear nothing has changed Clare. It was still the worst “zoo” I’ve visited anywhere in the world.

  • Aileen Lewis
    June 29 2017

    I am travelling with a dental Aid Team to provide much needed dental treatment to young children next week. This is my second visit to Vietnam for Health Aid. I have never and will not visit a zoo in IndoChina. The 9 Moon Bears that have just been freed this month is another example of animal cruelty all for ‘traditional medicine customs’. Now that the bile farming workers have been reeducated to put their time to better uses and substitute pharmacology implemented bile farms we hope will be a thing of the past. In respect to Saigon Zoo…. what to do. There must be more widespread advocacy to either close or improve this Zoo dramatically. Canvassing the right people, education in schools re the animal protection and preservation laws would be a start. The reptiles are basically up against the glass as perhaps this is the only place where it isn’t dirty and they want out!
    When Im there next week I am going to investigate some options.

    • Meihoukai
      June 30 2017

      Let me know what you find Aileen. I’d be happy to help in any way feasible.

  • Chau M.
    July 3 2017

    Thank you so much for posting the article. It is indeed heartbreaking and I can’t believe people (the zoo owners and operators) would have the heart to do such cruelty to animals. Not just to zoo, but as a Vietnam-born US citizen, I’ve seen so much cruelty to animals by people here, which is really sad and disturbing. I wish there were an easy way to stop all this.

    • Meihoukai
      July 5 2017

      I am always saddened to see a new comment on this post from someone who has visited the zoo years later and had my same horrified reaction and found this post looking for a way to help. It does not sound like there is any change in a positive direction.

  • Rachel
    October 1 2017

    Everything you write about is totally accurate. Still, as of September 2016. We went to the zoo accidentally trying to visit the botanical gardens and figured we would give it a try since our children wanted to, though we normally do not like to take them to zoos. Thank you for writing this post. I would love to figure out a way to try and bring more attention to the conditions at this zoo. They are deplorable.

    This is my review on travelocity. “This zoo is a very sad place for the animals unfortunate enough to live there. The tigers live alone in boxes with cement floors and a glass wall separating them from tourists. The elephants have the smallest space to walk around in (they are meant to walk up to 50 miles a day in the wild), and I saw one with a chain around its ankle. I witnessed visitors throwing trash at the alligators. The zoo was playing loud techno music which can easily agitate the animals. The bear looked truly sick. My children hated it here and left feeling sad. We were all a bit traumatized. Please don’t visit and spread the word to others!”

    • Meihoukai
      October 3 2017

      Ugh, I’m so sorry to hear that Rachel. I can only hope this review helps some avoid this terrible place before they spend their money there. Sorry to hear you had the same experience we did, and that those animals are still suffering.

  • Anie
    February 28 2018

    We were in a zoo today… terrible and sad. All is the same way. It was very sad view. Are they really dont see what they do with animals… suggest not to go there if you dont want to make ur mood down.

    • Meihoukai
      March 1 2018

      Sad to hear that the situation has not improved over the years :-/

  • Laura Thom
    June 19 2018

    I visited this zoo in Saigon in 2013, and it still haunts me today. As I sit here at the end of a workday in my office it came to mind, again. I decided to do a quick google search hoping to try and find that things have gotten better since I visited 5 years ago…

    I am so scarred from the experience of a pacing distressed wild cat, swaying, stressed, hungry, chained elephants, visibly sick chimpanzees, and two rhinos in a pool smaller than my bedroom. 🙁
    I haven’t visited another zoo anywhere since and I honestly don’t think I will.
    Thanks for sharing this on the internet, I hope this encourages so many others to think twice.

    • Meihoukai
      July 4 2018

      Sadly I still regularly get comments on this post that let me know the zoo conditions have not improved. It’s heartbreaking. I can only hope some travelers google it before going and this post warns them off going.