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We arrived in Ho Chi Mihn City, late in the evening, after an extremely long delay in Seoul. The rain poured down in torrents as our taxi made its way through rush hour traffic and I got the first glimpse of the city’s ubiquitous two-wheeler brigade. They whizzed by, negotiated nimble manoeuvres, doubled as pseudo-pedestrians on the pavement, and ensured that it would be very hard to ignore them. The next day, the sun would be out, and I’d have a very different view of the city and multiple reasons to debunk my first impressions of that wet, monsoon evening of July.
Hotel Continental Saigon
My solo trip around Ho Chi Mihn City started at Hotel Continental Saigon — our residence for a period of three days. Back then, I wasn’t acutely aware of its eclectic history, but I was definitely very impressed by its distinct architectural style and attempt to capture a glimpse of old world decadence. As I brushed up my reading (for this post) I learned: Hotel Continental Saigon hosted some famous names in the literary world such as Rabindranath Tagore and Graham Greene. The hotel also finds a mention in Greene’s book, “The Quiet American”. Built in 1880, the first hotel of of its time, during the height of French colonialism, Hotel Continental Saigon has witnessed war, change, and freedom — over its lifetime.
Saigon Opera House
The Saigon Opera House is a stone’s throw away from Hotel Continental Saigon. Built in 1898, the Saigon Opera House was the vision of French architect, Eugene Ferret. Surprisingly, the Opera House is still functional today, and if you have the time — you could catch a performance by local groups. If not, mimic the locals, and use the facade of the Opera House as a backdrop for clicking pictures in traditional Vietnamese clothes. Or join one of the many walking or tour groups that assemble at regular intervals.
People’s Committee Building
I walked away from the Saigon Opera House (back towards the hotel) and followed the direction of the traffic. It’s hard to miss the sprawling external facade (or fluttering flag) of City Hall, also known as People’s Committee Building. Strangely, there are no tourist boards and the street signs are quite incomprehensible. Fortunately, even if you do get lost in this district (like I did), you will only come across interesting gems of the city’s colonial past. Since City Hall is a functional government building, tourists aren’t allowed inside. Interestingly, it was built in 1908 as Hôtel de Ville and was renamed in 1975 as People’s Committee Building.
Uncle Ho and Children
With no specific itinerary in mind, I walked towards the statue of iconic Vietnamese leader, Ho Chi Mihn (after whom Saigon city was renamed). The central statue in the square, titled “Uncle Ho and Children” was the vision of artist Nguyen Minh Chau. It was nearing 10 am, the sun was shining brightly, and the lotus blooms in the garden were a sight for sore eyes.
On the opposite side of the square lies another iconic building (top right of the picture) — Bitexco Financial Tower. At 262.5 m, designed by Carlos Zapata and inspired by the lotus, the tower boasts of fantastic views of the city (something I sorely missed), but more importantly shifts the narrative from the city’s old colonial past to a newer, possibly promising future. Still under wraps, it will be hard to miss the construction site of a new metro that has been commissioned nearby.
Vincom Centre A
After stepping into Saigon Tourist (a government enterprise) to get oriented and book a tour for the Mekong Delta (the next day); I retraced my steps in search of the Notre Dame Cathedral. En route, I passed the pale white facade of Vincom Centre A, housing some of the most renowned brands of international fashion.
As I tried navigating my way through the streets — without getting hit by two-wheelers; I found myself surrounded by a heady mix of the past and the present. Vincom Center B is a towering building popular for shopping or spending a day at the mall.
Notre-Dame Cathedral of Saigon
The Notre-Dame Cathedral of Saigon is located in the centre of a busy street and can be found without much difficulty. Officially known as Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of The Immaculate Conception, this Roman Catholic Cathedral was built, in 1880, during French rule. The brickwork is quite extraordinary and looks stunning on a clear day with blue skies. The statue of the Virgin Mary, in the foreground, has a certain sadness to it.
I’m not sure if tourists are allowed to enter this Cathedral. On the day of my visit, the doors were closed and workers were renovating its external facade.
Saigon Central Post Office
Like most of the iconic landmarks of French colonial architecture that I’d seen so far, the Saigon Central Post Office wasn’t any different. On the outside, it was easy to recognise the distinct French influence. Strangely, I thought the Central Post Office might just be a remnant of French Colonialism for tourists.
I was surprised to see a functional post office when I entered inside. Tourist souvenir shops clog both wings and part of the central lobby. At the extreme ends of the lobby, you’d find counters (like the one above) to send mail.
Hidden Gems on the Way
I still didn’t have a clear plan in place and I enjoyed not having to reach anywhere in particular. So far, almost everything that I had to see, was scattered along my walking route (District 1). As I walked around aimlessly, ignoring calling out cyclos, I saw a dense patch of vegetation and I knew I had to go there. It turned out be a rest spot for locals and I tried to find a spot to take a break from the sun.
The Reunification Palace
I continued walking, hoping to find the War Remnants Museum, and instead, I came across the sprawling gardens of the Reunification Palace. Back then, I wasn’t aware of the importance of this iconic landmark in Ho Chi Mihn City. Now, if you do not have a background of the Vietnam War or a know-how of its complex and confusing colonial past — it might feel as if you’re sleepwalking through the annals of time. As I clicked photographs, with the hope of reading about all the significant details later, I realised I was somehow missing an important piece of the puzzle.
The Reunification Palace was designed by award winning Vietnamese architect, Ngo Viet Thu, to replace Norodom Palace (built by the French), after it was significantly damaged in an attack in 1962. It served as the residence of the President of South Vietnam, Ngô Đình Diệm and during this period was called the Independence Palace. After his assassination, in 1963, it doubled as the residence and office for General Nguyễn Văn Thiệu — during the height of the Vietnam War. In 1975, the northern Vietnamese army bulldozed their tank into the gates of the Palace (renaming it with its current name) and brought an end to years of conflict — giving birth to a united Vietnam.
The Reunification Palace might seem unassuming from the outside, but when you step inside: it equals a treasure chest of carefully preserved capsules of time. From the stately banquet halls to the claustrophobia inducing bunkers (below), each room takes you back into the past and it’s hard not feel that eerie feeling of life evaporating and leaving the stillness behind.
It was approaching noon and the climate had become stuffy and humid. Fortunately, a local lemon drink came to my rescue. After admiring the trees (and spotting a snake), I left the Palace grounds and stopped for lunch at one of the local diners.
The War Remnants Museum
Nothing can prepare you for the horrors you will see at the War Remnants Museum. After a long, sweltering day of walking the streets of Ho Chi Mihn City, it might be difficult to take in the atrocities of war. I’d suggest, to start the day with a low (a visit here can do that to you) and end the day with a high — by admiring some other iconic sight in the city. It’s important to also bear in mind: the sequence of the Museum starts from the top and progresses chronologically as you head down.
Vietnam’s checkered past begins in 1858 with the French invasion and subsequent colonial rule over the next century. The Museum (topmost floor) documents President Ho Chi Mihn’s declaration of Independence in 1945 (effectively separating Vietnam into the communist north and pro-colonial south) and the subsequent series of events that followed (a brief period of Japanese rule during the Second World War, after which the British handed Vietnam back to the French). In 1954, South Vietnam (backed by the US) waged a war against the North. The floor below takes you through the aggressions (by the US Army) of the Vietnam War namely: the My Lai Massacre and the horrors of Agent Orange. It isn’t easy viewing and I found it extremely difficult not to feel overwhelmed by emotion. The final chapter of the war (the ground level) documents support (from nations across the world) against the war.
Just when I thought, I’d successfully ripped off the band-aid, I unwittingly walked into the ‘Tiger Cage’ (outside the Museum). My thoughts were clouded by the musty smell of grey stones, sight of contraptions of death, and small doorways. I felt exhausted and blank. And that’s how I ended my walk around the city. I walked back in silence, with a heavy heart and a sense of loss, and I tried to take comfort in the sound of raindrops — as it started pouring once again.