Hopping Back and Forth in Time in Ho Chi Mihn City

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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

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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

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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.

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18As 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

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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.

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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

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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.

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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

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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47It 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

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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.

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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.

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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.

This post is available for download on GPSmyCity. Click here to explore. 

46 responses to “Hopping Back and Forth in Time in Ho Chi Mihn City

  1. Great trip! We haven’t been to Asia yet when we finally go we are interested in Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Japan. Looks like a great adventure you had.

  2. Happy to see pictures from Vietnam. A country that saw long colonial rule followed by a long civil war.
    I found the post office design so very typically French.
    Torture rooms and killing machines are always a nauseating experience. I don’t think I’ll ever prefer to visit them. Looking forward to your next post on Mekong delta.

    • It did remind me of Pondicherry (one of the few places to be ruled by the French). All the buildings had a distinct French style to it. Quite nice to look at.
      We’ve been to Anne Frank’s Haus (Amsterdam) and War Museum (Korea), but I would say this Museum was by far the most saddening of the three. It’s a tough choice to make, not for everyone — I agree!

  3. Walked many of the same streets and enjoyed my stay too, but oh the traffic. There were motor cyclists even zooming along the footpaths. As a walker, I had to be vigilant! I was even asked by someone if drivers really stopped for pedestrians in Canada? Someone had told them they did, and they had to ask again as they found it hard to believe.

    • I know the traffic was quite something. Especially, the two-wheelers on the sidewalk. It takes confidence crossing the street. It’s a style and if you don’t show you’re the boss (with your hand raised), you might just get hit!

  4. Looks like there is not much crowd around, isn’t Saigon a touristy place?

    As you’ve experienced, it sure looks like a good mix of old and the new, and maybe in a few decades, the new would outshine the old historical sites. The hidden gems are indeed gems…i thought initially you would only cover the buildings 🙂

    • Saigon (HCMC) is quite the hub for tourists. I guess, July is a down period for tourism. The weather is quite erratic. It wasn’t easy clicking pictures without posers (you might notice how I added them to the frame). It took more patience. 🙂 I love buildings, but I also try to notice what the locals do. It’s essential in understanding the place.

  5. The old French architecture and the newer modern buildings are very attractive, but my favorite shot here is of the Times Square “thing” (sculpture? lamp post?) – I love the angle and the randomness of it!

    The sad stuff … I often argue with myself about taking the time to see these things. I argue that it’s my vacation and that I should enjoy it, not upset myself. Then I counter by telling myself that to truly understand the place and the people, the sad part of the history is necessary. Although it often hurts and makes for a dreary time afterward, I nearly always choose to go.

    • Thanks, Lex! I realised, how I hate being a photographer (I admire Basil all the more) and traveller! lol. So, Vincom Centre A had boards of ‘Times Square’ plastered on its facade (but, there’s another Times Square Building in the city — so I’m a bit confused with the two.) The shot you’re talking about is a kind of board that lights up at night.
      I know what you mean about the sad part of a trip. I never knew it would be so grim. The pictures were extremely graphic and I was quite shaken. But, it also made me want to read more about it. And, I spend the rest of the evening doing exactly that. 🙂

  6. I somehow had this preconception of Ho Chi Mihn City being a warren of backstreets, crammed with motorcycles, shops, and people trying to make a buck. Not a modern city, and definitely not a venue for a Notre-Dame Cathedral. Interesting stuff.

    • I had a similar perception of HCMC/Vietnam (before I visited it). 🙂 I must add, this is District 1 (the financial/commercial hub of the city) after all. I learned (on the next day) that the city is divided into Districts and each District has its own characterise vibe (upscale residential apartments, slums, the mob, China Town). Our stay was too short to cover the different facets of this interesting city! 🙂

  7. It sounds like every bit the adventure around Ho Chi Minh city, and you’ve walked around quite a bit. Maybe the tourist signs were geared to locals from nearby cities or towns, but good to know you still managed to get around easily. Interesting to see a bit of new mixed in with the old – still a developing country, but there seems to be a lot of hope for a more comfortable future given its history. The post office looks massive with so many booths and so many people 😀 Looks like you ordered fried rice, and I hope it hit the spot after morning sight-seeing. It’s a dish I’d order when I”m traveling and other dishes don’t appeal to me. Lovely travel write-up again, Cheryl. Another adventure, another story 🙂

    • It was terribly hot and I was really proud that I could walk in that heat. Basil was surprised that I didn’t opt for a tour bus! 🙂 Fortunately, it’s easy to find tourist sights in that district of the city. The post office was massive! 🙂 Yes, it was fried rice! And it was super yum! I love fried rice and the the flavour was spot on. Thanks for stopping by, Mabel! It’s always good to hear from you. 🙂

      • Haha, I think after the last year of hiking and walking, you’ve built up quite a stamina now. One day you will be able to outwalk Basil 🙂 Fried rice is always a nice comfort dish, and you know it’s cooked hot and chances are it is safe to eat 😀

      • That’s a new goal to set! Outwalking Basil will be quite the challenge because he’s got long legs and is 6 ft tall. 😦 And he walks to drop! lol..

      • Haha. I mean this in the nicest way possible – twice your size, twice your stride 😀 You are already building up stamina, so maybe that will help you to build your step count and hence walking distance per minute 😀

      • haha…When I told Basil about this new goal (yesterday), he sounded pretty excited. He said maybe it would be possible someday and I should aim for it!

      • LOL. Maybe Basil is already plotting harder hike routes so he will always win. But I have faith in you that you will be able to keep pace 🙂

      • You guessed correctly, Mabel! He had this sly grin when he said that I could defeat him…lol We haven’t been on a hike for a month now. We’re waiting for the summer to end…

  8. What an excellent post on Ho Chi Minh. Ma y places we obviously missed. The war museum is definitely tough and does not sugar coat the atrocities. There are some visuals that have stayed with me from two years ago when we were there, as they were so impactful.

    My other distinct memory of HCMC was the most delicious tamarind crab – outstanding !

    • Thanks a bunch, Peta! I was looking forward to your comment. 🙂 I didn’t have a plan and was amazed that I could see so many sights in a couple of hours. The memory of the graphic images in the Remnants Museum is going to be hard to wash off. 😦 I didn’t try tamarind crab! Maybe, next time!

  9. Oh wow it really looks amazing! Vietnam is a place that really intrigues me!
    Recently I had a bad experience with Vietnamese food, I find it very boring. I would be curious to take some authentic Vietnamese food, you food pictures look so tasty 🙂

    • Really?? Is Vietnam on your wish list? It’s been on mine for ages! Ah! I don’t like eating world food in global cities. It never tastes the same. I used to eat Vietnamese food in Seoul and liked it. But, it’s nothing in comparison to the authentic experience you get in Vietnam. Traditional Vietnamese food is high on flavour (again depends on which part of the country you’re eating it in!) 🙂

  10. This is all well and interesting Cheryl, but I wanna know more about what you ate. 😉 Kidding of course…you really managed a good wander through the city solo, and I’m impressed that you only got lost once and found your way back to that gorgeous hotel unharmed. 🙂

  11. Pingback: An Evening in Saigon | twobrownfeet·

    • Thanks, Agness! 🙂 We had a tight schedule in Ho Chi Mihn City and I tried to do the best I could in a day. I’d say you’d need at least 3 or 4 days to explore around or make time for day trips such as the Mekong Delta.

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