Longing to travel in Vietnam? This 7 part series, which travels from Hanoi in the north to the Mekong Delta in the south, will entice you to experience Vietnam’s vibrancy and beauty; meet its resilient and hospitable people and marvel at their ability to blend calm serenity with seeming chaos … and make it all work.
Prior to May 1975 the city now known as Ho Chi Minh City (honoring the first leader of North Vietnam) was called Saigon. The original spelling, Sài Gòn was the informal name given by Vietnamese settlers in the 1700s. The French conquest (1860) gave it a westernized spelling. Today, the informal name is still used when referring to the older centre of the city.
The city’s population of 8 million people swells with another million when considering surrounding towns which make up the metropolitan area. The count makes for a busy commute.
Most tourists visit Ho Chi Minh City between November and March – the coolest month is December and the hottest April. Typhoon season, when the southern part of Vietnam can experience violent tropical storms, occurs from July to November. Rainy season is not so bad as it tends to rain for only an hour or two during the afternoon. September is the wettest month, February the driest.
The ‘President’s Palace’ was renamed ‘Independence Palace’ on its completion in 1966 (the government had changed); it was the epitome of modern 1960’s Paris architecture and décor. On April 30, 1975, when Communist tanks rumbled up Siagon’s Le Duan Avenue and crashed through the gates, the palace became a time capsule. Although the name was changed to ‘Reunification Palace’ and it was emptied of government papers little else has changed. Reception rooms on the main floor stand as they always have in expectation of foreign dignitaries; in fact they are still used for official receptions and high ranking meetings (at which time the Palace is closed to visitors). There is a bar, a theatre, dance hall, casino and offices. The President’s residence in the back, with stuffed leopard, elephant foot tables and other ‘trophy treasures’, makes one glad the rest of the world moved on to better fashion sense. Technology has certainly moved on from the antiquated telecommunication equipment still set up in the basement’s war rooms. The only thing still grinding there are the fans; cooling favourites in the muggy windowless rooms.
Tours are available in English and French. An entrance fee is charged.
Cathedral and Post office
Two blocks from Reunification Palace is Notre Dame Cathedral. The forth oldest building in the city was built (1877-1883) during the French Colonial years. Its mostly white interior depicts a simple elegance. Of the many glass windows there are only two originals left. English and Vietnamese masses are said on Sundays. If the Cathedral is high on your must-see list check first the limited visiting times. The cathedral’s exterior is popular, any day of the week, with brides in western-style white gowns and black tuxedoed grooms.
Saigon Central Post Office, aka Old Post Office, across the street from the cathedral also makes the top 10 oldest buildings heritage list. Built (1886-1891) by renowned French architect Gustave Eiffel (as in Paris’s Eiffel Tower) the interior’s barreled ceiling is reflective of grand European railway stations. Large niches still display original fresco maps. Purchase stamps for authentic and inexpensive souvenirs or better yet buy postcards and send one to yourself and others to family and friends; in today’s email/text/talk world it’s special to receive ‘real’ mail.
On the west side of the city is Cho Lon or Cholon (Chinatown) which can trace its roots to 1778. Here a popular destination prized for its classical Chinese architecture is the ever-busy-ever-messy, filled-with-Chinese-atmosphere Binh Tay Market; temples plus plenty of Chinese eateries. One temple worthy of a stop is Thien Hau Temple; built by Cantonese over 200 years ago. Also known as the ‘Lady of the Sea’ many sailors, fishermen and travelers pray to Thien Hau for safety when travelling off shore. Decorating the roof and walls are small porcelain figures depicting scenes in an old Chinese city with such colourful characters as actors, demons, animals and dragons, Persian and European sailors, traders and even a duel on horseback. Below an open area in the roof is an altar of incense burners. Hung over this area, in front of the main altar of Thien Hau, are dozens of large cone-shaped incense coils; once lit they take about a month to burn. Many are lit with prayers for family members on trips.
District 1 is the central urban district of Ho Chi Minh City. This area is still referred to by locals as Saigon. It is considered the financial centre of Vietnam; contains all consulates from other countries as well as administrative buildings for the Vietnamese government and the city and has many of the city’s best public and private schools (the latter being relatively new). Besides being home to the Reunification Palace, Notre Dame Cathedral and the Old Post Office District 1 hosts the City Opera House and several hotels of which two are notable.
Hotel Continental, across from the City Opera House, has a history dating to the French Occupation. Through its lifetime it has survived a number of owners and a number of names. Graham Greene’s novel, ‘The Quiet American’ (later a movie), about a young idealistic journalist sent to cover the French war in Vietnam, was partially written in Room 214 and Greene used the hotel for a number of his book’s pivotal scenes. During the Vietnam War the hotel was again a venue for journalists, military officers, dignitaries and spies. After the fall of Saigon the hotel was taken over by the government of Ho Chi Minh City. Some people consider the aged interior ‘drab’ while others describe it as having ‘quirks and historical charm’, ‘a resounding sense of history’ and a ‘grand old dame’.
The Rex Hotel’s rooftop bar was the watering hole of military officers and war correspondents during both the Indo-China War and the Vietnam War. It was also the place where the American military would hold official daily press briefings. Cynical journalists dubbed them ‘the five o’clock follies’ complaining about the creditably gap between reports and truth.
Today you can find lesser priced drinks elsewhere but on the rooftop of the Rex you also get to drink in the view as well as some nostalgia.
Another bar you may wish to visit is in the Caravelle Hotel, on the opposite side of the Opera House from the Hotel Continental. Built in 1959 it boasted bullet-proof glass and state of the art air-conditioning. Today its main floor holds a small, low ceiling, uninspiring casino called Club Vegas; however, the tower holds a bar with spectacular views of the city. If you arrive early enough, you may be able to score a tiny table for two on the very narrow balcony which comes with stunning night views, cool summer air and a place on the fringe of the bar’s inevitable night crowds. From this perch you may look down upon both the Hotel Continental and the Rex Hotel, talk about the terrific day you’ve had and be excited about tomorrow.
Continue to Part 6 – Cu Chi Tunnels