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Ho Chi Minh or Saigon: Two Names, One Amazing City

I fell in love with Florence at the age of 10 and have travelled widely since, but somehow I always return to this most magical of cities.

Traffic in Ho Chi Minh

Traffic in Ho Chi Minh

A Balcony in Saigon

I sat on the rooftop of the Majestic Hotel, sipping bubbles as the evening embraced Saigon. A soft breeze blew in from the river, brushing away both the heat and the noises of the traffic. In The Quiet American, this place overflowed at all hours of the day with journalists covering the Franco-Viet Minh (or First Indochina) war. With its colonial charm and retro features, the hotel remains a landmark in the city, its rooftop bar providing a quiet corner from which to look out over the Saigon River.

The Majestic stands on the corner of Duong Dong Khoi, formally the Rue Catinat brought so vividly brought to life by Graeme Greene. Especially in the blocks near the Saigon River, Duong Dong Khoi is a perfect place for an aimless stroll, whether browsing through local artworks or losing oneself in some of the best shopping in Saigon. Tailors offer outfits in 24 hours, while shoe repairs happen on the sidewalk near high-fashion boutiques. Cables and extension wires stretch everywhere. There are internet cafes, trinkets for tourists, clothing shops, foreign exchange stalls, restaurants, cafes, and mobile vendors offering cold drinks and baguettes. Everything is negotiable.

I call this beautiful city Saigon when I think of the past. I use her modern name, Ho Chi Minh, when walking in the present.

The balcony of the Rex Hotel, Saigon

The balcony of the Rex Hotel, Saigon

Ho Chi Minh or Saigon?

Ho Chi Minh City sprawls graciously along the Saigon River. Her tree-lined avenues and spacious squares are graced with Parisian buildings. Reclusive buildings hide behind wrought-iron fences while forgotten cobbled alleys beckon from the past. Motorbikes fill her vast boulevards and spill across her footpaths, competing with the bustling shops and their wares. Ho Chi Minh is a vibrant Asian city, but Saigon is the name that captures her character and charm.

Transport, Vietnamese style (c) A. Harrison

Transport, Vietnamese style (c) A. Harrison

The Rex Hotel

Further along Duong Dong Khoi stands the Rex Hotel. Here the rooftop bar (complete with elephants) overlooks the heart of Saigon; perhaps this is why a bottle of champagne here comes with six waiters. The heavens of the wet season opened just as we sat down, so for an hour or so we had the place to ourselves. After beginning life as a French garage, during the Vietnam War the Rex Hotel became home to the Press Corps—and quite possibly the CIA. Now it is owned by the Communists.

The balcony here is the perfect place for planning a day in Saigon. Within the radius of the panoramic view are parks, cafes, high-end shopping and markets, and streets of art galleries and antiques. A canal once ran through this area. Despite the bustle of modernity, the ghosts of the past remain. The North Vietnamese tanks which crashed through the gates of the Reunification Palace in 1975 now serve as props in endless tourist photos.

The balcony overlooks the junction of two main roads, Le Loi St and Nguyen Hue Boulevard. Nguyen Plaza remains an oasis of green, a place for tourists and locals alike to escape the heat. On one side stands City Hall, an elegant creation of white Parisian stone arches peeping artistically through the greenery. On the far side of the park stands the Opera House, which would be equally at home in Paris.

Some Dining Suggestions...

  • Temple Club (29-31 Ton That Thiep St) Once a home to pilgrims, it serves specialties from all over Vietnam
  • Xu (75 Hai Ba Trung S)t An elegant restaurant near the river, perfect for a glass of scorpion liqueur
  • Ciao Bella (11 Dong Khoi St) Perfect a glass of prosecco, and fresh pasta with crab meat and sea-urchin.
  • Ngon Restaurant, (138 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia, opp Reunification Palace) Another perfect balcony upstairs

Shopping in Saigon

Just up from the Rex Hotel on Le Loi St is the Hotel Continental, where Graham Greene lived for two years (in room 210). The arcades now boast the likes of Prada and Cartier, but nearby is the Tax Department Store. The upper floors here house a treasure trove of shops, local produce, and even a small supermarket.

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A few blocks further down Le Loi St is the Ben Thanh Market—the French called it Les Halles Central. Like the original Les Halles, the stalls are jammed so closely together there is barely enough room to walk, and I quickly became lost in a chaos of delicate silks and kitchenware. One end is filled with fly-covered meat and unrecognizable seafood, with nearby cooking stalls; in the heat and humidity of midday, the stench proved unique.

Uncle Ho watches all who enter the Post Office © A Harrison

Uncle Ho watches all who enter the Post Office © A Harrison

French Architecture, Saigon

A different style of balcony is to be found a few tree-lined blocks to the north of the Rex Hotel. Here the Notre Dame Cathedral and the Central Post Office face one another across a small square. Designed by Gustave Eiffel, the façade of the Central Post Office is of neo-classical pale pink and white. A group of school children spoke to us on the stairs, practicing their English and, in thanks, giving us trinkets of little pigs made from buttons.

One enters through the wooden doors to a past time. The Post Office is a large, graceful arch, quiet and full of light. Opposite the entrance an enormous mosaic of Ho Chi Minh looks benignly down over all within. Under maps of Old Saigon and Cochinchina, a row of teak telephone booths now house ATMs.

Don't Miss...

Cholon—the world's largest Chinatown, featured in The Quiet American

Peace Noodles at 7 Lo Chinh Thang St —served pho to US soldiers while the Viet Cong planned the Tet Offensive upstairs

Reunification Palace—The Fall of Saigon was cemented by tanks crashing through the gates; they are still on display. Within, little has changed since April 30, 1975

A Byzantine in Saigon

A Byzantine in Saigon

Bishops and Balloons

Braving the motorbikes, (I always cross the street behind a spritely old lady) we crossed from the Post Office to the Notre Dame Cathedral. With stained glass windows from Chartres and each stone shipped from Marseilles, the French influence is palpable. By sheer chance, we reached the square just as some 100 bishops and priests walked in procession to the cathedral surrounded by school children: a remarkable sight in a communist country. Most of the clergy were clothed in white, complete with miter hats; one wore a Byzantine cap and stole of red and gold. Thousands of balloons were set loose in celebration, their colors floating vividly against the impossibly blue sky.

As the bishops continued into the cathedral, we crossed to a café on the far side of the square. A waitress ushered me up some rickety back stairs to a spacious wooden balcony that overlooked the cathedral square. Ceiling fans turned lazily above us. The Vietnamese rolls and papaya salad proved perfect in the heat.

A place for writing novels © A Harrison

A place for writing novels © A Harrison

On Writing a Novel

Saigon is full of balconies such as this; Ho Chi Minh beckons be explored, but there is always a quiet place to sit, and ponder the past while time barely moves, drinking strong coffee from tiny cups while dreaming of writing a novel.

© 2014 Anne Harrison

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