Journey Through Time: Colonial Architecture In Ho Chi Minh City

Modern aspirations and real estate expansion lay siege to the old French colonial architecture in Vietnam's most popular city
The old Saigon City Hall and the modern Vincom Centre reflect the architectural mix of Ho Chi Minh City
The old Saigon City Hall and the modern Vincom Centre reflect the architectural mix of Ho Chi Minh CityShutterstock

Dong Khoi Street in Ho Chi Minh City is a pleasant road to stroll along with its clutch of French colonial buildings and modern shopping quarters. But this once tree-lined boulevard, then known as Rue Catinat, is a far cry from the scenic stretch that formed the backdrop to Graham Greene’s novel The Quiet American. It also puts in a nutshell the dilemma of Ho Chi Minh City–whether to retain its past architectural gems or replace them with modern buildings. Should Ho Chi Minh City lose its individuality to aspirations of being one of Asia's modern but ubiquitous cities is a question that the city’s heritage lovers are raising.

Emerging as a Khmer fishing village, Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City as it is known today, is Vietnam’s largest city and its commercial capital. After the Treaty of Saigon (1862) between Emperor Tu Duc of Vietnam and the French, the latter acquired Saigon and three southern provinces along with other concessions. Within five to six years, the French occupied the whole of southern Vietnam. Like other colonial powers, they, too, began to build Saigon after their home country, filling it with administrative and cultural buildings that used local and French styles.

Today these old buildings draw a lot of tourists and are a study in the evolution of Saigon’s French-influenced architecture.

Notre Dame Cathedral
Notre Dame Cathedral Shutterstock

Popularly known as the Notre Dame Cathedral, the Basilica of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception is situated on Dong Khoi Street. It is said that all the construction material was imported from France for this cathedral which was built between 1863 and 1880. Entry is ticketed.

The Central Post Office
The Central Post Office Shutterstock

Also called the Saigon Post Office, the Central Post Office is a neighbour of the Notre Dame Cathedral. Built in 1886, it drew inspiration from Gothic and French architecture.

Inside the Central Post Office in Ho Chi Minh
Inside the Central Post Office in Ho Chi MinhShutterstock

The massive foyer inside the Central Post Office, with its arches and pillars, will compel you to linger awhile. Why not send a letter from here to a dear friend? Or, how about making a call from the Victorian-era wooden phone booths?

The first hotel built in Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City
The first hotel built in Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh CityShutterstock

Inaugurated in 1880, Hotel Continental on Rue Catinat was the first hotel to be built in Saigon. Some of its famous guests include Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore (who won the 1913 Nobel Prize for literature), the award-winning writer Andre Malraux, whose “Man’s Fate” won the 1933 Prix Goncourt, and of course British writer Graham Greene (long-term guest in room 214), as well as former French President Jacques Chirac (he was Mayor of Paris when he stayed here), Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed, to name a few.

Fine Arts Museum
Fine Arts MuseumShutterstock

This former home of a wealthy city resident exhibits a combination of eastern and Western architecture and is now converted into a fine arts museum.

Ben Thanh Market
Ben Thanh MarketShutterstock

This market (built around 1912) in the city's heart is known for its indoor market, where you will find a wide range of products, from fresh produce to souvenirs. Do not forget to explore the rows of food stalls, may be stopping to enjoy the sizzling bánh xèo.

Saigon Opera House
Saigon Opera HouseShutterstock

Built in 1897, the Saigon Opera House (now the Municipal Theatre) is one of the best examples of the city’s French architecture, as the interior was built after the home country’s then contemporary opera halls.

Tan Dinh Parish
Tan Dinh ParishShutterstock

The Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus or the Tan Dinh Parish Church (in District 3) was built in the late 1870s.  It largely reflects neo-Romanesque architecture with influences of neo-Gothic and neo-Renaissance styles. It is the second-largest church in the city.

China Town, Ho Chi Minh City
China Town, Ho Chi Minh CityShutterstock

Apart from its heritage French architecture, Ho Chi Minh City is also known for its Chinese legacy. The city’s China Town still retains the rows of apartment houses with their cast iron railings, a throwback to the old times.

Getting There

The primary gateway to Ho Chi Minh City is Tan Son Nhat International Airport, accessible via international and domestic flights. For those within Vietnam, long-distance buses and trains connect the city to major destinations. Water enthusiasts can explore river cruises along the Mekong River, with stops near the city. Once in Ho Chi Minh City, taxis and ride-sharing services like Grab provide convenient transportation.

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