From Ho Chi Minh To Saigon

Traffic in Ho Chi Minh (c) A. Harrison
Traffic in Ho Chi Minh (c) A. Harrison

A Balcony In Saigon

I sat on the rooftop of the Majestic Hotel, sipping bubbles as the evening embraces Saigon. A soft breeze blew in from the river, brushing away both the heart 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, with the rooftop bar proving a quiet corner overlooking 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 art works 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.

The balcony of the Rex Hotel, Saigon (c) A. Harrison
The balcony of the Rex Hotel, Saigon (c) A. Harrison
Where the Saigon River meets the sea (c) A. Harrison
Where the Saigon River meets the sea (c) A. Harrison

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 which captures her character and charm.

Transport, Vietnamese style (c) A. Harrison
Transport, Vietnamese style (c) A. Harrison

The Literary Traveller

The Quiet American (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition)
The Quiet American (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition)

A deceptively simple tale set in the turbulent period as the French leave and the Americans arrive in Vietnam

 
Old Saigon © A Harrison
Old Saigon © 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.

show route and directions
A markerThe Majestic Hotel, Saigon -
[get directions]

B markerThe Rex Hotel, Saigon -
[get directions]

C markerNotre Dame Cathedral, Saigon -
[get directions]

D markerBen Thanh Market, Ho Chi Minh -
[get directions]

E markerReunification Palace, Ho Chi Minh -
[get directions]

Seafood at the Ben Thanh Markets, Saigon © A Harrison
Seafood at the Ben Thanh Markets, Saigon © A Harrison

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, all of local produce, and even a small supermarket.

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.

Don't Miss...

Cholon - the world's largest Chinatown, and features 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

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.

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

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 up some rickety back stairs to a spacious wooden balcony which 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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10 comments

LCaverson profile image

LCaverson 2 years ago from Virginia Beach, VA.

Love learning about new places.


Anne Harrison profile image

Anne Harrison 2 years ago from Australia Author

Thank you, it's an amazing place to visit, hope you make it there one day


LCaverson profile image

LCaverson 2 years ago from Virginia Beach, VA.

I hope to visit there as well, thank you for your post!


Jonn Christie 90 profile image

Jonn Christie 90 2 years ago from Australia

I never knew Ho Chi Min City had such beautiful architecture the Rex Hotel is so beautiful thank you Anne for sharing


Anne Harrison profile image

Anne Harrison 2 years ago from Australia Author

There is such a strong French influence, yet the local culture still dominates, to make an amazing city. Thanks for your comments John


Jonn Christie 90 profile image

Jonn Christie 90 2 years ago from Australia

Wow how amazing a city of contrasts of french and Asian not many cities would have that you are welcome Anne have a sensational day


BNadyn profile image

BNadyn 2 years ago from Jacksonville, Florida

Looks like a beautiful city and you make it sound peaceful. I'd love to sit on the balcony, too. Thanks for sharing this. :)


Anne Harrison profile image

Anne Harrison 2 years ago from Australia Author

Put sitting on that balcony on your wish-list, BNadyn! I'm glad you enjoyed my hub


ladyguitarpicker profile image

ladyguitarpicker 14 months ago from 3460NW 50 St Bell, Fl32619

I did not realize how beautiful Ho Chi Min is. I had many friends in Vietnam during the war.


Anne Harrison profile image

Anne Harrison 14 months ago from Australia Author

Graham Greene wrote so lovingly of Saigon just before the war in The Quiet American - I hope you get to visit some day. Although the war is not forgotten, it is just one of the many which has swept through this city, and Saigon is very much living in the present. Thanks for reading my hub

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