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French Colonial Architecture in Saigon Vietnam
When it comes to Vietnam, wars in Vietnam, unfortunately, may probably ring the first bell ever. Though having been severely devastated through horrible wars - particularly from French colonial period to Vietnam War, the country hosts plenty of spectacular architectural works as surviving remnants of history and civilization.
Due to the fact that HoChiMinh City or Saigon had undergone the wartime periods, such a long time has seen massive changes in landscapes and humanity. The city's general image has long been buffed up with heaps of architecture, remarkably with French colonial works. Smack in the heart of Saigon sits 2 striking clusters of colonial structures - the first one namely Notre Dame Cathedral, Central Post Office, and the others including Saigon Opera House, HoChiMinh City Hall, Saigon TAX Trade Center, Rex Hotel, Majestic Hotel, and Continental Hotel.
These clusters are located near each other, so you can take a walk around and visit all. In this article, I'd like to draw a walking route from Cong Xa Paris Street, where there are 3 outstanding works, then along Dong Khoi Street. and finally Nguyen Hue Pedestrian Street. Hardly ever have visitors missed visiting these places during their trips to Saigon.
Notre Dame Cathedral
Designed by French architect J. Bourad, founded in 1863 by French colonists, Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica or Basilica of Our Lady of The Immaculate Conception, or casually called Notre-Dame Cathedral is a 2-bell-tower church that highlights neo-Romanesque style mixed with Gothic features. Most building materials used for this work were imported from France. The cathedral points up red-brick walls that shine glamorously in bright sunlight.
Bumping about or admiring the cathedral from above, you can feel a persistent touch of time and history. The work both serves to once embody French colonial power and flourishing Catholicism, and now to attract a horde of tourists to the city.
On Sunday, it's open to the public as a religious practice place. Especially, as Christmas comes, it holds ornate decoration and becomes the most attractive place in town for citizens to hang around and enjoy the holiday. However, traffic goes higgledy-piggledy, which exhausts all enthusiasm and excitement, I suppose.
Schedule: For visit (free entrance), 8:30-10:00, 14:30-15:30 (Mon - Fri); Masses: 5:30, 17:00 (Mon-Sat), Sunday: 5h30, 6h30, 7h30, 9h30 (for foreigners), 16h00, 17h00, 18h30 (for locals); address: No.1 Cong Xa Paris, Ben Nghe Ward, Dist. 1.
Saigon Central Post Office
'Howdy bro, what's up?' - your voice travels through the phone and surprises your friend back home while you hole up in a phone booth inside Saigon Central Post Office. Standing side by side the church, though nestled behind lush green tall trees, the Central Post Office enthralls visitors with its elegant colonial architecture.
Built in 1886, going through the country's wartime, the post office still preserves its architectural Gothic, Renaissance and French influences. The archway features a big clock and is carved with a remarkable head that is capped with a laurel wreath. The interior is of special note with vaulted ceilings, lending a touch of western aristocracy. Especially, there are two painted maps hung on two opposite walls - the first one on the left side is a map of Southern Vietnam and Cambodia titled Lignes telegraphiques du Sud Vietnam et Cambodge 1892 which translates to "Telegraphic lines of Southern Vietnam and Cambodia 1892" , the other is a map of greater Saigon with the title of Saigon et ses environs 1892 that translates as "Saigon and its surroundings 1892".
The whole structure was designed symmetrically with 3 chambers - the main middle one hosts a heap of antique stuff and fantastic deco and serves its by-named post functions while the 2 sideward lobby-sized chambers now work as souvenir shops.
Over a century,the post office has long done a great job of connection. Nowadays, it's still in operation and at the same time serves as a fantastic attraction. Once setting foot in between the two structures, you can sail back to history and learn more of the superb architecture of mankind.
Schedule: Open (free entrance) from 8:00 - 17:00; address: No. 2, Cong xa Paris St., Ben Nghe Ward, Dist. 1.
Another cluster of Colonial Architecture
Pottering around Cong Xa Paris St. to watch the 3 amazing buildings, you walk along Dong Khoi St., right in front of the cathedral. Passing Vincom Shopping Mall, you hit the crossroads where you turn right into Le Thanh Ton St. Right there, you bump into HoChiMinh City Hall or HoChiMinh City People's Committee Headoffice.
Designed by French architect Femand Gardès, the City Hall or formerly named Hôtel de Ville was established in 1898 or 1902 and finished in 1909 so as to house Cochinchina authorities under the French Colonization (1862-1954). According to the old citadel planning (1790) approved by Nguyen Anh (1762-1820) - the first Emperor of the Nguyễn Dynasty of Vietnam (1801-1820), the building was located right at the head of a bygone tortoise-shaped citadel, which somewhat explains why the French colonists chose there to locate their administration.
Once looking at the building, your eyes are enchanted by its exterior. Spreading 30 meters, the front side of the city hall embodies architecture of the French Third Republic (1870-1940) that highlights bell towers, pilasters (Egypt columns), garlands, cartouches. Also, it showcases a heap of mesmerizing decor designed by French artist and sculptor Ruffier, including the sculptural figures - a lady and 2 kids who are controlling wild animals (up front), 2 sculptured ladies at each side of the front as representations for the French colonization. Beaux-Arts decoration permeates all over the mansion, with slightly over-scaled details, bold sculptural supporting consoles, rich deep cornices, sassy swag and sculptural enrichment. Ridiculously, the 2 bell towers with pointed angles - oozing a touch of French northern style - since their construction, had provoked loads of satirical criticism from western newspapers that accused the design of 'over-flamboyant' plagiarism of Italian Renaissance architecture. It is, nonetheless, true to say that the building preserves strident evidence of human history as well as the architectural progress of man over time.
Unfortunately, we aren't allowed to enter the City Hall for sightseeing - due to governmental intelligence or what, I think. Anyway, walking in front and taking photos are worth doing because the building at night is brilliantly shined by a mammoth system of lights. And thanks to its prominent white and yellow paint, the City Hall in daylight displays great elegance that provides a fantastic backdrop for photography.
Architectural Landmarks along Nguyen Hue Pedestrian Street
The City Hall faces newly-established Nguyen Hue Pedestrian Street. Along this walking boulevard sits several colonial architectural works, most of which say, are premier hotels.
There comes Saigon TAX Trade Center on the right if starting from the city hall. Built in 1880, the trade center exemplifies the Art-Deco style that sprung before World War I and flourished in 1920s to 1940s. It is amazing to witness the glamorous ground-floor lobby with a curved pair of wrap-around staircases, beautiful bronze handrails and a series of intricate balustrades. Especially, the center spotlights a beautiful, sprawling mosaic floor that is regarded as a masterpiece of the Tax Center, which has recently been claimed to be of genuine Moroccan zellij mosaic that was handmade from tiny enamel tiles called tessera.
Over a century has seen plenty of changes of history and humanity, as well as management and construction of the city. Unfortunately, the Saigon's Tax Center was closed for demolition that paves a way for a 46-storey shopping mall to be built soon. As rumor has it, the construction company named SATRA has announced that some valuable architectural elements will be kept in the new structure. Hopefully the old-aged features will make the future new-born center more classic and elegant.
Another beautiful landmark in colonial architecture along Nguyen Hue Avenue is Rex Hotel. Inside the hotel, there is a nice roof cafe. The hotel is opposite to the trade center, so you should pass by and enjoy the both old-aged buildings.
Parallel with Nguyen Hue pedestrian boulevard, Dong Khoi St. hosts other fabulous colonial architecture works. As you finish Nguyen Hue St., turn left into Ton Duc Thang St., and hit Hotel Majestic that is located at No. 1, Dong Khoi St. overlooking Saigon River, and was built in 1925 by local Chinese businessman Hui Bon Hoa. Hotel Majestic owns French Colonial and classical French Riviera styles of architecture. The 6-storey building is now a 5 star hotel that offers a scenic riverside sight and a retrospective touch of the bygone Saigon.
Following the same street leads us to Saigon's Opera House or called Municipal Theater. Built in 1897 by French architect Eugène Ferret as the Opėra de Saigon, the 800 seat building was used as the home of the Lower House assembly of South Vietnam after 1956. It was not until 1975 that it was again used as a theatre, and restored in 1995. Like its neighboring structure - the City Hall, the Opera House features the flamboyant style of the French Third Republic, with the façade shaped like the Petit Palais which was built in the same year in France. The house had a main seating floor plus two levels of seating above, and once was capable of accommodating 1,800 people. The design of all the inscriptions, décor, and furnishings were drawn by a French artist and sent from France. In accordance with the style employed, the façade of the theatre was decorated with inscription and reliefs (like the Ho Chi Minh City Hall), but it was criticized as being too ornate. In 1943 some of this decoration was removed, but a portion was restored by the city government for the 300th anniversary of Saigon in 1998. Today the capacity of the opera house is 500 seats. A show here may cost US$30.
Situated at No. 132 Dong Khoi, Dist. 1 by the Saigon Opera House, the Hotel Continental adds to beautify the city center with its French colonial architecture. Built in 1880, its architectural features include an old-aged tile roof, thick brick walls, spacious bedrooms and public areas, and four-meter high ceilings, alongside the white paint outsides so as to minimize the scalding heat of the tropics and lend a touch of elegance and luxury. With the rectangle shape that highlights large garden with three plumeria trees planted in 1880 and still flourishing today, the hotel brings a touch of peace and tranquility in the midst of the hurtling city of Saigon. So far has the hotel welcomed many famous guests, such as Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, British novelist of the Quiet American - Graham Greene, French President Jacques Chirac. In 2012, Hotel Continental Saigon was recognized as Monument Architecture Arts of the City by the Ho Chi Minh City People's Committee. Just walk around the hotel lobby or hole up in a comfort room, you will enjoy a wind of the past as the Quiet American's Greene felt a long time ago.
Apart from this route that draws from Cong Xa Paris St. to Dong Khoi St. and Nguyen Hue Pedestrian Avenue, you can expanse the walking route to witness other several colonial architectural buildings. Carrying on Dong Khoi St. or Nguyen Hue Blv., you go past Bitexco Tower and head towards the National Bank, and finally bump into HOSE Building. The stock exchange building was originally named Dien Hong Hall, and built under French Colonization.
A 10-minute walk from the HOSE building, along Ham Nghi Avenue leads to Ben Thanh Market. Developed from informal markets that was formed by early 17th century street vendors around the Saigon River, Ben Thanh was formally established by the French colonial powers after taking over the Gia Định citadel in 1859. Though destroyed by fire in 1870 then rebuilt and moved to a new building, and renovated in 1985, Ben Thanh Market still remains its own old-aged architecture.
The market features a clock tower that is located right at the main southerly gate. It has 4 main gates in 4 directions - East, West, South, North, which lead to 4 thoroughfares, namely Phan Boi Chau St., Phan Chu Trinh St., Le Loi St., Le Thanh Ton St. There is a big traffic circle right in front of the southerly gate. Up to now, Ben Thanh has long been one of the largest and busiest markets in Ho Chi Minh City.
Walking around Ben Thanh Market for a while, or shopping at a night market outside Ben Thanh, you wind up heading back to the City Hall on Le Loi St. and turn left into Pasteur St. A 5 minute walk ends up at the corner of Ly Tu Trong St. and Pasteur, you can see HoChiMinh City Museum or Gia Long Palace. Built in 1885 to 1890, designed by French architect Alfred Foulhoux, it was used to house the Museum of Commercial Trade, exhibiting products and goods of Southern Vietnam. However, the building soon became the residence of the Governor of Cochinchina, then served as a temporary house for the Prime Minister (Ngo Dinh Diem) under the Republic of Vietnam. After 1975 to present, this has been changed to become the city's museum.
With 2 floors, the palace occupies an area over 1700 m², adopting classical Baroque architecture with European and Oriental influences. Specifically, the flooring, staircases and halls are European-styled, while the roof was Oriental-inspired. The building is surrounded by a trapezoid-shaped flower garden, with 4 pathways. The front face of the roof is decorated with grotesques. Other exterior structural designs include symbolic chickens representing daytime and owls for nighttime and ring-enclosed white flowers. Many other motifs embossed on the roof is a combination of Greek mythological symbols, iconic plants and tropical animals such as lizards and birds flying or expanding its wings.
Especially, there are 3 extremely deep underground tunnels leading from the palace to other parts of the city, which was commissioned by Ngô Đình Diệm in the hope that he and important government officials/military figures could escape in the event of a coup. The tunnels were 2.2 m high, with casted reinforced concrete. Walls were 1 m thick, with 6 iron vault doors for entry and exit. The tunnels had 2 downward stairs, leading to a basement with 6 rooms totalling 1392.3 m², which included conference rooms, offices, bathrooms, electrical rooms. The Presidential Office and Presidential Adviser's Offices were equipped with battery banks for uninterruptible power supply, portable radios, RCA transceivers. There are two exit tunnels thất run towards Lê Thánh Tôn Street as well as six ventilation holes and numerous sewage drainages. It's amazing, isn't ít? Why don't we have a walk around the museum to watch excellent exhibits while observing such histrionic architecture and interesting history.
Schedule: 8:00 to 17:00 (every day); entrance fee: VND25k/person (for foreigners) (free for Vietnamese)
Finally, this palace finishes the walking route you're supposed to make during your trip to Saigon. Actually, if you're an architecture explorer, you must pass by other architecture works, including Dragon Wharf, HoChiMinh City Museum of History, HoChiMinh City Museum of Fine Arts and other churches around the city.
Bonus ~ Reunification Palace
And after all, if you finish walking around those buildings and remain enthusiastic, carry on the route round back to the first cluster. There's still another historic building named Reunification Palace. Despite out of the French Colonial Architecture whose old building was demolished for the present building, it's worth seeing if you ever make it back.
Founded in 1962, designed by Ngo Viet Thu, the complex of Independence Palace or Reunification Palace occupied an area of 12 hectares. The whole structure includes a palace that has an 80-meter-wide façade, a guest-chamber capable of accommodating 800 people, and spacious gardens covered by green trees and a front round lawn.
Formerly, the palace whose most construction materials, like the neighboring Cathedral, were imported from France, was named Norodom Palace after the then king of Cambodia, Norodom (1834–1904), then came to Governor’s Palace under the French Governor of Cochinchina (Gouverneur de la Cochinchine) (1887 to 1945). All Governors-General of French Indochina used the palace as their residence and office.
Upon the Rise of Saigon (Vietnam War), the French architecture-styled building was demolished and rebuilt to be the home and workplace of the President of South Vietnam. Then on April 30, 1975 came the end of the Vietnam War with the Fall of Saigon. Long time ago after 1975 saw a tank that crashed the main gate, which then embodied the victory and unification of Vietnam.
The palace combines western and eastern architecture that, however, highlight oriental features. The overall landscape of the Palace forms a Chinese letter 吉 (jí) that means Lucky. The roof floor draws another letter named 口 (kǒu) - literally meaning mouth - representing Free of Speech, which combines the flag post on the roof to form 中 (zhōng) that explains Loyalty to the country. Then comes the letter 三 (sān) for 3 fundamental elements that are, say, Human Beings (here are talents), Governmental Transparency and Wisdom, and Military or Army Force. The letter 王 (wáng) follows with the meaning of King of a nation, which as combined with the flag post forms 主 (zhǔ) - the Sovereignty. Finally, the front façade all lend a shade of meaning 興 (xīng) for Prosperity of the country.
Once visiting this historical remnant, you should notice spectacular chandeliers hung along lobbies or thrown down in most of those rooms. Such an excellent collection of various types of chandeliers contributes itself to the historic beauty of the palace in particular and the city in general.
The whole complex hosts plenty of interesting features of architecture. You'll be charmed by the elegance and sophistication of the Unification Palace, while attentively learning of its history. Don't miss a chance to visit this wondrous place, just right there around the cathedral and post office.
Schedule: every day at 7h30 – 11h00, 13h00 – 16h00; Address: 135 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia, Ben Nghe Ward, Dist. 1; Entrance fee: VND30k/person/time (for adults), VND15k/person/time (for students), VND3k/person/time (for children). A group of 20 people or more will get a discount of 1/3 entrance fee.
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Thanks for your attention. Remember to check up further articles of mine if you're interested in this travel topic.
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