“I’m going to quickly take you from the Stone Age to 1858, when the French took over control of Vietnam,” our tour guide Thang was telling us.
We are standing outside Independence Palace in Ho Chi Minh City, site of the Fall of Saigon in 1975, when a North Vietnamese Army tank crashed through its gates, ending the Vietnam War. I knew our tour would be a bit of a deep dive into Vietnam War history, but I didn’t realize we’d also be gaining insight into the country’s years as a French colony. Thang explained that this coastal nation along the South China Sea had been a popular takeover target for decades, due to its rich natural resources of silver, gold, coal and stone.
But any talk of France or natural resources was soon left at the doorstep. Once we entered Independence Palace, the discussion focused on the Vietnam War.
The modernistic-looking white building was the home and workplace of the president of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. Also known as Reunification Palace, it was designed by Paris-trained Vietnamese architect Ngo Viet Thu and completed in 1966. Rooms are decorated just as they were in the 1960s and ’70s, frozen in time like ghosts from another era.
Meeting rooms, reception rooms, living spaces and dining venues flow along the ground floor and upstairs levels. In the basement, a telecommunications center and war room appear amid a series of tunnels. Signage in English, French and Vietnamese details each room. As we toured, Thang stopped at various places to offer stories about what we were seeing, giving life to this building that seems to have been sealed in a time capsule.
Before Moving On
There were two Vietnam War veterans in our group, and Thang graciously acknowledged their visit and thanked them for their service. I couldn’t begin to imagine what it must have been like for them to return here. One of the gentlemen had become a friend of ours on the cruise, and I knew it was his first time in Vietnam since serving here. At one point on the tour, I asked him how he was doing. He didn’t say anything, but he gave me a look that spoke volumes.
The French Era
Thang has a charming habit of speaking in lists. You can almost see bullet points dancing in his mind. The French colonization years in Saigon, he told us, had brought four new “b words” to Vietnam: baguettes, black coffee, beer and buildings. The buildings are what we had come to see – most specifically, the Saigon Central Post Office.
Thang also cleared up a question I had about the name “Saigon,” which is what the city was called before the Vietnam War and which sometimes seems to be used interchangeably with Ho Chi Minh City. Saigon, Thang said, now refers to the city’s central commercial district – the part of the city where the Saigon Central Post Office is located. Ho Chi Minh City is the proper name for the entire city.
Saigon Central Post Office
Constructed between 1886 and 1891, the post office was designed by Alfred Foulhoux, although it’s often erroneously credited to Gustave Eiffel, Thang told us. The building features Gothic, Renaissance and French influences and is still a working post office.
Inside, the post office seems like it stepped out of another era. Wooden benches run down the center of the space, with marble-topped counters ringing the periphery. Postcards the size of greeting cards are displayed in baskets that line one of the counters. I flipped through a few designs and selected two to send to our family. Thang helped me purchase postage, and I quickly addressed the cards and dropped them in the “mailbox,” which was a red plastic basket sitting on top of another counter.
Sadly, neither of the cards has yet to arrive. I’m still holding out hope – after all, I’ve successfully mailed postcards from Antarctica and north of the Arctic Circle – and I’m crossing my fingers that one day these postcards might find their way from Vietnam.
Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon
Just across the street from the Saigon Central Post Office stands another grand architectural masterpiece from the city’s French era. The Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon, constructed between 1863 and 1880, was built from red bricks that were imported from France. It’s currently undergoing a major renovation, and we were not able to go inside.
Ho Chi Minh City Hall
Ho Chi Minh City Hall is about a 10-minute walk from Notre-Dame. Built between 1902 and 1908, it sits in a square looking like a fancy cake in all its Beaux-arts French colonial-ness. Since 1975, the building has housed the Ho Chi Minh City People’s Committee, Ho Chi Minh City People’s Council and Ho Chi Minh City People’s Court. Visitors are not permitted inside.
The Rex Hotel
Before leaving the city, Thang took us to the Rex Hotel, where he had worked before becoming a tour guide. During the Vietnam War, the hotel’s rooftop bar was a popular spot for war correspondents and military officials and was the site of a daily press conference known as the Five O’Clock Follies. Originally built as an auto dealership and garage complex in 1927, the building was converted to a hotel in 1961.
About Those Motorbikes
Crossing the streets of Ho Chi Minh City is not an easy task. Motorbike drivers are in constant motion, as if there are no rules or lanes or pedestrians. Whenever we needed to cross a street, Thang would hold his arms up against traffic and form a sort of barrier between us and the bikes. The trick, he told us, is to keep going. The bikes will move around you. If you hesitate, you could get hurt.
Thang said there are about ten million motorbikes in Ho Chi Minh City and one million cars. Students ride the public buses, but most people save their money to buy a bike. It’s the easiest way to get around. You need four qualities if you want to drive in Ho Chi Minh City, he told us in his very best list-speak: good nerves, courage, good brakes and a good heart.
You don’t want to hit anyone.
* * * * *
Update – The postcards I mailed from the Saigon Central Post Office finally arrived…exactly two months and four days after I dropped them in the little red basket!