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Past and present in Saigon

Indochina Day Twenty-Four, part two

View Indochina 2020 on ToonSarah's travel map.

We had already visited the Cu Chi Tunnels at the start of this, our final full day in Indochina, and seen some of the sights of Ho Chi Minh City’s large Chinatown, but there was much more on our agenda …

War Remnants Museum

The War Remnants Museum

Our original itinerary had included a visit to the Reunification Palace, but Tai suggested that given our interest in the Vietnam War we might like to swap it for a visit to the War Remnants Museum. This is housed in a former secondary school and naturally presents a history of the war from the Vietnamese and specifically the victorious Viet Cong perspective, but that doesn’t make it an unbalanced presentation. Indeed, it draws heavily on US and other Western news sources for its displays.

In the grounds there are a number of US aircraft – fighters, bombers, a Huey helicopter.

Planes on display outside the museum

Tiger cages mock-up

In one area there is a mock-up of the infamous ‘tiger cages’ used to house prisoners on Phu Quoc Island. A series of information boards describe the inhumane conditions:

‘During the hot season about 5 to 14 prisoners were kept in one cell. In winter time there was only one or two of them kept in it with their feet shackled to a long iron bar… Narrow passages were reserved to jailers who went back and forth and were ready to harass the prisoners. Talking, laughing coughing, even slapping on mosquitos might serve an excuse for the jailers to use violent measures against the detainees. They injured them with sharp sticks or shovelled lime on them… The detainees’ meals consisted of handfuls of rice of very poor quality and small pieces of decayed dried fish.’

As at the Chu Chi Tunnels it is clear that history is being told by the victors:

‘Patriotic soldiers didn’t yield to cruel suppression and terror but resiliently held many fighting activities such as: eliminating security guards, warders, military policemen… Phu Quoc prisoner of war camp is not only one of the evidences of cruel war crimes but also a convincing proof of patriotic soldiers’ resilience in the war against aggression to protect the country’s freedom and independence.’

Inside we didn't look at everything in detail but instead focused on the galleries that interested us the most, including Requiem, dedicated to war photographers killed in the conflict, such as Robert Capa.

The death of Robert Capa
~ a carefully chosen account, I think, designed to focus on discomfort with the war among many in the US

In another gallery there was a temporary exhibition, ‘Waging Peace’, which focused on US soldiers and veterans who spoke out against the war, such as Sergeant Donald Duncan. The caption below the book cover displayed says that he ‘travelled across America visiting GI coffee houses and helping to build the GI anti-war movement.'

Book written by former US sergeant


The gallery I found the most interesting was that documenting the anti-war protest movements around the world, including some in my home city of London. I remember well the news coverage of that period, while the music I grew up enjoying included many anti-war protest songs: Blowin’ in the Wind, Eve of Destruction, Ohio, Imagine, What’s Going On, Give Peace a Chance …

Anti-war protests came in different forms
~ I had never realised that the famous Dr Spock spoke out against it


Message from President Ho Chi Minh to US war protestors
~ emphasising a connection between the Vietnamese (at least those on the Viet Cong side) and those ordinary people of the US who stood against the war

This isn't a comfortable museum to visit; the images showing the effects of Agent Orange are especially harrowing and I took only one photo there. But it does document a part of Vietnam's recent history that has shaped the country of today. And for anyone of our age or older, who remembers the controversy surrounding the US role, the protest songs and so on, it provides an interesting Vietnamese slant on events well documented in the West.

Devastation caused by Agent Orange

Reunification Palace

Although we didn't go inside the Reunification Palace, having substituted the War Remnants Museum, we did stop for a look at the outside. It was originally named (and is still sometimes referred to as) Independence Palace and was built in the early 1960s on the site of the former palace which was heavily bombed by two dissident South Vietnam pilots who were supposed to be flying a mission against the Viet Cong. Their aim, in which they failed, was to assassinate the President, Ngo Dinh Diem, and his immediate family.

Following the attack the president moved to a temporary home in the Gia Long Palace (which today houses the Ho Chi Minh City Museum and was visible from our hotel bedroom) while this new one was being built. Unfortunately for him he never got to live here as he was successfully assassinated the following year.

The Reunification Palace

The building is a classic example of 1960s architecture and seems somewhat incongruous in a city that is for the most part a mix of French colonial and very new glass structures. Tai pointed out the palm trees on the roof terrace – there is also a helipad there. I would have loved to have had the time to see inside here (apparently there are some really kitsch touches in the residential rooms in addition to the more functional war room, bomb shelter etc.) but we couldn’t do everything in our one full day in the city.

It was through the gates of this palace on 30 April 1975 that a tank crashed, creating one of the most memorable images of the Vietnam War and effectively bringing that war to an end.

Photo of the tank crashing through the gates
~ on display at the Ho Chi Minh City Museum which we visited the following day

Notre Dame Cathedral

We could see the twin spires of this cathedral from our hotel room, looking slightly out of place in this cityscape (although to be honest the whole of Ho Chi Minh City is something of a hotchpotch, with colonial buildings both grand and humble gradually being dwarfed by modern high-rises). Unfortunately the cathedral was being restored at the time of our visit so we couldn't go inside, but as with the Reunification Palace we did stop for photos of the exterior.

It was built between 1863 and 1880 and was originally named simply the Church of Saigon - l'Eglise de Saigon. In 1959 it was renamed as the Basilique-Cathédrale Notre-Dame de l'Immaculée Conception or more simply Notre Dame de Saigon. The building materials were all imported from France; the red bricks came from Toulouse, the stained glass (which of course we couldn’t see from outside) from Chartres, tiles from Marseille.

Notre Dame Cathedral, and statue of Our Lady of Peace

In front of the cathedral is a large granite statue of Our Lady of Peace which was installed here in 1959 at the same time as the renaming of the cathedral. This statue is associated with a miracle said to have occurred in October 2005 when local believers reported seeing it shed tears, although this was never officially confirmed by the Catholic church.

Central Post Office

Across the road from the cathedral is the city's Central Post Office. The building was designed by Alfred Foulhoux, not Gustave Eiffel as some sources claim, and mixes Renaissance, Gothic and French Colonial elements.

The Central Post Office

Frontage detail

On either side of the entrance, Tai told us, are sculptures depicting the then present day (i.e. late 19th century) and future communications.

Sculpture in front of the Central Post Office

The interior design adds elements of Eastern architecture, but the main impression is of a European train station. You can still see the original telephone booths, and on the walls either side of the door are maps – one showing 'Lignes télégraphiques du Sud Vietnam et du Cambodge 1892' ('Telegraphic lines of southern Vietnam and Cambodia 1892') i.e. the postal route from southern Vietnam to Cambodia, and the other 'Saigon et ses environs, 1892' ('Saigon and its surroundings').

Inside the Central Post Office

Old telephone booths

Further in, beyond the perhaps inevitable souvenir stalls, are the original, wooden writing desks. Near here we met this 90 year old man who still cycles to work here each morning and offers a letter writing service in Vietnamese, French and English. From the brief conversation we had, his English is excellent.

And his desk

Mr. Duong Van Ngo

Culture Trip, presumably writing three years ago, describes him thus:

'At the end of a wooden table inside the post office sits Mr. Duong Van Ngo, a man who has been recognized by the Vietnam Guinness Book of Records for 27 years spent writing letters for those who cannot write for themselves. The 87-year-old writer is reportedly fluent in both English and French and continues to write letters every day despite his advanced age. He starts his working day at 8 a.m and ends at 3 p.m, writing several letters per day while charging 50 cents per page. Mr. Duong has become an icon at the post office over the past several years.'

Bitexco Financial Tower

We finished our tour at one of the modern skyscrapers that typify the new HCMC, the Bitexco Financial Tower. This was designed by Venezuelan architect Carlos Zapata, who took inspiration for its unusual shape from Vietnam’s national flower, the lotus. The helipad that sticks out from the 52nd floor is intended to resemble a bud. When it was completed in 2010 it was, at 262.5 metres and 68 floors, the tallest building in the country. But it didn’t hold that title for long, being surpassed the following year by Hanoi’s Landmark 72 at 350 metres and by Saigon’s own Landmark 81, 469.5 metres, in 2015 (the 14th tallest building in the world, by the way).

Tai left us for a bit to go up to the 49th floor Saigon Skydeck for refreshments and to see the views of the city. Our intention had been to get a cold drink, but when we saw the display of ice cream flavours (brand name Fanny!) we changed our minds. And although expensive (we were clearly paying for the view as you do in similar places everywhere) they were delicious and perfect for this hot afternoon.


View north from the Bitexco Financial Tower
~ you can see Landmark 81 in the middle distance

View west from the Bitexco Financial Tower
~ City Hall is in the centre, our hotel (Liberty Central) is the grey building far left with the Gia Long Palace behind it, and one of the spires of Notre Dame is visible among the buildings behind City Hall, with the Central Post Office behind the tall tree to the left of that (the building work in the foreground is for a new subway system)

When we went back downstairs, we took a few photos of the interesting modern architectural features.

Looking up from the atrium


We could have stayed longer here and walked back to the hotel later, a walk of probably around 15 minutes, but we didn't really need more than half an hour or so, and it was very hot for such a walk (about 34 degrees) so we had opted to meet up again with Tai and have a lift back. He dropped us off, arranging to pick us up again the following afternoon for our departure for home.

The last evening

Back at the hotel we cooled off and relaxed a bit before heading out to enjoy our last evening in Vietnam, and of the holiday. Last night we had reserved a table for this evening at nearby Huong Lai, a restaurant that employs disadvantaged young people and offers them training in the hospitality sector and in English. Unlike similar establishments we had visited in Phnom Penh and Hanoi, this isn't run by a social enterprise but by a private individual who chooses to operate his business in this philanthropic manner. It seemed to us a good initiative to support, and the food also gets very positive reviews, so we were keen to try it.

In Huong Lai

Chris in Huong Lai

It is also very popular, so not only had we had to book a day ahead but also to eat earlier than we normally would, at 6.30. It was worth it, as the food was excellent and very reasonable at just 549,000 dong (under £20) for our shared mixed appetiser platter, pork with black pepper, beef with thien ly flower (we wanted to try something different and it was lovely, very fresh and slightly iron-rich in flavour, like spinach), plenty of rice and two beers.

Appetiser platter with complementary prawn crackers and dipping sauces

Our dinner dishes

The service from the young trainees was polite and friendly, and the atmosphere casual and buzzy. If we had been staying longer in the city we would certainly have returned. Just a word of warning though if you fancy trying it; as with many Saigon restaurants it is on the first floor of an old and unprepossessing building, and the staircase is pretty steep.

After dinner we stopped off at the Pasteur Street Brewing Company, where we had enjoyed a beer on the previous evening. Tonight I chose less wisely and found my dragon fruit gose really not to my taste at all. I decided to cut my losses and order something else, but the very helpful waitress offered to replace it 'on the house' and the Pasteur Street IPA I chose instead was much nicer! Meanwhile Chris had splashed out on the special Cyclo Stout, at a claimed 13% abv, and it was fabulous! So much so that he had a second - it only comes in small measures, perhaps understandably, but he felt it was probably rather less strong than claimed (maybe around 8%?) and was comfortable having two!

In the Pasteur Street Brewing Co

Chris with his Cyclo Stout

We finished the evening again with a night cap at Above, the hotel's rooftop bar. The views were as good as on the previous evening, and I'd taken my 'proper' camera to capture them better.

View from Above (Bitexco Financial Tower on the right)

View from Above

View from Above, looking down

But having been treated to an excellent music selection at Pasteur Street (Roxy Music, Tom Petty, Paul Simon etc), the loud Asian rap/garage sounds here were not only less to our taste but also hard to talk over, so we only stayed for one fairly quick drink before retiring for the night, our last in Indochina (for now at least!)

Posted by ToonSarah 01:25 Archived in Vietnam Tagged food architecture beer restaurant history views palace vietnam museum cathedral saigon skyscrapers ho_chi_minh_city war_and_peace

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A harrowing read and, for those if us of a certain age, memories of the first item on every news broadcast for several years being about the Vietnam War. For those too young to remember, an interesting hisoy lesson from a different viewpoint. I did like the Post Office building, both outside and in but it must have been a real privilege to meet Mr. Duong Van Ngo. It was heartening to read of the philanthropist and I was delighted to read how much you enjoyed the meal and the whole experience. This will certainly be a holiday you will remember for a very long time and you must have pleased the Gods in charge of holidays to have fit it in just before the lock downs.

by Yvonne Dumsday

At the risk of repeating myself, I must say that Saigon has changed tremendously since I was last there — especially in your photos from above.

by Nemorino

I remember visiting the war museum, the cathedral, the history museum, a small badly designed zoo,the post office and passing the reunification palace. I remember the streets always being a hive of activity as people ate outdoors, worked outdoors etc. I don't remember all those tall buildings. I don't think there were as many when we visited. It's changed a lot. All in all it seems you had a very varied and fascinating holiday.

by irenevt

An amazing experience.

by Beausoleil

Thank you as always everyone for visiting and commenting

Yvonne, you are so right - we are incredibly grateful that we were able to take this holiday as we will be among the lucky few who got to travel abroad in 2020 I suspect.

And Don and Irene, it's interesting to get your perspective on the rate of change in HCMC. And it seemed to us that there was a lot of construction going on, especially with the building of the subway system, so no doubt it will change more. But they seem to value the historic buildings so hopefully they will be preserved. Irene, look out in my final entry for our visit to the history museum!

by ToonSarah

After such a long and war-filled day the Post office and meeting Mr. Duong Van Ngo was an nice ending :)

by hennaonthetrek

It was Henna - not to mention the delicious ice creams, and our evening out

by ToonSarah

Nothing says holiday better than icecream! :)

by hennaonthetrek

Wow, you certainly covered a lot and nice to hear you and your day with something delicious. The food looks amazing, getting hungry when seeing the pictures pass by! :)

by Ils1976

Thanks Ils, the food was really delicious :)

by ToonSarah

I found this an exceptionally gripping post Sarah. The Vietnam War (as Don knows only too well) has affected the modern world more than many people realise, and I would have to visit the War Remnants Museum too if I had the opportunity.

Robert Capa was a war photographer of unbelievable bravery and talent. Freedom of speech comes in many forms. It may not always be palatable, but we still all need to know the truth.

Modern Saigon is a world apart from the old one by the sound of it - but whether we're seeing a shift of power from the west to the east is something that could see even more conflict. Let's hope not.

A great post Sarah with photographs to match, as always. Thanks for the journey to Vietnam :-)

by Easymalc

Thanks so much Malcolm. I totally agree about Robert Capa. Rather stupidly we had hoped to see photos by another great photographer of that war, Don McCullin, but of course he wasn't killed in action so we didn't!

by ToonSarah

When my 2nd daughter was at the US Air Force Academy (1985) they had them go through experiences that they might have had to endure if they were captured such as stuffing 13 people into one cell, and sitting on a 3 legged stool so that they couldn't sleep. (They didn't hit them with anything though). She survived that pretty well, but she got hypothermia when they were doing the escaping in the mountains because it was very cold and it rained and her sleeping bag got soaked - they could not of course build a fire.

by greatgrandmaR

I've seen people doing exercises like that on TV Rosalie. They do look incredibly challenging but I imagine that knowing it isn't 'real' would help you get through it?

by ToonSarah

I wasn't real, but if you didn't finish, you wouldn't graduate.

by greatgrandmaR

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