HCMC is a city dedicated to embracing the future and encouraging development to move away from the turmoil in Vietnam’s past and to beckon in a new age of prosperity and growth. The construction boom in Vietnam continues to claim old buildings full of character, charm and history, replacing them with new, modern and chic buildings geared towards the younger generations. The city was once known as the “Paris of the East” but as each old building tumbles, that moniker becomes less and less relevant.
While the youthful and friendly personality of HCMC is immediately noticeable, the troubles and turmoil of the country’s past are never far from the surface. When visiting, don’t forget to pay tribute and attention to the memorials, museums and historical sites that are scattered throughout the city. They are strong reminders of the horrors of war and of the sacrifices this small city made during the Vietnam War.
You can understand the history in which HCMC is steeped by visiting their historical landmarks and touring their museums that are chock full of mementos, photographs, and exhibits that will bring the past to life.
The Reunification Palace has gone by a number of names over the years, but rather than reflecting the country in charge at the time, like Dong Khoi St. below, the Reunification Palace was renamed and rebuilt and styled according to who was living in residence at the time. It began as a residence for the French governor of Cochinchina back in 1868 (at the time called Norodom Palace), and then transferred to South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem in the early 1960s. Diem was so unpopular, however, that his own troops tried to dispose of him—which they eventually succeeded in doing in 1963.
The Palace that was built in its place was called the Independence Palace and was home to the next South Vietnamese president, Nguyen Van Thieu, until he left in 1975. Since then the Palace has shifted from a residence for presidents into a space to display and honour the history of the place. Today, the Reunification Palace is open to visitors as long as official receptions or meetings aren’t taking place. Both English and French speaking tour guides are on duty to help translate for visitors.
Formerly known as the American War Crimes Museum, the now-renamed War Remnants Museum is a confronting place where you can continue your journey through Vietnam’s decades at the front line of the Cold War. It has always been a popular destination for Western tourists and there are few other museums in the world that can so effectively drive home the brutality of war and its impact on the civilian victims. As such, a trip through this museum can be deeply disturbing for some. From photographs of the various atrocities to insights into the US’s experimental weapons used during the war, the War Remnants Museum will open your eyes to the disturbing and striking impact the American War had on Vietnam.
This historic street has also gone by many names over the years—Dong Khoi St is its current appellation, but it went by Rue Catinat during the French times and by Tu Do during the Vietnam War. While many of the smaller shop houses are disappearing in favour of new developments and storefronts, the truly grand structures remain. Visit each for a unique insight into Vietnam during French times.
This stately and elegant building is one of Ho Chi Minh City’s most prominent landmarks. It was built in 1897 by French architect Eugene Ferret. While the Opera House is only open to the public during special events, there are great photo opportunities available to travellers who appreciate French colonial architecture. Watch the action of HCMC zoom past you as you enjoy the picturesque setting of the Opera House.
The Continental Hotel in HCMC was the first hotel in all of Vietnam, and through the years it has been home to a number of literary and politically important people such as the great Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore (who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913), and the British writer Graham Greene (who created and wrote the work “The Quiet American” about the transitional time between French Colonial and the American Empire).
The Notre Dame Cathedral was built between 1877 and 1883 and is located right in the heart of HCMC’s government quarter. This Catholic basilica is named after the Virgin Mary and is a neo-Romanesque church with two towers tipped with iron spires. Inside, there are a number of stained glass panels and inlaid devotional tablets for visitors to view, and if you arrive from 9am-11am Monday-Saturday, there are English-speaking staff on-hand to distribute information to you.
Just across the street from Notre Dame Cathedral, HCMC’s post office is a keen example of French classic architecture. It was designed by none other than Gustave Eiffel and was built from 1886 through 1891. The walls of this historic post office depict a number of fascinating maps for South Vietnam, Saigon and Cholon. Front and centre, however, if a mosaic of Ho Chi Minh himself, taking the place of pride and the end of the post office’s long central hall.
Once you are finished with these landmarks, don’t expect your history lesson to be over. While modern day HCMC is an upbeat, lively and friendly place, there are reminders of the Vietnam War everywhere and you are sure to notice small signs and spots that pay deference to the men and women who fought. Don’t skimp on the history lesson and be sure to visit at least one of these spots while you are visiting Vietnam. Protect your historic holiday with the help of Cover-More and their international travel insurance policies.
Image courtesy of Flickr user Thomas Martin