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Vietnam: Can Tho, Halong Bay, Ho Chi Minh City
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam: Colonial charm
by Prakash Bang, Editor in Chief
Ho Chi Minh City has gone by several different names during its history, reflecting settlement by different ethnic, cultural and political groups. Long story short, at the conclusion of the Vietnam War on 30 April 1975, the city came under the control of the Vietnamese People's Army. Among Vietnamese diaspora communities and particularly the U.S. (which had fought the communists), this event is commonly called the "fall of Saigon", while the Socialist Republic of Vietnam refers to it as the "Liberation of Saigon". In 1976, upon the establishment of the unified communist Socialist Republic of Vietnam, the city of Saigon (including Cholon), the province of Gia Dinh and two suburban districts of two other nearby provinces were combined to create Ho Chi Minh City in honor of the late Communist leader Ho Chi Minh. The former name Saigon is still widely used by many Vietnamese, especially in informal contexts.
We arrived in HCMC (Ho Chi Minh City) from Siem Reap, Cambodia. My wife and I were on a holiday and HCMC was our second stop, quite literally. We would be in the city just for day, essentially as a transfer point before heading out to Can Tho. For the night we were booked at Intercontinental Saigon.
We checked in at noon and were soon ready to explore the main features of the city namely the Post Office, Notre Dame Cathedral, Independence Palace, the Walking Street and the Historical City Hall. To take us around was a private van and a local guide.
The Central Post Office is a beautifully preserved remnant of French colonial times and perhaps the grandest post office in all of Southeast Asia. Located next door to Notre Dame Cathedral, the two cultural sites can be visited together and offers visitors a chance to imagine life in Vietnam during the times of the Indochinese Empire. The building was designed by Alfred Foulhoux and features arched windows and wooden shutters, just as it would have in its heyday in the late 19th Century.
It was constructed between 1886 and 1891 and once inside, the looping arches, intricately designed marble floors and antiquated telephone boxes all serve as a reminder of the importance the post office played in days before email and mobile phones. Although the architecture is distinctly French, the large portrait of Ho Chi Minh hanging high above everyone at the far end of the building reminds that it is Vietnam. Painted onto walls overhead are two maps of the region; one of them showing the telegraph lines that crisscross Vietnam and Cambodia and the other displaying a map of the Saigon region in 1892.
The premises has a few stores that sell souvenirs. It's a good idea to post a letter to your loved ones back home from this fascinating building. Just opposite is another famous HCMC landmark - the Notre Dame Cathedral.
Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral, built in the late 1880s by French colonists, is one of the few remaining strongholds of Catholicism in the largely Buddhist Vietnam. Located in Paris Square, the name Notre Dame was given after the installation of the statue ĎPeaceful Notre Dameí in 1959. In 1962, the Vatican conferred the Cathedral status as a basilica and gave it the official name of Saigon Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica. Measuring almost 60 metres in height, the cathedralís distinctive neo-Romanesque features include the all-red brick faÁade (which were imported from Marseille), stained glass windows, two bell towers containing six bronze bells that still ring to this day, and a peaceful garden.
A Virgin Mary statue also stands in front of Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral, which locals claimed to have shed tears in October 2005. While this incident was refuted by the Catholic Church of Vietnam, thousands of visitors still flock to this statue in hopes of witnessing a miracle. We were no exception. No miracles happened though. Blessed, we moved to our next stop.
The Independence Palace, also known as Reunification Palace was the base of Vietnamese General Ngo Dinh Diem until his death in 1963. It made its name in global history in 1975 when a tank belonging to the North Vietnamese Army crashed through its main gate, ending the Vietnam War. The palace is like a time capsule frozen in 1975. You can see two of the original tanks used in the capture of the palace parked in the grounds. Reunification Palace was the home and workplace of the French Governor of Cochin-China. It has lush gardens, secret rooms, antique furniture, and a command bunker. It's still in use to host important occasions in Ho Chi Minh, including APEC summits.
The Reunification Palace has five levels. The basement features tunnels, a war room and telecommunications centre. The war command room has original maps on its walls. Period telecommunications equipment are also on display. Its adjoining basement rooms display war propaganda materials. On the third floor, there's a card playing room while the fourth houses a casino. Reunification Palace's rooftop terrace is fitted with a heliport.
Beautiful by day, stunning by night, Saigon City Hall is another excellent example of French colonial architecture in Ho Chi Minh City. Built between 1902 and 1908, the building was originally called Hotel de Ville de Saigon. Since 1975, the building has been the headquarters of the Peoples Committee in Ho Chi Minh City and is unfortunately not open to the general public. Only civil servants and cleaners are allowed. The building was designed by French architect P.Gardes and modeled on City Hall in Paris. It has a main hall, rectangular wings and manicured trees decorate the facade. The famous bell tower, a feature common in many European town halls, sits on top on a pyramid like pedestal and imparts style and elegance to the structure.
It was a good idea to walk the boulevard all the way from Town Hall to the river front. Both sides of the boulevard had shops, restaurants and many elegant buildings, namely the Opera House. From the river front great views of the upcoming districts is bound to charm the visitors.
It was early evening and we chose to be on our own thereafter. The next morning we would leave for Can Tho.
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