Take a tour of Vietnamese history, from French Colonial architecture to modern monuments.
1 - The Ho Chi Minh City People’s Committee
Wherever you are staying, the first moment you have spare time in Ho Chi Minh City you will want to head for Nguyen Hue, a tree-lined boulevard which owes its width to the fact that it was once the Kinh Lon Canal running from the Saigon river into the city. Covered and turned into Boulevard Charner, it was renamed Nguyen Hue Street in 1956 and has a wide pedestrianised centre with traffic running down each side. It reaches a stunning conclusion with the French Colonial architecture of the former Hôtel de Ville (1901-1908), now known as the Ho Chi Minh City People’s Committee building. You can’t go in, but you can mill around outside, take some photos, hang out with locals, and, at the weekend, wedding parties.
2 - Central Post Office
Turn right and then left to make your way past the Hotel Continental where Graham Greene stayed in the 1950s and started to write his famous novel, The Quiet American, and you’ll see the bright yellow exterior of the French Colonial post office (built 1886-91). If your guide says it was designed by Gustave Eiffel, time to make a quick exit, since it was Marie-Alfred Foulhoux. Inside the cavernous hall with its tiled floor and green-painted wrought iron, you’ll find faded maps on the walls with titles (in French) including ‘Telegraphic lines of southern Vietnam and Cambodia’ and ‘Saigon and its surroundings’. At the far end of the barrel-vaulted hall, the later addition of a giant mosaic of Ho Chi Minh takes pride of place.
3 - Notre-Dame Cathedral of Saigon
Next to the Post Office is the undoubtedly impressive but closed for the foreseeable future Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon (constructed 1863-1880). Even covered in scaffolding it’s a dignified sight, constructed in red bricks imported from Toulouse, France after the original wooden church was attacked by termites. Its twin bell towers poke out from the covering reaching some 60 metres. Renovations began in 2017 and were expected to be finished this year, but this has now been put back until 2027, meaning the Notre Dame de Paris will reopen first.
4 - Reunification Convention Hall
After all that French Colonial architecture, the clean lines of the Reunification Convention Hall (also known as The Independence Palace) come as a pleasant surprise, especially when surrounded by the lawns and flower beds of the grounds of the Palace. It was designed by architect Ngo Viet Thu and was the home and workplace of the President of the Republic of Vietnam. It was also the site of the Fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975 that ended the Vietnam War (or Resistance War against America), when a North Vietnamese army tank crashed through its gates. If you have time you can buy a ticket and tour the Palace, but with only four hours, time to stroll to the final stop…
5 - The Venerable Thich Quang DUc Monument
Ho Chi Minh City is organised into districts, and for this walk you finally leave District 1 for the adjacent District 3. Here you’ll find a more recent monument (inaugurated in 2010) commemorating an event which occurred just before the Vietnam War. This statue of a Buddhist monk wreathed in flames is close to the site where monk Thich Quang Duc self-immolated in 1965 (just across the street from this memorial park). He was protesting South Vietnam’s repression of Buddhists and particularly state security forces firing into a parade celebrating Buddha’s birthday for flying Buddhist flags. Thich Quang Duc’s protest was captured by American photographer Malcolm Browne and as President JF Kennedy later said: “No news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world as that one.” Sadly, there were soon news pictures from the country that caused even more.