Two of Saigon’s most picturesque colonial buildings are found right next to each other, in the center of the city. The Central Post Office (Bưu điện) and the Notre-Dame Cathedral were constructed by the French in the late 19th century, and a visit to both is obligatory during any tour of Saigon.
For the uninitiated, the chaos of Saigon’s streets can be intimidating to the point of paralysis. The first time I had to cross the road, I stood still on the curb for minutes, with my hands held in front of me like a mime hitting a glass wall. I’m not even sure I blinked. My mind was stuck in a panicked loop of “Now! No… now! No… now! No…” but my body (instinctively wiser) refused to obey its orders.
The Pagoda of the Jade Emperor (Chùa Ngọc Hoàng) is one of Saigon’s most well-known temples. We visited on a weekday afternoon shortly after Tet, joining hundreds of worshipers inside its walls.
For whatever reason, I had always assumed that the history of Saigon stretched back to the dawn of humanity. “The Ancient City of Saigon” does have a nice ring to it, but it’s not true. In fact, for most of its history, Saigon was an unimportant Cambodian fishing village. (Maybe I was mixing it up with legendary Shangri-La?) But despite its late debut as a major Southeast Asian city, Saigon has seen plenty of action. Here’s a concise rundown of its history.
At 262 meters in height, the 68-story Bitexco Financial Tower is the tallest building in Saigon. We ascended to its sky deck, to take in a 360-degree panorama of the big city.
Found within the same complex as the zoo and botanical gardens, the Museum of Vietnamese History occupies a handsome building which was built in 1929. The museum’s exhibits begin in the neolithic age, and continue through some of Vietnam’s most momentous struggles.
One of the greatest things about Saigon is its street food. There’s an endless variety, it’s ultra-cheap, and (almost always) delicious. This was the number one reason we had been excited about living in Saigon, and so far we haven’t been disappointed. We eat out for both lunch and dinner, and often breakfast. And when plates cost around a dollar, there’s no reason not to indulge… if we especially loved a particular dish, we’ll gleefully order another round. It happens more often than I’d like to admit.
Like practically every large, non-Chinese city in the world, Saigon is home to a bustling Chinatown. Known as Cho Lon, this large neighborhood has a history which stretches back to the earliest days of Saigon itself. We visited during the Tet holiday to check out some of the Chinese temples, and happened upon a traditional Lion Dance.
One of the largest green spaces in Saigon is Tao Dan, a 25-acre park in the middle of the city. With the busy street of Trương Dịnh running straight through it, Tao Dan doesn’t exactly provide an “escape to nature”, but it does give you the chance to mingle with locals and watch families enjoy their leisure time. And during the Tet Lunar New Year holiday, the park becomes the scene of a popular fair.
For about a week, hundreds of boats from the Mekong Delta line up along the Ben Binh Wharf to sell the flowers and small fruit trees with which Vietnamese families decorate their homes during the holiday of Tet. Visiting this floating flower market was among the first things we did in Saigon, and the scene made a huge impression on us.