Explore Ho Chi Minh, a city of contrasts


Explore Ho Chi Minh, a city of contrasts

After a tumultuous past, the Vietnamese city has rebuilt itself into a place where East meets West and old meets new

By Sandip Hor

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Published: Fri 14 Jun 2019, 12:00 AM

Last updated: Fri 14 Jun 2019, 2:00 AM

"You can call this the birthplace of new Vietnam," says my guide Phuong as we enter the Reunification Hall in Ho Chi Minh, one of the city's most famous tourist sites.

Forty-three years ago, it was here that Duong Van Minh, the last president of the US-backed South Vietnamese government, surrendered to the triumphant communist forces from the north, thus ending the long-drawn Vietnam War and marking the journey of a unified Vietnam.

In that sense, it's the birthplace of the country we visit today and hence a site of great national pride. So, its ranking at the top of any guided tour of the city, formerly called Saigon, is pretty obvious.

The grandeur of the white imposing edifice, which was built in 1966 on the spot of the former French governor's palace as Presidential home, is surely impressive, but the main attraction is not the building but the pieces of history stored inside.
It was from this five-storied building that the South Vietnam regime commanded their brutal war until conceding defeat on April 30, 1975. The dramatic finish to the decades-long saga finally came when a North Vietnamese officer crashed through the main palace gate on a Russian built tank, entered the presidential chamber on the second floor, arrested President Minh and then unfurled a red flag from the top balcony to signal victory. As part of the guided tour, it's possible to be inside this room today to sense a piece of momentous history.

The inside layout and setting of this building have been preserved as it was on that historic day. Its deserted halls and rooms are now open to the public to appreciate the proud moments of victory as well to get a taste of the extravagant lifestyle the heads of state enjoyed during their heyday. A lavish cardroom with a casino, home cinema, and huge dancing arena being a few examples of their high living. Even more interesting is the basement used during the war. Like Hitler's bunkers in Berlin, it's laid with a network of tunnels and meeting rooms as well as a communication centre, huge kitchen and even a bedroom for the President to sleep in during critical times.

While a visit to the Reunification Hall evokes an emphatic feeling of triumph, War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh city fills the mind with sadness and distress. Generally, the second stop on a city tour, this gallery primarily displays numerous photographs and documents that give a graphic account of that infamous war, also referred as the Second Indochina War, which claimed over three million lives. Many of the images are disturbing, particularly the ones of the My Lai Massacre, one of the most horrific atrocities committed against 500 unarmed civilians of My Lai village, all women, children and old men. To further display the horror of war, the museum still houses a French guillotine, last used in 1960 to execute a prisoner, and a replica of the infamous tiger cage used to torture the captives.

With difficulty, I drag myself to complete this museum tour. Others around me are no different, moving from one room to the other with saddened faces and wet eyes and perhaps asking the same question, "Was it all necessary?". It's painful, but this tour is worthwhile to realise the extent of agony a war brings to human society.

Though legacies of the war are still omnipresent, after initial years of economic and political setbacks, the unified nation has come a long way and, today, it stands as one of Asia's most sought-after destinations for both business and leisure - Ho Chi Minh, the nation's largest city and economic powerhouse, being at the forefront.

Home to 10 million people and seven million bikes, this city is always hot, noisy, chaotic and unromantic, but still millions of tourists from around the globe touch down on its shores every year. A reason for this deluge? Well, the presence of world-class tourism facilities comprising ultramodern hotels, restaurants and trendy shopping outlets offer the hordes plenty to do and see. And then there are the museums, temples and pagodas to explore, while cruising along the edging river and haggling with vendors at timeworn markets are definitely worth one's time.
I also find that cherishing the fading legacies of the French acts as a magnet for many visitors to the city. During their stay in this city for almost a century since 1861, the European colonisers transformed the earlier Khmer settlement to the 'Paris of the East'. They beautified the cityscape with wide boulevards and parks, surrounded by a series of mustard-yellow buildings to house the offices and homes of the burgeoning European population. Many of them still exist in a well-preserved condition, particularly in the Don Khoi and Lam Son Square areas. Like me, many love witnessing these tints of neoclassical Europe in Asia. One that deserves a mention is the former Hotel de Ville or the City Hall building which now houses the office of the powerful People's Committee. Others of significance are the Notre Dame Cathedral, Central Post Office, and the Opera House. Many hotels that opened doors during French era - Caravelle, Rex, and Majestic - still stand grandly as part of the city's history and fill the air with old- world charm. Beyond the bricks and mortar, the French legacy is still alive in the city's cafe culture and bakery products. The city is full of cafes where locals and visitors alike love socialising over a cup of coffee and a pastry or a baguette, just like the French do in Paris.

Besides the regular touristy drawcards, what amazes outsiders in this city is the eclectic presence of old and new. Here three-wheeled cycle rickshaws called 'cyclos' follow Mercedes and Audi on roads, McDonald's shares business with local pho or noodle soup eateries, Prado and Armani shops don't look down upon street stalls selling their imitations, pastel-hued French-built bungalows are not jealous of the skyscrapers, sugarcane juice quenches thirst at the same speed as soda, and elderly couples are not bothered playing badminton in a park alongside youngsters doing aerobic exercises with loud music blaring. There seems to be an acceptance for everything and this harmonious coexistence is what makes Ho Chi Minh so special and interesting for visitors, particularly from the Western world.

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