Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Glimpses of old Saigon

Saigon at night - Đào Minh Tự/Pexels

Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City as it's officially known, is a city of contradictions. It is a place where the weight of history and the pulse of modernity coalesce in a vibrant tapestry of culture, commerce, and chaos. Rudi Romero explores the ancient metropolis dreaming of past times.

Images: Roderick Eime  || Main Image: Đào Minh Tự/Pexels

My journey to this captivating metropolis was like stepping into a Louis Theroux documentary—a deep dive into the eclectic blend of the past and the present that defines this urban sprawl.

Saigon’s history is palpable the moment you step into the city. Established in the 17th century, it flourished as a key trading port before becoming a French colonial stronghold in the mid-19th century. The French influence is still evident in the grandiose architecture of the Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica and the Central Post Office, both remnants of a bygone era when Saigon was known as the "Paris of the East."


I began my exploration at the Reunification Palace, a stark reminder of the city's pivotal role in the Vietnam War. This iconic building, where North Vietnamese tanks famously crashed through the gates in 1975, signifying the end of the war, stands frozen in time. Wandering through the preserved war rooms and the rooftop helipad, I couldn’t help but imagine the tense moments that unfolded here.

From there, I ventured into the War Remnants Museum, a sobering repository of the war’s brutal legacy. Photographs, military equipment, and personal accounts paint a vivid, often harrowing, picture of the conflict's impact. It's a place that demands reflection, a stark counterpoint to the city's otherwise bustling energy.

Saigon nightlife

Yet, Saigon is not a city to dwell solely in its past. Its modern development is nothing short of astounding. The skyline is dominated by sleek skyscrapers like the Bitexco Financial Tower, a testament to Vietnam’s rapid economic growth. This 68-story edifice, with its helipad jutting out like a futuristic appendage, offers panoramic views of the sprawling city below. From this vantage point, one can see the juxtaposition of old and new—ancient pagodas nestled amid a sea of neon lights and modern infrastructure.

Descending back to street level, I immersed myself in the chaotic charm of Ben Thanh Market. This market, one of Saigon’s oldest, is a sensory overload. The air is thick with the scent of spices, fresh herbs, and street food. Vendors shout out prices, bargaining is an art form, and the sheer variety of goods—from traditional handicrafts to knock-off designer items—is bewildering.

Main Post Office, Saigon

Amidst the commercial frenzy, I found pockets of tranquility in Saigon’s numerous temples and pagodas. The Jade Emperor Pagoda, with its intricate carvings and the serene ambiance of burning incense, offers a moment of respite. It’s a place where time seems to slow down, a stark contrast to the relentless pace outside its walls.

One evening, I found myself in District 1, the heart of Saigon’s nightlife. The streets come alive with an energy that is both intoxicating and overwhelming. Rooftop bars, like those atop the Rex Hotel, provide a sophisticated escape with stunning views and live jazz music. Meanwhile, Bui Vien Street, often compared to Bangkok’s Khao San Road, is a cacophony of neon lights, music, and a diverse crowd of locals and tourists. Here, the city's youthful exuberance is on full display, a reminder that despite its complex history, Saigon is a city that thrives on its present vibrancy.

Lam Son Square and Dong Khoi Street, Saigon. Rex Hotel.

As I walked through the streets of Saigon, I couldn’t shake the feeling that this city is a living documentary. Every alley, every building, every face tells a story of resilience and transformation. Saigon is a place where history is ever-present, yet it does not hinder progress; instead, it enriches the city's identity, making it a unique mosaic of past and present. In the style of Louis Theroux, my journey through Saigon was a captivating exploration of a city that is as enigmatic as it is dynamic, a place where the old and the new coexist in a harmonious yet thrilling tension.


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