If there was ever a city that wore its history on its sleeve, it’s Saigon. That is, Ho Chi Minh City, as the town was renamed after the North won the American war, as they call it in these parts. But if you think the 1960s war is the biggest memory that hangs over this city, or this country, you couldn’t be more wrong.
In fact, Vietnam has had struggles with a half-dozen different powers over the centuries. There were invasions by the Chinese, tussles with the Cambodians, interference by the Portuguese and Dutch, a WWII invasion by the Japanese — and of course, almost 100 years of French colonialism. And it’s the last of those that left the biggest mark on this city.
As you walk around downtown Hi Chi Minh City, you see a communist system built on top of the French colonial past. A statue of Ho Chi Minh himself stands in front of the beautiful French-built Hotel de Ville, nowadays the People’s Committee Building. Around the corner, the classic-looking French opera house — now the Municipal Theatre — stands beside the venerable Hotel Continental (photo at top), also built in the French era. And down the street, the faithful still attend mass in Notre Dame Cathedral, across the street from the General Post Office, designed by Gustave Eiffel.
To that elegant French core the city has added a solid number of new, ultra-modern skyscrapers, like the Bitexco Financial Tower, a tall, slender glass edifice with a helipad sticking out of the side and a famous observation deck on the 49th floor. Then there’s the Caravelle Hotel, whose shiny new tower stands out as an emblem of the new Ho Chi Minh City.
That mixture of French, native Vietnamese and modernist influences makes Ho Chi Minh one of the more interesting big cities in Asia. Yes, the downtown core is filled with gleaming new office buildings. But next door you’ll find a French bakery, or a steamy Asian market filled with everything from fine silks to jackfruit and shrimp paste. Banh mi sandwiches on French bread rival pho noodle soup as the favourite quick meal. And unlike Beijing, you don’t see the face of Colonel Sanders looking out from every street corner (though Starbucks is here, and I have spotted couple of McDonald’s outlets.)
If you thought the Vietnamese were a homogeneous, faceless people, you were wrong there, too. While the Viet are the majority here, there are more than 50 different ethnicities in Vietnam, including indigenous people like the hill tribes of Thailand. That leads to a surprising number of religions.
I started this morning with a visit to the Mariamman Temple, an ornate downtown Hindu temple that’s also visited by Buddhists. Then it was off to Cholon, Saigon’s Chinatown, to visit some lavishly decorated Buddhist temples, and a lonely little mosque. And before I leave Vietnam, I want to get out to see the Cao Dai Holy See, centre of a modern-era religion that mixes Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism.
All that is not to imply that the American War has faded from the memories of the Vietnamese. There are reminders everywhere, from the War Remnants Museum in downtown Ho Chi Minh City to the Cu Chi tunnels outside town, which the Viet Cong used to hide from the American bombs. But there’s a lot more to Ho Chi Minh city than I expected. This is a city with almost too much history.