Originally part of the kingdom of Cambodia, Ho Chi Minh City was a small port town until the late 17th century. By the 18th century, it had become part of Vietnam and the city, renamed Saigon, and was the provincial capital of the Nguyen Dynasty. However, in the second half of the 19th century, control over the city passed to the French, and Saigon became the capital of French Cochinchina.
This was a period of much infrastructural and architectural development, during which Saigon earned the epithet “Paris of the Orient.” In 1954, the city was proclaimed the capital of South Vietnam. The ensuing war between the US and the Communist North lasted until 1975, when North Vietnam took over Saigon and renamed it Ho Chi Minh City. Populated by almost eight million people, the city has long been the hub of manufacturing, entertainment, and cuisine in Vietnam.
1. Jade Emperor Pagoda
One of the city’s most ornate pagodas, this wonderfully atmospheric small house of worship honors the King of all Heavens, Ngoc Hoangor or the Jade Emperor – chief deity of the Taoist pantheon. Built by the Cantonese community in 1909, it is filled with exquisite wood carvings and reinforced papier-mâché statues of various Buddhist and Taoist deities.
The pagoda’s pink facade is quite simple. In contrast, the tile roof is an intricate work of art, as are the large wooden doors, richly carved with images of gods and men. Most remarkable, however, are the vibrantly colorful and gilded images of Buddhist divinities and Taoist deities inside the temple, including an elaborate statue of the Jade Emperor himself. Just about every surface is embellished with beautiful tiles and carvings, most of which are dense with religious imagery and symbols, and shrouded in a haze of burning incense.
2. Cao Dai Holy See
As the center of Cao Dai, a religion founded in 1926 comprising a mixture of many Asian and some Christian beliefs, this vast complex draws millions of worshippers. The main attraction is the Great Divine Temple, which has an unusual mix of Asian and European architectural elements.
The spiritual centerpiece of the Cao Dai complex, the Great Divine Temple was built between 1933 and 1955. Its vividly decorated three-tiered roof, stained-glass windows, and kaleidoscope of colors make for an unusual, striking building. Amid the vibrant pinks, greens, and yellows of the decor are carvings of writhing serpents and dragons, lotus motifs, and a multitude of Divine Eyes, gazing from all directions. The chief symbol of Cao Daisim, the all-seeing Divine Eye represents supreme knowledge and wisdom. The prayer services, attended by hundreds of clergy in highly colorful robes, are held four times daily and are a breathtaking sight.
Visitors are welcome at the noon prayer service, as long as they are careful not to disturb the worshippers. As well as the Great Divine Temple, the complex houses administrative offices, residences for hundreds of priests, and a hospital of traditional Vietnamese herbal medicine that attracts people from all over the country for its treatments.
3. People’s Committee Building
Designed by French architect P. Gardes and com pleted in 1908, the People’s Committee Building, once known as the Hôtel de Ville, is one of the city’s most iconic landmarks. It was outside this building in 1945, that thou sands of people congregated to establish the Provisional Administrative Committee of South Vietnam. Today, it is still the house of the city government and sits regally at the city’s center. Contrary to popular belief, this striking building has never been a hostelry, nor is it open to the public.
Modeled on the City Hall in Paris, it comprises two stories, with two wings off a central hall and a clock tower. It is capped with a red-tile roof, and its fanciful yellow- and-cream-colored facade is most often described as “ginger bread.” Though it retains an obviously Parisian appearance, the building fits in well with the cityscape, especially at night when it is magnificently floodlit.
Unfortunately, there is no way for the general public to see the chandelier-bedecked interior today. However, the square in front of the hall, featuring a statue of Ho Chi Minh cradling a child, is a popular vantage point from which to take photographs of this beautiful building.
4. Bitexco Financial Tower
Since opening in 2010, this has become a major landmark and an emblem of the city’s rejuvenation. Once the tallest building in HCMC, its slender, tapered shape with a helipad jutting near the top is visible from everywhere in the city center. The main attraction is the Saigon Skydeck on the 49th floor, which offers panaromic views of the city center and the Saigon River flowing through it. The obser-vation deck provides infor-mation about the history and culture of the city. Binoculars are fitted in the glass walls for visitors to use.
From this vantage point, 584 ft (178 m) above the ground, many of Ho Chi Minh’s best-known sights are easily seen, including the Municipal Theater, the People’s Committee Building, and Ben Thanh Market. The bird’seye view also gives an idea of the frantic pace of the city’s development, with new highrise blocks appearing all around. The tower also has many highend stores for shopping enthusiasts as well as a range of fine restaurants, cafés, and a cinema.
5. Notre Dame Cathedral
The basilica-style Notre Dame Cathedral, or Nha Tho Duc Ba, is the largest church ever built during the French Empire. When it was completed in 1880, its 40m (120ft) spires made it the tallest structure in the city. At first glance it seems to be brickbuilt, but in fact, the facade is made of red tiles brought over from Marseilles and attached to granite walls.
Stained-glass windows from Chartres were installed, but destroyed during World War II and later replaced with plain glass. The two bell towers, added in 1895 and topped with crosses, each house six bronze bells. The cathedral’s interior remains relatively unadorned, but the ambient lighting creates a beautifully calm atmosphere. In front of the cathedral is a statue of the Virgin Mary.
Made in Rome, it was brought to Vietnam in 1959 and given the name Holy Mary Queen of Peace, in the hope that she would bring peace to the wartorn country. While the city’s Roman Catholic community is no longer a political force, droves of worshippers still throng the church. The belfry, open on Sundays, affords lovely views.
6. Central Post Office
Designed by the French archi-tect Marie-Alfred Foulhoux between 1886 and 1891, Buu Dien Trung Tam or the Central Post Office is one of the most attractive buildings in the city. Its massive facade is bright yellow with a cream trim and features carvings of the faces of famous philosophers and scientists, below which are finely engraved inscrip tions.
In all, the building is no less than a temple to the art of communicating by mail. The interior is vaulted like the inside of a railroad station, and sup ported by wrought-iron pillars painted green, with gilded capitals.
The floor tilework is intricate, especially in the foyer where huge antique maps illuminated by chandeliers depict the city and the region. One of the maps shows the city in 1892, and another portrays the region in 1932. A large portrait of Ho Chi Minh gazes over the daily bustle. Wooden writing benches are available for patrons’ use, as is a kiosk selling souve nirs and stamps. The entire hall is cooled by overhead fans.
7. Mariamman Hindu Temple
Dedicated to Mariamman, an incarnation of Shakti, the Hindu Goddess of Strength, the incense-filled Mariamman Hindu Temple caters not only to the small community of Hindus in Ho Chi Minh City, but also to the many local Vietnamese Buddhists, who worship here either courting good luck or driven by superstition. Built in the late 19th century, the temple is quite small but still beautiful, and superbly maintained by the government.
The bright, coral-colored wall of the facade is surmounted by numerous images of deities, cows, and lions, all painted vividly in pink, green, and blue. Over the entrance, a stepped-pyra-midal tower covered with more sculpted images, mostly depicting female deities, rises from the rooftop. Inside, an imposing statue of a red-robed lion guards the entrance, which opens into an uncovered portico that surrounds the main sanctuary. Three of the courtyard’s walls are inset with altar nooks in which images of various gods and goddesses rest. Set in the center of the portico, the sanctuary itself is slightly raised.
Made of stone, it recalls the architectural style of Angkor Wat (p224), and forms the setting for the multi-armed represen tation of Mariamman. The goddess is surrounded by many attend-ing deities, including Ganesha, the Hindu Elephant God, as well as two female deities on either side of her. Two lingam (Hindu phallic symbols of Shiva) also stand before her.
The altar is surrounded by numerous incense burners and brass figurine oil lamps. Worshippers hold incense sticks in both hands while praying. In the rear of the sanctuary is a prayer wall where the faithful press their heads in the hope that the goddess will be able to hear their prayers clearly.
8. Ben Thanh Market
One of the most recognizable landmarks in the city, this huge market was built in 1914 by the French, who named it Les Halles Centrales or Central Market Halls. Its most famous feature is the massive clock tower that still dominates the surrounding neighborhood. Home to several hundred stallholders, the market offers an amazingly extensive and varied selection of merchan dise, ranging from food and leather goods to household items and clothing, as well as hardware and livestock.
The atmosphere here is one of high energy, noise, and tremen dous hustle and bustle (visitors should always be aware of the possibility of pickpockets). Products arrive at the market from around the country and, throughout the day, merchants sing out their wares while shoppers wander in search of great deals. It used to be common practice to haggle here but bargaining is no longer allowed and prices are fixed. On entering through the main portal situated on Le Loi Boulevard, general merchandise is on the left. To the right is clothing and textiles. You will find plenty of souvenirs here too.
Moving farther in, to the right are dry goods, such as tea, coffee, and spices, as well as packaged foods. Halfway in, fresh foods are on the right, and food stalls, where meals are available, to the left. The eateries both here and outside the building are famous for their quality and low price. Since the signage is written in English as well as Vietnamese, patrons can easily point to the posted menu when they are ready to make their order.
9. Le Van Duyet Temple
Dedicated to General Le Van Duyet (1763–1831), this is perhaps the best example of a temple devoted to a national hero rather than to a deity or religion. Le Van Duyet helped suppress the Tay Son Rebellion (pp46–7), and was lauded by Emperor Gia Long. After Van Duyet’s death, he was repudi ated by Emperor Minh Mang (r. 1820–41), but was restored to favor in the 1840s, and the temple was built to honor him.
The main sanctuary is bereft of any images other than a large portrait of Le Van Duyet, reminding devotees that they are worshipping a mortal. Also inside is a fascinating collection of the general’s personal effects, such as crystalware, weapons, 71two life-size horse statues, and a stuffed tiger. The patrons are mostly locals who come here to meditate and make offerings. Over the years, the temple has grown into a complex of inter-connected buildings, cloisters, patios, and courts.
From the street, a gate leads into a large parkland, with tall trees shading the benches. The temple exterior is remarkable for its mosaic wall panels and reliefs. By contrast, the outer sanctuary is unique in its lack of embellishment. All the pillars and altars are made of carved and polished wood, as are the giant cranes and the life-size horse seen here.
The inner sanctum adjoining it is a blaze of color, with bright red-and-gold dragon pillars. Le Van Duyet’s tomb, as well as that of his wife, is also to be found in the peaceful temple grounds. There are cele brations held here during Tet and on the thirtieth day of the seventh lunar month every year – with a chance to hear trad-itional boi singing – to honor the anniversary of Le Van Duyet’s death.
10. Vinh Nghiem Pagoda
Completed with aid from the Japan-Vietnam Friendship Association in 1971, this is, by some measures, the largest pagoda in the city. Certainly, its eight-story tower, located immediately to the left of a high gate, is the tallest. Each side of the tower is adorned with an image of the Buddha in high relief. To the right of the gate is a smaller, 16-ft- (5-m-) high tower, built of concrete blocks.
The concrete is of such quality and color that the structure appears to be made of granite. Across a 65-ft (20-m) courtyard is the large, squat main building. A steep stair case leads up to the sanctuary where five massive lacquer ware doors lead into the vast first room. The walls here are lined with clear paintings showing scriptural scenes and explanatory notes are posted alongside.
Farther in is the main altar with a huge, seated Buddha, flanked by disciples. Behind the sanctuary lies a solemn room, filled with photo graphs and memorials to the departed. A statue of the goddess Quan Am sits on the altar here. On the second floor, a cloister leads into an art gal lery where local artists show their works. Rock and topiary gardens flank the building.
11. War Remnants Museum
Located in the former US Information Service building, this exhibition shows films, pictures, and other items that document war atrocities committed by US, Chinese, and French soldiers in grim detail. Events are from a Vietnamese perspective and are thought-provoking.
Among the most disturbing exhibits are the formaldehyde-filled jars of foetuses deformed due to the chemical defoliants used in the Vietnam War. Also displayed are photo graphs showing the effects of torture and a video of a prisoner being thrown from a heli copter by Vietnam’s aggressors, along with US weapons, military vehicles, and even a guillotine.
12. Thien Hau Pagoda
Also named Hoi Quan Tue Thanh, but commonly known as Chua Ba, or Lady’s Pagoda, this temple is dedicated to Thien Hau, Goddess of the Sea Cityand Patroness of Sailors. Built in the early 1800s by the Cantonese congregation, this is one of the most popular and richly embellished temples in the city. The front courtyard is surrounded by high walls, topped by intricate friezes and carved tableau.
The entrance ceiling is even more complex, with woodwork and gilt reaching half way down to the floor. Inside, the atrium, with its exquisite friezes and reliefs, has giant censers billowing fragrant smoke. The spacious central room has a display case of the nozzles of the fire hoses used to extinguish a serious fire that threatened the temple in 1898. The walls of this room are covered with prayer flags – red strips of paper on which devotees write their prayers. It is believed that as the breeze rustles the paper, the prayers waft to Thien Hau.
Banks of incense coils grace the main sanctuary ceiling, while three statues of Thien Hau, each flanked by two attendants, preside at the altar. Hanging from the ceiling is a carved wooden boat that recalls Thien Hau’s connection to the sea. To the right is an image of Long Mau, God dess of Mothers and Newborns.
13. Binh Tay Market
This huge marketplace in Ho Chi Minh City’s Cholon (Chinatown) – cho lon means “big market” – is a pagoda-style tribute to trade. Originally a small collection of open-air stalls, a Chinese merchant took the initiative to build a permanent structure in 1826.
Over time, it evolved into today’s huge empo rium. The yellow building has four wings joined in a square, with a courtyard and a fountain in the middle. A tall clock tower looms in the center of the com plex. Stacked pagoda- like roofs cover the bustle of commerce. Primarily a whole sale market, it is less touristy than Ben Thanh Market (p70) and has a wide range of items and services available, from medicinal herbs and imported Chinese toys, to tailors and mechanics.
14. Long Hai
While the two settlements grew, the stretch of coastline between Vung Tau and Phan Thiet was virtually deserted, but today it is lined with a number of large resorts. Home to the small town of Long Hai, this area is now rather exa gge ratedly referred to as Vietnam’s Riviera. None theless, the beaches are relatively unspoiled, prices are low, the seafood is fresh, and the atmos phere is very relaxed.
A point of interest near Long Hai is the Mo Co Temple, where hundreds of boats from all over the region converge during the Fisher man’s Festival in June. Farther east is one of Bao Dai’s villas, now the upmarket resort Alma Oasis, as well as several cheaper resorts.
Although there is no direct public transportation or hydrofoil from Vung Tau, the drive to Long Hai is pleasant, with several charming Catholic churches lining the highway as well as a num ber of interesting temples.
15. Cat Tien National Park
Cat Tien is easily one of the most abundant, biologically diverse reserves of its kind. This is remarkable in light of the fact that it was subjected to sus tained bom bardment by defoliants during the Vietnam War. Even farther back in time, it was a place of pilgrimage, as evidenced by the discovery of ancient religious artifacts around the area traced to both the Funan and Champa empires.
Today, this lush 277sqmile (718sqkm) park is home to a wide range of flora and fauna. There are more than 1,600 varieties of plants, and new ones continue to be discovered. This was once the habitat of the nowextinct Javan rhinoceros, but it continues to be the home of many other ani mals, including elephants, deer, and over 360 species of birds. Colonies of monkeys, including rare douc langurs, pop ulate the trees, while 440 species of butterfly flutter amid wild flowers.
Not surprisingly, Cat Tien is one of the most pop ular adventure destinations in Vietnam. Accommoda tions in the park are minimal but adequate, and are reached by crossing the Dong Nai River.