Bill and Sue-On Hillman: A 50-Year Musical Odyssey


Palace ~ Parks ~ Post Office ~ Cathedral ~ Clinton Restaurant
Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) is a beautiful, modern, clean, and progressive city alive with capitalism. The relationship between the city and former enemies has warmed and grown over the years. This has resulted in a great amount of foreign investment and trade with countries across Asia and the Western world. There are ultra modern structures, high rises and neon signs mixed with lovely French colonial buildings and traditional Vietnamese structures. Most streets are lined with lovely blooming trees, sculptured hedges, and decorative vegetation. But many of the old traditions remain. The sidewalks are still filled with generations of families hustling out of small shops to earn money while elderly women peddle the country's famous pho noodle soup from street stalls. As in all the Asian countries we have visited, the streets teem with pedestrians, carts, bikes, motorcycles, cars, taxis, buses and larger vehicles in an interplay that runs amazingly smoothly and with very few accidents.

A good way to explore the many tree-lined streets of the city is by Cyclo (a 3-wheeled open pedal-taxi) -- an experience which resulted in our taking many hundreds of photographs, although they don't do justice to the actual chaos. Unfortunately it was 4:00 pm ... RUSH HOUR! or rather MAD RUSH HOUR! The drivers didn't seem to worry, and they even emphasized that we didn't need to worry about being killed.  They were calm and steady and maneuvered their bikes easily and casually. The cyclos were simple and obviously had travelled countless kilometres. They employed a primitive braking device: a simple tall metal shaft that the driver pulled on to brake the rear wheel. For reflectors many of them recycled old CD discs attached to the rear of the cyclo and some of these discs even served as license plates!

After a lengthy visit to the War Remnants Museum we lined up behind a row of cyclos and their drivers/pedalers. We were soon on our way through the crowded street past the Museum and past a variety of buildings - many of them sporting signs in both Vietnamese and English: government buildings, hotels, tourist attractions, Western franchises, parks, and even another Water Puppets theatre similar to the one we had seen in Hanoi. 

Our first stop was at Independence Palace, also known as Reunification Palace, built on the site of the former Norodom Palace. It was the home and workplace of South Vietnam President Nguyen Van Thieu during the Vietnam War. It was also the site of the symbolic end of the Vietnam War during the Fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, when a North Vietnamese Army tank crashed through its gates. The Palace was later declared to be a National Cultural and Historical Relic and is open to visitors as long as official receptions or meetings aren't taking place. The gates were closed during our visit so our stop was mainly a photo op and an opportunity for our local guide, Mr. Law, to provide historical background info.

We carried on past numerous sites that were being prepared for the 40th Anniversary of Independence/Reunification Day (April 30th) celebrations with setups similar to those we saw at the museum. Workers were setting up bleachers, stages, sound systems, toilets, lights, decorations, etc.  In fact, the whole city was blanketed with red banners that read "Long Live the Glorious Communist Party of Vietnam." Thousands of military personnel and civilians were poised to take part in weeklong rehearsals and celebrations over the next few days.

Our next stop was the Saigon Central Post Office near the Notre-Dame Basilica, the city's cathedral. Both these buildings were constructed when Vietnam was part of French Indochina in the late 19th century and the architecture reflects the cultural influence of the time. The Post Office is one of Saigon's major attractions and tourists marvel at the elaborate exterior and interior decor. 

Visitors are transported to another time and place in a structure that resembles a 19th century railway station rather than a post office in Asia. There were ornate colonial furnishings, a gorgeous pattern-tiled floor, two high glass canopied ceilings, numerous wickets, and beautifully carved doors on rows of phone booths -- many of which contain ATM machines. The walls displayed huge original wall maps of the Saigon area and of the telegraph network between South Vietnam and Cambodia -- the captions were all in French.

All of this was overseen by a giant portrait of Ho Chi Minh, beneath which was seated an old man behind the sign "Information and Writing Assistance." Mr. Duong Van Ngo has been working here since he was 17 as a polyglot public letter writer. Being the last letter writer in old Saigon, he's a source of stories of how he could connect people across the planet with his fountain pen.

Outside the Post Office on our way to the Cathedral we passed large statues that were constructed in 1998 to symbolize the contributions of the post office's staff in wartime and present day.

Saigon Notre-Dame Cathedral was established by French colonists between 1863 and 1880. Much of the building material was shipped from France. There are two bell towers, with massive rows of bells. In the centre is the largest bell, rung only when a pope dies. The Virgin Mary statue in front of the Cathedral attracted thousands of people and caused massive traffic jams in 2005 when it was reported to have shed tears. Even the declaration from Catholic church officials that there were no "tears" did nothing to stem the tide of "wanna believers."

Leaving the Cathdral, we carried on through streets decorated overhead with elaborate banners and lights, past the Opera House (under construction), the American Embassy, along the Saigon River, and past the towering Bitexco Building, the 124th tallest building in the world, with a helipad located on the 50th floor. 

Eventually we reached the Ben Tahn market. We were dropped off at the entrance and Beam led us to Pho 2000 restaurant. It was a noisy, busy place with its major claim to fame being its signs and photos boasting that "President Clinton Ate Here."  On the ground floor was The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf Cafe with the main restaurant on the upper level. We had a big bowls of pho with beef and a plate of beef stir-fried with tofu. It was good...and cheap! Several of us shared a cab back to our Golden Rose Hotel -- total cost $2.00. 

Click for larger full-screen images

Boarding our Cyclos to head out
past the museum gates and into the busy Saigon traffic

Past countless street peddlers and weaving through
an unbelievable assortment of vehicles and cargos

The Saigon version of the popular Water Puppet Show
and through streets canopied with lush vegetation, signs, decorations and lights.

Arrival at the gates of the Independence Palace
which brings back visions of the famous tank entry 40 years ago.

Our fleet of Cyclos posed in front of the Palace

Carrying on past the many preparations for the 40th Anniversary of Independence Celebrations

The famous 19 Century Post Office building with its
spectacular decor, ceilings, shops, phone booths, and wickets.
Photos of the tiled floors, wall maps, statues, etc. are featured in our Annex 1 section

A walk across to the Cathedral and back in the saddle again

Past the Opera House, modern city buildings and
Bitexco tower with its helipad beside the lazy tropical moon.

Evening meal with Bill Clinton :)
at the Pho 2000 Restaurant by the Ben Tahn Market

Back to the Golden Rose Hotel after a very long day

See more photos in the Annex pages

Opening Page: Saigon Landmarks and Cyclo Ride

Landmarks: Annex 1 :: Annex 2 :: Cyclo Ride: Annex 3 :: Annex 4



Copyright 2015
Bill and Sue-On Hillman