From the colonial period, over years of the American War, until today, Saigon’s architecture has continuously evolved. Each era has left marks on this city, turning it into an extraordinary patchwork of architectural styles.
Saigon – Vietnam’s most populous city – is undergoing an extraordinarily difficult time. It is eerily quiet, with most activities are temporarily suspended. Since the start of the pandemic, it has never been locked down for so long. The Delta variant has put a never-sleeping city to a stillstand.
As I am confined to the house, I start having a serious look at my hometown. I wonder what makes the southern metropolitan so special. Is it the vibrant and alluring food scene? Or is it the down-to-earth people whose life is always busy, even to the point of hectic? All of these, however, seem to vanish at this moment.
These days, the only things that can symbolise Saigon are the city’s landmarks. From the sacred Notre-Dame Cathedral to the futuristic Bitexco Tower, they still stand during the darkest hours. Each boasts a different architectural style and represents a period in the history of this ever-changing city.
Up until France’s defeat in 1954, Saigon had been the capital of French Indochina for almost six decades. The French, in their attempt to compete with British colonies in Hong Kong and Singapore, transformed this city into a commercial hub and a cultural centre. Major infrastructures such as ports, banks, palaces, and churches were built. So did a great number of restaurants, hotels and amusement facilities. The city was even given the nickname La Perle de l’Extrêm Orient, meaning Pearl of the Far East. To date, many of these sites retain their original functions, for example, the Central Post Office, the City Hall, or the Opera House. Others have become museums or places of interest, including the Lieutenant Governor’s Palace or the Museum of Fine Arts.
Saigon Notre-Dame Cathedral
Standing tall in the heart of Saigon, Notre-Dame Cathedral has always been a symbol of this city. It was built between 1863 and 1880 to serve the religious needs of French colonists, and later the local catholic community. In 1962, the Vatican lifted the cathedral’s status to a basilica. Yet most Saigonese still calls this church by its original name, Saigon Notre-Dame Cathedral.
A mixture of Neo-Roman and Gothic architectural style, Saigon Notre-Dame Cathedral features an all-red brick façade, stained glass windows, as well as two belfries reaching a height of almost 60 metres. All are made out of imported materials, including the highly durable bricks from Toulouse. There is also a beautiful garden in front of the cathedral where the statue ‘Peaceful Notre Dame’ was installed in 1959.
Central Post Office
Right next to the cathedral is Saigon Central Post Office – a stunning European-style structure that has been in use since 1891. It is the work of French Cochinchina’s first chief architect, Alfred Foulhoux. But some (mostly tour agencies) erroneously credit it to Gustave Eiffel, the father of the famous Eiffel Tower. The post office boasts a bright yellow façade framed with white trims and adorned with Renaissance ornaments. A giant clock dominates the building’s main entrance and above it is the sculpture of Mercury – the Roman god of communication. Several naga statues can also be spotted around the roof edges, giving an Asian touch to the building.
Stepping inside, visitors will feel as though they’ve been temporarily teleported to a European train station in the early 20th century. They will be greeted by a bright and airy hall, with a vaulted ceiling supporting by beautiful wrought-iron beams and four columns. Despite its nostalgic appearance, Saigon Post Office is in full operation. It still offers an array of postal services, including delivering letters and parcels, selling postcards, stamps, and other stationery.
Lieutenant Governor’s Palace
Another masterpiece of Alfred Foulhoux in Saigon is the Lieutenant Governor’s Palace completed in 1890. It was originally designed as an exhibition venue, with two-storey and an expansive garden. But the building soon became the official residence of Lieutenant Governors, and later Governors of Cochinchina. After the French retreat in 1945, the palace underwent a turbulent time. It had switched owners several times within the next three decades, from the Japanese Governors, Viet Minh, the Allied to President Ngo Dinh Diem. These days, Lieutenant Governor’s Palace has been transformed into a history museum, presenting multiple aspects of the old Saigon.
In terms of architecture, the palace has a classical Baroque design, with grand and small columns that evoke the image of Louis XIV’s palaces. The halls and staircases also follow this architectural style, while the roof is oriental inspired. It features grotesques on the front face, along with an abundance of sculptures to reduce the monotony of the building.
Facing Saigon River, the City Hall (officially known as Ho Chi Minh City People’s Committee) is another representative of French architecture in the city. It models after Hôtel de Ville in Paris, featuring symmetric architecture with a bell tower as the baseline. Lavish ornaments and intricate bas-reliefs are visible on the façade. So do three sculptures of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity – the national motto of the French Republic. The construction of the City Hall started in 1897. But it took twelve years to complete this elaborate project.
Saigon Opera House
Just around the corner is Saigon Opera House – a flamboyant architecture constructed in 1894 to entertain French colonists. But over time, the 500-seat building had operated occasionally, with a handful of concerts and cải lương programs. The opera house was bombed during WWII and then transformed into a conference hall in the 1950s. It only restored its original function as a house of performance after 1975.
Though being smaller than Hanoi’s counterpart, Saigon Opera House is special in its own way. Its façade resembles that of Petit Palais, featuring a beautiful arch engraved with ornamental flowers and Muse statues. On either side, white trims and elegant laurel wreaths frame curved large windows. And inscriptions, decorations, and furnishings were all drawn by French artists or imported from France.
HCMC Musem of Fine Arts
Hiding on a quaint street near Ben Thanh Market, the Museum of Fine Arts is a major cultural centre in Saigon. It houses one of the country’s most fascinating collections of artworks created by domestic and regional artists. From sculptures, paintings, ceramics to lacquers, all are on display here. There are also relics dating back from as far as the fourth century which holds unmeasurable historical values.
The museum itself is also a piece of art. Constructed in the early 1930s, this Art Deco mansion used to be the residential house of Hui Bon Hoa, one of Saigon’s most affluent Chinese-Vietnamese entrepreneurs. It has a U-shape and features a spacious lobby, large pillars, wrought-iron balconies, and colorful glass windows with the typical European arts. Some oriental elements are skilfully integrated into the three-storey structure, including the red-tiled roof, blue ceramic decorations, and the stylised Chinese characters engraved on the façade. Furthermore, this is the first building in Saigon that installed an elevator. It is made of iron and decorated like an exquisite palanquin.
HCMC State Bank of Vietnam
A bit outside the city’s core, the State Bank of Vietnam (formerly Indochina Bank) is another outstanding example of the east-west fusion style. It features an imposing exterior, with stone square columns made up a large part of its façade. The roof, on the other hand, is adorned with bas-reliefs and a series of Khmer-inspired ornaments. Despite being built in 1930, this bank reminds me of modernist architecture which is highly popular in the later periods. For this reason, it is counted as one of the first “localised” architectures in Saigon.
Traditional Chinese Architecture
On the contrary to French architecture which can easily be seen all around Saigon’s downtown, traditional Chinese architecture is quite difficult to recognise these days. They are still represented in some residential areas, temples, and markets. But except for the few lucky ones, many structures are already dilapidated.
In case you didn’t know, Saigon today is actually the merger of two large settlements: Saigon and Cho Lon. The Viet people reside in Saigon, while Cho Lon has been the stronghold of the Hoa (ethnic Chinese) since the late 17th century. Most of them migrated from Southeastern China, including the Cantonese, the Teochew, the Hakka, the Hokkien, and the Hainanese.
As people migrated, they brought wealth, knowledge, and customs to the southern land. This led to merchant houses, restaurants, and entertainment facilities mushrooming across Cho Lon. And like in Hoi An, guild houses were established so that people could socialise with their fellow countrymen. Many of these houses later took the form of Chinese-Buddhist temples to honour deities such as Guan Yu (the God of War) or Guan Yin (the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy). However, regardless of their functions, all those buildings feature vivid colours and intricate decorations. They often possess open-to-sky courtyards, as well as exquisite furniture and artworks.
The years after France’s departure saw a surge in modernism in Saigon. However, unlike architectures in the previous periods which are largely copied from the West, buildings in this era boast a local identity. Vietnamese architects, who had studied at art schools in Vietnam and abroad, developed a new trend called “Vietnamese modernism”. They incorporated traditional aesthetics into Western modern architecture, and at the same time adapting the designs to suit Saigon’s tropical climate. The results were buildings that look internationally modern, yet still, meet the needs of the Vietnamese owners.
Occupied an expansive area in the city centre, the Independence Palace is probably Saigon’s most visited modernist architecture. It was built in 1962 on the site of the Norodom Palace, the former residence of French Governor Generals. Back then, the colonial palace suffered severe damage from bombings, and thus President Ngo Dinh Diem ordered its reconstruction. He assigned leading architect Ngo Viet Thu – the first Vietnamese who have ever won the prestigious Grand Prix de Rome – for this project.
The new palace was completed after two years, featuring 95 rooms, two mezzanines, one terrace, and one basement. Its design is typically modernist, with straight, clean lines predominate. To make the structure more local, the architect added an elegant stone latticework surrounding its upper floors. It evokes the image of bamboo trees – a plant that is familiar to the Vietnamese. Aside from aesthetic reasons, this stonework provides shade to the building, without entirely blocking the sunlight.
Despite its modern appearance, the palace was designed based on Eastern philosophy principles. It follows traditional oriental architectures which integrate hieroglyphics into the construction. For instance, the palace layout resembles “吉” (Ji) – the Chinese symbol for “auspicious”. Or the baselines on the façade form the word “王” (Wang) which means “King”. There is also a lotus pond running along the length of the foyer which is great for feng shui.
21st Century (Contemporary Design)
Like most Asian metropolitans, Saigon of the 21st century is dominated by highrises and skyscrapers. They often stand shoulder to shoulder, making the skyline looks like a vibrant music visualisation. Innovative designs are the earmarks of this era, with concrete, metal and glass are the main construction materials. Gone were elaborate stuccos and intricate ornaments. Instead, sleek lines and curves, as well as free-form shapes are omnipresent.
I remember I was excited when visiting the city’s first skyscrapers, the Saigon Trade Centre (150m). Comprising of 33 storeys, this office building was completed in 1997, just after Vietnam had joined the WTO. It used to be a symbol of pride and represented the economic growth of a new boomtown.
As income rose, the height of the buildings also increased. The Trade Centre was dwarfed by its successors, the lotus-bulb-inspired Bitexco Tower which reaches 262 metres high. But just three years ago, the iconic tower was dethroned by Vietnam’s tallest building, the Landmark 81. Measuring 461 metres in height, this building complex resembles a giant bamboo grove soaring into Saigon’s sky. And the race to the top certainly won’t stop here, with more avant-garde monuments are in the planning and in the making.
Unfortunately, with the creation of new things, the old charms start to vanish. There is currently no concrete plan to preserve the city’s historic buildings. Except for several popular heritages, others are largely ignored and get destroyed to give places for a new mall or a luxury apartment complex. But it doesn’t need to be that way. Olds and news can co-exist in the always open-minded Saigon…