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Dong Khoi - Key Sights in Ho Chi Minh City

Home > Ho Chi Minh > Travel | Views | Walks
by Ali Hawkins (subscribe)
I'm keen to share things that I've done with others - I love learning about culture and history, I know the importance of great service, good quality products and positive experiences. I love to experience life's opportunities. I live in Melbourne.
Published January 9th 2015
If you can find Dong Khoi, the main shopping street, you'll find several of the key sights to be seen in Ho Chi Minh City. Be prepared though, the traffic can seem crazy … with tooting horns and motorbikes - hundreds of motorbikes – for every car there's a dozen bikes – all heading in the same direction, but all doing their own thing.

Ho Chi Minh City, traffic
Crazy traffic along the decorated streets of HCM City

I wander along …

At one end of dong Khoi is a traffic roundabout and a huge Square. Here I see two tall gothic spires – this just has to be Notre Dame Cathedral!

Ho Chi Minh City, Notre Dame Cathedral
Notre Dame Cathedral

Built by the French in 1880 as the City's Catholic Basilica – it's the largest church ever built in the French Empire and is now the last bastion of Catholicism in Ho Chi Minh (HCM) City. It's weirdly reflective of its Paris namesake, even down to the wonderful exterior. Actually, the special red tiles were shipped from Marseilles in France to cover the Cathedral's plain granite walls. It's a beautiful sight, but it feels odd in this crazy Asian city.

Out front, a serene marble statue of the Virgin Mary stands amidst beautiful manicured gardens. She was made in Rome in 1959 and brought here in the hope that she would bring peace to the country after decades of war and political upheaval. Hmmm … it's a good theory – might as well give it a try.

As I look into her face I almost forget the noisy chaos around me … but not quite.

Vietnamese people are most likely to be Buddhist, Confucian or Tao. Religion has a deep influence on life here. Most predominant is Buddhism, which is evidenced by the multitudes of Pagodas all over the city.

Ho chi Minh City, Statue of Mary outside Notre Dame Cathedral
Statue of Mary outside Notre Dame Cathedral

Confucianism, more a social philosophy than a religion – with no church, clergy or Bible, seeks to live in harmony with society and attain happiness in life. Taoism advocates harmony between humans and nature, through avoidance of all forms of confrontation. Christianity (Catholicism) is here too, but doesn't play a major role in the culture of Vietnam. It was introduced by Portuguese, Spanish and French missionaries.

Also on this Square is more fabulous European architecture. I see the beautiful Central Post Office - it is currently being repainted - bright yellow. It's unique in that it's still an operating post office going about its business amid the hub-bub of tourists who visit every day. Its facade is beautifully adorned and carefully looked after.

Ho Chi Minh City, Central Post Office
Central Post Office

It successfully operates, but with antiquated processes - even a dot matrix printer … I haven't seen one of those operating in a business for quite some time!

Ho Chi Minh City, Central Post Office
Central Post Office

There is a cavernous hall with domed ceilings and ornate fittings. Two souvenir stalls offer whatever you may need at the last minute. In the open lobby there's a series of old-style telephone booths too, each displays the current time in another international city.

From here to the Saigon River Dong Khoi is lined with shops and crazy with traffic - it hosts several big brand stores and designers. How incongruous to see Louis Vuitton, Prada and Gucci alongside Vietnamese women in conical hats selling their hand made souvenirs and ancient crafts. They call to me …

"Madam! … souvenir … look Madam … velly nice … velly nice … I got lots of colours … look Madam! "

Not just now, thanks.

The Continental Hotel proudly displays its European heritage. The facade is creamy white and adorned with flower boxes. It's well patronised by wealthy visitors and its reputation in literature is well known. Graham Greene set his novel "The Quiet American" here and it was more recently made into a Hollywood movie.

The Hotel stands ornate and proud on the same open square that boasts the beautiful Opera House (now the Municipal Theatre). It doesn't muck around though, guests here pay for the privilege of breathing its air - it's like being at Piazza San Marco in Venice, you will need hundreds of dollars to eat here – even a coffee will set you back more than ten dollars.

I stand and gaze at the beautiful Opera House. The gardens on each side feature statues of artists – a violinist on one side, a dancer on the other.

I hear a voice …

"Madam - be careful of your bag, there are pickpockets all around in Saigon …"

A kindly looking fellow speaks to me … He pauses …

"Where are you from?"

He smiles warmly …

"Australia – but I'm a Kiwi"

"Ah! … New Zealand!" then

"I can show you around … you can take photos … just for an hour … come with me, Madam?"

I don't think so.

Ho Chi Minh City, Opera House
Opera House

His comments remind me – that's one weird thing – the blend of old and new is everywhere, clearly in the architecture and the cultural heritage, but also in the day-to-day language – many people call this place Saigon, even though it's been renamed Ho Chi Minh City for decades –why? Keeping hold of history? Too hard to change? … I'm not sure.

I walk on …

I pass a series of lovely hotels – I tick them off in my mind as I pass … Grand Hotel … Caravelle … Rex … Majestic … all stunningly ornate buildings.

There are all sorts on offer, but expect the prices in the souvenir stores to reflect their downtown location. When I watch the random range of vehicles – motorised, ridden, handcarts, foot traffic - it's easy to forget this is the MAIN street in HCM City.

Many women sell food from their mobile trolleys – and it's the way many HCM people like to eat. They line up to get food – served hot and piled high on plates. You're not going to die of starvation in this town … it's clearly a communal space – everything is done outside – eat, meet, greet, share and live.

At regular intervals a collection of motorbikes sits on the street.

A motorbike parking service.A motorbike parking service.
Now … hang on a sec … this starts to make sense …

These thousands of motorbikes all eventually stop moving and have to park somewhere, right? Aah ... the ingenious Vietnamese have come up with a great way to provide jobs and keep their significant investment in motorbike equipment secure ...

"Just leave your bike here with me and I'll look after it until you get back".

Ho Chi Minh City, Motorbike park
Motorbike park

A rider pays a fee and leaves their precious bike in the hands of the "guard". It's organised, the tickets are numbered so bikes can be identified – it works well. The downside? … the bike collections are everywhere, a pedestrian must navigate through the bikes to make their way along each street. Oh well …

At the corner of Dong Khoi and Ton Druc Thang I reach the Saigon River. A lovely park hosts a fountain and a huge statue of General Tran Hung Dao. He's the commander of the Dai Việt armies that repelled three major Mongol Yuan Dynasty invasions under Kublai Khan in the 13th century. They are viewed amongst the greatest of military feats in world history. The impressive statue reflects the respect bestowed upon him.

I take the pedestrian crossing to get across Ton Druc Thang – six lanes of crazy traffic is no place for this woman to be, not without a safety net.

Ho Chi Minh City, Tran Hung Dao Park
Tran Hung Dao Park

The riverside has a nice promenade – I get a sense of calmness. It's somehow separated from the crazy traffic so seems peaceful – it's much quieter on this side of the road. There's no physical barrier, perhaps its just the few metres distance. There are park bench style seats where it's pleasant to sit and watch the river flow by. Clearly, the river has a primarily commercial function – it's dirty, busy and flows quickly.

Dusty air collects at the back of my throat, I cough a little, it doesn't clear – it's just there. Already I understand why so many of the bikers wear a face mask to breathe through … for precisely that reason .. so they can BREATHE. The dust in the air is thick and coats my throat and lungs quickly.

Ho Chi Minh City, Motorbike riders are fully covered
Motorbike riders are fully covered

Another fascinating thing about the bikers is their clothing. Most of the women are totally covered from head to foot. The law says they must wear a helmet – and this is one road rule they do abide by. But, more than that – despite the heat they are totally covered with layers of clothing – headscarf, long sleeves, gloves, long pants, socks and shoes … why?

I learn this is purely personal - these women don't want their skin to be exposed for the hours they spend on their bikes in traffic everyday – Aah, keeping out of the sun to address the risk of melanoma! Good one … perhaps many in Australia and the western world could learn from this …

Well, no – it's not that … I hear that most women in Vietnam (perhaps Asia) covet a very pale, creamy complexion and this is their way of avoiding getting their olive skin any darker from the sun … hmmm, okay then.

I need a rest ... it's time for me to head back through the traffic to my hotel. There's lots of other things for me to see … but that's for another day ….
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Where: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
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