Enduring majesty: Saigon’s iconic buildings and locales, then and now

By Kieu Duong   October 12, 2019 | 07:31 pm PT
In the heart of downtown Saigon, several buildings and locales have retained their original character and flair for more than a hundred years.

One of the first things that the French colonial regime did after capturing Saigon was to set up a communications system, with the Saigon Post Office as its epicenter.

First built in 1860, the post office was remodeled between 1886 and 1891, giving it a Eurasian architectural makeover. Stones engraved with names of pioneers in the electricity and telegraph industry stand in front of the post office to this day. The photo on the left was taken in 1895.

The Ben Nghe River, which also had a wharf named after it.

The whole of southern region used to be referred to as "Dong Nai - Ben Nghe." According to Phuong Dinh du dia chi, a book written by Nguyen Van Sieu, a 19th century cultural researcher and poet, the name Ben Nghe came from the sound of crocodiles in the river, said to resemble the sounds of a young buffalo. A young buffalo is nghe in Vietnamese, and ben means station. The picture on the left was taken in 1896.

Work on the Saigon Opera House began in 1898 and was completed in 1900. It was built in the style of theaters in 19th century France. In 1956, the building was used as the office of the House of Representatives in the Republic of Vietnam, the puppet regime installed by the U.S.

In May 1975, soon after reunification of the country, it was restored to its original functions and continues to host concerts and other cultural events to this day. The photo on the left was taken in 1905.

The famous Grande Café de la Terrasse (left, 1907), built in the late 19th century, was located on the side of the Opera House. It was demolished in 1956 to build the Caravelle Hotel, which was then one of the most modern buildings in the country with hot and cold water systems, electricity generators, air conditioners, and other facilities. Many famous personalities have stayed there, including former US President Bill Clinton, British princess Anne and French fashion designer Pierre Cardin.

After 1975, the hotel was renamed the Independence Hotel. It reverted to its original name in 1995.

The Ben Thanh Market was also known as Cho Moi (new market) to distinguish it from the old market on the banks of the Ben Nghe River in early 20th century. The 105-year-old market has around 1,400 stalls with four main doors and 12 auxiliary doors. 

Today, the market is one of the most iconic buildings and tourist attractions in Saigon. Thousands of visitors from around the world visit it every day. The picture on the left was taken in the 1920s.

A side entrance of the Ben Thanh Market on Phan Chu Trinh Street shows hand-pulled rickshaws waiting for customers in the 1920s and horse-drawn carriages plying the street.

The market was built by Hui Bon Hoa, one of the richest men in Cochinchina in early 20th century. A French contractor, Brossard et Maupin, started construction in 1912 and finished in March 1914.

The Cau Mong (Mong Bridge) connects District 1 with District 4.

At 125 years, it is the oldest bridge in Saigon. The steel bridge was built in 1893 by French shipping company Messageries Maritimes and the Levallois-Perret company.

The city completely dismantled the bridge to build the East-West Boulevard (Vo Van Kiet and Mai Chi Tho intersection) and the Saigon River tunnel. After the construction, the bridge was rebuilt in the original design with a stronger foundation.

Currently, the bridge only serves pedestrians and is a favorite place for wedding photo shoots and watching fireworks. The picture on the left was taken early 20th century.

Except for the car models and the absence of motorbikes, this view of Pasteur Street as seen from Cau Mong remains the same. Named after French chemist and microbiologist Louis Pasteur (1822-1895), the street stretches about 1.2 km from District 1 to District 3.

The picture on the left, taken in the 1960s, shows the Indochina Bank on the right. Today, it is the Ho Chi Minh City branch of the State Bank of Vietnam (SBV).

The Notre Dame Cathedral, designed by French architect J. Bourard, was built in 1877. All the materials to build it were brought from France.

The 142-year-old cathedral in District 1 is currently closed to the public while it undergoes renovation work, which is scheduled to be completed by the end of this year or the middle of next year. The photo on the left was taken in 1966.

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