Pink pyjamas in Old Saigon

by Margaret Elizabeth Johnston

Old Saigon, Ho Chi Minh, the name itself makes me feel like a romance novel from Humphrey Bogart days in The Quiet American.  As a reminder, if you haven’t seen it in a while:

“In Saigon in 1952, as Vietnamese insurgents are delivering major strikes against the French colonial rulers, an innocent and enigmatic young American economist (Audie Murphy), who is working for an international aid organisation, gets caught between the Communists and the colonialists as he tries to win the “hearts and minds” of the Vietnamese people. By promising marriage, he steals away a young Vietnamese woman (Giorgia Moll) from an embittered and cynical English newspaperman (Michael Redgrave), who retaliates by spreading the word that the American is actually covertly selling arms to the anti-Communists.”

This film has stuck in my head, I think I saw it in my early teens way before I could ever of imagined I would be living in this part of the world. Going on a 5 day visa run to continue a few more months in Bali allowed me time to run around like a heroine “back in the day” enjoying a theatrical musical in the Opera House, learning about the lacquer painting techniques that the Vietnamese specialise in at the Museum of Fine Arts, seeing a beautiful array of Buddha’s at the History Museum in the Botanical Gardens from all the various Asian countries, sipping the delicious green tea frappuccino’s with cubes of green jelly at the local chain Highlands, having an elegant lunch in the lobby of the 5 star Majestic Saigon Hotel and enjoying a riverboat ride down the Saigon River, not to mention the elegant shopping street Dong Khoi. I enjoyed a pop-up live fashion show at the Ho Chi Minh City Museum and one day I walked a street that was nothing but bookshops, new and used and coffee cafes. 

Later that day I enjoyed a peach tea in a gorgeous boutique shop with home furnishings to die for just before a rooftop sunset swim at Liberty Central City Point on the 19th floor of this luxurious hotel for the evening Saigon nightlight views. All the beautiful French colonial architecture was so photogenic and I also enjoyed lots of divine sushi every night in the old Chinese quarter that seemed more like a small intimate Japan town. Whew, it was a marvellous 5 days and most people warned me how crazy Ho Chi Minh is but I feel since I went with the attitude of “I’m going to Old Saigon in a romance novel” it made me approach the city in a different way; just doing the best of the best, elegant things, sophisticated things, things that make me feel like buying silk pyjamas! My goodness, there is even a very pink church, inside and out, Tan Dinh Church, seeing is believing! The best I can do to show all the wondrous things and places I saw was to put some of them in collage form.

Being an artist myself, the first port of call on day one was the Saigon Museum of Fine Arts. There are two buildings next to each other; sculpture, oil and silk works are shown along with a specialised kind of art that was new to me, lacquer art. The main building was constructed by French architect Rivera between 1929 and 1934 as a villa for the Hua family. Hui Bon Hoa, a Chinese immigrant, moved to Saigon in the late 19th century. A penny-less man when he arrived, he went on to become one of the city’s wealthiest men. He discovered precious antiques and traded them and there are some controversial stories surrounding this. However he accumulated his wealth, he became Saigon’s “king of real estate” and his business boomed in the early 20th century. By 1975, the entire Hui Bon Hoa family had left Saigon. Following the end of the war, the newly installed government took over the Hui Bon Hoa complex, turning it into an information and cultural centre at first before opening the Fine Arts Museum in 1987 and permitting visitors inside in 1992. Under the 1996 Vietnam War Convention, French citizens who owned property in Saigon prior to 1975 were eligible for some compensation, so the family also received some money from the French government for the Hui Bon Hoa complex.

I got lucky because the group Son Mai Bac (Northern Lacquer Art) was having an exhibition and most of the artists were “in house”! The groups focus was on “a clear spirit of creation” based on traditional materials and techniques of Son Ta (traditional lacquer art of Vietnam) in the Northern Delta. Since the establishment of the Indochina Fine Art Collage, the Son Mai technique has changed a lot in the direction of diversity and closer to painting. The technology which Son Mai painting as well as Vietnamese art has found is a very unique voice but challenging in the flow of world art and globalisation. There were 8 Son Mai artists that came from different directions. The artist’s ideal was to bring light stories portrayed through art as a gift for a friend, colleagues and art lovers in Saigon. When I first looked at the pieces on display I thought they had used petrified wood and abalone sea shells somehow but after speaking with the artists at hand, I learned it was crushed eggshells! The intricacy and beauty was astounding. There are many thick layers of lacquer combined with colour and eggshells. 

After the art indulgence, which lasted for hours, I decided to make it a point to check out some more of the French architecture that abounds in the city. Two of the main buildings are close to each other, one is the Saigon Central Post Office which offers visitors a chance to imagine life in Vietnam during the times of the Indo-Chinese Empire. The building was designed by Alfred Foulhoux and features arched windows and wooden shutters, just as it would have in its heyday in the late 19th century. Notre Dame is nearby as is the Saigon Opera House. The Opera House was custom built in 1897 by French architect Eugene Ferret. I ended up buying a ticket at the box office for that evening’s performance, the A O Show; a unique blend of bamboo cirque, acrobatic acts, and theatrical visual drama, which depicts the beauty of Vietnam lives in villages and cities. My Highland green tea frappuccino coffee chain is right behind it also so I was able to enjoy a delectable treat before the show without the stress of trying to find where to go. The show was incredible, the performers full of vitality and joy. After the show they all come together on steps and allow people to take photos with them. They came out of the woodwork from various corners of the theatre during the show surprising us as an audience. I found it to be a top-notch experience, well worth the $30.

On another day I decided to have a riverboat ride down the Saigon River, it cost about $2 and one can catch the boat from Bach Danh Water station. I only went a few stops, got off, walked around, had a coconut then came back. It is enough to get the feeling of being back in Bangkok with the high rises all around. Right across the street is the 5 star Majestic Saigon Hotel with their gorgeous lobby and salads available. There is also a rooftop café however the lobby was full of Art Deco windows and ceiling lights that I decided to enjoy as I had my fresh greens for the day.

After lunch I sought out The Hidden Elephant book shop and came upon a street, Duong  Nguyen Van Binh Street, full of new and used books along with all kinds of bookshop style coffee cafes. There are plenty of English books to be had and some interesting history sections along with professional photographic displays of the city. I was able to walk the city the whole time, even heading to the Botanical Gardens and the History Museum. The gardens have a small zoo with some elephants and other animals however that is never a happy story in my book. We can only hope they are leading a life better than being abused. I did however find the gardens full of lovely orchids blooming in various stages and the museum intrigued me with the large display of Buddha’s and the way they are depicted closer to the race in which country they are found. There are two main areas in the museum. Section 1: A display of Vietnamese history from the prehistoric period to the Nguyen dynasty which includes 8 rooms and section 2: a display of cultures from the Southern provinces and various Asian countries including 10 rooms.

There is a small city park with a musical light and water fountain show every evening near the French Colonial City Hall building built in the early 1900s, now the headquarters of the People’s Committee running parallel to the elegant shopping street Dong Khoi chalk full of the top of the line Westernised shops; Prada, Louis Vuitton etc. There is a large air-conditioned Starbucks if you just need a normal tuna wholewheat sandwich which is positioned next to the Rex Hotel if you fancy a cool break. Saigon Square and Saigon Centre are the two main large glitzy shopping malls which are nearby. Frankly, I found Saigon to be a very easy walk-able city. I just threw on my trainers every day and along with Google Maps toured myself around. I have learned to look at the Google Maps on my phone in a quiet shaded area and say the instructions to myself (turn right at 2nd corner, 1st left, 2 blocks, 3rd light right) and then put phone in bag so as to not be walking around holding a phone out in front of my face, not only being too focused on the screen and not taking in my surroundings, but also to deter possible theft right out of my hand as a scooter goes by, and this can happen.

Old Saigon is a fabulous city I will go to again and again over the years now that I feel I know it. It is a good option for me other than Singapore and Kuala Lumpur for the invariably much needed visa runs if I don’t have the time or pleasure to go to Bangkok for my ever needed city fixes. I’d recommend a decent hotel with soundproofing though, there are lots of karaoke bars that go on into the night, however, being in a SE Asian country already, I am sure most are aware of that. Please go and enjoy a “Back in the Day Romantic Old Saigon” experience and remember to bring your silk pyjamas!

Margaret Elizabeth Johnston

Margaret is an avid traveller of SE Asia, India and Nepal, usually bringing her watercolour supplies and camera with her. Studying medicinal plants is part of her naturopathic profession and portraying them in an educational way to reach people about holistic health is the norm, creating elegance in her life is always a plus. “I’m thrilled to of found another city that I feel has that sophistication I love. Bangkok has so much to offer also, as does both Luang Prabang and Vientiane in Laos. I’m always on the lookout for a potential city I can call home along with a combination of island life. Bali for me is that island at the moment; the city remains to be seen.”

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