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Colonial Saigon | The War Years | After Liberation | Ho Chi Minh City Today


Saigon traffic is Vietnamese life, a continuous charade of posturing, bluffing, fast moves, tenacity and surrenders.

--Vietnamese-American Andrew X. Pham, Catfish and Mandala


wall mural in hcm sity

Video Tour of Ho Chi Minh City
Real Media 56k | Real Media 220k

The city once known as Saigon is once again welcoming visitors from all over the world. Vietnam Passage viewers who have the opportunity to explore Ho Chi Minh City can take this half-day walking tour of downtown Saigon and take in many of the colorful locales and historic landmarks featured in the PBS program.

Pick a time of day when the white-hot Indochina sun isn't directly overhead, strap on some comfortable sandals, and let's hits the streets!*

Estimated time for tour, including stops: 5 hours
Distance: Approximately 2 miles

1. Ho Chi Minh City People's Committee Building

The northern end of Nguyen Hue Street at Le Thanh Ton Street

people's committee building

Start your Vietnam Passage tour in the little park featured in the film and you'll find that the contrasts found in every aspect of Saigon life loom large. The exquisite former Hotel de Ville built for the French bureaucrats of Indochina in 1901 belies Vietnam's colonial past-yet today it is home to the Communist equivalent of HCM City's city council. Take a moment to study the statue of Ho Chi Minh, the revolutionary leader after whom the city was named in 1975 when the North finally captured the South after decades of fighting. ("Uncle Ho," as he was known, actually only spent a few days in the city when he was a young man.)

2. Dong Khoi Street

From Nguyen Hue, walk one block east to Dong Khoi ("Popular Uprising") Street. French expatriates knew it as Rue Catinat, and American soldiers bought their Zippo lighters on Tu Do ("Freedom") Street, but whatever the name,s this thoroughfare has long been the elite shopping street of Saigon. Walk south down Dong Khoi towards the Saigon River, and stop in at as many elegant boutiques selling the finest Vietnamese silks, pottery, and other crafts as you like. Hard as it may be to believe today, North Vietnamese tanks rolled down this very street on April 20, 1975-and soon after most of the stores were shuttered as the new nation plunged into a decade-long economic slump.

3. #19 Ngo Duc Ke Street

Just before you get to the river, take a left off of Dong Khoi onto Ngo Duc Ke Street and duck into the non-descript little seafood restaurant at #19. Besides serving some of the best ginger chicken and fork-tender calamari in Saigon, #19 is also the former site of the United Press International news bureau. During the war, both reporter David Lamb and photographer Hoang Van Cuong filed dispatches and photos back to the U.S. from here. Today, even if you don't have time for lunch, a rich, creamy caphe sua da (iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk) will give you more than enough energy for the rest of the walking tour.

4. Cuong's Antique Shop

cuong in his shop

Turn right out of the restaurant, head out Ngo Duc Ke and take a left onto Hai Ba Trung Street. Walk north until you get to Dung Du Street, and if the gates are open, knock on the door at 64. This is the antique shop of Hoang Van Cuong, the photographer who stayed behind in 1975-and ended up spending seven years in a reeducation camp. His family's collection of ceramics and other artifacts are some of the most valuable in Vietnam. But the real gem is the second floor, where Cuong has set up his own private museum of war photography. Ask if you can visit and see some of the most searing images featured in Vietnam Passage firsthand.

5. Former site of the U.S. Embassy (now the U.S. Consulate)

embassy seal

Say goodbye to Cuong, head back over to Dong Khoi Street and walk north. You'll pass two more ornate examples of French colonial architecture, Notre Dame Cathedral (on your left) and the Saigon Central Post Office (on your right) as you cross Han Thuyen Street and enter a pleasant parkland. Down Le Duan Street, to the right, is the new United States Consulate. It was built on the site of the old Embassy building where the most dramatic scenes of the final days of the war played out as Marine guards tried to keep thousands of desperate South Vietnamese from mobbing the helicopters evacuating personnel from the rooftop. Some, like Nguyen Duy Binh, made it out; others, like Ann Tran, did not.

6. Reunification Palace

Walk west on Le Duan Street until it deadends at Nam Khi Khoi Nghia Street. This large, modern building is Reunification Palace, today a museum where tour guides will give you the Communist government's official version of war history. Back in 1975, this was the Presidential Palace of the leader of South Vietnam-the target of VC spy Nguyen Thang Trung's bombing raid on Saigon in the final weeks of the war. Visit the various public rooms at the museum and you can see the desk where the last leader of South Vietnam surrendered to North Vietnamese soldiers.

7. War Crimes Museum

inside war crimes museum

If you are interested in looking at the war from the hardline Vietnamese perspective, make a visit to the War Remnants Museum-once known as the War Crimes Museum. Continue up Nam Khi Khoi Nghia Street, turn left onto Vo Van Tan Street, and the museum is at # 28. However strident and one-sided the Communist rhetoric in the displays may be, the photos and artifacts are still chilling testaments to the suffering war inflicted on an entire nation. (After she was released from prison, activist Thieu Thi Tao worked at this museum as a guide.)

8. Rex Hotel

the rex hotel at night

If you aren't too sunburned, you can walk the mile or so back down Nam Khi Khoi Nghia Street to Le Thanh Ton, turn left and bear right to #141 Nguyen Hue Street. (However, you shouldn't hesitate to hop in a taxi and tell the driver to take you to the Rex! The fare should be less than $1). This historic hotel, once the host to the daily U.S. military briefings reporters dubbed the "Five O'Clock Follies," fell into disrepair after the war. But today the building, like the city itself, is again open for business. In the lovely rooftop garden you can sit back with an icy bottle of Bia Saigon or a sinh to (fruit shake) and look out over bustling, vibrant Ho Chi Minh City.

A Touch of Night Life?

9. Dinner Cruises

Cruises along the Saigon River are a wonderful way to mark the end of a hot, sticky day. Boats of all kinds from eloquent barges to one-man putt putts (barter ahead, pay later), can be found along the docks between Nguyen Hue and Dong Khoi Strreets. Life on Vietnam's waterways is always exciting.

10. Queen Bee Night Club

The nightclub scene is thriving in Ho Chi Minh city and The Queen Bee, once popular to homesick Gis, now caters to tourists and locals alike. If you are lucky, you may catch a performance by Hong Nhung, who is featured in Vietnam Passage. But fear not, the music is always good, and features a calvacade of performers. Some sing western favorites, but more and more the audience favors its own Vietnamese songs and artists. Being a part of this exuberant crowd will be an unforgettable memory.

*Too much walking for you? Feel free to stop by Ann Tours, the agency started by former U.S. Embassy secretary Ann Tran. Her staff can arrange for a cyclo (pedicab) driver to take you to each of the sites listed; the charge will be approximately $5 per person excluding tip.

Queen Bee Night Club Dinner Cruises Rex Hotel War Crimes Museum Reunification Palace Former site of the U.S. Embassy (now the U.S. Consulate) Cuong's Antique Shop #19 Ngo Duc Ke Street Dong Khoi Street Ho Chi Minh City People's Committee Building