John explores some of the sights of Ho Chi MInh City, including the Bitexco Tower, the Notre-Dame Cathedral, the Central Post Office and the Jade Emperor Pagoda.
On the day in late November that Americans celebrate Thanksgiving, AVSE handed me a diploma and threw me out in the street. It was not a surprise; I had been expecting this. I knew that for the next several weeks I wouldn’t have a permanent home. In a city as large as Ho Chi Minh (universally known as HCMC), I wasn’t going to commit to a long-term lease until I knew where in the city I would find employment.
I hoped that I would find a job sooner rather than later, as my money was in short supply. But the respite gave me an opportunity to get to know the city. During my month in Go Vap, I had seen little of the metropolis. Indeed, I had been out of the district only twice: once on a brief and mediocre bus tour for new AVSE students, once on a Saturday jaunt to visit the friend of a friend in the central city.
Not until I took an elevator to the 49th floor Skydeck of the Bitexco Financial Tower, 584 feet (178 meters) above street level, did I get any real concept of the geography of this sprawling city. It stretched in all directions as far as the eye could see — and it was flat. The famously polluted air didn’t allow me to see west toward the hills along the border of Cambodia, or even southeast 45 miles (72 km) to the South China Sea at Vung Tao, the nearest seaport to HCMC.
Prominent, however, was the broad and muddy Saigon River, meandering around modern high-rises like the Bitexco that clustered on its west bank. Here and there, it was intruded upon by smaller tributary canals that divide neighborhoods. Across the main stream, new cities of residential skyscrapers were in development atop reclaimed riparian lowlands. Some of the more desirable zones for foreign residents — the riverside District 2, home to many international schools, and the more southerly District 7, with its large Korean contingent — were easily visible.
When I turned to the north and west, I could look straight down upon District 1, the central commercial district of old Saì Gòn and modern Ho Chi Minh City. I was not yet familiar with several of the landmarks that I would soon readily recognize, but I was able to pick out the three-acre roof of the Cho’ Ben Thanh, the central market, an institution for locals and visitors alike. Anything a person wants, he or she can likely find at this seemingly simple bazaar, from food to clothing, flowers to housewares. Beside it, extending diagonally, is an urban subway line, a joint venture of Japan and Vietnam that has been under construction for many years.
A three-hour tour
HCMC is divided into quàn, or districts, 12 of them numbered, 12 of them named, apparently without any real rhyme or reason. Once you get acquainted with the districts, you discover that each is unique in its own way. Most of the so-called “tourist attractions” are in District 1, the central business and entertainment district, or immediately north in slightly more gentrified District 3. The only other precinct of particular interest to casual visitors is Cho’Lón (Cholon), Saigon’s historical Chinatown district, just west of downtown and encompassed by District 5. Today it is mostly of note for its concentration of traditional temples and its own outstanding market, Cho’ Binh Tay.
My initial three-hour tour, courtesy of AVSE, was as mediocre as a tour can be. With no guidance offered, our group was dropped at three locations, left to wander on our own and told when to be back on the bus. One of them was Cho’ Ben Thanh. The others were the Nôtre-Dame Cathedral and the Jade Emperor Pagoda. We were handed a couple of printed pages with tour information in English, but were offered no other assistance, written or verbal — even when we drove past the Reunification Palace, where South Vietnam surrendered to the North in 1975. I queried one of our so-called “guides” about a large building we were passing: “What is this?” I asked. “Um, the Ho Chi Minh Museum,” she responded. “Are you going to tell us about it?” I pressed. “No,” she said. And that was it.
The cathedral was locked and swaddled in scaffolding for restoration. It will probably remain so through 2021. Meanwhile, a side door provides access for Sunday morning masses. Nonetheless, it is an impressive structure. Built of red Provençal brick by French colonists between 1863 and 1880, the neo-Romanesque basilica has a pair of 190-foot bell towers, stained-glass windows from Chartres, and outside, a granite statue of the Virgin Mary (“Nôtre Dame”) carved in Rome in 1959.
Directly east of the cathedral is the Central Post Office. The ornate, yellow-painted manor is said to have been built in the 1880s by the same Gustave Eiffel responsible for the Paris landmark that bears his name. Indeed, the green-painted, wrought-iron trim suggests Eiffel’s architectural style. A highlight of the spacious interior is a fascinating collection of historical maps painted on its walls. Next door, just past the golden arches of McDonald’s, is “Book Street,” where 20 tiny bookstores are gathered in a single lane. Some at the east end specialize in used English and other foreign-language volumes.
Our final stop, the Jade Emperor Pagoda, was the most intriguing. Traditional Chinese religion is a unique amalgam of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism and animism. Although this particular house of worship was built in 1909 to honor the Taoist king of heaven, it showed ample respect to other faiths. The Chinese characters in the main hall may be translated to read, “The light of the Buddha shines on all.”
Though not as outwardly colorful as many temples in Cholon, this pagoda’s grotesque statuary and fine woodcarvings, cloaked in acrid incense smoke, make it well worth a visit. The Jade Emperor himself is flamboyantly garbed, flanked by four fierce guardians and protected by two 13-foot-tall statues of generals who, in legend, dispatched a fearsome dragon and tiger. In the adjacent Hall of Ten Hells, carved panels depict the gruesome punishments that await evil doers. Outside, in a small pond, turtles whose shells bear Chinese inscriptions clamber over one another, to the delight of children who accompany their parents to the pagoda.
Next: A history lesson