An Unreluctant Brit

Here are some views from the roof garden of where I’m staying in district 5, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam The start of the morning was slightly overcast and the temperature reduced itself to 29 centigrade.

I spent the morning on essential errands: change my dollars and euros into dongs (A Euro is roughly equal to 25,000 dongs), get a sim card for my mobile (mobile phoning from Vietnam to the UK is almost ten times cheaper than mobile phoning from the UK to Vietnam), hire a scooter (for this they normally ask for a passport for security, or one thousand US dollars. I never leave my passport with anyone – it’s worth a lot more than a thousand dollars – and offered my Repubblica Italiana identity document instead. Two hirers refused, the third accepted and I still kept my UK passport..thankfully.

I then went in for a bit of sight-seeing in downtown HCMC (Ho Chi Minh City).

A friend from England reminded me that great writer, Graham Greene, had worked as a war correspondent in Vietnam for both The Times and Le Figaro and based his novel “The Quiet American” on his experiences here.

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Greene fell in love with Vietnam and wrote to his brother in 1951: “This is the country, not Malaya. The women really look beautiful and sophisticatedly dressed. The situation is fantastic. Good food, good wine and tremendous friendliness.”

I wholeheartedly agree!

There are still, remarkably, despite the various wars that have afflicted this country, many buildings left in ex-Saigon to remind one of the days when Greene stayed there: in particular, the two hotels, the Grand Hotel Continental and the Hotel Majestic, which featured considerably in his novel.

I explored the Majestic which lies elegantly on the Saigon river front and has some beautiful art-deco interiors dating back to 1925 and French colonial rule.

From the rooftop bar there is a great view of the river stretching across to the new district that is being built in this ever-expanding city.

I then went to have a look at other buildings that Greene would have known near where he also stayed at: the Continental in Rue Catinat.

The neo-gothic cathedral dedicated to Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception was constructed between 1863 and 1880. Its facade has two bell towers, reaching a height of 58 meters. The interior was closed when I went past it. In front of the cathedral is a statue of the Virgin Mary which, in October 2005, was reported to have shed tears and attracted thousands of devotees (over ten per cent of Vietnam is Roman Catholic). Despite the papal authorities stating that no such thing happened the crowds did not disperse. Fortunately, when I was at the statue there were no crowds, just lots of pigeons.

On the cathedral square is the main post office with old maps in its foyer illustrative of the areas covered by the French Indo-China postal and Telegraph Company.

The building is in neoclassical architectural style and was designed and built by the famous architect Gustave Eiffel (of “tower” fame) – hence its used of iron girders which give the interior an almost station-like appearance.  I sent a postcard from here and was able to write it in those delightful escritoires which are still preserved to this day.

The flamboyant opera house was built in 1897 by French architect Eugène Ferret as the Opėra de Saigon. The 800-seat building was used as the home of the Lower House assembly of South Vietnam after 1956. After the liberation (or fall – as you like) of Saigon in 1975 it was again used as a theatre, and restored in 1995. There were no operas being performed when I saw it but instead a show about Vietnamese traditions and culture which I plan to attend.

Some years back, as part of the Greenwich festival in London, I attended a performance by a Vietnamese company of water puppets. The show in Greenwich Park was absolutely delightful and I was glad to see the original home of the company in Saigon.

Another show to attend, certainly.

Different trades have streets all to themselves as in mediaeval times. In our district we have the religious artists paint their pictures:

There is also the local branch of the Party:


Near the entrance to our house I spotted some fighting cocks:


I came home for lunch. Then after a siesta I went to the local swimming pool.

In the evening we dined out with friends, eating deliciously. My dish included that classic Vietnamese specialty: crispy noodles. We were entertained by a scooter-singer. Here 99% of people travel by scooter and it is paradise for bikers.

What a great first full day in Vietnam. I’m sure many more will follow!


5 thoughts on “An Unreluctant Brit

  1. What a great way to leave winter behind! Loved your photographs of the scooter-singer and the horses. The Year of the Horse has just begun and I would like to hang your horse photo on my wall. Are there any good Italian restaurants in Saigon?

  2. Bang go your new year resolutions! Well amazing that you have found that wonderful art deco Majestic Hotel of GG fame! I see that you have adopted a cat a dog at the your hotel.The fighting cocks are these illegal as in Indonesia but somehow the inhabitants there managed to indulge in this most cruel of sports for just a few pence! Any news of Supreme Master Ching Hai it would be so wonderful to have some news about her she was flying solo in her mission to save the world which she was doing so admirably I miss her programmes so much she was also instrumental in uniting all forms of religious belief in her teachings please let me know something.

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