Short trip back to Saigon

I spent one year in Saigon (today Ho Chi Minh City) from 1998 to 1999 and did not come back since 2007 until this early 2024 trip. The city has changed a lot since, but sometimes I got flashbacks.

Saigon former town hall

The Saigon I knew in 1998 was very different from today’s tourist mecca. Just in the beginning of its opening, the city was still gray and had seen little development since the mid 70’s. Like when I came to Shanghai, French colonial presence was rarely spoken off. Memories of the US -Vietnam war were still fresh, with the war having finished less than 25 years before. 25 years later, another generation has passed and this seems far away as Vietnam is becoming an Asian economical power house.

French colonial building

The city features buildings of various periods, from late 19th century neo classic (like the former town hall), French colonial architecture, to Art nouveau (like the opera house) to art deco / streamline buildings. Paul Veysseyre of Shanghai firm Leonard, Veysseyre & Kruz moved to Saigon in 1937 and designed buildings including the iconic Bao Dai palace in Dalat and the renovation of the Majestic hotel in Saigon. Modernist and brutalist building have come along in the 1960s and 70s, recently joined by skyscrapers.

Art Nouveau façade of Saigon Opera House

Very little literature was available about Saigon architecture and nothing was available on the internet when I lived there. I could find a bootleg copy of Graham Greene’s “The quiet american” and some photocopied French literature from colonial times in a small book store “Rage blanche” by Jean Hougron, 1951. Without much information, old villas in derelict state started to attract my attention and this later turned into my interest in early 20th architectural styles in Shanghai and this blog. This trip was some sort of a catch-up.

Art deco building on Dong Khoi street

Unfortunately, quite number of large buildings have been destroyed in the center, sometimes to be replaced my more modern ones. Sadly there are still a number empty spots.

Streamline design building on Dong Khoi street.

I also have never seen a map of Old Saigon before this trip. This is when I realized that the labyrinth of housed where I used to live on Le Than Ton (former Rue d’Espagne) was built over the former French navy base. As it probably continued to be a navy base later on, no wonder my landlord in 1998 was a former military personnel, although I never connected the dot at that time.

I started my first own website while in Vietnam, with travel picture and places of interest, many years before social networks. Searching in my own archives, I found an old photo of mine from that time, on the back of my Bonus motorbike… in 1999. Motorbike adventure in Vietnam lead to driving a sidecar in Shanghai about 10 years later. This story is told in post “Visit Shanghai in a vintage sidecar“.