Uncovering the heritage heart of Saigon's District 1

Ho Chi Minh City, or as we locals affectionately still call it - Saigon, is a massive, always on-the-go pulsating metropolis of 9 million people. It is the former capital of Vietnam and is spread over 24 neighbourhoods called Districts. At its heart is District 1, known for leftover heritage buildings from the French colonial period that stand in the shadows of toppling high rises and skyscrapers inspired by the next century. This district is a dichotomy of new and old, east meets west - a fury of energy on the street level with the constant roaring of motorbikes, yet quiet solitudes amongst the pagodas and serene gardens. Most people exploring Saigon will start in District 1 - so let's uncover the heritage gems that make this neighbourhood shimmer. Curious? Follow me on Instagram and YouTube for more adventures!

© Canva Pro/Samuel Brown N

Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon 

What is considered the traditional icon of the city, the Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon, is still a treasure today. As Saigon was the capital of French Indochina (France’s overseas colonial territory comprised of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia until 1954), the French colonialists constructed this architectural beauty in the city’s centre. No detail was spared - all of the materials used to construct it were imported from France, including the stained-glass windows. 

In front of the Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon stands a statue of the Virgin Mary that you will notice right away. A more recently curious thing about this inconspicuous statue is that back in 2005, the Virgin Mary was reported to be crying. Yep, a tear was rolling down from its right cheek. Thousands of people flocked to the statue to witness it over two days. Now it is a story of urban legends, even though the head of the church was forced to make a statement that the strange event was not a miracle but rather a collection of rain and dust attributed to the Virgin Mary’s tears.

Here is a closer look (and a peek into the gorgeous interiors) with this video:

© Canva Pro/ Chris Putnam

Saigon Central Post Office

From the outside, the bright yellow Saigon Central Post Office is a well-preserved example of French colonial architecture from the late 19th century. As one of the oldest buildings in Saigon, the building has witnessed the passing of time and history-changing events over the centuries. In the past, it was a poignant post office that connected communication to the rest of French Indochina - across the continent to Cambodia and Laos. 

Stepping inside the Saigon Central Post Office, you will feel like you have travelled back in time. The neo-classical European architecture has remained intact, with a huge painted colonial map of French Indochina on one wall and various postal stalls lining up the corridor. This is because the Saigon Central Post Office still operates as a central post office to this day for Ho Chi Minh City. From mail to parcels, postcards to letters coming in and out of the building daily. You can write a postcard and send it out to friends and family back home from here too! 

© Flickr/V.T. Polywoda

Jade Emperor Pagoda

In a city where the lights always shine no matter what hour of the day it is, where the locals always have somewhere to go and to do, Saigon is a non-stop cosmopolitan. Though sometimes you just need to slow down and feel centred again, one would be surprised to learn that there are pockets in the city seemingly untouched by the live fast energy. 

Jade Emperor Pagoda is one of those spots of zen. It is a Taoist temple that stretches back for more than a century in the same spot, and US President Obama memorably visited it during his tour in Vietnam. Immediately upon entering, the wafting smell of incense engulfs you in the whispers of prayers. Then, inside its light-red washed wall is a labyrinth to explore. Entrance is free, but plan your visit for early in the day. It tends to get quite busy with locals and visitors as the day goes on, so the earlier you get to opening times, you will get to explore this place properly without feeling claustrophobic. The Pagoda opens every day from 7 am to 5:30 pm. 

© iStock/Wirestock

Watch a performance at the Ho Chi Minh City Opera House 

Certified as a national relic, the Ho Chi Minh City Opera House is one of the city’s most high-profile spots, as it regularly hosts cultural events alongside its theatrical shows that are performed in the lush red opera room that will make you feel like you are in the Paris that Hemmingway writes about. So catch a performance here, or if you are on a tighter budget, the whole Ho Chi Minh City Opera House is open to the public one hour before a show begins. So, you can step inside and take a peek around without attending a show. 

© Flickr/Marco Verch

Drinks at the Cafe Apartment

One of the most unique places in the whole country can be found on the side of Ng[uyen Hue Walking Street](https://www.livetheworld.com/post/outdoor-gems-in-the-heart-of-saigon-s-district-1-32ff). A derelict apartment building that looks like it should have been demolished decades ago has been refashioned into an epic centre for cafes. Each apartment in what previously used to be a residential building is a different theme cafe, individually owned by a small business. Each cafe has a balcony (that you can see from the front of the building) that looks out into Saigon. You can easily spend a whole day hopping around different cafes, lounging about and trying out the creative drinks. On top of that, this is only a preview of what Saigon's hidden cafe and coffee culture entail.

© Flickr/buck82

Indulge in art at the Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Museum

This stunning French colonial building was constructed originally as a residence for Huu Bon Hoa, the wealthiest local businessman in the city, back in the 1920s. Now, the Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Museum is one of the most well-preserved architectural heritage sites in Saigon. The building was left abandoned by Mr Hoa, who, along with his family, moved abroad after the fall of Saigon. It was then turned into the Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Museum - where one can nowadays see the celebration and works of local and national artists. 

© Canva Pro/Leonid Andronov

Eat at Ben Thanh Market

To some people, Ben Thanh Market is a tourist trap. You will hear stories of vendors selling overpriced items, but for those who are truly in the know - we do not go to Ben Thanh Market to buy products. We go to Ben Thanh Market for the aunties who have set up their food stalls in the market's food section. These ladies make special Vietnamese dishes with their family recipes that have been passed down for generations. Now, fair warning - they can be pushy and quite in your face to get you to sit down at one of their stalls. It is all part of their hustle, and you can take your time looking at each stall - do not feel pressured to sit until you make your decision.

Set inside the ambient hustle of a French colonial structure, for a hotspot located right in District 1, you can eat highly affordable at Ben Thanh Market. In fact, it is a who is who of signature Vietnamese dishes - from Bún bò Huế to Bánh canh, phở, bún thịt nướng - the list goes on! From the variety of vendors, join in with where the locals eat during their break. It is a good sampler of various Vietnamese dishes all under one roof. 

© Wikimedia/Nguyễn Thanh Quang

History Museum of Ho Chi Minh City

Honouring the cultural and historical aspects of Vietnam, the History Museum of Ho Chi Minh City is where one can learn about the country's beginnings to the present day. From the outside, the peculiar pagoda-like architecture pierces through the nearby Saigon Zoo and Botanical Garden. Within its corridors, each room takes you through a timeline of historical stories, with artefacts and antiques on display. 

© Pexels/Loifotos

Travel back in time at the Independence Palace

A walk through the various rooms of the Independence Palace will take you back to the 1970s when the American War was coming to its conclusion. This is where you will be left with an impression - from the giant tank parked at its gate, telling the story of the fall of Saigon to the presidential quarters of its time.

As you walk through the many rooms, it reflects back to when Vietnam was last a democratic nation - where the president worked until the current Communist government took over. You can easily get tickets at the gate with an engrossing audio tour (for this place, really worth it), or explore by yourself since there are a lot of plaques in English highlighting the many cultural artefacts. A big highlight is a bunker downstairs, which has been left as it is since the end of the war! 

© iStock/NgKhanhVuKhoa

Mariamman Hindu temple

Dedicated to the Hindu goddess Mariamman, the Mariamman Hindu temple is a 19th-century gem for the Hindu religion. Most of the building materials were brought over from India, with a budding Indian population that had settled throughout the decades in Saigon

Inside, several shrines adorned with flowers such as jasmine and lilies, the different rooms filled with incense as people pray for health, prosperity and happiness. The Mariamman Hindu temple adds to the mosaic that is the largest city in Vietnam, with people from all over Asia, from Japan, Korea, and China to India, choosing Saigon as their new home. 

© iStock/Pipop_Boosarakumwadi

Ho Chi Minh City Museum

This striking building will always catch an on-looker's attention with its colonnade facade. What was once a French palace, now the Ho Chi Minh City Museum, stands as a time capsule of the various eras the metropolis has been through from pre and post-war years. You can learn about the money system of Vietnam (the Vietnamese đồng) and see its various designs throughout the years, along with how Saigon has changed and grown from its French colonial days.

© CanvaPro/Trung Anh

Sky-high views from the Bitexco Financial Tower 

If the Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon is the traditional icon of the city, the curvacious Bitexco Financial Tower is one of the icons that stand for the city’s future. At the time it was completed in 2010, it was the tallest building in Vietnam (Landmark 81, a skyscraper in a nearby neighbourhood in Saigon, has since been crowned that title). Inspired by Vietnam’s national flower, the lotus, Bitexco Financial Tower was designed by Carlos Zapata and since then has been named one of the 25 Great Skyscraper Icons of Construction by CNN.

At sunset, you can go up to the Saigon Skydeck, located on Bitexco Financial Tower’s 49th floor. Here, you can see panoramic views of Ho Chi Minh City as the surrounding buildings start to glitter into the evening. Or, if you want a cheaper alternative - go to the cafe on the 50th floor and order a little coffee. Then you will get the same view, but for a quarter of the price!

© iStock/HuyNguyenSG

Saint Joseph Seminary Of Saigon

Some of the best architectural gems of Saigon are hidden behind walls that should be knocked down. Such place is Saint Joseph Seminary of Saigon, built back during the French colonial era in 1863 by Father Wilbaus and the Paris Mission. It is still a place of prayer, where international parishioners come and find a moment of respite from the always ambient city. Thus, the buildings are still used by priests in training. If the gates are open, you can explore the inner courtyard and gardens, where different French sculptures are dotted around the premise. The whole campus grounds are quite big and well-preserved. If you are curious about exploring the seminary, the gates are open between 16:00 - 17:00 (days vary, pending events).

© iStock/HuyNguyenSG

There is a reason why District 1 of Ho Chi Minh City enamours Saigon locals and visitors alike - it is a huge neighbourhood filled with compelling heritage culture and safe to explore. Tons of back alleys take you beyond what most people expect out of a city into the behind-the-scenes look at your average Saigonese. This is only part one of what you should not miss out on in the heritage heart of Saigon’s District 1, with even more outdoor gems throughout the neighbourhood. After all, this is the most pedestrian-friendly walking neighbourhood in Saigon. At first glance, it is easy to see how there are only a few spots in Saigon - after all, the biggest buildings are the most noticeable. But if that is why gems are rare, once you find them in Saigon - oh boy, they are worth the adventure. 

© Canva Pro/Leonid Andronov

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