Vanishing Saigon

Sights, stories and secrets from Vietnam’s most dynamic city

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Notre Dame Cathedral and Saigon Post Office

8 November, 2010 (09:20) | Historical Sites, Religious Sites | No comments

Two of District 1’s most prominent and beautiful buildings are located right across the street from each other: the Notre Dame Cathedral and the Saigon Post Office.

The Cathedral was built by French Catholics, and financed by the French Government in 1876. The architect was chosen through a contest held by the governor of Cochinchina (French occupied South Vietnam) and Mr. J. Bourard won the honor with his fusion of Gothic and Roman designs. The building was constructed entirely out of materials imported from France, including thousands of bricks from Marseilles. When the Cathedral was constructed, there were beautiful scenes of stained glass in the windows, however these panes were destroyed during World War 2, and never replaced. With or without the stained glass, Notre Dame Cathedral is widely considered to be the most beautiful cathedral in any of the former French colonies.

Just across the street is the equally lovely Saigon Central Post Office. Also designed and erected by the French colonists, the building was built in the classic Gothic style. Inside the building’s cavernous main hall are several beautiful murals and maps that reflect Saigon during the colonial era.

The grandiose atmosphere, the wooden benches in the center and the cool air make the Post Office a nice stop on your journey through District 1. If you need a break, buy some postcards and spend a few minutes scribbling messages for your loved ones at home.

Ngã Sáu Church

22 June, 2010 (12:56) | Religious Sites | No comments

This candy-pink church was inaugurated in May 1928 by Father Huỳnh Tịnh Hướng and dedicated to St. Joan of Arc. A stone representation of the saint herself guards the main entrance to the church. Those neon lights beneath her are illuminated at night. The Gothic-style church was built on a former Chinese graveyard. The church’s local name, Nga Sau, comes from the 6 criss-crossing roads that meet directly in front of the church.

Nga Sau Church – Nhà Thờ Ngã Sáu
116B Hùng Vương Street, District 5

Petrus Ky Mausoleum

14 June, 2010 (12:33) | Historical Sites | 1 comment

One of Southern Vietnam’s often forgotten historical figures is Jean Baptiste Petrus Truong Vinh Ky, the academic and major proponent of the use of the Quoc Ngu language. Born in Vinh Long Province in 1837, Petrus Ky showed great promise in school and was sent to Penang, Malaysia for his university studies. With an elite education and passion for languages (Petrus Ky studied and was proficient in over 20 languages over the course of his life), he returned to Vietnam where he took a job as a translator with the Vietnamese government.

A personal project of his was advocating the spread of the Quoc Ngu language, which is to say the use of Latin letters to write in Vietnamese, rather than the Chinese characters that had been in use for centuries. Together with Ernest Potteaux, Petrus Ky co-wrote the first journal in Quoc Ngu. He proceeded to popularize the language through publications about history and geography as well as translations of literary classics from their original Vietnamese or Chinese. Though he died in 1898, before Quoc Ngu was officially adopted, Petrus Ky is considered to be one of the major influencing figures in the popular use of Quoc Ngu.

Petrus Ky’s mausoleum is set off the street, behind an unimposing arched entryway. Erected in 1928, the mausoleum is a small building, designed in the classic European style popular at the time. Inside the reverent mausoleum is nothing but a small and empty altar and a few words, set into the beautifully tiled floor, to commemorate the man buried beneath it. On the ceiling, an ornate painting of a dragon provides the French-style building a distinctly Asian identity.

Few tourists make it to the mausoleum, and the grounds are refreshingly empty. A quick walk around will lead you on a tour of a Vietnamese graveyard, with tombs set above ground, and pictures of the dead often set into their gravestones. Adjacent to the mausoleum is a replica of Petrus Ky’s house, built in 1937 on Petrus Ky’s 100th birthday. The house serves as a small museum, including his personal library and correspondences with great literary figures such as Victor Hugo and Emile Littre.

It’s hardly a vast area, but it is a charming escape from the busy streets of Saigon, as well as a fascinating reminder of one of Vietnam’s notable historical figures.

Petrus Ky Mausoleum
520 Trần Hưng Đạo, District 5

Chinese Wedding Decorations

8 June, 2010 (12:40) | On the Street, Shopping | No comments

Bright colors and paper orbs decorate the shops on Hai Thuong Lan Ong. This street features a block of shops selling Chinese wedding decorations. The bright decorations, mostly red, and simple shapes hanging from every wall and ceiling of these shops give the air of a block full of parties rather than stores.

It’s traditional at a Chinese wedding to decorate the bridal house and the reception area. Red paper banners, known as ‘happiness banners’ are essential decorations at Chinese weddings. They hang on both sides of the doors and have rhythmic poems printed on them, wishing the couple a happy marriage. Paper lanterns and glittery stickers spelling out the couple’s names are also common.

This block is a treasure trove of bold and fun decorations. Even if you aren’t planning a wedding in the near future, it’s a fun place to browse around.

Chinese Wedding Decorations
Hải Thượng Lãn Ông Street, District 5

Saigon Railway

1 June, 2010 (11:05) | Historical Sites, On the Street | 6 comments

Ben Thanh Market with train station in the far left

The Saigon railway was the first in Indochina, built by the French from 1881 to 1885 with the first rail covering the 71km journey from Saigon to My Tho, the entryway to the Mekong Delta. Those familiar with train travel in Vietnam know that if you want to hitch a ride today you’ll need to head to District 3 where the Saigon Train Station (Ga Sài Gòn) is located. This was not always the case as the city train station once was located right next to Ben Thanh Market in what is now September 23rd park.

Former train station today (September 23rd Park – Công viên 23 tháng 9)

This railway in its heyday not only served transit to My Tho but also provided transport to Bien Hoa and onwards to Hanoi (the only line in use today) as well as to Loc Ninh (current Binh Phuoc Province) with the ambition to eventually open a line to Cambodia and onwards to Bangkok. The Saigon railway also provided an intercity tramway connecting Saigon to Cholon.

Train station as it stood in the late 60’s
(Photo from Sumner Clayton Collection – Vietnam Archive at Texas Tech University)

During the 40s & 50s, the railway came into disuse with interruptions due to war and large amount of track lines damaged.

Train station as it stood in late 60’s, Huyen Si Church in background
(Photo from Sumner Clayton Collection – Vietnam Archive at Texas Tech University)

Train station in 1972
(Photo taken by Mel Schenck, blogger at Antidote to Burnout)

After reunification, an early goal was to provide easy railway travel from Hanoi to Saigon and within one year the tracks were open again with the end of 1976 marking the first travel between the two cities. By 1978, a decision was made to close the terminal near Ben Thanh and move all passenger operations to the Hoa Hung luggage terminal (the current Saigon station). 1983 marked the beginning of all train travel, cargo and passenger alike, from one station. However for the keen eye small vestiges of the old route are still available, especially the path it followed out of the station and on to Hoa Hung.

From September 23rd park a small alleyway and Lưu Hữu Khánh street make up the former train paths.

From Lưu Hữu Khánh, the track switches to a small alleyway, now barely big enough for motorbikes due to development and continues on to Nguyễn Thượng Hiền (a famous street for snails, seafood and beer in the evening).

From here the path crosses Điện Biên Phủ, goes through the roundabout and onto Nguyễn Phúc Nguyên.

At the end as you reach the train station, Nguyễn Phúc Nguyên swings to the right and a wall of shops stand on the enclosure of the station, where prior to 1983 the train would have kept going.

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