Seems I can’t open a magazine these days, or browse a news Web site that hasn’t cataloged the Top 5 This or the Top Five That. It’s as if media the world over have decided we can’t bother reading stuff that’s not bulleted or otherwise numbered in terms of priority. I can’t say I mind this trend. And thus I’m prepared to talk a bit here about the top five attractions, and why I like them, along Dong Khoi Street, which runs by one side of the Caravelle Hotel’s old wing.
We’ve been thinking a lot about Dong Khoi Street recently because we recently filmed a walking tour of the street. I’ll have more to say about that later. In the meantime, here are my top five, ranked in order of preference, with my number one pick at bottom.
Disclaimer: In order to come across as an honest broker of what to see and where to linger along Dong Khoi, I’m going to leave the Caravelle Hotel off this list.
|Surete building at 164 Dong Khoi
#5 Surete Building. At 164 Dong Khoi, this long, colonial-era ochre building seems all but nondescript. The casual tourist, who doesn’t read Vietnamese, won’t be able to read from the engraving on the wall outside but this was where French security officers interrogated a who’s who list of Vietnamese nationalists, including including Pham Van Dong, who was prime minister of Vietnam from 1955 through 1976. Graham Greene referenced this building in The Quiet American, describing the “dreary wall of the Surete that seemed to smell of urine and injustice.”
#4 22 Ly Tu Trong Street. Stop at the corner of Dong Khoi and Ly Tu Trong and look up the block to #22, and then up to the penthouse on the roof. Remember this? In 1975, as the North Vietnamese moved in to the city and tens of thousands evacuated, a photographer caught an image of would-be evacuees on a ladder, climbing to a precariously perched helicopter on the penthouse roof.
#3 Basilica of the Notre Dame. The aforementioned Graham Greene didn’t think much of this building. He loathed the salmon pink bricks: I think that was his main complaint — the colour. The detail I like best about this building comes from the colonial era, when passengers arriving by ship knew their voyage was almost over when they could spot the spires of the Cathedral from afar. Because the Saigon River twists this way and that, the cathedral’s spires were sometimes to port and sometimes to starboard.
|Saigon Central Post Office
#2 Post Office. It wasn’t that long ago that this building was a vital link to the outside world for Vietnamese and expats alike. But now, with email, Skype and all manner of Internet-driven communication, this old dinosaur of a building is very much a dinosaur. But who doesn’t love a dinosaur. Check out the maps just inside the main entrance and hang out for a while on the benches. The space itself is as vast as a European railway station and feels, as much as any setting in this city, like a stage set for some sort of high drama.
#1 Lam Son Square. This is the cinematic heart of the city. Nowhere does the pulse of Saigon beat as vibrantly as it does here, whether there’s a performance happening or not in the Municipal Theatre. This building sets the tone for the square, defining one side of the space in magisterial splendour. We at the Caravelle are a dominant player here, of course, as is the Continental Hotel across the way. But really, though the buildings define the parameters of Lam Son Square, it’s the emptiness within that’s pregnant with possibility — an impromptu celebration after a big football victory, an elegant young couple on a new motorbike, a brass band blasting a tune.You’ve got to just sit, and watch it for while... and I can think of no better place than the outdoor terrace of the Saigon Saigon Bar at the Caravelle Hotel.