Vietnam is one of the fastest developing countries in Southeast Asia, and there’s no better place to witness these changes than in Saigon, its largest city. Skyscrapers are popping up all over the place, and the neon lights of corporate logos light up the nightly sky. Viewing the Saigon skyline from up on high, you’d have a hard time guessing that the city actually remains a treasure trove of French colonial-era architecture. But for how much longer?
In this guide, we’ll be covering the most notable colonial buildings in Saigon, their history and where to find them.
A Changing Saigon
It’s a common tale: a former colonial city experiences an economic boom, and land prices start to soar. Historical buildings are torn down, making way for newer and taller developments. But after too many old buildings disappear, residents and tourists alike start longing for the old days, when the city still had its “charm.”
According to the Urban Development Management Support Center, hundreds of colonial-era villas have been torn down in just the last twenty years. What will things look like in another two decades? Like its regional neighbor Yangon, Saigon seems to be at a crossroads where they must decide which path is more important: rapid development or the conservation of its local heritage. Or, perhaps, they can somehow find a healthy compromise between the two.
At least for now, most of the impressive and historically significant buildings left by the French are still standing. Many even still maintain their original function, like the Notre Dame Cathedral, the Opera House and the General Post Office. In a country where a centralized government calls all the shots, however, the ball is not in the court of the people, but in that of the People’s Committee.
Hopefully, for residents and tourists alike, Saigon manages to find a way to develop while also conserving what remains of its impressive colonial architecture. If not, you better check out the buildings below before its too late.
Hunting for Saigon's Colonial Architecture
There are so many colonial-era buildings in Saigon that there’s no perfect way to categorize them. Many of the famous ones are bunched together in District 1, along Dong Khoi and neighboring streets. For this guide, though, we’ll be dividing them by their current, and not necessarily original, function. In some cases, though, these may be one and the same.
To see all the buildings listed below, give yourself at least a couple of days in the city. All the buildings mentioned here are included in the map. Also be aware that this is by no means an exhaustive list of all colonial buildings in Saigon!
The Continental Hotel, completed in 1886, is probably the most splendid of the hotels left by the French. A number of celebrities and important writers have stayed at the Continental throughout its history. One of them was Graham Greene, author of the novel The Quiet American, in which the hotel is prominently featured.
Huyen Si Church
Huyện Sĩ Church is located near the border of District 1 and Chinatown. It was designed by Father Charles Boutier in the early 20th century, using both Gothic and Romanesque features. The project was funded by Huyện Sĩ, one of the wealthiest men in southern Vietnam in his era. The church is still used by the local Catholic community, and has been refurbished as recently as 2009. Around the area you can also find some statues of various saints and local Vietnamese Christian martyrs.
Cha Tam Church
Also known as the St. Francis Xavier Parish Church, the Cha Tham Church sits in the center of Chinatown, or the Cholon district. The 19th century structure is unique in a neighborhood full of traditional Chinese-style pagodas. But Cha Tham Church is also known for another reason: it’s where South Vietnam President Ngo Dinh Diem hid after the Independence Palace (see below) was bombed in an assassination attempt. He eventually surrendered, before being murdered anyway.
Notre Dame Cathedral
Completed in 1880, the Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon remains an important symbol of the city. Also known as Nha Tho Duc Ba, it’s the largest church ever built in any of the French colonies.
The Notre Dame Cathedral’s style could be considered a mix of Gothic and neo-Roman. Designed by architect J. Bourad, the structure was made with locally quarried granite which was then covered with red tiles from Marseilles. This gives the church a brick-like appearance.
Its two towers each stand at 40 meters high, which was taller than anything else in the city during the colonial era.
Unfortunately, the cathedral was under renovation at the time of my visit and nobody was allowed inside. At least the front plaza was still accessible, where one can find a large statue of Mary added in the 1950’s.
This exorbitant former residence goes by a number of names: Reunification Palace, Independence Palace, or Norodorm Palace. In addition to its multiple names, it’s also been through multiple phases of remodeling over the years. Construction was first completed, though, back in 1891.
It was originally the house of the French governor general (the Norodorm) before becoming the presidential palace of South Vietnam. After a failed assassination attempt on President Ngo Dinh Diem which involved a bombing of the building by his own air force, the palace had to be rebuilt in 1962. It was then the North Vietnamese takeover of this palace of 1975 that marked the reunification of the country, hence its current moniker.
Today, it’s a well-preserved museum which offers a glimpse into the lifestyle of South Vietnam’s bureaucratic elite, while also providing plenty of historical info about the war.
Ho Chi Minh City Museum
While the Ho Chi Minh City Museum is one of the best places to learn about the history of Saigon, you’ll want spend some time outside admiring the building itself. It was built in 1890 by French architect Alfred Foulhoux who mostly employed a Gothic style. It originally functioned as the ‘Museum of Commerce.’
Fine Arts Museum
The Ho Chi Minh City Museum of Fine Arts occupies three colonial-era buildings that were first constructed in the early 1910’s, when it was used as a villa by the wealthy Saigonese Hua family. To learn more about what the museum contains inside, check out our Guide to Saigon’s Best Art Spaces.
Exploring the museum, don’t miss the underground bunkers. Built by South Vietnamese leaders fearful of assassination attempts, rumor has it that the subterranean tunnels once connected all the way to the Independence Palace!
Ho Chi Minh Museum
The Ho Chi Minh Museum, located just across the Saigon River from the central part of District 1, is known locally as Dragon Wharf. The imposing red building was originally completed in 1863, making this one of the oldest colonial buildings in the city.
The architecture is unique for its fusion of Western and Vietnamese styles. Look closely and you can see two dragons on top of the roof.
The area around the Ho Chi Minh Museum provides some amazing views of the Saigon River and the District 1 skyline.
Located on a quiet street in District 3, the Archishop’s Palace is one of the oldest residences in Saigon. It was first built in the late 1700’s by future Nguyen Emperor Gia Long. It was originally meant for the French Bishop of Adran, partly in thanks for French military intervention to help put down a nearby rebellion. The building continues to be the home of the local Archbishop today, and is therefore not open to the general public.
Phuong Nam Mansion
Also in District 3 is the Phuong Nam Mansion, a private residence is valued at around 35 million dollars! The house dates back to the early 1900’s. It was built in a French style with a touch of local Eastern flavor thrown in. The Phuong Nam Mansion is centrally located, but it can be hard to get a decent view of from behind the gates.
One of the most famous buildings in all of Saigon, the People’s Committee Building was originally built in 1908. It was modelled after the City Hall building in Paris, but was actually first used as a hotel. More appropriately, the enormous building is now used as the Saigon City Hall today. Unfortunately, access is completely closed off to the public.
Shopping & Entertainment
Also referred to locally as the Opera House, this elegant structure was built in 1899. As the name suggests, it was constructed as a place for the French colonizers to listen to opera, but it still functions as a performance hall to this day. It regularly hosts Western classical music as well as Vietnamese traditional theater.
Located just across the street from the People’s Committee Building, this colonial building functions as a high-end shopping mall. Even if you’re not interested in shopping for luxury Western brands, the building can be appreciated from the outside. It blends in perfectly with the surrounding buildings of Dong Khoi street.
General Post Office
Along with the People’s Committee Building and the Notre Dame Cathedral, the General Post Office is one of Saigon’s most iconic colonial-era buildings. Completed in 1891, it was designed by none other than Gustave Eifell – the architect, of course, of the Eifell Tower.
The building is still in use as a post office today. Walking inside, the crowd is strange mix of tourists snapping photos and locals simply trying to send off their package! Don’t miss the large maps on the wall depicting the city in the early 1900’s.
Far East National Bank
The Far East National Bank, also known as the State Bank of Vietnam, is rather unique amongst the city’s colonial-era buildings. The large, brick-made structure is largely Western-influenced, but it also uses some imagery of mythological figures revered by the Hindu Chams.
In general, the best place to stay in Saigon would have to be District 1. I ended up with a cheap private room in the backpacker district called Pham Ngu Lao Street. I normally tend to avoid these kinds of districts when I travel, but it really wasn’t bad. There were plenty of restaurants and convenience stores just outside my hotel and it wasn’t incredibly noisy at night.
I was able to get most other places in District 1, from art spaces to colonial buildings to old pagodas, on foot. I could also walk from Pham Ngu Lao Street to District 3. However, there should be plenty of other hotel options in District 1 that are outside the backpacker district.
Wherever you stay, having Uber on your phone will allow you to get from place to place with ease.
Saigon has no public transportation system to speak of. There is a bus system, but it’s not really intended for tourists to use, although there is a convenient bus that will take you right to the airport.
Generally, you’ll be getting around on foot or by calling an Uber.
As daunting and chaotic as the traffic seems in Saigon, I actually found it much more walkable than other Southeast Asian cities like Bangkok. A large majority of the vehicles are motorbikes, so even if the road is full of them, they’ll simply swerve around you. It takes a couple of tries to get the hang of, but before long, you shouldn’t have much of a problem crossing even the major roads.
And unlike Bangkok for example, I didn’t come across roads that I suddenly couldn’t walk down any more, or places where the pedestrian sidewalk simply finished, forcing you to walk in the street. Nevertheless, Saigon is still a pretty crazy and chaotic place, and you need to be mindful of ALL directions, as motorbikes could be coming from any which way.
Uber worked like a charm in Saigon and I couldn’t imagine a visit to the city without it. It’s cheap, wait times were reasonable, and most of the drivers I encountered spoke a little English. The only time I took a regular taxi in Saigon was from the airport to my hotel.
Make sure, of course, that you have an unlocked smartphone that can use foreign SIM cards. Data in Vietnam is incredibly cheap.
Saigon, it seems, is the cheapest and easiest place to fly into in Vietnam. At least when flying from within Southeast Asia, the flights to Saigon were much cheaper and more frequent than flights to Hanoi or Da Nang.
Vietnam is not only serviced by Air Asia, but they have their own equivalent called VietJet. Maybe I just got lucky, but I was able to find a direct flight from Chiang Mai, Thailand to Saigon for just under $60 USD!
VietJet can also get you to and from plenty of other cities within Vietnam, like Da Nang and the capital.
If you don’t want to fly, your only other option is by bus. Getting to Saigon from a neighboring country like Cambodia or Laos would likely be a long, uncomfortable and possibly dangerous journey. With local flights as cheap as they are nowadays, I see little reason not to fly.