Saigon has gone through rapid changes through the decades, testimony to the many stories it holds. As the largest city in Vietnam, Saigon has propelled evolutions — from being the capital of French Indochina, the urban migration, and the changing lifestyles to becoming the capital for modern trade and business.
Amidst it all, Saigon’s past remains integral to the bustling city. The historical architecture, storied neighborhoods, and centuries-old landmarks around the city stand in harmony with the high-rise edifices and crowded commercial centers. Saigon is a city of beautiful contrasts, where the past meets the present, and where nostalgia nestles amidst the upbeat city energy.
To take a trip down memory lane and dig deep into Saigon’s history, Vietcetera photographer Khoa Nguyen takes gorgeous photos of five of Saigon’s oldest landmarks.
Oldest Theater — Saigon Opera House
There’s probably no grander and more sophisticated landmark in the commercial capital than the Saigon Opera House. Standing in the heart of the busy Ben Nghe ward, a few meters away from the Nguyen Hue Walking Street and less than a kilometer from the iconic Ben Thanh Market, the impressive architecture bears not just the French colonization history but also Vietnam’s glorious performing arts that endured through time.
Saigon Opera House was built in 1898 by the French architect Eugene Ferret and was modeled after Petit Palais, an art museum in France. The structure was set to be two meters higher than the street surface with two door layers to prevent traffic noise.
Stone-carved ornaments and statues of two women following the style of the Greek Caryatids of Erechtheion add an elegant mystique to the facade. Inside, the ornate chandeliers, shiny granite floor, and the 468 seats surrounding the oval auditorium are tangible representations of the rich history the building holds.
French actors and actresses were the first to hold a show at the Opera House in January 1900. It took more than 18 years for the Vietnamese to organize a performance at the building.
Besides being a venue for theatrical productions and classical music concerts, it had also served as the seat of the Lower House of the former South Vietnamese government before its original function as a music theater was restored following the North Vietnamese government’s takeover.
In 1996, the Opera House was closed for a two-year renovation, which cost $1.7 million. It was reopened on December 18, 1998, in time for the 300th anniversary of Ho Chi Minh City.
Oldest Hotel — Hotel Continental Saigon
Hotel Continental Saigon has stood witness to the city’s intriguing past — and has, in itself, a story worth telling. The hotel on Dong Khoi Street was built around 1878 by Pierre Cazeau, a home appliance and construction material manufacturer, to serve as French luxury accommodation for French travelers visiting the continent. The building was inaugurated in 1880 as Hotel Continental.
The hotel has had several owners taking over — Duke Montpensier in 1911 and then Corsican gangster Matheir Francini from 1930 until 1975. The hotel name was changed to Dai Luc Lu Quan between the 1960s and 1970s as mandated by the Saigon government.
The design of the three-story hotel is in the form of a rectangle; in the center is a large garden with three frangipanis planted in 1880 and still flourishing today. Its tile roof, thick brick walls, spacious rooms, public areas, and high ceilings are all meant to go with the tropical climate.
Hotel Continental hosted several prominent names during the beginning of World War 2, including Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore and British author Graham Greene who wrote the well-loved novel “The Quiet American” inside Room 214.
The hotel was also referred to as “Radio Catinat” since it was where correspondents, journalists, politicians, and businessmen would meet to talk about politics and current events.
Amidst the changes that transpired around it and all the modernist buildings that stand taller, Hotel Continental Saigon remains one of the city's most cherished architectural treasures.
Oldest University — Ho Chi Minh City University of Science
Established in 1941, the Ho Chi Minh City University of Science is the oldest university in the city and the fourth oldest in Vietnam. It’s known to be the leading higher-education institution in basic science training and research in the southern region, offering 52 undergraduate programs, 40 graduate programs, 29 Ph.D. programs, and two joint bachelor programs.
The institution was originally a department from the Indochina College of Science in 1946, then renamed to Science Department in 1956 when it was merged to form Saigon University. In 1977, it merged with several other schools and colleges to form Commons University. In March 1996, the university again reformed HCMUNS as an independent institution, as a member of the Vietnam National University, Ho Chi Minh City (VNU-HCM).
The 82-year-old Ho Chi Minh City University of Science is considerably one of the most selective universities in Vietnam, with admission rates ranging only between 0-10%. It also offers non-academic facilities and services, including library, housing, sports facilities, and financial aid to its students, as well as study abroad and exchange programs with partner universities overseas.
Oldest Pagoda — Hue Nghiem Pagoda
Located on Dan Van Bi Street in Thu Duc, Hue Nghiem was established by Zen master Thiet Thuy — Tanh Tuong in the 18th century. It was initially built as a small pagoda on low land, about 100 meters from its current location. Buddhist Nguyen Thie Hien donated her land to rebuild the temple and became instrumental to the religious site’s evolution.
According to historians, the temple’s architecture underwent restorations in 1960, 1969, 1990, and 2003 — which is why the pagoda doesn’t look as old as other ancient Buddhist sites across the city. The temple’s abbot said the appearance of the pagoda may have constantly changed, but its historical significance is still very much palpable.
Its roof bears traditional curved blades and lotus-shaped roof banks with details of reincarnation wheels. It features various statues, including Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. On the main altar is the image of the ancestors of Thiet Thuy — Tanh Tuong, prayed to by monks and Buddhists every year. The place is also adorned with colorful paintings and intricate wood carvings. A beautiful garden, a Bodhi tree, and statues outside are gorgeous as they are sacred.
Oldest Catholic Church — Cho Quan Church
The first Catholic missionaries visited Vietnam from Portugal and Spain in the 16th century through Hoi An. When the Nguyen Dynasty expanded its territory to the south, parishioners from the central region also brought with them their religion. They formed a community and built a Catholic church named after the neighborhood on the eastern fringe of District 5.
Cho Quan Parish was officially established in 1722, led by pastors from the Franciscan and Vietnamese missionaries. Its architecture was simple, with only one small chapel and an altar. Until 1725, the church had about 300 parishioners. Due to social conflicts and anti-Catholicism policies at that time, the parish had to be demolished and rebuilt several times between 1727 and 1882.
In 1882, Priest Nicola Hamm began the construction of a new church. This work lasted 14 years through six priests and was completed in 1896. The new church was inaugurated on December 16, 1986.
Cho Quan Church has a typical Gothic structure, with a lancet gate with iron grids and a gate arch that leads to the main door. Inside are giant pillars in two straight lines, rows of big and small pews, entrance to the bell tower, and sculptures. On the left is the altar of the Blessed Mother, on the right is the altar of St. Joseph, and at the center of the nave is the sculpture of Jesus Christ on the cross.
Surrounding the church are a primary school, a yard, a charitable clinic, and a public space for exercise and gathering – proof of the sense of community fostered in the neighborhood since the 17th century.