Since childhood, the screen adaptation of Marguerite Duras’ masterpiece “The Lover" has imprinted on me the hauntingly beautiful charms of the old Indochina. French colonial thumbprints, a notable example of which being the distinct architectural style, added a curious exoticness to the allure of Saigon.
The Ho Chi Minh City tour by Ginkgo Voyage, a Saigon-based tour operator, gave me the chance to revisit the land’s fascinating remains of a colonial past as portrayed in “The Lover”. Despite the passing of decades, remnants of French colonialism are still visible at different corners. The two-decade old Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica and Saigon Central Post Office are two brilliant representatives, each with its own story awaiting travellers’ discovery.
Before the French’s arrival, the local religious landscape had been a syncretic combination of Buddhism, Vietnamese folk religion and ancestor veneration. In the sixteenth century, Catholicism began to spread its seeds following merchant ships from the West. The Notre-Dame Basilica was constructed to serve as a religious institution for French colonialists. The cathedral’s neo-Romanesque architectural style with certain Gothic influences makes it stands out in the city’s urban setting. The red brick facade, which were imported from Marseille, still retains its vibrancy to these days.
At the time, the Basilica played a vital role in establishing and strengthening Christianity’s position in the Pearl of the Far East. Religious and cultural reconciliation was inevitable, setting the stones for interesting historical incidences. Among the most talked about stories was the romantic affair between Marie-Thérèse Nguyen Huu Thi Lan, a Roman Catholic lady of a wealthy family, and Bao Dai, the last emperor of the Nguyen dynasty and a devoted Buddhist. The king gave up his concubines to marry her, despite fervent objection from his mother and the whole court.
Nowadays, the cathedral still serves as a religious institution for the local population. Pay a visit during the Sunday mass, you will get to see worshippers sincerely and solemnly engage in their weekly ceremonies.
The Ho Chi Minh City day tour continues on with the Saigon Central Post Office located nearby. Being a mixture of Gothic, Renaissance and French influences, the building fascinates visitors with its vaulted structure, arched windows, high ceilings and grand yet elegant interior. One notable fact unknown to many is that the Post Office was designed by Gustave Eiffel, the father of the renowned Eiffel tower (Paris) and the statue of Liberty (New York). In terms of aesthetic and cultural values, the Saigon Central Post Office does not pale in comparison with these architectural hallmarks.
Apart from its striking architecture, another delightful wonder of the building worthy of every traveller’s attention is Mr. Duong Van Ngo, an 86 year-old living witness of history. Mr. Ngo has been working here since he was 20, as a polyglot public letter writer. Sitting at the end of a long wooden table with his fountain pen and dictionaries, he has delivered thousands of letters to every corners of the world. For him, connecting people means much more than a mere trade. If you pass by the Post Office, do send a postcard to your friends and let yourself be wowed by this man’s rare lingual talent.
The Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica and Saigon Central Post Office are two notable reminiscences of a distant past, the presence of which are now harmoniously fused into the city’s urban landscape. With the two attractions being visible representatives, the historical encounter between Vietnam and France has brought along lasting influences in every aspects of life on the beautiful Pearl of the Far East.