HO CHI MINH CITY AND AROUND || DONG KHOI
Dong Khoi, the city’s main street that runs through the centre of District one, is currently undergoing massive changes, with entire blocks being razed and towering monoliths such as “Times Square”, half-way down the street, set to transform its image further still in the near future. Fortunately the street still has some character in the form of chic boutiques with eye-catching window displays and cute cafés in which to pause between shopping or sightseeing.
Notre Dame Cathedral
The attractive redbrick bulk of the late nineteenth-century Notre Dame Cathedral straddles the northern reach of Dong Khoi. Aside from the few stained-glass windows above and behind its altar, and its marble relief Stations of the Cross, the interior boasts only scant decoration. There’s plenty of scope for people-watching, however, as a steady trickle of Catholics pass through in their best silk tunics and black pants, fingering rosary beads, their whispered prayers merging with the insistent murmur of the traffic outside. A statue of the Virgin Mary provides the centrepiece to the small park fronting the cathedral, where cyclo drivers loiter and kids hawk postcards and maps. Take a close look at her face, as on occasion locals swear they have seen her shed tears.
The street of many names
Slender Dong Khoi, running for just over 1km from Le Duan to the Saigon River, has long mirrored Ho Chi Minh City’s changing fortunes. The French knew the road as Rue Catinat, a tamarind-shaded thoroughfare that constituted the heart of French colonial life. Here the colons would promenade, stopping at chic boutiques and perfumeries, and gathering at noon and dusk at cafés such as the Rotonde and the Taverne Alsacienne for a Vermouth or Dubonnet, before hailing a pousse-pousse (a hand-pulled variation on the cyclo) to run them home. With the departure of the French in 1954, President Diem saw fit to change the street’s name to Tu Do, “Freedom”, and it was under this guise that a generation of young American GIs came to know it, as they toured the glut of bars – Wild West, Uncle Sam’s, Playboy – that sprang up to pander to their more lascivious needs. After Saigon fell in 1975, the more politically correct monicker of Dong Khoi, or “Uprising”, was adopted, but the street quickly went to seed in the dark, pre-doi moi years, and by the seventies had gone, in the words of Le Ly Hayslip, from “bejewelled, jaded dowager to shabby, grasping bag lady”.