HO CHI MINH CITY AND AROUND || LE DUAN BOULEVARD
North of Notre Dame Cathedral, Le Duan Boulevard runs between the Botanical Gardens and the grounds of the Reunification Palace. Known as Norodom Boulevard to the French, who lined it with tamarind trees to imitate a Gallic thoroughfare, it soon became a residential and diplomatic enclave with a crop of fine pastel-hued colonial villas to boot. Its present name doffs a cap to Le Duan, the secretary-general of the Lao Dong, or Workers Party, from 1959 until his death in 1986. Turn northeast from the top of Dong Khoi and the sense of harmony created by Le Duan’s graceful colonial piles ends abruptly with a number of brand-new edifices.
The Botanical Gardens and zoo
The pace of life slows down considerably – and the odours of cut grass and frangipani blooms replace the smell of exhaust fumes – when you duck into the city’s Botanical Gardens, accessed by a gate at the far eastern end of Le Duan, and bounded to the east by the Thi Nghe Channel. Established in 1864 by the Frenchmen Germain and Pierre (respectively a vet and a botanist), the gardens’ social function has remained unchanged in decades, and their tree-shaded paths still attract as many courting couples and promenaders as when Norman Lewis followed the “clusters of Vietnamese beauties on bicycles” and headed there one Sunday morning in 1950 to find the gardens “full of these ethereal creatures, gliding in decorous groups, sometimes accompanied by gallants”. In its day, the gardens harboured an impressive collection of tropical flora, including many species of orchid. Post-liberation, the place went to seed but nowadays a bevy of gardeners keep it reasonably well tended again, and portrait photographers are once again lurking to take snaps of you framed by flowers.
Stray right inside and you’ll soon reach the zoo, home to camels, elephants, crocodiles and big cats, also komodo dragons – a gift from the government of Indonesia. Unfortunately, conditions are very poor and some animals look half-crazed, so it could be a harrowing experience if you’re an animal lover. There’s also an amusement park that is sometimes open, and you can get an ice cream or a coconut from one of the several cafés sprinkled around the grounds.
The History Museum
A pleasing, pagoda-style roof crowns the city’s History Museum, next to the Botanical Gardens. It houses fifteen galleries illuminating Vietnam’s past from primitive times to the end of French rule by means of a decent if unastonishing array of artefacts and pictures. Dioramas of defining moments in Vietnamese military history lend the collection some cohesion – included are Ngo Quyen’s 938 AD victory at Bach Dang, and the sinking of the Esperance. Should you tire of Vietnamese history, you might explore halls focusing on such disparate subjects as Buddha images from around Asia; seventh- and eighth-century Champa art; and the customs and crafts of the ethnic minorities of Vietnam. There’s also a room jam-packed with exquisite ceramics from Japan, Thailand and Vietnam, and you could round off your visit at the water-puppetry theatre.
Jade Emperor Pagoda
A few blocks northwest of the Botanical Gardens, the Jade Emperor Pagoda, or Chua Phuoc Hai, was built by the city’s Cantonese community at the beginning of the twentieth century. If you visit just one temple in town, make it this one, with its exquisite panels of carved gilt woodwork, and its panoply of weird and wonderful deities, both Taoist and Buddhist, beneath a roof that groans under the weight of dragons, birds and animals.
To the right of the tree-lined courtyard out front is a grubby pond whose occupants have earned the temple its alternative moniker of Tortoise Pagoda. Once over the threshold, look up and you’ll see Chinese characters announcing: “the only enlightenment is in Heaven” – though only after your eyes have adjusted to the fug of joss-stick smoke. A statue of the Jade Emperor lords it over the main hall’s central altar, sporting an impressive moustache, and he’s surrounded by a retinue of similarly moustached followers.
A rickety flight of steps in the chamber to the right of the main hall runs up to a balcony looking out over the pagoda’s elaborate roof. Set behind the balcony, a neon-haloed statue of Quan Am stands on an altar. Left out of the main hall, meanwhile, you’re confronted by Kim Hua, to whom women pray for fertility; judging by the number of babies weighing down the female statues around her, her success rate is high. The Chief of Hell resides in the larger chamber behind Kim Hua’s niche. Given his job description, he doesn’t look particularly demonic, though his attendants, in sinister black garb, are certainly equipped to administer the sorts of punishments depicted in the ten dark-wood reliefs on the walls before them.
Operation Frequent Wind
Located at 4 Le Duan, the current nondescript building that houses the US Consulate was built right on top of the site of the infamous former American Embassy, where a commemorative plaque is now the only reminder of its existence and significance in the American War. Two events immortalized the former building on this site, in operation from 1967 to 1975 and left standing half-derelict until 1999 as a sobering legacy. The first came in the pre-dawn hours of January 31, 1968, when a small band of Viet Cong commandos breached the embassy compound during the nationwide Tet Offensive. That the North could mount such an effective attack on the hub of US power in Vietnam was shocking to the American public. In the six hours of close-range fire that followed, five US guards died, and with them the popular misconception that the US Army had the Vietnam conflict under control.
Worse followed seven years later, during “Operation Frequent Wind”, the chaotic helicopter evacuation that marked the United States’ final undignified withdrawal from Vietnam. The embassy building was one of thirteen designated landing zones where all foreigners were to gather upon hearing the words “It is 112 degrees and rising” on the radio followed by Bing Crosby singing White Christmas. At noon on April 29, 1975, the signal was broadcast, and for the next eighteen hours scores of helicopters shuttled passengers out to the US Navy’s Seventh Fleet off Vung Tau. Around two thousand evacuees were lifted from the roof of the embassy alone, before Ambassador Graham Martin finally left with the Stars and Stripes in the early hours of the following morning. In a tragic postscript to US involvement, as the last helicopter lifted off, many of the Vietnamese civilians who for hours had been clamouring at the gates were left to suffer the Communists’ reprisals.
QUAN AM PAGODA
Cho Lon’s greatest architectural treasures are its temples and pagodas, many of which stand on or around Nguyen Trai, whose four-kilometre sweep northeast to Pham Ngu Lao starts just north of Cha Tam Church. North of Nguyen Trai’s junction with Chau Van Liem, on tiny Lao Tu, Quan Am Pagoda is the pick of the bunch in this part of town. Set back from the bustle of Cho Lon, it has an almost tangible air of antiquity, enhanced by the film of dust left by the incense spirals hanging from its rafters. Don’t be too quick to dive inside, though: the pagoda’s ridged roofs are impressive enough from the outside, their colourful crust of “glove-puppet” figurines, teetering houses and temples from a distance creating the illusion of a gingerbread house. Framing the two door gods and the pair of stone lions assigned to keeping out evil spirits are gilt panels depicting petrified scenes from traditional Chinese court life – dancers, musicians, noblemen in sedan chairs, a game of chequers being played.
When Cho Lon’s Fukien congregation established this pagoda well over a century ago, they dedicated it to the Goddess of Mercy, but it’s A Pho, the Queen of Heaven, who stands in the centre of the main hall, beyond an altar tiled like a mortuary slab. A pantheon of deities throngs the open courtyard behind her, decked out in sumptuous apparel and attracting a steady traffic of worshippers. Twin ovens, flanking the main chamber, burn a steady supply of fake money offerings and incense sticks.