The presence of the French is felt in the architecture of the buildings in Districts 1 and 3, along with the high volume of French tourists and locals in the city. As I took a side street over to Dong Khoi, I came upon the grand People’s Committee Building in front of the Ho Chi Minh statue on the lovely and flowery Cong Xa Paris.
Walking over one more block, I saw the posh shops of Dong Khoi mashed in with souvenir shops, restaurants, hotels, and massage parlours. Some of the colonial architecture was still in place, quite grand along some of the leafy trees and wide sidewalks. I walked north toward the Notre Dame Cathedral, Central Post Office, Continental Hotel, and Municipal Theatre (Opera House), all of these being remnants of the French.
I stopped at the Post Office Cafe right next door, a shaded harbour from the teeming crowds visiting those two sites. The cafe was nearly deserted, which meant my iced Vietnamese coffee and French crepes were quickly brought to the table. It was a refreshing respite from the hot afternoon sun, and it gave me a chance to plan the rest of my day’s activities.
After a short stop, I ventured into the beautiful Central Post Office, which boasts beautiful old maps of Southeast Asia and arched, vaulted ceilings that made me feel like I had stepped into a historical film set. Despite the crowds, I was able to walk around a bit and explore some of the architectural features. There are tourist shops on either side of the entrance, but they’re a bit pricy compared to a few other shops I found. You can send a postcard from the Post Office, but the prices vary depending on size of the card and the destination, of course.
From the Post Office, I breathed a prayer and crossed the intense intersection near the Notre Dame Cathedral. Motorbikes and tour buses zip around freely here, so being careful when crossing is essential – as it is everywhere else in HCMC, of course!
The cathedral was open, so I got to poke around inside, but I wasn’t too keen on staying long because of all the people. Instead, I ventured around the outside, crossed again, and continued north on Dong Khoi to the Turtle Lake (Ho Con Rua) roundabout. It’s a massive roundabout buffeted by restaurants of all sorts. The streets were quiet, however, as most of the restaurants were closed for the holiday. The tell-tale roundabout is topped by a strange flower-shaped sculpture, which seems oddly out of place with all of the old-style architecture up and down the street.
After this, I headed back to my hotel for a quick rest before going in search of Pho Hua on Pasteur Street, a very well-known pho restaurant in District 1. I started out my journey after the sun had set, and as I walked up Pasteur Street, I couldn’t see where the restaurant was. Everything was quite dark and closed, but I thought it might be open.
I kept looking at my map, thinking, it should be right here … but then turned down an alley just in case it was on a side-street. I walked down the alley as locals poked their heads out, wondering why the foreigner with the book was wandering like Alice in Wonderland down their row of homes.
I thought the alley might connect to the next parallel street, but as I got to the end – dodging motorbikes roaring through the narrow streets – there was a gate and a house. That was a no-go. I started my walk of shame back, smiling and nodding at people who now really stared at me like I was insane. I was that evening’s dinner and a show.
After making it back out to Pasteur Street without getting lost in the tangle of alley streets, I walked up to the next main intersection, crossed over, and walked back down the street. Sure enough, there was Pho Hua, dark and empty, so I now had to sort out where to eat dinner.
I strolled around the streets of District 1 for close to an hour without finding any restaurant that was open. Just as I was thinking that Family Mart or Circle K might be my dinner – reheated and overheated stuffed buns, honey butter crisps, Cadbury bars, and a beer might not be so bad after all – I happened upon the Passio coffeeshop. It was blessedly still open at 9 PM, and I figured, at the very least, I could order a large mango smoothie and have that for dinner. With more luck, I found out that they had panini-like sandwiches on offer as well, so I settled on a panini and a smoothie and happily sat at the stool and ate it, people-watching the whole while.
It turned out to be a good night after all.