District 1 is the busiest area of Ho Chi Minh City. It is the administrative, financial and commercial heart of the city. Head offices of large banks, consulates and expensive eateries are found here.
District 1 was a prime area even during the French Indochina period, evident in the French-styled buildings grouped here. Buildings such as the Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica, the Central Post Office, City Hall, and the Saigon Opera House offer a great eye-candy for visitors curious about the French influence in the city. Other great spots to visit are the Reunification Palace and Phạm Ngũ Lão Street.
The Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica (Vương Cung Thánh Đường Sài Gòn or Nhà thờ Đức Bà Sài Gòn) was built by the French colonists, who wanted an edifice that not only extolled Christianity but also the greatness of French civilization. The church is a mix of Roman and Gothic elements and at the time of construction, was one of the most beautiful buildings in Cochinchina. All of the original materials were imported from France, such as the outside red bricks from Marseille, but local resources have mended parts of the cathedral damaged by war. A statue of the Virgin Mary was said to have shed tears in October 2005. Though the Church has confirmed the falsity of this alleged miracle, the statue still remains a popular curiosity for visitors. The view from the belfry towers is one of the best in the city.
Next to the Basilica is the Central Post Office, designed by Gustave Eiffel. The skylight, the central pavilion, the huge beautiful old clock, and the detailed ironwork that frames the main entrance are all great elements of the Renaissance-inspired building. Today, the Central Post Office not only sends mail, but has internet and phone services.
The Hôtel de Ville de Saigon or the Ho Chi Minh’s City Hall (Trụ sở Ủy ban Nhân Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh), though not open to the public, is another beautiful French building. The administrative office was built between 1902 and 1908. It is beautifully lit in the evening.
The Saigon Opera House (Nhà hát lớn Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh) is another fine example of French colonial architecture. The beautiful building was used for the Lower House Assembly of the Republic of Vietnam from 1956 to 1995. Its design was greatly influenced by the vibrant style of the French Third Republic. Its facade was renovated in celebration of its 300th anniversary in 1998.
The Reunification Palace (Dinh Thống Nhất) is a good place to learn about the Vietnam’s short-lived stint as a democracy. Once called the Independence Palace, this historical landmark was the home and office of the President of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. It was here that the official handover of power took place during the Fall of Saigon in 1975. Designed by architect Ngo Viet Thu, the complex covers 12 hectares, including a palace with an 80-metre-wide facade, “homes” that can accommodate 800 guests, and enveloping gardens and lawns. The palace began construction in 1863 and was originally named Norodom Palace after the king of Cambodia at the time.
There are five-star hotels in District 1 and accommodations for budget travellers. Phạm Ngũ Lão street is known as khu tay ba lo—a backpackers’ area. It has hostels, guesthouses, bars, cafés, and bargain shops that sell clothes, souvenirs and DVDs.
Ben Thanh Market is the area for local crafts and trinkets. It is a group of informal market stalls established as a formal market in 1859. It is a great place to try some local cuisine as well.
Dhong Khoi in District 1 is an important shopping lane. While it does not yet match Singapore’s Orchard Road, it does have a variety of goods, including pricy items of good quality. Sheraton Hotel at one end contains a number of internationally acclaimed brands, while the rest of the street is lined with smaller shops, a number of bars and some restaurants. There are more fashion and souvenir finds in posh Hai Ba Trung.
Dong Khoi is one of the larger avenues in Ho Chi Minh City, and connects to Le Loi, another main road.