Traveler: Views of Vietnam

Finding the surprising and the familiar in two historic cities

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Saigon's former Hôtel de Ville

Credit: Arnold Berke

In East Asia, the best way to see a new city may well be from the seat of a cyclo, the three-wheeled, human-powered vehicle common to much of the region. The cyclo ("see-clo") is a kind of updated rickshaw that perches a passenger or two in front and a driver behind. With the pedaler unseen and the pace deliberate, little intervenes between the fresh setting and one's widening eyes.

Such was my introduction last summer to Vietnam's southern metropolis, Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). Hours after three American colleagues and I landed at Tan Son Nhat Airport to start a two-city trip, cyclos were serving as our open-air tour buses, traversing loud and crowded streets that we dared not try solo. Our guide, an intense but personable man named John Cuong, navigated the little flotilla through the workaday traffic as we made our way to the city's major landmarks.

From our hotel, the 23-story Sheraton Saigon, a symbol of the city's modernizing, high-rising present, we cycloed into the past on streets like Hai Ba Trung (named for the two Trung sisters, first-century heroes) and Le Duan (memorializing a 20th-century Communist leader). We stopped first at the Notre Dame Cathedral, finished by the French in 1883, a quarter-century after they began their occupation. Red-brick and resolutely Romanesque, the church could easily have presided over a square in France or North America. In front, a statue of the Virgin Mary gazed forlornly across a small park at the Metropolitan, a shiny 1997 office building whose hash of elements—pyramid-topped towers, a dome, other vaguely classical bits—struggled to achieve harmony.

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