Saigon, the world’s second most dynamic city according to the World Economic Forum, isn’t just full of skyscrapers and construction sites. What fascinates and attracts tourists, both local and international, are the city’s hidden heritage buildings, witnesses of history’s turmoil and triumphs. French photographer Pierre Semere, who has called Saigon his second home and has made the city’s historic buildings his focus, wants to give his audience a better understanding and new admiration for these timeless pieces in hopes of protecting them from demolition.
26 Ly Tu Trong, D1
This popular art deco apartment building, also known as the Catinat Building, is located at the corner of Dong Khoi and Ly Tu Trong (opposite Vincom Center). It was built between 1926-1927 for the Société Urbaine Foncière Indochinoise (SUFIC), and during the past 90 years it has been known mainly for its upmarket apartments. This place was also home to numerous companies and foreign missions, including the US Consulate during the 1930s and early 1940s. Now, the building is home to trendy cafés, fashion shops and restaurants.
As soon as I entered the building I felt the intensity of French heritage intertwined with the uniqueness of Saigon. The building’s history and timeless beauty have mingled with the fresh spirit of these new chic boutiques and restaurants. Yes, the place has been given a second life, but in a proper way. Local residents, and especially young entrepreneurs, have shown their respect to the building’s historic value by bringing preserving the integrity of the building’s soul, like the stairs, stones floor and the old French elevator. It was a great feeling for me as a French person to enter many of the stores and be reminded of an old French Haussmanian-style apartment.
42 Nguyen Hue Pedestrian Street, D1
The iconic construction on the pedestrian walkway was built in the 1960s and was home to many high-ranking government officials before 1975 and also served as residences for US advisors and naval officers. The 9-storey building is currently full of cafés, eateries, co-working offices and clothing boutiques.
This building has strong characteristics, especially because it is one of the only heritage buildings in town that always attracts people’s attention. It’s hard not to stop and stare at all the colorful shop banners hanging up and down its façade, and let’s not forget to mention the authentic balcony views of the stores. Once again, it’s proof that a good use of a heritage building can help promote new businesses in a unique and aesthetically pleasing way, while also respecting the architecture. As soon as I stepped into the building I was able to feel the vibes of the old apartments and its former inhabitants.
14 Ton That Dam, D1
Built in 1886 by Brossard et Maupin, the French company that built Ben Thanh Market in 1921, the edifice has a unique architecture with many alleys, stairs and windows. It has housed multigenerational families with its four walls, and will continue to do so. The building has witnessed Saigon’s transformation, beginning with the opening of the iconic Bitexco Financial Tower, Saigon’s highest building… for now. Local entrepreneurs have also come to set up businesses here.
This place represents exactly what I call “the aesthetic mess of Saigon”—a strong mix of heritage stones and mosaics all along hundreds of alleys and labyrinthine stairs. From the stairs, depending on which floor, you can see a typical Vietnamese building, a construction site and the Bitexco tower in one line of vision. From any window or balcony, people can admire the beauty of the lotus-shaped tower from different angles.
On the top floor, the ceiling and the walls have been washed by time and corrosion, which has resulted in beautiful patterns of colors, like strokes from a painter’s brush. This has left me feeling both beauty and sadness at the same time.
151 Dong Khoi, D1
According to historian Tim Doling, a scholar of Saigon’s history and heritage structures, this building would appear to be an early 20th century reconstruction of the former Grand Hôtel de France (1870s). By the end of the colonial period, its upper floors were rented apartments, while shops occupied its ground floor. People rarely know that the building’s arcade was a remnant of a small film theatre known as the Catinat-Cine installed in the 1930s. The unusual mosaic wall decorations of this cinema has survived to this day and may still be seen at l’Usine, which is located on the first floor of the building.
This building is certainly the guardian of Saigon. It’s a peculiar heritage place because we can access it on both sides of the building. One on Dong Khoi, where we can observe the Saigon Opera House and also the Continental Hotel, both built in the late 18th century. The other side is linked with the Nguyen Hue Pedestrian Street. These two paths are linked by a long alley that was turned into a mobile gallery surrounded by many painters and artists of all kinds of styles. I felt the colors, liveliness and artistically inspired here.
Images by Pierre Semere