Back Travel » Brise-Soleil, Đá Rửa, and Other Modernist Curios to Befriend on a Walk Across Saigon

Brise-Soleil, Đá Rửa, and Other Modernist Curios to Befriend on a Walk Across Saigon

My non-existent architectural background leaves me unable to do anything beyond expressing a distaste for tacky constructions and a vague idea of what constitutes a well-designed building. I can speak on the tasteful placement of a brise-soleil with as much confidence as a nervous five-year-old cooking beef wellington for an unhinged Gordon Ramsay. I hadn’t even heard of Vietnam’s modernist architecture movement until a few weeks ago, but when I was given the opportunity to take part in Urbanist Travel’s modernist architecture tour, I was intrigued to learn more about the stories behind the remnants of history I drive past in Saigon on a daily basis.

Thắng, our guide and architecture "czar" for the day. Photo by Đỗ Anh Chương.

It was a drizzly morning when the tour group gathered outside the cultural house on Phạm Ngọc Thạch Street, complete with hiking shoes and bright-eyed enthusiasm — much too early for that if you ask me. Our tour guide Thắng started the tour by detailing our itinerary for the day and giving us a mini history lesson on Vietnamese modernist architecture, a movement that came about in the post-colonial 1940s and prevailed until the mid-1970s. It was inspired by modernist architecture found throughout the world, albeit re-envisioned with uniquely Vietnamese elements mindful of the tropical climate and harsh sun. The result was a thriving movement thanks to local architects who crafted some of the most distinctive buildings in Saigon including the Independence Palace, the General Sciences Library and the V.A.R building, to name but a few. 

Hồ Con Rùa

According to some historical sources, the construction of Turtle Lake was for feng shui reasons. Photo by Alberto Prieto.

With a fresh perspective, we made our way to Hồ Con Rùa (Turtle Lake), backpacks and cameras in tow. The first thing I noticed at Turtle Lake was the colossal concrete lotus rising from the murky green water. It wouldn’t be out of place amongst ancient ruins deep in the jungle surrounded by creeping vines and monkeys. Narrow walkways lead into the lake and encircle the lotus like snakes. The water doesn’t stir apart from the odd fish gulping a look at the throngs of teenagers casually lazing about on the footpaths. Gorgeous pink lotus flowers also punctuate the water in bright clusters. One could, however, be forgiven for wondering why it’s called Turtle lake as there isn’t a turtle in sight, concrete or otherwise.

Fresh and energized in the morning before the Saigon heat gets to us. Photo by Đỗ Anh Chương.

Thắng explained that the site was first used as a water tower by the French, until it was repurposed into a monument for French soldiers and ultimately redesigned in 1967 into the existing lake, plus one more addition: a bronze turtle. The rumor goes that a feng shui master claimed that a dragon beneath the city had its head under Independence Palace and tail under Turtle Lake. He advised the building of a monument to bind the tail in place, lest it wake up and thrash around, destroying the city. So, the octagonal lake — the number eight symbolizing prosperous growth — was built with a giant bronze turtle right near the edge of the water. In 1978, the poor metallic reptile was demolished, leaving what we know it was today: Turtle Lake minus the turtle. 

Dinh Thống Nhất

After visiting Turtle Lake, we made our way through 30/4 Park towards the Independence Palace. The thick tree canopy coupled with the mossy sidewalk and light drizzle on our faces momentarily whisked us away from the buzzing metropolis surrounding us. As we emerged, we saw the palace in all its glory along with the usual swarm of selfie-snapping tourists and yawning policemen. Thắng dove right into his history lesson, telling us that the original palace built by the French was bombed in 1962 by two rebellious pilots. Because the left wing was completely destroyed, the entire building was demolished and a new palace was built in its place.

A quick history lesson in front of the Independence Palace. Photo by Đỗ Anh Chương.

It was constructed in 1966 by architect Ngô Viết Thụ, winner of the Grand Prix De Rome in 1955, the highest accolade awarded by the Beaux-Arts school in France. Thắng pointed out notable elements, like the bamboo-resembling façades and explained that “double skin” façades were one of the most distinctive aspects of Vietnamese modernist architecture, designed with the tropical climate in mind and used to express the architect’s creativity, usually by incorporating eastern imagery with elements from feng shui, carved patterns and tasteful crossbeam layering. The peaceful atmosphere that surrounds it never ceases to amaze me as the suburban green lawns and brightly waving flags obscure its turbulent history. 

The Library of General Sciences

From the palace it was a short walk to the General Sciences Library. Completed in 1971 by architect Bùi Quang Hanh, the original library building was actually built on the grounds of the notorious Maison Centrale prison, used by the French to incarcerate political prisoners, other criminals and even children as young as 12. It was an overcrowded, squalid mess of a prison, so badly managed it even attracted negative press back in France. Upon entry, we were admonished by a frowning security guard making an “X” with his forearms — in case shouting “No!” at us didn’t do the trick — and tried to shoo us away; the library was closed that day. Thắng promptly sidestepped the matter by telling him we were just there to “have coffee” at the shop adjacent to the library. Defeated, he slunk away, putting his forearm “X” away until the next time.

The Library of General Sciences' current site. Photos by Lee Starnes.

That’s when I noticed the reason for the closure: there was a photoshoot taking place on the front steps. V-pop reverberated against the library’s beautifully carved façade, almost loud enough to crack the delicately carved dragons therein. Two fresh-faced models posed for a handful of photographers who were snapping away, no doubt a local fashion brand’s product launch; the juxtaposition wasn’t lost on me.

After having walked for an hour or two, we welcomed the respite and sank into our chairs, our clammy fingers clutching iced coffees like life jackets. It was surprisingly cool in the garden, thanks to the abundance of greenery and tasteful overhanging roof. Beneath the arched trees, the energy was tranquil, such a paradox when one considers its history of oppression. There was a timeless energy to the slow garden, a sense that thousands of important lives had languished there, so what was one more day in the grand scheme of it? Lý Tự Trọng comes to mind. The 17-year-old revolutionary was executed here for killing French secret police to protect Phan Bội Châu and had the adjacent street posthumously named after him — if only he could have known.

The first issue of stamps bearing the library's design. Image via Historic Vietnam.

The library’s walls may not be the same cracked ones that stood a hundred years ago, yet the soil’s retained memories are palpable. It’s as if the blood of hundreds of executions stains the ground, a crimson reminder of the suffering of the bold revolutionaries who paid the ultimate price in the name of freedom. However, it was easy to overlook that as we enjoyed our coffee and marveled at the fluorescent koi fish guarding the entrance to the library in their lotus-crowned ponds.

Even without being an architecture aficionado, I could recognize the amount of detail and intricacy necessary to execute Hanh’s vision. Its geometric façade is explicitly eastern, a testament to the birth of a post-colonial, uniquely Vietnamese movement. The façade’s intricate design is supposedly meant to resemble the Chinese character for happiness and the previously mentioned dragons symbolize success and power. Furthermore, there’s a gorgeous phoenix set on the right-hand wall, tigers in the back façade as well as a turtle: the four celestial animals said to harmonize and bring about happiness and positive energy. There was a clear desire to transform a place of utter suffering and pain into something beautiful and uplifting.

Look! It's modernism! Photo by Đỗ Anh Chương.

The V.A.R building and other shophouses

The unique facade of the V.A.R building. Photo by Alberto Prieto.

It was time for our last stop via a 15-minute walk through District 1’s chaotic center. On the way, we stopped to admire a few shophouses that were decked out in the typical attire of Vietnamese modernism: đá rửa finishings, overhanging roofs, double skin façades with vertical cross beams and mosaic. The shophouses are the economic lifeblood of downtown Saigon, just like the many residents we encountered. Some notable mentions: a delivery worker comfortably sleeping atop his narrow bike as if it were a king-size bed, two elderly ladies in floral pajamas comparing their grandson’s salaries, a herd of graying dogs being doted on by their equally graying owners and businessmen in Italian loafers sipping coffee.

Modernist buildings are common in Vietnam, you just need to pay attention, but more and more old structures are being obliterated to make room for fancy development projects. Photo by Alberto Prieto.

The V.A.R building hugs the corner of Hồ Tùng Mậu and Nguyễn Công Trứ in District 1, a relic from the 70’s. Its façade is its most notable feature, with concrete slabs criss-crossing in a pattern reminiscent of some of the intricate fences on Saigonese balconies. It’s difficult for it not to be overshadowed by the sprawling Bitexco Financial Tower down the street, however, V.A.R’s charm is actually exemplified when placed against a gleaming glass backdrop. The polished mosaic, đá rửa and reinforced concrete are a remnant from a different age, one that might have ended with the modernist movement, yet there’s no reason why it can’t bear witness to the shifting Jenga blocks of Saigon’s skyline. On that note, Thắng concluded our tour and we all sprinted to the nearest shower. 

As the years fly by, these structures are falling into disrepair and being torn down to make way for modern homes and offices. Vietnamese modernist architecture is a quintessential part of the city’s heritage and as Vietnam continues to develop, an integral chunk of Saigon’s collective childhood is fading away. The structures are a reminder of Vietnamese ingenuity, hope and resilience in the face of turbulence. It begs the question: Can Saigon’s modernist buildings find new context amidst a changing landscape or are they the decaying ruins of a golden age now passed? Tourist attractions like the Independence Palace or Turtle Lake are no doubt here to stay, however, the nameless old shophouses, hospitals, schools and apartment buildings are in danger of extinction. As much as I love the glitzy glass towers that progressively dot Saigon’s topography, it will be a sad day indeed when the last modernist building is demolished to make way for a new Starbucks.

The Modernist Gems of District 1 tour is organized by Urbanist Travel, Saigoneer's sister company, visit their website to find out more about the tour.

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