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Off the beaten tourist trail in Vietnam reveals Saigon’s dark past

Saigon has earned an enviable reputation for great street food, electric nightlife and friendly people, but it hasn’t always been this way.

Saigon has a reputation for some of the best street food in Vietnam, friendly people and pretty awesome nightlife. 

It’s a lot of fun to be in and perhaps explains why I’ve continued to live here since 2010.

But Saigon hasn’t always been a fun place to be. 

It has a very dark side to its history, so in this feature, I’m going to share with you seven locations – a number of them off-the-beaten-tourist-trail – that people into history and a bit of dark tourism should get a buzz out of.

Originally, this list contained 10 locations in a 24-minute video intended for my YouTube channel, but after the edit and a rethink due to the sensitive nature of some of the locations, I’ve decided to keep it to seven. 

LISTEN to the podcast featuring these locations

Who knows, maybe in the future I’ll reveal the other three locations when I’m certain that doing so won’t cause anguish to others or too much controversy.

In the meantime, I hope you enjoy this list and use it as a guide whether you’re a local, traveller or someone living here with an interest in history and an appetite for getting lost down Saigon’s historical rabbit hole. 

And if you like what you read and see, please consider subscribing to my YouTube channel – it’s easy and doesn’t cost a thing!

Okay, on with the list.

Tran Phu Memorial Museum

Perhaps Saigon’s most authentic and darkest French colonial-era sites, the Tran Phu Memorial Museum is located inside the grounds of the city’s oldest hospital, the Hospital for Tropical Diseases in District 5.

The building started out in the 1800s as a treatment centre for infectious diseases and then specialised in mental illness.

But as opposition to French rule intensified after the turn of the century, it became a jail where political prisoners like Tran Phu – the Indochina Communist Party’s first Secretary General – were incarcerated and died.

During the war, a section of the complex continued to be used to hold and interrogate political prisoners, then in the 1980s, it was recognised as a national historic monument and became open to the public. 

The museum can only be visited by appointment. Let me know in the comments on YouTube if you’d like to visit.

Where: 766 Vo Van Kiet Street, District 5 (open by appointment)

Thich Quang Duc Monument

In the early 1960s, president of the then-Republic of Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem, found himself presiding over a deeply divided nation brought on by what were seen as unfair policies that excluded the Buddhist community.

On June 11, 1963, Buddhists in Saigon joined a procession through the streets of the city to protest against the Diem administration.

On this day, a high-ranking monk by the name of Quang Duc self-immolated in protest in the middle of the intersection in what is present day District 3. 

To mark the event that sent shockwaves around the world, an extremely moving monument stands on one of the corners overlooking the intersection and is a must-visit on a trip to Saigon.

Where: 185 Cach Mang Thang 8 Street, District 3 (open daily)

General Sciences Library of HCMC

Back in 1968, Saigon’s city prison the Maison Centrale de Saigon was demolished, its prisoners moved to Chi Hoa Prison in District 10 and the General Sciences Library built on the site.

While the building and its surroundings today are filled with light and are uplifting, the prison before it stood in complete contrast. 

Thousands of people were incarcerated and died here in overcrowded and insanitary conditions.

As was common in the early 1900s, prisons like the Maison Centrale were filled with anti-colonial activists, many of them well-known and remembered today, like Ly Tu Trong, after whom the street outside the library is named.

Where: 69 Ly Tu Trong Street, District 1 (closed Fridays)

Old French Police Station

This complex was established around 100 years ago in what is today District 9 approximately 15 km from the centre of Saigon.

It started out as a French radio communications station, however, it was converted into a police station that came under the command of an evil French lieutenant and an equally psychopathic deputy who earned the nickname Evil Beard. 

Between 1946 and 1947, it’s believed 700 Vietnamese political prisoners were tortured and killed here.

On the upper floor items used for torturing prisoners are on display, while on the ground floor there are cellars which were used during the interrogation process. 

These days, Bot Day Thep is used for education purposes with school groups regularly visiting to gain an understanding of the brutality of French colonial-era Vietnam.

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Where: RQVV+Q9G, Le Van Viet Street, District 9 (closed weekends)

The Xom Cai Mummy

Saigon isn’t exactly the kind of destination that you’d expect to come face to face with a mummy, but we have one.

Back in 1994, construction workers digging up a plot of land in the Xom Cai neighbourhood of District 5, an old part of Chinatown, unearthed a tomb 60 sqm in size.

Inside was the coffin of a Vietnamese woman. She was shrouded in cloth soaked in a red embalming solution and surrounded by various artefacts that suggests she was from an aristocratic class. 

Where: The Museum of History, 2 Nguyen Binh Khiem Street, District 1 (closed Mondays)

Thuan Kieu Plaza

Just before the turn of the century, the future looked bright for the newly-constructed Thuan Kieu Plaza in District 5.

It was one of the first apartment towers in Saigon at the time and housed Chinatown’s first shopping centre. 

But as residents began to move in, they realised how cramped and uncomfortable living conditions were and soon after, they reported feeling sick.

At least two fires broke out on the restaurant level and then rumours began to swirl about the three towers being haunted. 

A quarter of a century after the plaza’s construction, all three apartment towers remain empty.

Where: 190 Hong Bang Street, District 5

Gangland Execution Site

You’d never know this unassuming address would lead to the downfall of Saigon underworld kingpin Nam Cam, but it did.

Nam Cam was known as the Godfather of Saigon who reigned throughout the ‘90s and into the early 2000s and his fate was sealed when he ordered a hit on female rival Dung Ha who’d recently relocated to Saigon from Hai Phong looking to expand her “business” empire.

After some double-crossing and mixed-messaging enraged Vietnam’s most notorious mob boss, Dung Ha was executed one evening on the pavement out the front of a karaoke joint that was once here. 

Her killers sped off into the night, but their freedom was short-lived after the trail led to their and Nam Cam’s capture and eventual execution by firing squad.

Where: 17 Bui Thi Xuan Street, District 1



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