A fine example of turn of the century French colonial architecture, the Saigon Opera House, also known as the Municipal Theatre of Ho Chi Minh City, makes for decent picture on a stop during a tour of the city, or for a cultural experience for those interested in seeing a show.
Easy to find in the middle of District 1, the Opera House is just a few blocks away from both the Notre Dame Cathedral and Ben Thanh Market, on the busy intersection of Dong Khoi and Le Loi, occupying what is known as Lam Son Square. Finished in 1900 by the French, the building has had a rich history over its 100-plus years of existence. Originally operating problem free the theatre hit a rough patch during World War II when Allied bombing during the Japanese occupation of the city heavily damaged the exterior facade of the building, causing the theatre to stop operations.
It reopened when the city returned to French hands, however it faced a tumultuous period serving a variety of functions outside of the scope of theatre, such as a refuge for French citizens after the Geneva Accords in 1954 as well as the home of the Lower House of the State of Vietnam. In the 1970s the building once again became a theatre but was seldom used and slowly deteriorated. In honour of the 300th anniversary of the city of Saigon in 1998, the building was renovated and returned to its former glory.
Now the building stands as one of the more impressive sights in Saigon and is worth a look, both during the day and when it’s lit up at night and is one of the more attractive city sights after dark. Outside you can admire the ornate decorations at both day and night, as an outdoor lighting system was added in 2009.
The inside of the Opera House, which currently seats about 500 over a span of three floors, is just as impressive as the outside. Even though it has been retrofitted with modern sound and light systems, the building retains most of its old world charm. Sitting alone on the main floor, it’s easy to imagine French aristocrats sitting in the velvety red, wooden armed chairs waiting for a show to start.
The theatre is still in use today, although the schedule has somewhat sporadic offerings. The Opera House plays host to a diverse number of shows, ranging from Vietnamese cultural performances to Shakespearian stage plays. Although it’s smaller than its Hanoi counterpart, which claims the majority of the country’s high level theatre openings, it serves as the home to the Ho Chi Minh City Ballet Symphony Orchestra and Opera. If you happen to be in town and wouldn’t mind seeing a live show, admission into the theatre is generally reasonable, with the majority of tickets costing between 300,000 to 500,000 VND.
By Max Murta.
The Travelfish newsletter is sent out every Monday and is jammed full of free advice for travel in Southeast Asia. You can see past issues here.