HCMC Dining Guide

Friday, September 26, 2014

Another One Bites the Dust

It seems like every week another historic building in Saigon is slated to be torn down. I've lost track of the old structures that have been demolished in my time here, and they are inevitably replaced with modern glass and steel towers, many of which have little character.

The latest landmark to face the proverbial wrecking ball is the Saigon Tax Center, the 90 year-old department store located on the corner of Nguyen Hue and Le Loi, which closed permanently yesterday. While the building's modern facade is nothing to write home about (especially towards the end of the year, when the windows are filled with garish Christmas decorations), it has a storied history. (Thanks to the construction of the city's first subway line it is impossible to get a view of the front of the building, so here's one from Google.)

When it opened in 1924, the building was called the Grands Magasins Charner, and it quickly came to be regarded as the finest department store in Indochina, fitting, as Saigon was the crown jewel of the French colony. According to historical accounts, it was the place to shop in the city, and apparently would've been at home in Paris. 

It underwent a number of facelifts (hard to call them improvements, though) and name changes over the years, in line with the dramatic changes the city experienced over the decades. Before closing, it was home to a supermarket, as well as four floors of watches, jewelry, clothing, electronics, and touristy knick-knacks. 

A couple of months ago it was announced that the Tax Center would close at the end of September, and be torn down next year to make way for part of a subway station (which I'll discuss in another post) and a skyscraper. Then, yesterday morning, the owners of the buildings suddenly announced that it would actually close at 2pm that day. Vendors had been packing up goods and selling off items at bargain prices for weeks, but now they were completely out of time. I put off a trip to the gym and hustled over after finishing work at 1 to see what was going on. Since I hadn't expected this to happen so soon I only had my iPhone on me, hence the pictures aren't that great. 

One part of the building that retained the beauty of its glory days is the main entrance.
The rest of the building gave off an eerie, (nearly) post-apocalyptic vibe. The shelves at the supermarket were bare, as were the majority of the electronics and jewelry cases. Some areas were completely deserted, while others were full of workers hurrying to pack up goods to be brought elsewhere. At times I felt like I was in 28 Days Later.

On the clothing floor people swarmed in a feeding frenzy around piles of heavily discounted shirts and shorts.
A lot of people were doing the same thing as me: wandering around taking pictures, remembering one more building with a proud past that will disappear as Saigon marches on towards whatever definition of modernity its leaders aspire to. The big losers in this story are the vendors, as rent in the Tax Center was much cheaper than at other downtown department stores. The developers have offered space at other markets, but way out in Districts 8 and 10, nowhere near their customer base of tourists. It seems they will be another group steamrolled by the tide of development. I'm not saying development isn't necessary, but it certainly hurts people along the way. Farewell, Saigon Tax Center.


  1. Ah, was going to ask you if there was any new construction coming up, so they are building a subway line now huh.

    Following the NFL over there Mike?

    1. I'm in a couple of fantasy football leagues so I try to follow it...don't watch any games though.

  2. I am an American married to a girl from Saigon District 4. I've been to this place many times since year 2006 and the stores in this place had some amazing things to buy. It makes me kind of sick to think they are closing the place & tearing it down - I don't even live in Saigon & it breaks my heart to see this building go away for another skyscraper. The world has to figure out a way to promote growth while preserving the past - something politicians don't seem to understand!!

  3. Another thing about Saigon Tax Center that you mentioned was the Christmas decorations. I was shocked to see the beautiful Christmas decorations all over Saigon & especially around the Tax Center area, something I never expected to see. I remember buying something like 20 dress shirts at one of the store on the second floor on Christmas Eve 2007 at a cost of $7 per shirt, They are still beautiful shirts today - very well made. The shirts would be $50 a piece in the USA. Somebody has to stop these guys from tearing that great place down.