Often taken for granted by travellers and expats alike, the Saigon Opera House has been a constant fixture in the city, surviving devastating wars and relentless modern development. John Gardner takes a look at the history of the 115-year-old theatre. Photo by Fred Wissink.

As cultural landmarks go, the Saigon Opera House falls easily into the ‘right under your nose’ category. The 115-year-old theatre reigns majestically over bustling Lam Son Square, the historic and cinematic heart of Ho Chi Minh City. Traffic pours into the plaza at all hours, whirlpools around the Opera House, and shoots out at some other corner.

Captured on hundreds of DSLRs every day and lit up like an oversize music box in a sea of motorcycles, the nucleus of Vietnam’s most progressive city is impossible to miss. And yet as long as I’ve worked at the Caravelle Hotel just opposite the theatre, I’ve had the sense that the vast majority of visitors do miss, or at least overlook, the building.

A venture up the steps, a stroll past on the sidewalk, a few obligatory wide-angle shots are not enough to appreciate the building’s century-long story.

Built in 1897 under the direction of three French architects with a design specified by Monsieur Ferret Eugene, the façade of the Opera de Saigon as it was then called was an echo of the Petit Palais, built the same year in France. Its revolving stage and three-tiered, 800-seat galleries soon became a stopping point for touring French troupes.

For a time, evenings at the Opera de Saigon provided cultural diversions and world-class shows to the city’s thriving middle class. But as the mood shifted between WWI and WWII and the expatriate community flocked to dance halls and nightclubs for their after-hours entertainment, audiences at the theatre dwindled, and performances grew more sporadic.

In the early 1940s, together with the rest of the country, the building entered into a turbulent period that lasted more than three decades. In 1943, some of the ornaments and statues on the theatre façade were removed after being criticised as overly ornate. The following year, the building’s exterior was further disfigured in Allied air raids. Its halls sheltered French civilians fleeing North Vietnam before being occupied by the lower house assembly of the State of Vietnam in 1955.

After the Fall of Saigon in 1975, the building was renamed the Ho Chi Minh Municipal Theatre and took up its original function again. The exterior was restored and the interior renewed in 1998 to mark the 300th anniversary of the founding of Saigon, yielding the Opera House that greets tourists today.

From the street or from the windows in the old wing of the Caravelle Hotel, you can glimpse a pair of luminous statues of the Goddess of Art gazing out over the stone veranda, and the winged angels resting atop its central arch. But the real aesthetic value of the building’s classical European style is best appreciated from inside the theatre.

An evening at the opera is still a viable excuse — perhaps the only one left — to dress to the nines. On performance nights, a stylish stream of guests ascend the stairs and are greeted on the marble-tiled first floor, before taking seat in the auditorium beneath a ceiling awash in Greco-Roman engravings. During intermission, guests spill from the halls onto small verandas to take in the ambiance of the streets.

The sensation of being on your own balcony overlooking the centre of Saigon is at once nostalgic, romantic and hard to pin down, but there is perhaps no better place to catch the afterglow of a city once adored as the “Paris of the East”.

John Gardner is the general manager of the Caravelle Hotel, which has just launched ‘Opera Nights’, a package that includes accommodation in the Opera Suite, a three-course dinner and two tickets to “Hon Viet: The Soul of Vietnam”.