Near the centre of present day Ho Chi Minh City sits the Reunification Palace, a relic of Vietnam’s more recent past and a symbol of its present, and probably future too. HCMC, or Saigon as it’s still widely referred to, has many iconic buildings. There’s Notre Dame Cathedral, City Hall, the Opera House and the wonderful Central Post Office amongst others of the colonial-era. The Reunification Palace is another icon, though it stems from Vietnam’s post-independence period with associated 1960s-style outside and kitsch inside, and lacks the mediaeval style of the cathedral and neo-classical lines of the others.
The palace has had many names. It has been rebuilt twice and has served various masters from colonial French governors to invading Japanese generals, as well as Vietnamese dictators and despots. The real significance of the palace is that those who have determined the building’s occupation have largely controlled Vietnam.
During colonial rule it was known as the Governor’s Palace. In the era of South Vietnam it was home to the president and called Independence Palace. It also served as a military nerve centre during the death throes of the Republic of Vietnam, the prelude to the reunification of the country. Following the victory of North Vietnam it became Reunification Hall. Guide books will tell you it’s called the Reunification Palace, and if you ask for the palace, nearly everyone knows what you mean.
According to legend the palace is located on a dragon’s head and is therefore named the Dragon’s Head Palace. Today it’s a museum popular with locals and foreign tourists alike. Sometimes it’s used as a functional hall usually for ground-breaking events, like hosting APEC and joining the WTO. Either way, it’s a must see on the tourist map of old Saigon.
The story goes the original wooden palace on the site was replaced by the grander Norodom Palace and when completed in 1873, was home to the French governor of Cochin-China until 1945. The name, Norodom, sparks interest amongst Cambodians, as it is Khmer, the French having named it for the then King of Cambodia. Cambodia holds territorial aspirations for southern Vietnam as it was once part of the mighty Khmer Empire which ruled much of present-day Southeast Asia. Ethnic Khmers living in the Mekong Delta region are still referred to across the border as “Kampuchea Krom”, or Southern Khmers.
In 1954, following the Geneva Accords, the palace was handed over to the first president of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem, who changed the name to the Independence Palace. Ngo Dinh Diem deposed the absentee king, Boa Dai, and had himself elected in a dubious referendum. A Catholic, he was also absolutist, brutal, and corrupt. Diem became so detested by his own people the country’s air force bombed his palace with him in it.
Later, he was murdered by his own troops in a military coup in 1963. Unfortunately, they failed to kill his sister-in-law, the hideous Madame Ngo Dinh Nhu, who was out of the country at the time. She had shocked international observers by referring to acts of self-immolation by Buddhist monks in protest against Diem’s repressive measures as “barbecue parties” and clapping her hands wishing, she said, to see more.
After the palace was bombed and badly damaged by the South Vietnamese air force in February 1962, Diem ordered the building demolished and rebuilt. The new palace was designed by the French-trained Vietnamese architect, Ngo Viet Thu, and is thought an outstanding example of 1960s architecture. Given his previous experience, Diem had ordered that bomb shelters be constructed in the palace basement, but never lived to see his creation as he was murdered before its completion in 1966.
The palace, occupies a large site surrounded by tree lined avenues of Vietnam’s largest city. It’s a tranquil haven from the maelstrom of HCMC’s traffic. The massed ranks of motorbikes swarm like locusts with the ever increasing numbers of late-model vehicles, sign of Vietnam’s increasing consumerism.
Nearby is the US Consulate, which looks more like a penitentiary for convicts than a compound for the affairs of state. The palace is bordered by four streets: Nam Ky Khoi Nghia in the front (the main entrance is open to Le Duan Boulevard), Huyen Tran Cong Chua in the back, Nguyen Thi Minh Khai on the right and Nguyen Du on the left. Surrounded by immense lawns and high trees in its gardens, the main building of the palace is modern architecture, typical of the 60's.
On 30 April 1975, South Vietnam ceased to exist when tank units of the North Vietnamese Army crashed through the palace gates. British foreign correspondent James Fenton was in Saigon that day and accompanied the NVA. The cover photograph for his book, All the Wrong Places, covering his life as a journalist the world over and featuring nearly every major event for decades, and quite a famous one, is a photo of those tanks smashing through the steel railings of the Independence Palace.
The first two tanks through, well actual copies of them anyway, have been preserved just inside the gates. One a Chinese T-59 with its number 390 stencilled on the turret, and the other a Russian T-54, number 843, both painted in jungle green with a yellow star emblazoned on their sides. Despite their size I’m amazed that a crew of four men could fit inside, given they would also need room for their equipment and ammunition. There is also a US F5E fighter aircraft displayed nearby, the same model used by Lieutenant Pilot Nguyen Thanh Trung to drop two bombs on the palace on 8 April 1975 before defecting to the North, the US and South Vietnamese identification markings having been crossed out with a large black “X”.
Today the palace is preserved much as it was on that April day in 1975, complete with furniture, books, bedding, map rooms with troop positions and strengths carefully marked. On the first floor is the Cabinet room and reception area, now resplendent with a large portrait of Ho Chi Minh. It was here the last president of the Republic of Vietnam, Duong Van Minh, in his fourth and shortest stint as head of state, holding office for just 43 hours, surrendered unconditionally to the North Vietnamese. “I have been waiting since early this morning to transfer power to you,” he told the senior NVA officer present. To which the officer replied; “There is no question of your transferring power. You cannot transfer what you do not have.” With the brief formalities over with he was then led away to his fate, whatever that was.
It’s a large building, fit for a head of state and visiting it is like stepping into a time capsule. English speaking guides are provided for tours. There are various reception rooms for the president, vice-president, the president’s wife and so on. On the second floor there is a map room with all South Vietnam’s provinces marked and their respective troop strengths. The president’s office is next door in a room complete with stuffed animals and a secret staircase to the basement. There are phones everywhere, lots of pink ones. At the back of the structure are the living quarters for the president’s family in rooms off an open courtyard. Along one wall are various presents given to the president including model boats and the amputated limbs of animals including severed elephant feet – hideous.
The building is full, as it is most days with Vietnamese visitors and the fair share of foreigner tourists. Busloads of uniformed school children filled the wide halls and palace corridors. In turn they stare at me before catching my eye and turning away blushing and giggling. A few braver ones say hello and on hearing my response look at their class mates impressed. Tours are available in a number of foreign languages and leave the front reception desk at regular intervals. Alternatively, you can wander about by yourself or join a conducted tour at some later juncture.
The former presidential study contains books in several languages in glass covered book cases. Some are novels including works of Alex Hailey (Airport), Leon Uris and Henry James. On the roof is a helicopter pad, complete with Iroquois helicopter similar to the one used to inspect the troops out in the field.
In the basement, there is now a mini-museum complete with photos of the tanks crashing through the palace gates, and of the tank crews posing heroically next their vehicles. One display cabinet has some of the crew’s equipment from tank number 843, including an AK-47 rifle and distinctive tank helmets. One photo, taken from the palace steps, clearly shows the tank columns approaching along Le Duan Street, others having already charged across the immaculate lawns to arrive at the palace steps before completing and stopping after a neat 180-degree turn. One of the president’s vehicles, a Mercedes, is parked in a basement corridor near the kitchens.
Aside from the kitchen outfitted for mass catering, the basement was used for military activities. Dozens of rooms lead off narrow corridors, one with gun racks, now empty. Others with tables covered in radio equipment, the transmitters stacked three and four high, to reach any command post in the republic. Though state-¬of¬-the-art at the time, it’s amazing how antiquated it all now seems and really dates the aspect of the palace’s functionality. In the office of the combat staff there is the secret monitor of the “Allies” armed forces in the Republic of Vietnam. The total headcount as at the end of June 1968 was just over 600,000 of which most were US forces.
The palace is always popular with up to 3,000 visitors per day at weekends. Vietnam as a rule likes to make these venues accessible for the people. Especially for those that show the former regime in a dim light or that exalt the communist victory. Tickets for museums in Vietnam are cheap and cost less than one dollar. There’s one price for all.
The only entrance for tourists is through the main gate on Nam Ku Khoi Nghia situated on the eastern side of the palace grounds. From the tourist district of Pham Ngu Lao and Bui Vien, walk east past the large Ben Thanh Market, then turn left and walk north on Nam Ky Khoi Nghia.
The palace is open daily from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. The ticket window closes daily between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. The palace closes sporadically for special events and visits from VIPs. Keep off the grass.