A visit to Reunification Palace and the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City

 

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Is this France or Vietnam? It’s Ho Chi Minh City, looking northeast down Le Duan Boulevard, but the leafy, wide thoroughfare could bring Paris to mind.

By Betty Gordon

© 2017 text and photos. All rights reserved.

My friend Susan and I took a fascinating two-week trip to Vietnam and Cambodia in March 2016. This is the 16th post about our experiences. 

Standing atop the stairs of Reunification Palace looking northeast, visitors might have a momentary lapse and think they’ve been transported to Paris.

Past the palace’s expansive circular drive, the spurting fountain and the well-manicured, lush green oval lawn sits Le Duan Boulevard. Its leafy canopy shades drivers and pedestrians alike, and the wide thoroughfare is a welcome relief from the many other congestion-clogged streets in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon.

In the city’s District 3, Le Duan Boulevard stretches from the palace about 10 lengthy blocks, where it runs into the ample green space that is shared by the Saigon Zoo and Botanical Gardens and the National History Museum.

That this view evokes the boulevards of the City of Light is hardly surprising, considering the French colonial influence in the late 1800s and into 1954, when the Viet Minh (the communist nationalist movement founded by Ho Chi Minh) finally defeated occupying forces at Dien Bien Phu in northwest Vietnam.

A building has stood on this site since 1868, the first being a residence for the French governor-general of Cochin-China, the former name of the southern region of Vietnam. After an expansion, it was renamed Norodom Palace.

When the French withdrew, the president of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem, took up residence and renamed it Independence Palace.

That his own air force bombed the palace in an assassination attempt in 1962 is testimony to his growing unpopularity. Once praised by U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower as a “miracle man” of Asia, strongman Diem increased his power, banned opposition parties and was tone-deaf to the self-immolation protests of the ostracized Buddhist monks.

Diem’s reaction to the bombing was to include plans for reinforced underground bunkers in the next incarnation of the structure, and he lived elsewhere while the palace was being rebuilt.

A United States-backed military coup resulted in Diem’s execution (and his brother’s) in November 1963, so he never saw the completion of the 95-room palace, overseen by French-trained Vietnamese architect Ngo Viet Thu.

With an airy and open floor plan, the T-shaped, palm-tree-topped building looks more like a library or a municipal office, “palace” being a misnomer when compared to structures in, say, England or Scotland.

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Reunification Palace may look more like a library than a presidential residence. This version of it was completed in 1966. The second level is surrounded by a series of stone bamboo columns. That’s the same fountain as in the picture at the top of this post.

Wrapping much of the exterior of the second level is a white “curtain” of stone bamboo columns, which in the afternoon sun casts pleasing patterns on the highly polished floor.

The rooms, preserved in an interior-design time warp, are a mix of dignified reception areas, such as the Conference Hall, used to install the cabinet or receptions, and the gold-curtained and -carpeted State Banqueting Hall, where up to 100 guests were feted.

Upstairs, the glass-sided Salon of the Four Cardinal Directions was formerly a meditation space, transformed by former President Nguyen Van Thieu into a party room. Visitors can almost envision the free-flowing alcohol at the bar and servers balancing silver trays of hors d’oeuvres while circulating among the diplomats, politicians, military brass and not a few journalists, amid the din of conversation and loud dance music.

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This is the Game Room, in all its kitschy glory, at Reunification Palace. Not pictured, and to the left of the semi-circular banquette, is a barrel-shaped bar surrounded by yellow chair-stools.

The decor in the spacious Game Room, particularly the semi-circular furniture, brings to mind something of a cross between the swinging ’60s of “Austin Powers” and the bar culture of “Mad Men.”

Map-covered walls flank the president’s war room; boxy, gray electronic equipment lives on in the communications room, previously used for decoding intelligence and making radio broadcasts; and visitors can wander the underground bunkers that were intended to protect Diem, his minions and his family.

This was technically the presidential residence until the fall of Saigon in April 30, 1975. The complex is sometimes mistaken for the former U.S. Embassy — maybe because of the helicopter on the roof, far too small to be one that was used in the American evacuation — which is impossible because that embassy building was demolished in 1998.

We wandered the building by ourselves, reading many of the 35 panels containing information in English, Vietnamese and French. Reservations are advised for those wanting a guided tour. Budget about 90 minutes to see everything and another 30 minutes to see the movie. At the time of our visit, the film was running in Chinese, but anyone with a basic knowledge of American involvement in Vietnam — termed here as “outsider interference” — should be able to make sense of the pictures.

Additionally, the lower-level movie room is a comfortable, well-air-conditioned space in which to escape HCMC’s heat and humidity for a brief time.

Quick reference: Open daily, 7:30- 11 a.m. and 1-4 p.m. Adults, 40,000 VND (about $1.75); university students, 20,000 (about 88 cents); and primary and high school students, 10,000 (about 44 cents). http://www.dinhdoclap.gov.vn/index-en.html

War Remnants Museum

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The sentiments of peace, solidarity, friendship, cooperation and development are admirable, but this visitor didn’t think they were well-conveyed in the museum’s exhibits.

Military hardware of various shapes and sizes — artillery, camouflage-painted helicopters and planes, tanks, etc. — lines the exterior walkways of this museum, an obvious “spoils of war” message to the defeated United States forces and its allies during the Vietnam War.

One of the previous names of this facility was the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes, so there is no confusion about the tone of the exhibits, evidenced by informational panels, such as this one, titled: U.S. weapons and war equipments (sic) provided to Sai Gon  (sic )puppet government (1954-1975).

There isn’t any effort to present a balanced examination of what happened during the war — its causes, its politics, its campaigns, its atrocities — so with that in mind, take some of what is on exhibit as propaganda. The French are similarly portrayed, but the real animus is reserved for America.

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Visitors to the War Remnants Museum can get an up-close look at American-made military.

Many gruesome photographs underscore the physical toll, military and civilian alike, especially those in the room called “Agent Orange Aftermath in the U.S. Aggressive War in Vietnam,” that illustrate the horrific damage to the human body and the denuded Vietnamese landscape caused by the widely used chemical defoliant.

A quieter, much more subtle display on a wall on the ground floor, near the gift shop, probably speaks as loudly as the death-raining matériel. A closer look at the shadow box reveals eight medals, including a Silver Star, Bronze Star (with “V” for valor), Purple Heart, Combat Infantry Badge and Combat Jump Badge.

Two small blue plaques are inside the box. One (all in caps) reads:

To the people of a

united Vietnam

I was wrong

I am sorry

The other says: William Brown, Sgt. 173d Abn Bde [Airborne Brigade], 503d Inf. [Infantry]

Understanding the museum’s intention of showing America in a negative light, my journalistic instincts were on high alert. I searched the Internet to try to determine if indeed Sgt. Brown had made this contribution, as purported, in June 1990. I may have found him and have sent an email inquiry. And if I have, I’ll update this post.

This is the museum where I saw the powerful, mostly black-and-white photo exhibit “Requiem,” that I mentioned in my post of July 17, 2016, in which I wrote about photojournalist Dickey Chapelle, the first American female war correspondent to be killed in combat, in 1965. More than 300 exceptional images taken by photographers from 11 countries climb the walls. Many of these courageous photographers lost their lives documenting the war.

More than 40 years after Communist tanks rolled into Saigon and ended the war, blatant hatred of America still dominates some of the language in the exhibits. That sentiment sits in direct contrast to the welcoming and friendly people that we met throughout our two weeks in Vietnam and Cambodia.

All that said, I think the museum is a worthwhile stop, and it’s only a few blocks from Reunification Palace, which we visited on the same day. Susan and I then had an enjoyable dinner at the nearby restaurant … hum, which I wrote about in my January 8 post.

Quick reference: War Remnants Museum, 28 Vo Van Tan, Ward 6, District 3. Open daily, 7:30 a.m.-noon and 1:30-5 p.m. Tickets 15,000 (about 65 cents); warremnantsmuseum.com

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