A visit to Saigon’s time capsule

By Thuy Hang, Thanh Nien News

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The Independence Palace in present-day Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Thuy Hang

At first I think it is not a good day to visit the Independence Palace. It is blazing hot at 1:30 p.m. as Saigon has just entered the “hotter” season. To reach the palace itself, visitors have to walk a long way from the gate under the merciless sun.
And the front of the palace is messy. It looks like a construction site. I guess they are preparing for celebrations to mark the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon. The palace has been the symbolic endgame that brought the Vietnam War to a close on April 30, 1975, when two North Vietnamese Army tanks crashed through its gates.
But I am surprised to see a lot of people, mostly foreign tourists, flocking to the palace in the heat.
The Vietnamese name for the palace is “dinh Doc Lap” (Independence Palace) or “dinh Thong Nhat” (Reunification Palace). In 1868 a residence was built on the site of the current palace for the French governor-general of Cochinchina and gradually it expanded to become the Norodom Palace. When the French departed, the palace became home to Ngo Dinh Diem, the US-backed South Vietnamese president.
From the outside, the palace looks stunning. Located on a vast piece of land, the white building stands out from the blue sky above and the green grass in front. The grounds in front of the main building are dominated by a large water fountain in the middle of the meticulously manicured lawn.
On the right side of the entrance stand the tanks Nos. 843 and 390, which crashed through the gates that April morning 40 years ago. Around the palace are tall trees that offer some relief from the midday sun.
Though the palace is situated in Nam Ky Khoi Nghia Street, one the most prime locations in the city, near some famous spots such as the Saigon Central Post Office and the Saigon Notre Dame Basilica, and the area around the palace itself is quite crowded and noisy, it seems like a different world inside. The green space and the airy, quiet atmosphere of the gardens lull me into a peaceful, comfortable feeling.
The main building has 1960s décor at its finest. The rooms inside the palace are designed in a sophisticated manner, perhaps at the behest of Diem and top government officials at that time.
The ground floor has meeting rooms, while upstairs is a grand set of reception rooms. All the rooms are impressive, a display of the lavish lifestyle of the South Vietnamese regime.
But the basement is more fascinating with its telecommunications center, war room and warren of tunnels. Towards the end are rooms where videos describe the palace and its history in Vietnamese, English, French, Chinese and Japanese.
On the rooftop of the palace is a heliport with a helicopter at the site.
The palace was an “all in one” building, being the official residence of President Diem and his family and also the working place where diplomatic activities were undertaken and military-related decisions were made.
Designed by French-trained architect Ngo Viet Thu, the first Vietnamese to win Italy’s Grand prix de Rome, the palace is said to have been created in harmony with fengshui principles.
The whole structure, with its blend of modern and eastern architecture, symbolizes traditional philosophy and forms the Chinese character “ji” meaning good or lucky. On its front, balconies on the second and thirrd floors combine with the main entrance porch and two wood-paneled columns to create the character “xing,” meaning prosperity.
According to fengshui beliefs, the edifice is located in a dragon's head, and so it was also referred to as Dragon's Head Palace.
But, ironically, all the fengshui did not help the ill-fated South Vietnamese regime.
In 1962 Diem’s own air force bombed the palace in a botched attempt to kill him. The president ordered a new residence to be built on the same site, this time with a sizeable bomb shelter in the basement. The work was completed in 1966, but Diem did not get to see his dream house as he was killed by his own troops in 1963.
And the day that marked the fall of the regime is still talked about over and over again when people visit the palace.
The palace receives more than 1,000 visitors each day, according to estimates.

A version of the Tank 390, one of the two tanks that crashed through the gates of the Independence Palace on the morning of April 30, 1975, on display at the palace. Photo: Thuy Hang

The conference hall at the palace. Photo: Thuy Hang

The ministers' cabinet room in the palace. Photo: Thuy Hang

The banquet chamber in the palace. Photo: Thuy Hang

The heliport on the rooftop of the palace. Photo: Thuy Hang

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