The Reunification Palace, stepping back in time
By the first half of the 1970s Vietnam was in the grip of the long and bloody war, fought between the People’s Army of Vietnam from the North backed by Viet Cong guerrillas and those of the South backed by American and other allied forces. On the 30th of April 1975 a tank from the northern forces broke through the gates of the then-called Independence Palace, signalling the end of a conflict that had lasted for all but 20 years. After the war ended someone had the idea of leaving the palace exactly as it was on that fateful day. That decision has left the city of Ho Chi Minh with a superb and lasting monument to the sacrifices paid, and an incredible moment in the country’s history; an event known as the “Fall of Saigon” in the South and “Victory over America” in the North.
The place was renamed in November, 1975. The Reunification Palace stands at the top of Le Duan on Nam Ky Khoi Nghia in HCMC’s District 1. It has been battered, but still stands as a symbol for the people of Vietnam. It is one of the most visited attractions in the entire country. Admission is just VND 30,000 and that includes a free guided tour, offered in different languages. I would strongly advise using a tour guide, as they really give you all the information that you would otherwise miss. When I went, I was the only English speaker at the time and got a guide all to myself.
After buying your ticket from the office, to the left of the main entrance you are free to stroll round the gardens at your leisure and, as previously mentioned, take a tour. The site is large, covering about 44 acres. Immediately in front of the palace is a fountain. The palace was designed with feng shui well in mind. Le Duan runs toward the palace channelling bad luck like an arrow through the middle of the building. Placing the fountain in its path creates a barrier to the bad fortune and deflects it.
To the right of the fountain as you look at the palace, there are two tanks of the same type that burst through the iron gates all those years ago. Once inside the building it really is like stepping into a time machine. The cabinet room permeates a palpable sense of history, and it is amazing to imagine the discussions that would have taken place there. There is a beautiful banqueting hall in which foreign dignitaries would have been entertained.
On the first level up there is an open courtyard with a beautiful garden and water feature. This level was the president’s living quarters. It includes a fifty seat film theatre; the projection equipment still in place. It is however, the two basement levels that provide the most fascinating part of the tour. These were built to withstand bombs as big as 100 kg and 500 kg respectively. It was here that the President would meet with his war cabinet to plan strategy. The rooms are full of American and Japanese made equipment; radio stations and room after room of offices that would have been a hive of industry during the war. The Presidential desk is exactly as it was back then, with the telephone at his hand. His sleeping quarters are austere.
Up on the roof, visitors are rewarded with rather remarkable views of the city. The vista along Le Duan is really lovely. The huge trees obscure part of the view, but it is not hard to imagine what an advantageous position this would have been 40 years ago. On 8 April 1975 two bombs hit the palace. They were dropped by a pilot called Nguyen Thanh Trung, of the Vietnam Air Force who had gone undetected as a spy of the North. He flew an F-5E aircraft from Bien Hoa Air Base. The exact positions where the bombs landed are marked with red circles.
This really is a fascinating place to spend a few hours. It is open between 7:45 a.m. and 11:00 a.m. and again from 1:15 p.m. until 4:00 p.m.