22. A Palace Intrigue

Once the seat of government of republican South Vietnam, Independence Palace is now a “national cultural and historical relic” and an attraction for tourists in Ho Chi Minh city.

Wrought-iron gates welcome visitors to Independence Palace. (JGA photo)

No other structure in Ho Chi Minh City says “South Vietnam” like Independence Palace. Constructed between 1962 and 1966, it was the seat of government of the Republic of Vietnam until the fall of Saigon.

It became an international symbol on April 30, 1975, when a Viet Cong tank thundered through the wrought-iron gate facing Le Duan street, effectively putting an end to what is known here as the American War.

I began my recent visit at these very gates (the newer version thereof). Here, guests pass security protocol, purchase tickets (VND 40,000, or US$17.40) and perhaps also book a guided tour. I chose to move independently, wandering the 30-acre (12-hectare) grounds and taking my time to read interpretive panels, written in excellent English as well as Vietnamese and French. (Audio guides are available in seven additional languages.)

This is a destination for history buffs. As a recent resident of this country, I want to discover as much as I can about this country. I learned a lot here.

Dressed in a traditional ao dai, a docent welcomes visitors to the exhibits. (JGA photo)

A historical interlude

My first stop was an exhibition hall on the site of the former Norodom Palace, once the seat of French colonial government. France occupied southern Vietnam, or Cochin China, beginning in 1867. The neo-Baroque Norodom Palace was built between 1868 and 1873, and except for six months of 1945, when the Japanese took control, it was the home of the governor-general of French Indochina.

In 1954, after the French defeat at Điện Biên Phủ, France withdrew its troops from Vietnam. The ensuing Geneva Accords established the 17th parallel as a border between communist-controlled North Vietnam and anti-communist South Vietnam, pending general elections to establish a unified government. That never happened.

An ongoing exhibit of historical photos explained how Norodom Palace became the official residence of Ngô Đình Diệm, who had been designated as prime minister following four years of self-exile in the United States and Europe. A year later, he defeated former Emperor Bảo Đại in a referendum, declared himself president of the Republic of Vietnam and renamed the building Independence Palace. But in 1962, after a destructive bomb attack during an attempted coup, Diệm decided to demolish the building and rebuild on the same site.

A family portrait. President Ngo Dinh Diem is at the far left, next to his archbishop brother Thuc.

Diệm consolidated his tenuous power base with his four brothers — Thục, Nhu, Cẩn and Luyện — and Nhu’s wife, Trần Lệ Xuân (“Madame Nhu”). Older brother Thục, a Mekong Delta bishop who was named archbishop of Hué in 1960, corralled Christian support. As Diệm’s top political advisor, Nhu founded the clandestine and fiercely loyal Can Lao Party, which controlled national security and surveillance.

Never popular, Diệm and Nhu were assassinated in a coup in 1963, three weeks before U.S. President John Kennedy was slain. The new Independence Palace, which combined modern European elements with traditional Asian style in a design by architect Ngô Viét Thu, wasn’t completed until the end of October 1966. When General Nguyễn Văn Thiệu became president in 1967, it became headquarters for South Vietnam’s government and home for the general’s family.

In addition to the historical chronology, the exhibition hall features intriguing videos and models of Ho Chi Minh city as it appeared in the pre- and post-colonial era of Norodom Palace.

The view from Independence Palace extends across an oval lawn to Le Duan street. (JGA photo)

Feng shui design

The main entrance to Independence Palace (also called Reunification Palace) sits atop a flight of broad steps that overlook an oval-shaped lawn. I can still recall television news footage of a U.S. military helicopter lifting off from here in 1975, evacuating the last American troops from Saigon. I was working in New Zealand at the time; it was an international event.

The Palace appears to the undiscerning eye (my own) as an undistinguished contemporary building of the 1960s. But its layout welcomes natural lighting, and it is true to the traditional Eastern philosophical design principal of feng shui. Chinese symbols for auspiciousness, fidelity, humanity, intelligence, strength and prosperity are all incorporated into the design, and there are stylistic nods to the imperial architecture of Hué in its stonework and outlying ponds and gardens.

As the new Vietnamese government was headquartered in Hanoi, the Saigon site had only adjunct usefulness. Today it appears much as it did 45 years ago, its bright, broad corridors opening into expansive reception rooms and offices. Most of these are roped off, viewable only from the outside, but well worth inspecting for their displays of Asian art, including original works, antiques and “presidential gifts.”

Thirty-six chairs surround the table in the Cabinet Meeting Room. (JGA photo)

A central staircase climbs from the main public-reception level to the first floor. Here, 36 chairs around the ovate central table in the Cabinet Meeting Room suggest a lot of voices wanting to be heard. Nearby is a banquet hall and the elaborate Conference Hall, still used on special occasions.

The second floor contains the offices of the president and vice-president and their respective reception rooms. (U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger was received here in 1972.)  The National Security Council met in its own chamber on this floor. And the Nguyen family’s private quarters, including bedrooms and a dining room, were also on this level.

A vintage HC-1 U.S. helicopter sits atop the palace heliport. (JGA photo)

The third floor might best be described as the entertainment center. It had a cinematic theater, a library and a gaming room, with a billiards and casino-style cards tables. Vietnam’s first lady had her private reception room here. A mezzanine extended to a helipad that was bombed by a renegade South Vietnamese air force pilot three weeks before the capitulation of his government.

That helipad (featuring an American helicopter) is better seen from the rooftop terrace, which also affords good views across the city and the palace grounds. A souvenir outlet here sells a variety of memories that glorify Vietnam’s victory, including toy replicas of two original Russian tanks that are parked on the palace lawn.

A souvenir coin is a popular takeaway for palace visitors. (JGA photo)

Digging deep

For many visitors, including myself, the most interesting part of a palace tour is a descent to the basement, where the South Vietnamese government maintained its command center and a presidential bunker — in rooms linked by tight passages and protected by reinforced concrete walls designed to withstand bombs.

A bank of telephones sits ominously in the underground command center. (JGA photo)

It doesn’t take much imagination to envision the military intelligence operations that were coordinated here. Rows of telephones, telex machines and short-wave radio transmitters were left just as they were in April 1975. Walls of maps followed soldiers’ activities north and south of the 17th parallel. One of them tracked the infamous supply network known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail and its spurs, extending from Hanoi to the Mekong Delta, within striking distance of Saigon.

President Nguyen’s spartan quarters only hint at isolation. (JGA photo)

The blast walls in the maximum security shelter were four times as strong as those in the command center. President Nguyễn had direct access via a staircase from his second-floor office, and on April 8, 1975, when the palace was initially bombed, his entire family took refuge here. That’s hard to believe now, when his “bedroom” is depicted with a single bed, two phones, and nothing more.

But Nguyễn Văn Thiệu’s much-loved Mercedes-Benz 200 is still parked in the bunker, just around the corner from his secure room and down a hall from a shooting range where target practice was, presumably, a frequent recreation.

A shooting range provided diversion in subterranean lockdown. (JGA photo)

Published by John Gottberg Anderson

Writer-photographer specializing in travel and food subjects ... member of the Society of American Travel Writers for more than 20 years ... former editor for the Los Angeles Times and France's Michelin Guides, among others

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