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Travel Report: Reunification Palace, Ho Chi Minh.

Reunification Palace Ho Chi Minh.

Reunification Palace, Ho Chi Minh.

May 2018.

I have to admit that I did not fall in love with the city of Ho Chi Minh. For the most part I felt it lacked the charm of its sister metropolis, Hanoi. In fact, right from day one I thought there was just a touch of Beijing and New Delhi to the place. You know, in terms of its relentless traffic and frenetic crowds. The intense pollution and the sprawling, uncompromising nature of the place.

Ho Chi Minh by night.

Ho Chi Minh: Not the fainthearted.

Photo courtesy of Jim 陳.

Nevertheless, HCM’s essential Vietnam War sights alone justify pencilling in at least two to three days. The first site I crossed off was Reunification Palace, also known as Independence Palace, Presidential Palace and Reunification Convention Hall. And then you’ve got the building’s original names, Saigon Governor’s Palace and Norodom Palace. Are you confused yet?

Postcard of Saigon Governor's Palace 1873

A postcard featuring Saigon Governor’s Palace, 1873.

The site’s history is a long and complicated one. Finished in 1873, the French constructed the palace to celebrate their recent conquest of southern Vietnam. This, they figured, would be a grand centre of bling in which they could house The Governor of French Cochinchina, a dude by the name of Marie Jules Dupré.

Reunification Palace, Vietnam.

Marie Jules Dupré French admiral and Governor of Cochinchina

Jules Dupré: “Nice crib, I’ll take it”. 

From here it’s easy to get bogged down in the dense backstory. I’ll try to summarise it as briefly as I can. By the late 1880s, the political landscape had changed. French Cochinchina had become part of the Indo-Chinese Union, which resulted in a demotion of sorts for the governor. As a result, he had to move into less fancy lodgings.

Norodom Palace 1896.

Saigon Governor’s Palace before it became Reunification Palace, Ho Chi Minh.

This was good news for the governors of French Indochina! Indeed it was they who lived here until 1945 when the Japanese swept in with a successful coup during World War II. Thus Japanese officials called the palace home until the Allied Forces secured their surrender and it went back to France again. Phew, bear with me while I break for a cup of tea.

President Ngo Dinh Diem Vietnam.

President Ngo Dinh Diem.

In 1954 the French finally called it a day in Vietnam and in September that year the building fell into the hands of Ngo Dinh Diem, the Prime Minster of the State of Vietnam. The following year he became the first president of The Republic of Vietnam after defeating former Emperor Bao Di in The 1955 State Referendum. This is when Diem renamed the building Independence Palace.

Vietnam travel guide

Reunification Palace, Ho Chi Minh.

Unfortunately, the doomed palace lasted just another seven years. On the 27th of February 1962 two rebel pilots went against Dinh’s orders and bombed the old joint, instead of attacking the Viet Cong as they’d been instructed. President Dinh survived the bombing, though his palace sustained heavy damage, losing the entire left wing.

Adventures in Vietnam.

Reunification Palace in Vietnam.

Reunification Palace, Ho Chi Minh.

Rather than restore the place, Dinh arranged for its demolition. In its place, he had a new palace built and that’s the structure visitors to Ho Chi Minh see today. Dinh hired the renowned Vietnamese architect Ngo Viet Thu to oversee its creation in the modernist style. The project eventually came to completion in October 1966.

General Nguyen Van Thieu Reunification Palace Vietnam

General Nguyen Van Thieu (1923-2001).

Sadly for Diem, he didn’t live to see it finished. In November 1963 General Duong Van Minh led a coup against the president, who was murdered alongside his brother and chief adviser Ngo Dinh Nhu. And so it came to be that General Nguyen Van Thieu, chairman of the National Leadership Committee and head of the military junta, enjoyed the new palace as his presidential home and offices from 1967 to 1975.

State Banqueting Hall Reunification Palace Ho Chi Minh

Reunification Palace, Ho Chi Minh.

Man, the history is confusing, or at least to me. Hence I am delighted to move onto the visit itself and my fascinating albeit surreal walk through the palace’s fronzen-in-time interior. One of the first rooms I saw was the State Banqueting Hall, employed to welcome several U.S. delegations. Palace architect Ngo Viet Thu created the amazing painting, National Landscape, seen on the back wall.

Cabinet Room Reunification Palace Ho Chi Minh

Reunification Palace, Ho Chi Minh.

General Nguyen Van Thieu’s reign proved just as chaotic as his predecessor’s. With the Vietnam War raging, the country was in turmoil and the general often carried out personnel reshuffles here in The Cabinet Room, pictured above.

Reunification Palace, Ho Chi Minh.

Ambassador's Chamber Reunification Palace Ho Chi Minh

Reunification Palace, Ho Chi Minh.

There is such a wild mix of design styles within the palace, including modernist Vietnamese, Classical Chinese and traditional Japanese. For the best of the latter, check out The Ambassador’s Chamber, with its lush wood and metal lacquerwork.

Conference Hall Reunification Palace Ho Chi Minh

Reunification Palace, Ho Chi Minh.

One of the biggest and most colourful rooms was the exquisite Conference Hall. It would’ve been great to have known the details of what took place here as President Thieu led Southern Vietnamese forces during The Vietnam War. However, there is very little onsite information accompanying each room. This left me ruing the fact that I hadn’t been able to get onto a guided tour. Places, I remember, were limited and fully booked across the days of my visit.

The National Security Council Chamber in Reunification Palace

Reunification Palace, Ho Chi Minh.

As it turned out, my wanderings saw me cross paths with a tour group in the National Security Council Chamber. This is where President Thieu met with his military leaders. Despite being largely empty (just a few tables, chairs and lots of yellowing maps), it remains a fascinating space. Especially when one considers this is where President Thieu held an emergency meeting on April the 3rd 1975. Just weeks before he announced his resignation and North Vietnamese tanks stormed the palace gates to signal The Fall of Saigon.

Visit Reunification Palace Ho Chi Minh

Reunification Palace, Ho Chi Minh.

This second floor balcony gives you the chance to imagine that scene in all its intensity. How much noise the PAVN T-54/55 tanks made bulldozing through all that iron. The sight of the invading soldiers running across the lawn. And of General Duong Van Minh and his closest advisers sitting silently on the steps awaiting their fate.

The Fall of Saigon.

Helicopter on the roof of Reunification Palace in Ho Chi Minh

Reunification Palace, Ho Chi Minh.

Through the windows on the second floor, I spied one of two helicopter displays on the palace roof. One stands as a reminder of the bombings that took place here. The other marks the spot where incumbents fled for their lives as part of Operation Frequent Wind, Saigon’s citywide evacuation between the 29th and 30th of April 1975.

For just a moment, in the pure silence of the corridor, I stood pondering what that must have been like. To be sprinting towards the open door of the helicopter, its deafening blades spinning overhead. Running for your life, earthly possessions abandoned, towards an unknown future.

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Reunification Palace, Ho Chi Minh.

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  • Sheree

    Fascinating Leighton and thanks.

    February 6, 2022 - 9:07 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for reading Sheree!

      February 6, 2022 - 9:43 am Reply
      • Sheree

        Always a pleasure

        February 6, 2022 - 5:19 pm
  • wanderlustig

    Very interesting post that reminds me of my stay in HCM. Most vividly I remember the relentless traffic in the city. When I arrived I thought HCM was an improvement versus Hanoi as there were pavements in the Old Town to walk around safely. Then I discovered that the motorcyclists used those sidewalks also whenever they saw a gap 😉. Looking forward to your next reports about HCM.

    February 6, 2022 - 9:18 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Ha ha yes, the “multi use” pavements. Thanks for reading and leaving a comment, I have two more Ho Chi Minh posts coming out over the next week.

      February 6, 2022 - 9:46 am Reply
  • Little Miss Traveller

    So interesting reading your concise history of Ho Chi Minh Leighton. I prefer the interior of the palace to its modernist exterior. Hopefully I’ll get to explore Vietnam for myself one of these days. Hope you’re having a great weekend.

    February 6, 2022 - 11:15 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks Marion, I’m glad you enjoyed the history as it is somewhat dense and confusing. The challenge with this article was to try and give a compact overview without sending the reader to sleep ha ha. Enjoy your Sunday despite the gloom!

      February 6, 2022 - 11:31 am Reply
  • pedmar10

    Ah just did mine lots of memories and still friend keep up with whatsapp! thanks for the memories of HCMC or Saigon!

    February 6, 2022 - 12:45 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Cheers! Thanks for reading and contributing to the comment thread.

      February 6, 2022 - 3:16 pm Reply
      • pedmar10

        You are welcome

        February 6, 2022 - 4:28 pm
  • kagould17

    Great history lesson Leighton. Too many others meddled in Viet Nam, as well as the rest of Asia and the world. There were a lot of greedy intentions involved as if the societies colonized or conquered were somehow less than the ones the conquerors came from. It seems human nature is slow to change. Happy Sunday. Allan

    February 6, 2022 - 2:13 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Hey Allan, you’re right, it was a rather unsavoury and depressing business from start to finish. You really do feel the weight of history as you pass through those gates. To be there and imagine those scenes during The Fall of Saigon is an experience I’ll always remember.

      February 6, 2022 - 2:15 pm Reply
  • wetanddustyroads

    That is a mouthful of history … but interesting to read how it happened that one place can have so many names! I like that last photo of the helicopter with the blue sky and white clouds as background.

    February 6, 2022 - 2:51 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      It is a confusing history for sure and one that’s tricky to process, let alone wrote about. Thanks for wading through it, the helicopter on the roof is pretty cool.

      February 6, 2022 - 2:59 pm Reply
  • Lookoom

    This is a visit I would like to make. I am struck by the size of the rooms and the luxury of the palace. As for its architecture, the Vietnamese version has more originality than the first building, whose style could be found elsewhere. Many thanks for this interesting article.

    February 6, 2022 - 3:03 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Glad you like the look of the palace, it does have a certain allure. Thanks for stopping by.

      February 6, 2022 - 9:00 pm Reply
  • Memo

    Fascinating visit although it looks more European to me. Sadly, Diem and Thieu will always be entangled with American politics in my mind. Personally, I’m glad that American ambitions for control of a foothold in SE Asia failed. As you noted, it’s all very complicated. Beautiful pictures and a nice historical summary. Thanks for a brief look inside.

    February 6, 2022 - 3:12 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      I had never gone into the history this deeply before and found a lot of the online overviews both confusing and contradictory. I think the building is quite handsome in its own way, glad that came through with the photos which needed a fair bit of editing.

      February 6, 2022 - 3:18 pm Reply
  • salsaworldtraveler

    The weirdness of HCMC continues to play out. Many still call it Saigon and the train station is still named Ga Saigon at least when I was there last. Vietnam, like China, is strictly under the control of the communist party and seems to view itself as a socialist state but flourishes by virtue of capitalism. Thanks for the great and concise history. We will see what the next chapter holds.

    February 6, 2022 - 5:14 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      An interesting note on the contradictory systems. Just a few more HCM pieces coming out as I elected to do a roundup article for most of the sites. Cheers John!

      February 6, 2022 - 7:58 pm Reply
  • Monkey's Tale

    Like you we weren’t enthralled with HCM. We didn’t even see many sites, we just wanted to leave as soon as we arrived. Thanks for the tour and recap of this convoluted history. This war ended up with thousands of South Vietnamese fleeing to Canada, most of them will always refer to the city as Saigon. Maggie

    February 6, 2022 - 5:33 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Interesting to hear that you also weren’t keen on HCM. I don’t think I’ve ever met someone who truly loved the place. Didn’t realise Canada had a strong Vietnamese community, thanks for stopping by Maggie.

      February 6, 2022 - 8:05 pm Reply

    Interesting to note that you weren’t too enchanted to begin with, we were so looking forward to seeing HCMC – it was due to be our last call in Vietnam before we hit Cambodia. Great insight, all noted pending our return, whenever that may be.

    February 6, 2022 - 6:53 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      I think it’s well worth visiting for its unique sights. But as a whole it’s a difficult place to love. Thanks for reading!

      February 6, 2022 - 8:07 pm Reply
  • Rebecca

    It’s the big, capital cities like Ho Chi Minh (along with Beijing and New Delhi, as you mention) which get a bad rep for being chaotic and not reflective of the “true” culture of whatever country it is. I find that opinion unfair, as the capital does at least offer the political history of the place, as you showed us with your visit to the Reunification Palace. It’s by understanding the political history of the country that really makes you astonished at just how far it has come, and to appreciate the privilege of being able to visit it in the first place.

    February 6, 2022 - 9:22 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Yeah I’ve always disagreed with the sound byte about certain monster cities “not being the real….” (insert country name here). Usually they are as representative of a culture as anywhere else in the country. While I didn’t like HCM much, there’s no doubting the power of its heavyweight sights. Indeed I’ll be sharing another one on Wednesday. Thanks, as ever, for your thoughts Rebecca.

      February 6, 2022 - 9:33 pm Reply
  • Just_Me :)

    I didn’t particularly liked HCM but I did learn a lot about their history during my visit. Nice post!

    February 7, 2022 - 7:44 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Not much love for Ho Chi Minh all round it seems. Thanks for reading!

      February 7, 2022 - 8:47 am Reply
  • Lyssy In The City

    It always amazes me we can visit places where so much happened in history! Sometimes I don’t feel worthy haha

    February 7, 2022 - 3:05 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      It can be pretty overwhelming and I know what you mean about feeling a bit insignificant in such places ha ha. Thanks for reading Lyssy!

      February 7, 2022 - 4:41 pm Reply
  • grandmisadventures

    Very concise and understandable for such a complicated history of this place. The building itself is lovely, but not as much as the original was. But that conference room is stunning!

    February 7, 2022 - 8:07 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Hey Meg! Glad the muddy history came through somewhat. The interior is impressive no doubt, I wish I’d taken a few more photos.

      February 7, 2022 - 8:50 pm Reply
  • WanderingCanadians

    The history of the Reunification Palace does sound convoluted, but I guess that just adds to the mystery and intrigue. How neat to tour through all the rooms and see the various design styles and furniture pieces within the palace. Thanks for sharing, Linda

    February 7, 2022 - 10:29 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks Linda, glad you enjoyed the virtual tour. It’s definitely not to be missed while in the city.

      February 7, 2022 - 10:51 pm Reply
  • 100 Country Trek

    Such a site we saw in Ho Chi Minh. The Palace was high on my list. Thanks for sharing your story about exploring the area.

    February 11, 2022 - 11:13 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Thank you for reading Anita and adding to the comment thread. It’s a special building with a somewhat crazy history.

      February 11, 2022 - 11:54 am Reply
  • Toonsarah

    Like you I didn’t take to HCMC as I had to Hanoi, but there’s no denying it has some fascinating sights! We saw the palace but didn’t have time to go inside so thank you for the virtual tour 🙂

    May 16, 2022 - 10:32 am Reply
    • Leighton

      You’re very welcome, thanks for checking in.

      May 16, 2022 - 10:51 am Reply

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