Never having done so, I took one day to play tourist in Saigon. My first stop was the Independence Palace in central Saigon (District 1).
Afterwards I went over to the Fine Arts Museum, however, just as I pulled up in front of the gates I got a phone call asking if I wanted to join the family for a round of massage and mani/pedis at a nearby salon. I looked longingly at the posters of art and history—it looked so beautiful and I love art museums so much—but then I turned around and made a beeline for 118 Foot & Body Massage on Pasteur Street.
I am so shallow.
Therefore, my entire tourist experience is this one: the Independence Palace … Come on, let’s take a gander.
Before I start here’s a little left hand commentary: Saigon doesn’t have many traditional cultural attractions. If you’re in search of great museums for history, art, anthropology, etc … then Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, will be your mecca. Saigon offers other attributes: amazing food, shopping, night life and commerce. It also has pretty easy access to the Mekong Delta, Cu Chi district and numerous beach/resort communities.
While the Palace isn’t as riveting as say, the Ho Chi Minh Museum in Hanoi, it is a worthwhile visit. It’s like visiting the U.S. White House, except that it’s no longer in daily use. Sometimes dignitaries are still hosted and entertained in some of the receiving rooms for official functions, but that’s it and not often.
The entrance fee is a mere US$0.50 and I would recommend taking a guided tour, which can easily be arranged at the entrance of the Palace whether you’re a party of two or twenty. Since I was by myself I merged with a large English speaking group, but I occasionally mingled with tours being conducted in a wide variety of languages: Dutch, Russian, Italian, French, Chinese. I thought the tour guides did a wonderful job.
The palace history in a nutshell:
In 1868 the French Governor in South Vietnam built the Indochina Governor’s Palace (aka Norodom Palace) on 12 hectares in the center of Saigon. The original architecture was French colonial and quite ornate.
In 1954, in accordance with the Geneva Accords, the French withdrew from Vietnam and handed over the palace to the new prime minister, Ngô Đình Diệm, who ultimately renamed it the Independence Palace.
In 1962, two Vietnamese pilots of the coup d’etat bombed and destroyed the entire left wing in an effort to assassinate Prime Minister Ngô Đình Diệm. Unable to rebuild Ngô Đình Diệm ordered the building to be demolished and a new palace built on the same site. This new structure was designed by architect Ngo Viet Thu, the first winner of the Grand Prix de Rome (the highest recognition of the Beaux-Arts school in Paris) and laureate of the Rome Architecture Award. The style is 1960s modern. The structure’s overall floor plan and design express the shape of the Chinese character for “good luck”.
In 1975 a North Vietnamese Army tank bulldozed through the front gates of the palace and symbolized the end of the Vietnam War. Later that year during the negotiations between the North and South Vietnamese governments the palace was renamed the Reunification Palace.
But almost everybody still refers to it as the Independence Palace. Even the current literature and brochures at the palace itself still say “Independence Palace”.
In 1990 the palace was converted into a tourist attraction.
Now, here’s a quick tour >>
Disclaimer: this is just a selection of rooms/photos to give you an idea. There’s five floors plus helipad/rooftop and not all were photo worthy or open the day I visited.
The cabinet meeting room.
The banquet room.
Critical phone bank of the main map room.
President’s International reception room.
Adjacent the International reception room and connected by glass doors is the President’s National reception room.
The Credentials presenting room.
I thought the details in this room were stunning, particularly the furniture design and lacquer were exquisite.
The Vice President’s reception room.
(left) The central stairs; (right) basement stairs that lead to the heart of communications.
Throughout the basement are dozens of rooms filled with map lined walls and communications equipment. Small, plain, windowless, low ceiling rooms lit by green florescent lights … it was eerie, like being inside the belly of the beast.
Okay, that’s it. There’s so much more there, but this gives you a good idea. You didn’t really want to see all my photos of the commercial kitchens, did you? Yeah, boring!
Anyway, the gardens are large and littered with military memorabilia: tanks, helicopters, etc. That’s not really my thing, so I passed on that stuff in favor of an ice cream cone and wandering the sculpture garden.
If you have a chance to go, do. It’s a quick, easy and enjoyable tour. However, be careful of the hours of operation—the ticket office closes between 11am and 1pm for lunch.
Have fun and enjoy!