The Reunification Palace is one of the holy triumvirate of attractions in Ho Chi Minh City’s downtown District 1. Just like the Notre Dame Cathedral and the Post Office, it sits as a time capsule of the city’s turbulent past.
When first completed in 1873, the complex covered 12 hectares with spacious gardens and a palace with an 800 metre-wide facade and an 800-person guest chamber. From 1873 to 1954, it was known as Norodom Palace, after the Cambodian king, and served as the residence of the Governors General of French Indochina throughout this time. Only during the occupation of Vietnam by the Japanese during World War II was this chain of governance broken. After the Geneva Accords in 1955, the palace was handed to Ngo Dinh Diem, the first prime minister of the State of Vietnam. The left wing of the palace was destroyed in 1962 after a bombing by two South Vietnamese pilots that mutinied. The remains of the palace were demolished and rebuilt to the structure you see today.
At first glance, the grounds look kitschy and feel like something out of a Sean Connery James Bond flick. Designed by architect Ngo Viet Thu, the building boasts distinctive features of typical buildings of its era. The grounds in front of the main building are dominated by a big water fountain in the middle of a meticulously manicured lawn. On the right is a fighter jet and more importantly, Tank 843, which was immortalised in footage taken by Australian Neil Davis of it crashing through the gates of the palace — it came to symbolise the end of the Vietnam War. Continuing further north on the pathway, you can find a completely out of place gazebo set upon a small incline. Around this area are tall trees which give some relief from the harsh midday sun.
Inside the building you are met with 1960’s decor at its finest. The attention to keeping the building untouched is unnerving, right down to a game of dominoes set at a table in a second floor anteroom. Make sure to head to the roof, which has commanding views of Dong Du, along with two red circles placed on the ground to indicate where bombs landed from another South Vietnamese plane in 1975.
While the ground and upper floors are interesting enough with their opulence and kitsch, it’s the basement that truly amazes. Below is a maze of concrete war rooms that a set designer from Dr Strangelove would be envious of. Viewing the communication equipment and desks with not one but two phones — colour coded to ensure no confusion — one can imagine the machine of war being run in this complex.
Depending on your level of interest in this period of history, it can take an hour or a whole afternoon in this complex. You are also quite close to the War Remnants Museum and the Ho Chi Minh City Museum and there are plenty of places in the area worth trying for lunch. We recommend Barbecue Garden and Propaganda are within five minutes’ walk from the palace.
By Vinh Dao
Last updated on 15th November, 2014.