I think that the defining memories for those of us who grew up in the 1960s include the Mercury and Gemini space flights that ultimately lead to the successful Apollo moon landings (R.I.P., Neil Armstrong); the assassination of the Kennedy brothers and of King; the race riots in the mid-60s in Harlem, Watts, Philadelphia, Newark, Detroit and many other cities; the Civil Rights movement; the transformation of Rock ‘n’ Roll with the British Invasion and the success of Motown; and, of course, the Vietnam War along with the subsequent anti-war movement and protests. These are all so intertwined in my memory since they give context to each other.
During my recent visit to Saigon, I saw sites in the city and in the countryside that even after 40 years bring back memories of the Vietnam War that I knew only thanks to Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley, and David Brinkley. I was never in the military and I had a draft number that was so high that the odds of me being called up were infinitesimally low. Nevertheless, everyone who grew up in the 1960s knew someone — a relative, a friend, or a neighbor — who got that all-expense paid trip to Southeast Asia courtesy of Uncle Sam. Almost 60,000 American soldiers lost their lives there, hundreds of thousands of others returned physically or emotionally scarred, and nearly 1,700 others are still classified as MIA. The American death toll, however, pales when compared to that of the Vietnamese; approximately a quarter million South Vietnamese forces died and over 1.1 million NVA and Viet Cong were killed.
As I walked through the streets of Saigon, I went past the former CIA apartment building (C), where helicopters evacuated U.S. station personnel, and the Rex Hotel (J), where many war correspondents made their home while in Saigon. I visited the War Remnants Museum (F), formerly known as “The House for Displaying War Crimes of American Imperialism and the Puppet Government of South Vietnam” (just a tad more subtle than the rhetoric from Obama, Old Joe, and their Chicago re-election team), and the former Presidential Palace, now called Reunification Palace (G).
After arriving in Saigon on Saturday in the late morning, I set out on my tour of District 1. From my hotel (point A on map above), I first strolled to the Saigon Opera House, also known as The Municipal Theatre of Ho Chi Minh City. The Opera House was built during the first decade of the 20th Century (note to VP Biden: that is the 1900s) in an elegant and highly ornamental style associated with the French Third Republic. From 1956 until the fall of South Vietnam in 1975, South Vietnam’s Lower House Assembly met in this building.
After a short detour to look at the apartment building that the CIA used during the war (C), I backtracked to see the Notre-Dame Basilica, also known as the Citadel of Saigon. This church was built between 1877 and 1880 with all materials imported from France; the twin 190 foot tall bell towers were added in 1895. In front of the cathedral is a granite statue of the Virgin Mary that was made in Rome in 1959. In October 2005, it was reported that the statue shed tears causing thousands of people to come here to pray.
Directly across from the Notre-Dame Cathedral is the Saigon Central Post Office. This building was designed by Gustave Eiffel, best known for Paris’s Eiffel Tower and for his work on the Statue of Liberty, and built between 1886 and 1891. The building is still used as a post office and it is open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. Immediately inside the entrance are two large maps that date back to when the building was first opened. On one side is a map of Saigon, circa 1890; on the other is the postal route from Cambodia to Vietnam. The high ceilings and sense of space inside the Gothic structure are reminiscent of European railway stations. On the back wall is a large picture of Ho Chi Minh. In front of the building are two statues that were undoubtedly added after the reunification of South and North Vietnam. One statue shows a Viet Cong man with a radio and sidearm and a woman with rifle; the other shows a couple celebrating some “Glories of Socialism” nonsense.
The next stop on my self-guided walking tour was at the War Remnants Museum, a three-story structure in District 3. In front of the museum is a collection of planes, helicopters, tanks, howitzers, and munitions used by the U.S. and South Vietnamese (ARVN) military during the war. This museum is very much a propaganda piece for the current government in that it focuses solely on the actions of U.S. and ARVN forces and their impact on the people of Vietnam. For example, there is an exhibit documenting the atrocities and massacre committed by U.S. forces at My Lai, but the museum has nothing on the executions and mass killings committed by the Viet Cong and NVA in Huế during the Tet Offensive. Likewise, the museum documents the “tiger cages” in which the South Vietnamese held and tortured political prisoners, but it has nothing on the “re-education camps”, i.e., prisons, in which hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese were held and tortured, many for decades, after the war. It didn’t take long for me to move on from here.
My last major stop of the afternoon was the Reunification Palace, formerly the Presidential Palace for South Vietnam. Built between 1962 and 1966, the palace was the home to General Nguyễn Văn Thiệu, president of South Vietnam from 1966 until just days before the end of the war. The four-story tall palace contains nearly 100 rooms, with over 215,000 square feet of space, and it sits on a 30 acre plot of land.
The land had previously housed the Norodom Palace that was built by the French in 1873 and used as the office and residence of the Governor-General of French Indochina until 1945. President Ngô Đình Diệm used Norodom Palace as his residence from 1955 until 1962 when the palace was heavily damaged by bombs dropped by two rebel pilots from the South Vietnamese Air Force in an unsuccessful assassination attempt on President Diệm. The damage was so extensive, however, that Diệm ordered the palace be demolished and that a new one be built in its place. Diệm, however, never lived in the new Presidential Palace since he was ultimately overthrown and assassinated in a coup in November 1963.
The palace has pretty much been kept as it was in April 1975 when South Vietnam surrendered to the North. The basement of the palace contains the telecommunication center, the military command center or war room, a shooting range, and a bunker for the president. The ground or main floor was used as a reception area and for government meetings and has a special dining room for state dinners and the cabinet meeting room. The second floor has the president’s office and reception area and the family’s residence is on the back part of this level. The third floor contains the first lady’s reception area and dining room for her guests, a game room, and a movie theater. On the terrace outside is the heliport with a Huey helicopter still sitting there. The top floor contains a dance hall, casino, and another outdoor terrace. On the front lawn of the palace are replicas of the two tanks — a Chinese-made T-59 (#390) and a Soviet-made T-54 (#843) — that crashed through the gates of the Presidential Palace on the morning of April 30, 1975 to bring the war to an end.
As I walked back to the hotel from the palace, I passed by Ho Chi Minh City Hall (H). This beautiful French Colonial structure, built in the early 1900s, is not open to tourists or even to the public. In a small park across the street from the City Hall is a statue of Uncle Ho, or Bác Hồ, with a child. Very touching, indeed.
Just down the street from the park is the Rex Hotel (I). This was where the American military leadership held its daily press briefings, known as “The Five O’clock Follies” because of the often large discrepancies between reports from the field and the official pronouncements. Both the Rex Hotel and the City Hall look spectacular at night, and I made sure to circle back to get pictures later that evening.
Kop Khun Krab.
© 2012 Kurt Brown. All rights reserved.