The striking modern architecture and the eerie feeling you get as you walk through the deserted halls make this government building one of the most fascinating sights in HCMC. The first communist tanks to arrive in Saigon rumbled here on the morning of 30 April 1975 and it’s as if time has stood still since then.
After crashing through the wrought-iron gates – in a dramatic scene recorded by photojournalists and shown around the world – a soldier ran into the building and up the stairs to unfurl a VC flag from the balcony. In an ornate reception chamber, General Minh, who had become head of the South Vietnamese state only 43 hours before, waited with his improvised cabinet. ‘I have been waiting since early this morning to transfer power to you’, Minh said to the VC officer who entered the room. ‘There is no question of your transferring power’, replied the officer. ‘You cannot give up what you do not have.’
In 1868 a residence was built on this site for the French governor-general of Cochinchina and gradually it expanded to become Norodom Palace. When the French departed, the palace became home to the South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem. So unpopular was Diem that his own air force bombed the palace in 1962 in an unsuccessful attempt to kill him. The president ordered a new residence to be built on the same site, this time with a sizeable bomb shelter in the basement. Work was completed in 1966, but Diem did not get to see his dream house as he was killed by his own troops in 1963.
The new building was named Independence Palace and was home to the successive South Vietnamese President, Nguyen Van Thieu, until his hasty departure in 1975. Designed by Paris-trained Vietnamese architect Ngo Viet Thu, it is an outstanding example of 1960s architecture, with an airy and open atmosphere.
The ground floor has various meeting rooms, while upstairs are a grand set of reception rooms, used for meeting foreign and national dignitaries. In the back of the structure are the president’s living quarters; check out the model boats, horse tails and severed elephants’ feet. The second floor has a shagadelic card-playing room, complete with a round leather banquette, a barrel-shaped bar, hubcap light fixtures and groovy three-legged chairs set around a flared-legged card table. There’s also a cinema and a rooftop nightclub, complete with helipad: James Bond/Austin Powers – eat your heart out.
Perhaps most interesting of all is the basement with its telecommunications centre, war room and network of tunnels, with the best map of Vietnam you’ll ever see pasted on the wall. Towards the end are rooms where you can watch a video about the palace and its history in a variety of languages. The national anthem is played at the end of the tape and you are expected to stand up – it would be rude not to.
Reunification Palace is open to visitors as long as official receptions or meetings aren’t taking place. English- and French-speaking guides are on duty during opening hours (prices are ‘up to you’).
Reunification Palace information
Street Ð Nam Ky Khoi Nghia
+84 8 3829 4117
7.30-11am & 1-4pm