HO CHI MINH CITY AND AROUND || AROUND NGUYEN HUÉ
When Saigon’s French administrators laid the 750m sweep of Charner Boulevard over a filled-in canal and down to the Saigon River, their brief was to replicate the elegance of a tree-lined Parisian boulevard, and in its day this broad avenue was known as the Champs Elysées of the East. These days, however, Nguyen Hué, as it is now known, is a mish-mash of architectural styles and has little character except on Sundays and at festival time. Each Sunday evening, the city’s trendsetting youth converge here and on nearby Dong Khoi on their motorbikes, to circle round and round, girlfriends riding pillion, in a strange ritual that recreates the traffic jams that they suffer through on weekdays. During Tet the street also bursts into life, hosting a vast, riotously colourful flower market which draws Vietnamese belles in their thousands to pose in their best ao dai among the roses, sunflowers, chrysanthemums and conical orange trees.
Bitexco Financial Tower
With its tapered shape and distinctive helipad protruding like a tongue near the top, the sleek Bitexco Financial Tower is destined to become one of Saigon’s most memorable icons. It stands just to the east of the south end of Nguyen Hué and a stone’s throw from the river. Visitors come not so much for its ground-floor car showrooms and offices of wheelers and dealers, but for the sweeping views from the Saigon Skydeck on the forty-ninth floor, 178m above the ground. Look upwards and you’ll see the lip of the helipad on the floor above; look down and you should spot a few familiar sights, such as Ben Thanh market, the Hotel de Ville, the Opera House and the tips of the spires of Notre Dame Cathedral far below you. From this vantage point, it’s evident that Saigon’s skyline is changing at a breakneck pace.
Hotel de Ville
The stately edifice that stands at Nguyen Hué’s northern extent is the former Hotel de Ville, the city’s most photographed icon and an ostentatious reminder of colonial Europe’s stubborn resolve to stamp its imprint on the countries it subjugated, no matter how incongruous. Built in 1902–08 as the city’s administrative hub, this wedding cake of a building today houses the People’s Committee behind its showy jumble of Corinthian columns, classical figures and shuttered windows, and thus is not open to the public. A statue of Uncle Ho cradling a small child watches over the tiny park fronting the building, where flowerbeds add a splash of colour.
The Ho Chi Minh City Museum
Of all the stones of empire thrown up in Vietnam by the French, few are more eye-catching than the former Gia Long Palace, built a block west of the Hotel de Ville in 1886 as a splendid residence for the governor of Cochinchina. Homeless after the air attack that smashed his own palace, Diem decamped here in 1962, and it was in the tunnels beneath the building that he spent his last hours of office, before fleeing to Cha Tam Church in Cho Lon where he finally surrendered. Ironically, it now houses the Ho Chi Minh City Museum, which makes use of photographs, documents and artefacts to trace the struggle of the Vietnamese people against France and America. Even if you’re not desperate to learn more about the country’s war-torn past, you’re likely to be enchanted by the grandeur of the building, and you might even witness couples posing for wedding photographs, as the regal structure and well-tended gardens are a favourite backdrop for photographers.
The downstairs area is a hotchpotch of ancient artefacts and antique collections, along with a section on nature and another featuring ethnic clothing and implements. The museum shifts into higher gear upstairs, where the focus turns to the war with America. The best exhibits are those showcasing the ingenuity of the Vietnamese – bicycle parts made into mortars, a Suzuki motorbike in whose inner tubes documents were smuggled into Saigon, a false-floored boat in which guns were secreted and so on. Look out, too, for sweaters knitted by female prisoners on Con Dao Island bearing the Vietnamese words for “peace” and “freedom”. Elsewhere, there’s a cross-sectional model of the Cu Chi tunnels, and a rewarding gallery of photographs of the Ho Chi Minh Campaign and the fall of Saigon.
As with many of Vietnam’s museums, the hardware of war is on display in the gardens. Tucked away behind the frangipanis and well-groomed hedges out back are a Soviet tank, an American helicopter and an anti-aircraft gun, while out front are two sleek but idle jets.
The War Remnants Museum
A block north of Cong Vien Van Hoa Park, the War Remnants Museum is the city’s most popular attraction but not for the faint-hearted. Unlike at the Ho Chi Minh City Museum, you are unlikely to be distracted here by the building that houses the heart-rending exhibits – a distressing compendium of the horrors of modern warfare. Some of the instruments of destruction are on display in the courtyard outside, including a 28-tonne howitzer and a ghoulish collection of bomb parts. There’s also a guillotine that harvested heads at the Central Prison on Ly Tu Trong, first for the French and later for Diem.
Inside, a series of halls present a grisly portfolio of photographs of mutilation, napalm burns and torture. Most shocking is the gallery detailing the effects of the 75 million litres of defoliant sprays dumped across the country: beside the expected images of bald terrain, hideously malformed foetuses are preserved in pickling jars. A gallery that looks at international opposition to the war as well as the American peace movement adds a sense of balance, and makes a change from the self-glorifying tone of most Vietnamese museums. Accounts of servicemen – such as veteran B52 pilot Michael Heck – who attempted to discharge themselves from the war on ethical grounds are also featured. Artefacts donated to the museum by returned US servicemen add to the reconciliatory tone.
At the back of the museum is a grisly mock-up of the tiger cages, the godless prison cells of Con Son Island, which could have been borrowed from the movie set of Papillon.
Ben Thanh Market
There’s much more beneath the pillbox-style clock tower of Ben Thanh Market than just the cattle and seafood pictured on its front wall. The city’s busiest market for almost a century, and known to the French as the Halles Centrales, Ben Thanh’s dense knot of trade has caused it to burst at the seams, disgorging stalls onto the surrounding pavements. Inside the main body of the market, a tight grid of aisles, demarcated according to produce, teems with shoppers, and, if it’s souvenirs you’re after, a reconnaissance here will reveal conical hats, basketware, bags, shoes, lacquerware, Da Lat coffee and Vietnam T-shirts. Sadly, all stalls are now designated ‘fixed price’, so there’s no more good-natured bargaining, and prices are generally a bit higher than elsewhere. Walk through to the wet market along the back of the complex, and you’ll find buckets of eels, clutches of live frogs tied together at the legs, heaps of pigs’ ears and snouts and baskets wedged full of hens, among other gruesome sights. If you can countenance the thought of eating after seeing – and smelling – this patch of the market, com, pho and baguette stalls proliferate towards the back of the main hall. In the evenings, foodstalls specializing in seafood set up along the sides of the market, attracting a mixed crowd of locals and tourists.
Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre
If you sink into the depths of depression on leaving the War Remnants’ Museum, the perfect antidote is just a block away at 55b Nguyen Thi Minh Khai. Water puppets are an ingenious concept and few people fail to be enchanted at their first encounter with these waterborne buffoons. The tradition of water puppetry is much stronger in the north, but it’s such an appealing aspect of Vietnamese culture that there’s plenty of demand for shows in the south as well. The early-evening timing of the shows (book tickets through t 08 3840 4027, goldendragonwaterpuppet.com; shows 5pm, 6.30pm; 50min;$7,5) make them a fun activity with the kids before bed or dinner and consist of a dozen or so sketches on themes like rearing ducks and catching foxes, boat racing and unicorns playing with a ball.
THE REUNIFICATION PALACE
Five minutes’ stroll north up Nam Ky Khoi Nghia from the Ho Chi Minh City Museum, a red flag billows proudly above the Reunification Palace. A whitewashed concrete edifice with all the charm of a municipal library, the palace occupies the site of the former Norodom Palace, a colonial mansion erected in 1871 to house the governor-general of Indochina. After the French departure in 1954, Ngo Dinh Diem commandeered this extravagant monument as his presidential palace, but after sustaining extensive damage in a February 1962 assassination attempt by two disaffected Southern pilots, the place was condemned and pulled down. The present building was named the Independence Palace upon completion in 1966, only to be retitled the Reunification Hall when the South fell in 1975. The reversion to the label “Palace” was doubtless made for tourist appeal. All visitors are required to join a group tour in one of several languages.
Before the tour you enter a movie room, where a potted account of Vietnamese history and the American War is screened half-hourly. Guides then usher you through the hall’s many chambers, proudly pointing out every piece of porcelain, lacquerwork, rosewood and silk on display. Spookily unchanged from its working days, much of the building’s interior is a time capsule of sixties and seventies kitsch: pacing its airy banqueting rooms, conference halls and reception areas, it’s hard not to think you’ve strayed into the arch-criminal’s lair in a James Bond movie. Most interesting is the third floor, where, as well as the presidential library (with works by Laurens van der Post and Graham Greene alongside heavyweight political tomes), there’s a curtained projection room, and an entertainment lounge complete with tacky circular sofa and barrel-shaped bar. Nearby, a set of sawn-off elephant’s feet add an eerie touch to the decor. Perhaps the most atmospheric part of the building is the basement and former command centre, where wood-panelled combat staff quarters yield archaic radio equipment and vast wall maps.
The taking of the presidential palace
The Reunification Palace is so significant to the Vietnamese because it was the storming of its gates by a tank belonging to the Northern Army, on April 30 1975, that became the defining moment of the fall of Saigon and the South. These days, two tanks stand in the grounds as a reminder of the incident.
Of the many Western journalists on hand to witness the spectacle, none was better placed than English journalist and poet James Fenton, who conspired to hitch a ride on the tank that first crashed through the gates: “The tank speeded up, and rammed the left side of the palace gate. Wrought iron flew into the air, but the whole structure refused to give. I nearly fell off. The tank backed again, and I observed a man with a nervous smile opening the centre portion of the gate. We drove into the grounds of the palace, and fired a salute. An NLF soldier took the flag and, waving it above his head, ran into the palace. A few moments later, he emerged on the terrace, waving the flag round and round. Later still, there he was on the roof. The red and yellow stripes of the Saigon regime were lowered at last.”
Inside the palace, Duong Van Minh (“Big Minh”), sworn in as president only two days before, readied to perform his last presidential duty. “I have been waiting since early this morning to transfer power to you,” he said to General Bui Tin, to which the general replied: “Your power has crumbled. You cannot give up what you do not have.”