Saturday, July 28, 2012

Ho Chi Minh City: Architecture and Museums

Ho Chi Minh City is chock full of beautiful colonial architecture and
interesting museums, many of which I got the chance to see while wandering around town.

We stayed right by the opera house (Municipal Theater is its official name, but doesn't opera house sound better?), which is the counterpart to the Hanoi opera house Tim stayed near a few months ago... built in 1897:

While Tim was in meetings, I went to check out some of Ho Chi Minh City's sites and museums, starting with the Reunification Palace (formerly known as Independence Palace):

Reunification Palace is stuck in time in the mid-'70s when it was last used as a government building...  the rooms are preserved as they were when it was the home, office and reception locale of the South Vietnamese President Thieu.  The decor is straight out of the late '60s- a very Austin Powers-esque feel to it in certain rooms such as the card-playing room and nightclub.  

The palace also housed, in the basement, the communications and planning center for the South Vietnamese government during the American/Vietnam War: a telecommunications center, a map/war room, and a series of tunnels.

I don't know if you can read the red writing here on the rooftop helipad at the Palace, but it says "At 8:30 am April 8th 1975 First Lieutenant Pilot Nguyen Thanh Trung flew F5E and threw down two bombs at the right target here":  

On April 30, 1975, North Vietnamese Army tanks rolled into Saigon and through the fences at Independence Palace.  A soldier dramatically ran into the building and up the stairs to unfurl a massive VC flag on the balcony.  

Looking out from the palace towards where the tanks rolled in in 1975:

Replica tanks numbered like the 2 that rolled through the palace fences in 1975:

I also wandered down to the river on my way to the Ho Chi Minh Museum:

The Ho Chi Minh Museum, housed in the former customs house built by the French in 1863, has photos and artifacts all tracing Ho Chi Minh's life from his birth and early life, his travels to Europe, Russia and China (apparently this building was chosen for his museum because this is the site from which Ho Chi Minh embarked on these journeys on a French freighter back in 1911), his political awakening and his role as the leader in North Vietnam.

View of the Bitexco Financial Tower, the second tallest building in Vietnam, a super modern skyscraper sitting next to and contrasting with the pink French colonial building below it... the Lonely Planet describes the tower as looking like "a CD rack with a tambourine shoved into it."  Ha.

Ships at the port:

The People's Committee Building, the former Hotel de Ville built in the early 1900's, has a super ornate renaissance-inspired front.  It's closed to the public, unfortunately:

Saigon's Central Post Office was designed by Gustave Eiffel (of Eiffel tower fame) and built between 1886 and 1891... it's got a massive grand concourse with a portrait of Ho Chi Minh presiding over the sale of postage stamps.  There are also a couple mural maps of Saigon and South Vietnam on the walls, right above some cool looking wooden phone booth-cum-ATMs:

Right across from the central post office is the Notre Dame Cathedral, built entirely out of materials shipped in from France between 1877 and 1883:

I also hit up the heartbreaking (albeit pretty one-sided) War Remnants Museum. I understand from Lonely Planet that it was formerly called the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes, and from Wikipedia that its name was The House for Displaying War Crimes of American Imperialism and the Puppet Government. The current name is much more subtle, no?

Outside the museum is a collection of military equipment and aircraft from the war as well as reproduction "tiger cages" in which the South Vietnamese held political prisoners:

The inside of the museum has several exhibits on the war, starting with one showing international opposition to the war, ranging from photos of rallies and protests to letters of support from various government officials.  Upstairs is decidedly more horrific, focused mainly on the atrocities like the My Lai massacre, the widespread use of chemicals like napalm and Agent Orange (and its continuing effect on future generations of Vietnamese), the use of experimental weapons, and the tragedy that unexploded ordnance has wreaked on Vietnamese since the war, among other things.  However, the museum neglects to address the North Vietnamese's actions during the war... it fails to mention the land mines that they planted, the massacres they conducted or the treatment of their war prisoners.  Frustrating, but worth a visit anyway if you can handle the disturbing images and heartbreaking stories of those affected by the war. I definitely made use of my bandana to wipe away tears and saw other people doing so also.

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