Day 19 Saturday 3 January 2015

This morning commences with a trip to what is now known as the “Re-Unification Palace” but was originally the Preseidential Palace from the time of construction in the early 1960’s until the end of South Vietnam in 1975.

For a period post 1975 some of the contents were sold and so some aspects of the private quarters are reconstructions.  The main presidential offices however are as they were at the time of the later Presidents whilst South Vietnam existed.  The President’s office and the main meeting rooms are as they were then – and how they were used to greet visitors – domestic and international.

In an interesting echo of our visit nearly three weeks ago to the Ho Chi Minh residence and adjacent bunker used during the war periods when bombs were being dropped on Hanoi, there is a similarly well defended area under the Re-unification Palace for the South Vietnamese President.  There is a direct route from the President’s office to the underground bunker – which has two levels and the level one metre underground has been opened to visitors.  There is a command room, a president’s room (and bedroom) and a security and communication rooms.  There was also a deeper level which was believed could not be reached by exploding bombs but this has not been opened up.

The photographs can be found here:

Looking at the building externally the architecture is clearly of that era and given the nature of the concrete I hope that it will be maintained for the future.  Therer are maps both in the security council room above ground and in the command bunker below showing the battle areas and reminding us of the Ho Chi Minh trails which led from north to south.  Peak US soldier deployment was 1969/70, at which point the army losses were so heavy and the US forces decided to adopt a new approach – described by one of the senior officers that they intended to bomb North Vietnam “back to the Stone Age”.

Our next visit is to the musem which is now called “War Remnants” which earlier had the name “War Crimes” and the thrust of the place really reflects the latter approach.  It lays out the story of US involvement – which started far sooner than I realised – in Vietnam from the late Forties through to 1975.

For those as ignorant as myself it turns out that the Americans were largely funding the activities of the French in seeking to restore colonial power after the declaration on independence as the Americans were at the time dependent on supplies of Tin and Tungsten from the area.  Once the French had failed at Dien Bien Phu, the Geneva convention separated the country into two, ostensibly for a short period.  In that period those in charge in the South became heavily influenced by the Americans and so the planned elections and re-unification never happened.

The War Remnants Museum mainly exposes the illegal activities of the US forces, their brutality and of course the application of napalm and agent orange for the defoliation of the forested areas.  There are tributes to the reporters who covered the conflict and many of the telling photographs which made an impression then are visible.  This includes the famous print of Phan Thi Kim Phuc, the naked girl running from a napalm attack.

There is an entire room dedicated to the after effects of the use of agent orange (dioxin) and the impact on subsequent generations, causing numerous deformities and other defects in those descended from people who suffered exposure.  Room is also given to the work undertaken post war by Vietnamese to recover and identify their lost compatriots.

When I was taught history I was told that the winners always write the history books and this museum is a perfect representation of that theory.  The guerilla war had already been lost by the French in 1953 and consequently the Americans were (in hindsight) on a hiding to nothing throughout the sixties and seventies (a theory made stronger by what we are told at the Cu Chi tunnels – see tomorrow).

By way of providing some balance the land mines laid by the Vietnamese in Laos to protect the northern part of the trail which are still there and are not identified is not mentioned and yet it is one of the highest concentrations of land mines in the world.

We have time for a brief visit to the Central Market and this is even more packed than some of the others we have visited.  Were I still working as this is one of those places that reckons they can make a suit in 24 hours I would have done so.  Looking at the fabrics the quality seemed good and it was one of those things that I simply wanted to try.  But now I might wear a suit once a month and probably the ones I have will last a lifetime.  After some hunting around the wife buys some hazelnut coffee, neither of us fancy the squirrel or weasel coffee.  And some further hunting produces a “Mont Blanc” bag with a zip along the top for me and a new baseball style “Vietnam” cap as the old one is filthy.  It will be interesting to see how long the real leather bag lasts.  The sales woman proved it was real leather by use of a lighter – so at least she has confidence in her products.  I doubt it is real “Mont Blanc” however.

In the evening we have a great time.  We board a boat of fun to go around the Saigon river and there is lots of good food being cooked and a real mix of entertainment.  The band playing are very competent and the singers perform well – upbeat and far more fun than the singers on Xmas Eve,  There are also dancers who not only do a local dance but also belly dancing and lead a conga around the ship!  A magician appears at our table – wearing a short sleeved shirt, so there is clearly nothing hidden up his sleeves – and he is able, under our noses to make pieces of string change length become interlocked, and then revert to single pieces and makes little balls vanish and re-appear.   Whilst all basic staples of the close up magician his misdirection and skill mean that there is not the faintest clue as to how it is all done.  And for some of the tricks it is the second time we have seen them this week.  Amazing skills.  We really feel that this evening was a great entertainment and it certainly put a smile on our faces.

From the river we could also see the other boats and some of the waterfront and sadly the pictures cannot do that justice but the buildings which have been developed in recent years certainly give the City a status and whilst perhaps not quite as clean as Hanoi, it is certainly a very modern city.