Independence Palace Saigon – The Prism of History

 

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What is commonly called The Independence Palace, or Reunification Palace was built in the centre of Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, in 1962. This followed an air raid by two renegade pilots of the then Vietnam Air Force on behalf of the Viet Cong, seeking to assassinate the then President Diem, which destroyed a wing of the then Norodam Palace. The President, who escaped the air raid, instructed that a new Palace to be built on the site, to the design of a Vietnamese architect who won one of the world’s foremost architectural prizes for his design.

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President Diem never saw the finished work since he and his family were assassinated, but it became the seat of power of the subsequent Presidents of South Vietnam, or the Republic of Vietnam as it was known. That era ended in 1975 when North Vietnamese forces took the Palace, a scene reflected in a famous photo of a North Vietnamese tank crashing through the Palace gates.

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For me this is not an inspiring building despite its Architectural awards, but looking at it, and inside it, lets us look at history through a prism and reflect on some of what it means historically. The Palace has subsequently been used for State occasions but it is essentially a destination for tourists exploring Vietnam. The balcony from which Presidents looked down on crowds, is not a convenient vantage point for people to take photos down a wide boulevard lined by a park, the play ground of the French Colonials of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

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What strikes you first and foremost about the interior is how grandiose an pompous it is. Throne rooms, extravagant 800 seater meetings rooms ,where the great and the good of that tiny, no longer existing Republic and their visitors assembled to chart the course of the country and to play its important part in the Geopoliticis of the era of the “domino effect”. Today it all seems pointless and irrelevant, with the then famous people who occupied those rooms gone and largely forgotten. But then how many countries do we see in the world with poor people who have been ruled by people where display has far outweighed substance in importance.

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In the basement is a bunker to be used by the President in time of war or emergency. It has offices bedrooms and the then latest communication technology still in place. Despite the fact that it is only 41 years since that country’s demise, the equipment looks stone age. You realise that in the era in which we exist, history is defined not just by time, but also by technological progress, things and people become objects of history much earlier than they used to. History is foreshortened.

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And individuals see this building according to their lives at the time. A woman I met in Saigon who had been in her 30s when the tank crashed through the gates, told me that I should not take too much notice of the incident with the tank, “to be honest” she said, “don’t take too much notice of this drama about tanks smashing gates. In fact we just opened the gates and let them in”. Such is the joy of the prism effect on history.

 

Hue and The Perfume River – Vietnam

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The ancient city of Hue was the capital city if Vietnam from 1802 to 1945 when Vietnam was divided and acquired 2 Capital Saigon in the South and Hanoi in the North. The city’s biggest feature is the enormous 19th century Citadel that also houses what was the Imperial City the home of the then Emperors.

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The City is crossed by the Perfume River. Upstream of the city were many orchards and flowers that fell from those orchards used to fill the river and float through it giving off a scent hence the name. Many of those orchards are gone but annual flowers still float down.img_0345

img_3348The river is very much alive, Transport, fishing and now tourism fill it. One of the most common sights on the river is boats carrying the rich sediment from the river bottom back to the city. The boats are rudimentary and the operators get paid per loan for the sediment which is used in building. To see those boats filled with the water line so close to the level of the river you wonder why they don’t sink but somehow from generations of experience they thrive.

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Along the river are pagodas and also the tombs of former emperors. These burial sites and tombs were identified and designed in the lifetime of an emperor and they are more like small palaces than a burial site, set in carefully selected beautiful sites out of the city along the river. Although there are temples and memorials in these sites, actually the emperors are buried somewhere in the large enclosure but with no one knowing exactly where. Fear of exhumation was such that the Emperor himself was buried secretly in an unmarked grave somewhere on the sit, which was usually tended by former wives of which they could have hundreds.

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The City itself is dominated by the Citadel an enormous construction surrounded by some 10kms of walls. The Citadel suffered huge damage in the Vietnam War in the Tet offensive such that many of the buildings have been destroyed. Some have been restored and it is a wonderful place to visit, although you need time to do that. Many people bypass Hue and their way North and South but for me it was one of my favourite cities in Vietnam and a must visit.

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The Marble Mountains – Vietnam

 

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The Marble Mountains are 5 marble and limestone hills that are just south of Da Nang on the east coast of Vietnam. The area is famous for marble creations although the marble no longer comes from these hills but is brought from other parts of Vietnam. Each of the hills has a name relating to an element, metal, water, wood, fire and earth. The hills are on an essentially flat coastal plain and rise out of the plain in an almost random way. img_0159

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These marble factories produce amazing carvings, all entirely carved and polished by hand. You can buy designs there or they make designs to order. The craftsmanship is amazing although there is a major discrepancy between what a carving costs and what someone gets paid to make one. You can wander round the marble factories and watch the carvings being made all the way from a block of marvel to a beautiful modern or traditional carving.

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Buddhist sanctuaries and grottos are inside the mountains, having been constructed to fit the contours, and these themselves have some extraordinary and intricate work. There is a lift up part of the mountain that is accessible to visitors, followed by some 150 steps up to the summit. The amazing views from the mountains look out over the beautiful beaches of this part of the country and west across the plain to the mountains in the distance. These hills have been a look out point for centuries.

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It is said that in the Vietnam war the Vietcong had a hospital in these hills close to an air force base hiding its existence effectively in plain sight. There are tickets to buy but reasonable priced. The local currency, the Dong, has a lot of zeros in it which is quite hard to get used to, so you have to remember that when you are told that something costs say 250, you need to add three zeros to that figure!

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This area of coast is now subject to huge development for the tourist industry with big and numerous resorts being built down the coast from Da Nang to cater for the tourist trade predominantly from China, Korea and Japan. In a way it is a sad sight because the natural beauty of the coast here is stunning. But ask a Vietnamese person about it and they are happy that it will bring income and prosperity to the area, the classic conundrum of development.

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Hoi An – Vietnam

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Hoi An, the name means “Peaceful meeting place” sits on the east coast of Vietnam in the centre of the country. It is a UNESCO Heritage Site being a beautifully preserved trading town showing a whole variety of cultures, and it has been a trading town since the 15th century. img_0090

 

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The town stretches along the river and is a beautiful evocation of past eras and has become a very popular tourist destination, allowing people to enjoy the beauty of the town, but at the same time explore the surrounding areas by bike motor bike or even by boat. The town sits on the estuary of the Thu Bon river so there are access to beaches also.

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img_0120At night the town is lit with lanterns and the many restaurants and bars come alive. There is a huge variety of food from traditional Vietnamese street food to western food if you want it. For myself the street food in Vietnam is amazing, filled with flavour despite its seeming simplicity. You realise that many places are family run which use recipes that they protect to create their popularity which they guard assiduously. img_0113

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The river is alive a real river giving a livelihood from fishing and from transport. In my wanderings I found on the bank of the estuary a place where small boats were built. The builder collecting planks of wood from wherever he could find them and turning them into beautiful small boats used for fishing or carrying people.

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Vietnam likes tickets, so there are often places where you might expect to go freely but for which you have to buy a ticket, but they are not expensive and that is just part of the culture of the place. Hoi An is famous for clothes making so if you want some clothes made in silk or cotton they will get it done while you are there from the fabrics you like at a great price.

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Hoi An is a beautiful place to go and a fun place too with a lot to see and to do and it’s a must see in Vietnam. The weather can be very hot and humid, so its an advantage to research that before you go.

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Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City – The Jade Emperor Pagoda.

 

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Is it Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City? My experience is that people who live there call it Saigon and those who don’t Ho Chi Minh. Myself I will call it Saigon because that name is more redolent of its history. One tip, how to cross the road in Saigon as you watch the endless wave of scooters and motor bikes the like of which I have never seen before, bearing down on you. At first you are stuck at the side of the road wondering how you will ever cross, but watch the Vietnamese and then you realise that the secret is just to step off the pavement into the massive flow of bikes. Then walk steadily, don’t stop and don’t change your pace and you will arrive at the other side as the bikes go round you. Its intimidating but amazing how it actually works.

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In central Saigon is the Jade Emperor Pagoda, or Phuoc Hai Temple. This active Temple was built by the Chinese, being finished in 1909. It is also known as the Lucky Sea Temple. The Jade Emperor is a Supreme Taoist deity and the person who, according to legend, decides who goes to heaven and who to hell, so a significant figure!

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The Temple also houses a turtle sanctuary, the turtle being a symbol of longevity and a symbol of good fortune and good luck. The temple is very active so as you look at it people for whom it is part of life worship there. One of the things that is striking in Vietnam is the generosity of the offerings of food that are presented at temples.

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In the courtyard outside the temple is an incinerator in which people burn paper, often fake money on the basis that the smoke will reach to the ancestors and the deceased in heaven, the ancestors playing an important part of the spiritual life.

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Some of the small sculptures that adorn the fringes of the building, round the roof, are beautiful depictions of religious scenes and life, done in a lifelike way and with amazing intricacy and a sense of reality. The Jade Emperor himself wears a large moustache typical of Cantonese culture, and reside in the room known as the Room of the 10 Hells.

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img_7871The air in the Temple is rich with the smell of incense, the smoke of candles with its soft light illuminating the various statues which signify everything that the Temple celebrates, and it is alive with not just visitors but ordinary people doing their devotions. A beautiful place.

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Vietnam – Cao Dai

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About 90kms northwest of Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City, , whichever you wish to call it, heading for the Cambodian border, lies Tay Ninh, the site of the Holy See of the Cao Dai religion. The religion, said to be the fastest growing religion in Vietnam with now an estimated 6m followers, was only founded in 1929.

 

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Cao Dai is the name of God the Father, the other deity being the Holy Mother, the Yang and Yin respectively of the religion; the Cao Daiists believing in the Yin and Yang, the harmonious balance in life. The full name of God, Cao Dai being a shortened version, reflects the fact that this religion is a combination of the three main religions of the area, Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. The symbols of the religion combine symbols from all of those creeds.

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Omnipresent is a symbolic eye, the left eye of God, symbolising that God sees everything, and it is the left eye as it sits above the heart and soul from where comes learning and wisdom. The religion teaches that historically God spoke to mankind through many prophets, but that now God speaks direct to mankind.

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The Holy See covers several hundred hectares of land, its main focus being the Temple where the faithful gather daily for reflection and prayer. The floor of the temple inside consists of a number of platforms which rise as you progress to wards the front, and as your learning and understanding of the creed increases, so you move forward to a higher level.

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The building is beautiful, but almost quirky in its colours, its realism, and above all its colours, which are like confectionary and might be seen decorating a cake. The images are detailed, realistic and prominent everywhere. Adherents follow a path of learning and meditation which gradually leads them through the levels of the religion to the highest levels.

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It is a bit of a hike out of Ho Chi Minh city but a good day is to combine the visit with one to the Cu Chi tunnels a short distance away and that makes for a great day out. The site is extraordinary, in that it is known as the Holy See, as the Vatican, and the symbolism is unique, but Cai Dai is the fastest growing religion so has obviously something to offer, and the site buildings and people there certainly do. There are also some holy monkeys contemplating the meaning of their lives!

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Travel – Vietnam

 

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Vietnam has a long history of insisting on its own identity and culture, dating back to the 10th century when they ceased to be part of the Chinese empire and became an independent state. Since then modern wars against the French there from the 19th century to 1954 and subsequently the US resulting in reunification in 1975 have cemented that sense of independence and pride you find in Vietnam.

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Vietnam’s geography is distinct and varied from the Mekong Delta south of Ho Chi Minh City through the central highlands to the old north and its national parks and mountains. The best way to see Vietnam I think is to start at one end and work up or down according to your choice. Many people but motorbikes in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh and sell them in the other city when they arrive.

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The people of Vietnam are approachable, friendly curious and direct. They have an instinct for trading and business and the whole country gives a strong impression of going somewhere fast, accompanied by massive investment into tourism and business. The tourism industry is growing at a huge rate with ever increasing numbers from Asia so Vietnam is changing fast and it might be good to go soon while the traditions are still very visible.

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Its an amazing place to visit but a place where you need to take your time. There is so much to see, so much variety and so many contrasts that you need to absorb them slowly or you will miss a lot. I am going to write various pieces on various aspects so hope readers enjoy those as much as that country is enjoyable.

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