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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Vietnam- The CuChi Tunnels

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The Cu Chi tunnel system is about 75 kms south west of Ho Chi Minh City, 1 – 2 hours driving, depending on the notorious Saigon traffic. There are 2 main access points, at Ben Duoc and Ben Binh. Ben Duoc is the better known in that it has been adapted to suit tourism with slightly widened tunnels and other attractions, while Ben Binh is where most Vietnamese go and is probably more authentic. I visited Ben Binh on a very wet day, when the experience of being in the jungle was very real. There are some 200 kms of tunnels at varying levels covering a huge area. The area is pock marked with bomb craters since the area became the most bombed in the whole Vietnam war, with bombs napalm and agent orange being used.

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The thought that has gone into disguising the tunnels their entrances and exits and facilities is extraordinary. You approach the tunnels down a path and despite being invited to search for an entrance in a small indicated area its is almost impossible to find. Enter the tunnels hatch, drop down and pull the hatch behind you into the ground and it is immediately invisible. Ventilation shafts come to the surface in cracks in rocks, lookout openings are also like that and almost completely invisible.

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Underground are passages, rooms, where the smoke from cooking was disbursed above ground far from the kitchen itself to protect the area. It is extraordinary to be inside and feel that people lived there for years surfacing fighting returning throughout the war. Some 420 square kms of land was hammered by bombing in an effort to dislodge the fighters in the tunnels, but without success leaving the area a wasteland although now the vegetation has largely been restored. The tunnels were so well hidden that at one stage an American base was established on top of them.

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The site at Ben Binh includes a magnificent Pagoda and memorial to those who fought and died in the war and particularly in the tunnels. Some 50000 names are inscribed on the walls of the memorial and one thing that strikes you very hard is how young many of the men and women who died there were. The building includes a large statue of Ho Chi Minh and is an important memorial in Vietnam.

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Many of us read about the war every day, and were aware of the tunnels, but seeing them and experiencing them adds a dimension to understanding the war and its outcome. It is a very moving memorial all the more so because it is set in the countryside and not in a city, and simply to experience the tunnels for a sort time gives an idea about how hard life must have been for its occupants, living there, fighting there and being bombed incessantly.Vietnam

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