Reunification Hall

Reunification Hall

On Boxing Day we disembarked the River Orchid in My Tho for an hour-and-a-half bus trip to Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon. The scenery changed from rice paddys to a modern city with skyscrapers such as the Bitexco Financial Tower with its heli-pad designed like a lotus blossom. Our first stop was Reunification Hall, originally known as the Norodom Palace and later called the Governor’s Palace. According to feng shui, the site is located on a dragon’s head; therefore, it was also referred to as the Dragon’s Head Palace. On February 27, 1962, two pilots of President Diệm’s Vietnam Air Force rebelled and flew two A-1 Skyraider aircraft towards the palace and bombed it, instead of going on a raid against the Việt Cộng. As a result, almost the entire left wing was destroyed. Diệm and his family, however, escaped this assassination attempt. As it was almost impossible to restore the palace, Diệm ordered it demolished and commissioned a new building, Independence Hall, in its place. Diệm was assassinated before it was completed. The Independence Hall served as General Nguyễn Văn Thiệu’s home and office from October 1967 to 21 April 1975. On April 30, 1975, two North Vietnamese tanks crashed through the wrought iron gates of this former symbol of the South Vietnamese government. We visited several rooms. The State Banqueting Hall held as many as 100 guests. The room’s gold color scheme, an informational sign told us, was designed to create a convivial atmosphere. The Palace’s architect, Ngô Viết Thụ, represented a scene from a poem widely known and cherished as an evocation of national unity in a massive painting divided in seven sections. The meetings held in the Cabinet Room included sittings of the President and his ministers. Official receptions for as many as 500 guests were and still are held in the Conference Hall. We also descended to a basement level and walked through the old war rooms with maps, desks, and telephones still in place.

A wedding was underway during our quick walk through of the Saigon Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica. Later, I learned that the cathedral was constructed by French colonists between 1863 and 1880 using building materials imported from France. It has two bell towers, reaching a height of 190 feet. In 1959, Bishop Joseph Pham Van Thien, whose jurisdiction included Saigon, attended the Marian Congress held in the Vatican and ordered a statue of Our Lady of Peace made with granite in Rome. The statue was installed on February 16, 1959 and presented the title of “Regina Pacis”. In 1962, Pope John XXIII conferred the cathedral with the status of a basilica.

Designed by Gustave Eiffel, the Central Post Office, located across the street from the Notre-Dame Cathedral, was constructed between 1886-1891. The exterior was being repainted during our visit. A large space within the post office was devoted to selling souvenirs. Also, a public writer, Noi Chi Dan Va Viet Giup, spends time there. Our last morning stop was a lacquer workshop where artisans were producing beautiful pieces of art. During our stay in Ho Chi Minh City, we stayed at the Park Hyatt Saigon, centrally located and truly a five star hotel.

Napalm Girl Photo

Nick Ut with his Napalm Girl Photo

In the afternoon we visited the War Remnants Memorial. This museum, ironically located in the premises of the former U. S. Information Agency building, opened in 1975 as the “Exhibition House for US and Puppet Crimes.” In 1990, the name changed to “Exhibition House for Crimes of War and Aggression.” In 1995, following the normalization of diplomatic relations with the United States and end of the US embargo from a year before, it became the “War Remnants Museum” The museum comprises a series of themed rooms in several buildings, with period military equipment placed within a walled yard. The military equipment includes a UH-1 “Huey” helicopter, an F-5A fighter, M48 Patton tank, an A-1 Skyraider attack bomber, and an A-37 Dragonfly attack bomber. There are a number of pieces of unexploded ordnance stored in the corner of the yard, with their charges and/or fuses removed. One building reproduces the “tiger cages” in which the South Vietnamese government kept political prisoners. Other exhibits include graphic photography, accompanied by a short text in English, Vietnamese and Japanese, covering the effects of Agent Orange and other chemical defoliant sprays, the use of napalm and phosphorus bombs, and war atrocities such as the My Lai massacre. The photographic display includes the famous “Napalm Girl” photo donated to the museum on March 29, 2013 by Pulitzer Prize winning photographer Nick Wat who was traveling with us.

The Saigon Opera House, built by the French in 1897, is located next to the Saigon Park Hyatt. We attended an evening performance of the AO Show. The one-hour program featured Vietnamese folk music as 17 young performers showed off their athletic acrobatic ability in a series of vignettes using only bamboo and baskets. The scene showing apartment life when electricity is lost conveyed universal humorous appeal. After the show we walked along the street enjoying the colorful lights hanging over the street sponsored by different businesses. Skyscrapers were also outlined in changing patterns of neon. Crossing a street is a challenge as there are few traffic lights and traffic is always heavy. The theory is that one simply starts walking across the street at a slow even pace and traffic will adjust around you. Difficult to do! We had dinner at an authentic Chinese restaurant where we were the only Westerners. On our walk back to our hotel around the Opera House we discovered that this area is a popular date spot filled with couples on bicycles and motor-scooters.

On our last day in Ho Chi Minh City we traveled out of the city to Trang Bang where Nick Ut’s famous photograph was taken. The Cao Dai Temple seen in the photo helped orient us. The noodle shop where the mother of the naked girl in the photo, Kim, is still there in an updated version. Inside, pictures related to that important event hang on the wall. Two of Kim’s cousins, a sister holding the hand of her younger brother in the photograph, were present for a reunion picture with Nick Ut that Mark Harris took for a story he is writing. This outing made history come alive!

Our excursion continued with a visit to the Ben Dinh tunnel of Củ Chi, an immense network of connecting underground tunnels located outside Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam, and are part of a much larger network of tunnels that underlie much of the country. The Củ Chi tunnels were the location of several military campaigns during the Vietnam War, and were the Viet Cong’s base of operations for the Tết Offensive in 1968. The tunnels were used by Viet Cong soldiers as hiding spots during combat, as well as serving as communication and supply routes, hospitals, food and weapon caches and living quarters for numerous North Vietnamese fighters. A segment of a tunnel has been expanded so that Westeners like me can get a sense of them. I duck walked only about 15 meters in the dark, and had enough. It is hard to imagine living under such conditions for significant amounts of time. We learned that there were actually three levels of tunnel. We found comparisons with the underground cities in Cappadocia, Turkey. The Christians in Turkey, however, lived underground in much better style.

Our tour of Southeast Asia came to a close with an early 3:30 a.m. departure from Ho Chi Minh City on a two-and-a-half hour flight to Hong Kong. From there we took a twelve hour flight to San Francisco. The final leg was a two hour flight to Phoenix. With nine hours spent waiting in airports, it took us about 27 hours to return home. But this trip to Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia was a great way to end 2014!