History of Saigon

Reunification Palace sits in Cong Vien Van Hoa Park in central Ho Chi Minh City. It is the famous site of the end of the infamous Vietnam War, where communist North Vietnamese army tanks smashed through its north gates on 30 April 1975 and sent the Americans running—literally.

Prior to visiting the palace, I was told that the building has been left just as it was on that day, and so I imagined scattered remnants of an elegant palace gate, army tanks lingering on the grounds and, well, some oversized tire marks still cutting deep into the lawn. But it didn’t look quite like that. The outside certainly doesn’t look like the war ended yesterday like I thought it would; the gate is intact, the lawn is nicely manicured, and a single army tank is carefully parked.

Heading inside, I realized it was the interior that had been left remindful of that historic spring day—only a little tidier. I would think that any attack that ends a long and difficult war would have caused at least some furniture to be overturned and left some items scattered as people fled the scene. Instead, chairs are positioned nicely around the tables and phones in the basement’s telecommunications tunnels are set neatly on their cradles.

Taking advantage of a tour guide, I was led through several nicely decorated meeting rooms and lounges before we headed to the rooftop, where outlines of two bombs that fell during an assassination attempt on a South Vietnamese president are still marked on the roof. Next we went to the basement to see the underground headquarters of the American army, where I could look at the maps still hanging on the walls. After the tour was over and I was able to explore on my own, I headed for the museum’s picture room, where hundreds of photos record the varied history of the building.

While viewing the gripping photos of the city’s massive helicopter evacuation and the building’s gate-crashing army tanks, I learned the palace was not only the site of the end of the war, but it was effectively the site of the beginning, too. The history of this building tells the tale of the war from its early origins to the bitter conclusion.

The original palace, called Norodom Palace, was built in 1873 by the French, who captured Vietnam as a colony years earlier. It was the home of the French Governors and Governor Generals, and briefly a Japanese Governor, until 1954 when the French were forced out. Unfortunately, this resulted in a divided country where peace couldn’t continue for long. The building became the residence for South Vietnamese Presidents and became known as Presidential Palace or Independence Palace. Meanwhile, emotions were stirring across the division line. In 1960, the long, ugly war began when the communist north began to form troops in order to accomplish their plans to unite the country. Fifteen tumultuous years later with the Fall of Saigon—or the Liberation of Saigon, depending on your point of view—the building became the Reunification Palace.

After the North Vietnamese army raised their flag on the rooftop of the palace and the South Vietnamese President officially surrendered, there was finally an end to the war. Days later, the city was renamed Ho Chi Minh City in honour of the man who led the Vietnamese people through their worst conflict. But at Reunification Palace, time will remain frozen in the last moments of the war and the last moments of the city of Saigon.