Thursday, November 22, 2012


French tile in a bunker??
I enter a hidden passageway, and walk down dimly lit, gloomy grey steps. I’m descending into a deep, damp, underground hideaway.

Reaching the lower level, I walk down a quiet corridor. Walking alone, the only sound I here are my own footsteps. Looking down I’m surprised to see checkered French tile beneath my feet. Small fancy light fixtures are spaced evenly along plain white walls.
No money behind this bank door
The underground corridor leads me to a strong steel door. A wheel in the door’s center turns to lock it at four points, much like a bank safe. Stepping through, I walk deeper inside this hidden hideout, and the room opens up. I’m startled to find elegant, handmade wooden furniture. It’s a sitting room. Obviously this underground bunker with fancy furnishings wasn’t made for your usual cave dweller. This was made for a president. Or a dictator.
As the country turned against him, Diem hid down here
These tunnels were one of the last refuges of Ngo Dinh Diem, the former dictator/president of South Vietnam (aka Republic of Vietnam) who ruled after the departure of the French colonials. Atop these tunnels, is a rather drab French colonial structure that was once home to the Deputy Governor. When Diem took over from the French, he became the Catholic leader of a predominantly Buddhist country. Together with his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, they ruled the south with an iron fist. Corrupt and staunchly anti-communist, they oppressed, imprisoned or killed just about anyone who opposed them, whether they were communists, or Buddhists.

Diem survived a coup attempt in 1962 when his main office and residence, the nearby Independence Palace, was bombed by his own air force! Soon after that attack, the old building above me became Diem’s headquarters. In recent years it became the Museum of Ho Chi Minh City, but what’s most interesting here, is what they built beneath when Diem moved in.
Old Independence Palace, damaged from the coup attempt. (Museum photo)
When the strongman Diem moved his offices here, there were so many people who wanted him dead, that he ordered these tunnels built for his safety. They constructed six rooms in total, with one branch of these tunnels going all the way underground to Independence Palace. I’d love to see it, but that section is now flooded, and no longer in use. Diem wisely felt he needed the tunnels to escape, in case there was another coup attempt. It wasn’t long before he needed them. Less than two months after the tunnels were completed in 1963, there was another coup and Diem and his brother took shelter down here in these very tunnels.

Leaving the sitting room, I continue down the passageway. I discover it ends inside a blockhouse, complete with gun slits. Another steel door opens up to the outdoors. Climbing the steps outside, I find myself standing in the garden, behind the former palace. When Diem escaped these tunnels years ago, he fled to the other side of Saigon, taking shelter in a church in Cholon. Unable to garner any support to keep him in power, he finally surrendered. ARVN soldiers came and arrested him and his brother, and placed them inside an armored personnel carrier. As they drove them back into town, the two were shot and stabbed to death inside the vehicle. The coup was over.
Tunnels end in a garden blockhouse, complete with gun slits.
When the public learned that the two most feared and despised men in all of South Vietnam were dead, Saigon’s streets erupted in celebration. Human rights organizations cheered. Political prisoners were released. There was new hope for the fledgling nation, and the future looked bright.

But the success of the coup did not mean the beginning of stable government. In the next couple of years a series of power hungry generals and inept politicians ruled South Vietnam, and effective government remained elusive. The war in Vietnam would continue.


  1. Great history lesson here.. thanks for sharing about what happened, what is happening, and how it relates to the freedom of the people. Your blog is enthralling and youre a terrific writer. #inspired

  2. Thank you Lillian, I'm glad you enjoy the blog. I'll continue posting on Southeast Asia, it's an amazing part of this world.