Thursday, December 27, 2012


'Independence Palace' where the Vietnam War ended
This is where it all ended. After decades of destruction, and the loss of over two million lives, the Vietnam War ended right here.

I’m standing at the front gates of the ‘Independence Palace’, the previous government’s version of the White House. Other official listings refer to it as “Reunification Palace’, and also as the ‘Presidential Palace’. Like so many locations around the former Saigon, this site seems to have an identity crisis.

I peer through the palace front gates at the very spot, where on April 30, 1975, that the end came. In dramatic fashion North Vietnamese Army tanks crashed through these very gates, and quickly captured the palace, bringing about the end of the Republic of Vietnam.
Visitors view a grand Asian carpet near the palace entrance

For such a long war with so much bloodshed, the end of the conflict finally came with no shots fired at all. This is where the dream of reunification for Vietnam, was at last realized. This is also where for Vietnam, the dream of democracy died.

When the end of the war came, all the leaders who had started this war were already dead as well. Ho Chi Minh was dead. Ngo Dinh Diem was dead. Even the two US presidents who had brought America deep into this war, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, were also dead. The war had outlived them all. Finally, the war itself was dead too.

I look on the grass off to the side of the gates, where two old tanks are on display. One was made in Russia, and the other in China. These are the same types of tanks as those that crashed through the front gates years before. (The actual tank that crashed the first gate is in a Hanoi museum.) Today, through the same front gates, come invading tour buses. This former seat of power is no longer a heavily guarded government building; it’s been turned into an open museum that marks the war’s end.
Former President Thieu's bedroom, his personal items are long gone

Compared to other buildings from the former Saigon government, the palace is relatively new. This address was once the site of a grand French palace that housed their colonial governor. After independence arrived in 1954, the dictator Diem moved in. He lived here for years, until the old palace was bombed during a 1962 assassination attempt. The building was so heavily damaged, that it was torn down. Afterwards this stronger building was constructed with the help of American aid.
Top floor Presidential 'Game Room', obviously decorated in the 1960's

Although designed by a Vietnamese architect, the rectangular exterior looks more like a 1960’s American office building. When the North Vietnamese Army took over the palace, there was some looting, but much of the furniture inside was left where it was. The palace interior today looks much as it was the day the war ended. Filled with Asian décor from the old regime, the building is somewhat of a time capsule. There are elaborate oriental carpets, and Asian artwork adorns the walls. Grand picture windows are bordered with elegant curtains stretching from floor to ceiling.  Dated light fixtures illuminate old office furniture. Walking into this building, I feel as though I’ve walked back in time, finding myself in 1975.

As befits the home and office for a president, there are reception rooms, a banquet room, countless offices, and a large hall suitable for press conferences. To fill the evening hours, upper levels have a movie theater; a library, and a game room.

President Thieu's office, formerly a center of power in Vietnam
Walking to the back of the building, I enter the former residence of the president’s family. Looking around in the various chambers, I see only bare beds and furniture. I find no personal items or papers left behind by the former first family. There was more looting here than in other parts of the palace, and the president’s clothes and possessions are long gone.

Some odd items remain, including model boats, and three hollowed out elephant’s feet,  the kind used for umbrella stands. Back in the 1970’s, the government here was more worried about saving the country, than they were about saving Asian elephants.

I make my way to an upstairs floor in the palace, entering a large corner office decorated with a touch of luxury. A landscape painting overlooks a large wooden desk. On the desktop, a red rotary phone that hasn’t rung for years sits silent. To the front, meeting chairs sit empty; there will be no more urgent consultations here. A rather tacky stuffed jungle cat bares its teeth atop a nearby dresser.

This office was once a center of power in Vietnam, but no longer. It’s political importance ended long ago. Like much of the palace, the room is now silent, and empty. A sign in four languages says, “OFFICE OF THE PRESIDENT OF THE REPUBLIC OF VIETNAM”.

In this office, sat President Nguyen Van Thieu. A former general, he supported the coup against the despised dictator Diem in 1963. After Diem was overthrown and killed, various military men took control. Eventually, with the support of the US government, Thieu was elected president in 1967. He would hold onto power in South Vietnam, almost until the end.

I look closely at the painting behind the desk, wondering if it was actually here when Thieu occupied the office. It’s an idyllic coastal scene; such a peaceful view of a country that was so devastated by war at the time. Thieu’s carpet and curtains are all bright red, the color of good luck. For Thieu, his luck was not to hold out forever. From this office, try as he might, his control of South Vietnam slowly slipped away. With corruption rampant and the war going badly, his popularity with the public plummeted. When the American government signed the 1973 peace agreement and the US military departed, Thieu’s days as leader here were numbered.

Adjacent to his office is the president’s map room. Detailed maps of the country line the walls, where Thieu was kept updated on the latest news from the battlefields. When the NVA and Viet Cong made their final drive towards Saigon, Thieu saw the writing on the wall. He resigned on April 21, 1975, and fled the country. He was replaced by his Vice President Tran Van Huong, who tried to negotiate a favorable surrender with the communists. Unable to do so, he resigned a week later and also fled.

Although power hungry, and blamed by many for the fall of the south, Thieu remains the only democratically elected president in Vietnam's history. After his departure Thieu lived for a while in Taiwan and England, before eventually settling in the US, the country he bitterly blamed for abandoning South Vietnam. He died in Boston in 2001.
Final surrender took place here in the Cabinet Meeting Room

Back downstairs, I enter the Cabinet Meeting Room, where the official surrender for South Vietnam finally took place. As I walk in the doors, I encounter a curious looking setup. With a long oval table, complete with ten microphones going round it, the meeting room resembles a mini-United Nations.

It was in this room that the last short term president, General Duong Van Minh, was left to face the music. Duong had briefly been South Vietnam’s president before back in 1964, following the coup against Diem. Minh’s tenure then lasted for three months. This last time, he would only be president for two days.

Minh was chosen to be the final president since he had connections with north; he had a brother who was a  North Vietnamese Army general. With the end near, the hope was that Minh could use his connections to negotiate a surrender beneficial for South Vietnam. But it was far too late. Since the ARVN was collapsing, the communists didn’t feel any need to negotiate.

The unconditional surrender of the Republic of Vietnam was accepted by Colonel Bui Tin, an NVA journalist who just happened to be the highest ranking officer present at the time. When Tin entered the Cabinet Meeting Room, everyone immediately stood up. General Minh approached Colonel Tin, and said to him, “We have been waiting for you since this morning to hand over the government.”

Tin bluntly said to General Minh, “You don’t have any government left to hand over to us.” 

Now a prisoner, Minh was taken by jeep to a Saigon radio station where he publicly announced the surrender, and an end to all hostilities. Unlike other ARVN generals who would serve many years in the bamboo gulags, Minh was only imprisoned for a matter of days, before he was allowed to return to his Saigon home. Eight years later he left for France. Like Thieu, he died later in the United States.

As for Vietnam's hero of the fatherland Bui Tin, he later became disillusioned with communism in Vietnam. The ex-Colonel also left the country to settle in Paris, France, where he still lives today. It seems that the end of the war in Vietnam, didn't bring the kind of 'Communist Paradise' that he had hoped for.

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