Monday, December 31, 2012


Military maps line the walls of the underground command center below the former Presidential Palace
It’s so quiet down here and empty. Lonely even. As far as I can tell, I’m the only one down here. I’m below ground, only this time I’m under Saigon's former Presidential Palace. I’m in what used to be the most technologically advanced basement in all of Vietnam. More than a basement, I’m in an underground military command center.

It’s late in the afternoon, and the other visitors have left, so I have the entire lower level all to myself, and it's eerie. I’m in the command room where maps line the dark red walls. The huge maps reach from the floor to the ceiling. There are even more maps down here, than there were outside the president’s office a few levels above me. In a military command center, field communications are crucial. That takes a lot of electronics equipment, so most of the rooms down in this maze are devoted to communications. Much of the old American made equipment still remains, although all the cables are gone. In room after room, I find transmitters, teletype machines, receivers, switchboards, and old rotary phones. Signs in imperfect English list the former function of each room: “THE SIGNAL TEAM CHIEF ROOM”, “FIXED RECEIVING SITE SECTION”, “TELETYPEWRITER SECTION”, and “THE HIGHFREQUENCY RADIO ROOM”. 
Once buzzing with military activity, the President's command center is now eerily empty
Farther down a hallway, I enter a small room with only a twin bed, and two phones on a night table. It’s nothing special; only the elaborate wood frame of the bed gives a hint of its former importance. The sign reads, “THE COMBAT DUTY BEDROOM OF THE PRESIDENT”. Thieu may have slept down here during the Tet offensive when the palace was briefly under attack, but he was long gone before the tanks arrived in 1975.
Captured US made radio equipment is still found in many rooms
Down the hall near the kitchen, I get to a nearly bare white walled room. It’s been emptied of its contents, leaving only a desk, chair, and an empty gun rack for M-16s. This was the “SECURITY SECTION” for the president’s guards. An elite group, the guards even had an indoor shooting range in the back of the palace to keep their shooting skills sharp. During Thieu’s years in power, his security team protected him well for most of the war years. But when the communist tanks finally invaded the city and broke through the front gates, they put up no resistance at all. With the palace captured, the remaining loyal palace staff and guards were arrested, with most were sent off to ‘re-education camps’. They joined hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese soldiers and government officials in the camps, some never to return. 
Old Motorola radio gear, originally given to South Vietnam as aid from the USA
Even though I’m below ground level in this bunker basement, I come across stairs going further underground. Access is blocked here, but I can’t help wondering if this is the escape tunnel going to the former Deputy Governor’s Palace, where the former dictator Diem hid before he was killed in the 1963 coup. As curious as I am, I go no further. I’ve heard that section of tunnel isn’t safe anymore. Plus, as an American in Vietnam, I wouldn’t expect much leniency if I was caught in a restricted area. I really don’t want to spend time in a Vietnamese jail.

Having already seen the lowest level of the palace, I decide to go see the highest. After climbing a few flights of stairs in dingy stairwells, I find myself up on the palace rooftop. As I reach the top level, I’m startled to find myself on a large covered terrace, that was once used for official receptions. A riser to one side of the terrace must have been used for live bands. Perhaps President Thieu and his wife once waltzed across this fine wooden floor, as ministers and honored guests looked on. With more interest in the surrounding scenery, I open the clear glass doors, and step across to the back railing.

On the adjacent rooftop below, I’m surprised to see another Huey helicopter parked there, marked with the flag of South Vietnam. Back in the day, President Thieu used to fly around to the provinces by chopper, meeting politicians, and rallying the troops. With the war on, flying around the country was much safer for him than driving.
Rooftop of the Palace. A Huey chopper once flew President Thieu around South Vietnam. A red circle marks an old bomb strike from 1975.
From this same vantage point, I can see the sight of the second airborne attack on this locale. In the spring of 1975 as the ARVN defenses were crumbling, a South Vietnamese pilot decided to defect to the communists. He took off in his US built F-5 jet, and before heading north, he unleashed two bombs onto the rear section of the palace, where the president’s living quarters were. Out in front of the parked Huey, two large circles have been painted on the repaired rooftop, marking the bomb strikes from the pilot’s asassination attempt. A large piece of rusty bomb shrapnel lies close by. Since the palace had been built strong enough to survive an attack, no one was killed, but it was another propaganda victory for the communists. With an audacious attack on the palace, it was becoming evident that the end was near.
US made F-5 fighter that was flown by defector to bomb the Palace shortly before the war ended
Walking to the opposite rooftop railing, I look down on the front lawn. When the final push came weeks later and the NVA tanks broke through the front gates, the tank crewman scrambled out of their armored vehicles and ran right into the palace. Encountering no resistance, one of the crewman ran all the way up the stairwell to the roof, and stood at the railing where I am now. As TV news cameras rolled, he then waved a Viet Cong flag from the rooftop, for all of the world to see. The communists had taken the palace, and the war was done. Looking around me, I’m amazed to see that there is no plaque up here to mark the event.

For some time after the surrender, the former Independence Palace became a government office building. For a while it was officially named the “Office of the Military Management Committee of Saigon”. A giant portrait of Ho, two stories tall, hung above the front entrance. That portrait has since been removed, perhaps because the current government has become less dogmatic. Still, there is a flag flying from the palace rooftop today, only now it’s the flag of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. 
View from atop the Palace, from the exact spot where a North Vietnamese soldier waved a Viet Cong flag to signal the end of the war.

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