Of all the stones of empire thrown up in Vietnam by the French, few are more eye-catching than the former Gia Long Palace, built a block west of the Hotel de Ville in 1886 as a splendid residence for the governor of Cochinchina. Homeless after the air attack that smashed his own palace, Diem decamped here in 1962, and it was in the tunnels beneath the building that he spent his last hours of office, before fleeing to Cha Tam Church in Cho Lon where he finally surrendered. Ironically, it now houses the Ho Chi Minh City Museum, which makes use of photographs, documents and artefacts to trace the struggle of the Vietnamese people against France and America. Even if you’re not desperate to learn more about the country’s war-torn past, you’re likely to be enchanted by the grandeur of the building, and you might even witness couples posing for wedding photographs, as the regal structure and well-tended gardens are a favourite backdrop for photographers.
The downstairs area is a hotchpotch of ancient artefacts and antique collections, along with a section on nature and another featuring ethnic clothing and implements. The museum shifts into higher gear upstairs, where the focus turns to the war with America. The best exhibits are those showcasing the ingenuity of the Vietnamese – bicycle parts made into mortars, a Suzuki motorbike in whose inner tubes documents were smuggled into Saigon, a false-floored boat in which guns were secreted and so on. Look out, too, for sweaters knitted by female prisoners on Con Dao Island bearing the Vietnamese words for “peace” and “freedom”. Elsewhere, there’s a cross-sectional model of the Cu Chi tunnels, and a rewarding gallery of photographs of the Ho Chi Minh Campaign and the fall of Saigon.
As with many of Vietnam’s museums, the hardware of war is on display in the gardens. Tucked away behind the frangipanis and well-groomed hedges out back are a Soviet tank, an American helicopter and an anti-aircraft gun, while out front are two sleek but idle jets.