Five minutes’ stroll north up Nam Ky Khoi Nghia from the Ho Chi Minh City Museum, a red flag billows proudly above the Reunification Palace. A whitewashed concrete edifice with all the charm of a municipal library, the palace occupies the site of the former Norodom Palace, a colonial mansion erected in 1871 to house the governor-general of Indochina. After the French departure in 1954, Ngo Dinh Diem commandeered this extravagant monument as his presidential palace, but after sustaining extensive damage in a February 1962 assassination attempt by two disaffected Southern pilots, the place was condemned and pulled down. The present building was named the Independence Palace upon completion in 1966, only to be retitled the Reunification Hall when the South fell in 1975. The reversion to the label “Palace” was doubtless made for tourist appeal. All visitors are required to join a group tour in one of several languages.
Before the tour you enter a movie room, where a potted account of Vietnamese history and the American War is screened half-hourly. Guides then usher you through the hall’s many chambers, proudly pointing out every piece of porcelain, lacquerwork, rosewood and silk on display. Spookily unchanged from its working days, much of the building’s interior is a time capsule of sixties and seventies kitsch: pacing its airy banqueting rooms, conference halls and reception areas, it’s hard not to think you’ve strayed into the arch-criminal’s lair in a James Bond movie. Most interesting is the third floor, where, as well as the presidential library (with works by Laurens van der Post and Graham Greene alongside heavyweight political tomes), there’s a curtained projection room, and an entertainment lounge complete with tacky circular sofa and barrel-shaped bar. Nearby, a set of sawn-off elephant’s feet add an eerie touch to the decor. Perhaps the most atmospheric part of the building is the basement and former command centre, where wood-panelled combat staff quarters yield archaic radio equipment and vast wall maps.