Back from Vietnam

Photograph, Vietnam
The South Vietnamese presidential palace as it looks today. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

The South Vietnamese presidential palace as it looks today. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

I just returned from a short trip to Vietnam to visit some humanitarian projects run by American veterans and historical sites. Despite the sweltering hot June weather, I was able to see much on my journey from the south to north, including the location of the My Lai massacre and the former DMZ.

Over the next week, I’ll be sharing some photos and details from my trip on this site, starting today with Saigon. But first … A special thanks to all of the veterans who have sent me emails and videos recently detailing their trips back to Vietnam! I promise that I will share your letters and stories here soon. And if you have a story to share, you can always email me at nissarhee [at] gmail dot com. Thanks!

Saigon is where it all began and where it came to an end. On this trip, I visited the “Reunification Palace” — the former South Vietnamese presidential palace. A New York Times architecture critic once called the palace “the sexiest building in Southeast Asia,” and while I was more interested in the historical importance of the palace, he definitely had a point. Apart from the basement bunkers and war rooms, the palace could easily be mistaken for a playboy mansion with its dance hall, movie theater, and gambling room.

The Vietnam War officially came to a close at the palace on April 30, 1975 when a North Vietnamese tank knocked through the gates of the palace and accepted the president’s surrender. It was here that the North’s Colonel Bui Tin famously told the president and his supporters: “You have nothing to fear. Between the Vietnamese there are no victors and no vanquished. Only the Americans have been beaten. If you are patriots, consider this a moment of joy. The war for our country is over.”

North Vietnamese troops and their tank arrive at South Vietnam's presidential palace on April 30, 1975. (Photo from Reunification Palace in Saigon)

North Vietnamese troops and their tank arrive at South Vietnam’s presidential palace on April 30, 1975. (Photo from Reunification Palace in Saigon)

A replica of the tank used to break down the gates of the South Vietnamese presidential palace, standing in front of today's Reunification Palace in Saigon. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

A replica of the tank used to break down the gates of the South Vietnamese presidential palace, standing in front of today’s Reunification Palace in Saigon. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

Today, the gates to the palace have been repaired, but two tanks remain on the lawns as a reminder of that day’s victory — or loss, depending on your perspective. The palace now serves as a museum and its furniture has been preserved to reflect the atmosphere of wartime Saigon. On the upper floors, visitors can see the opulent meeting rooms used by the South Vietnamese president and vice president, as well as the entertainment rooms.

Movie theater in Reunification Palace. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

Movie theater in Reunification Palace. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

Gambling room in Reunification Palace. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

Gambling room in Reunification Palace. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

An interior hallway at Reunification Palace shows the facade's bamboo design. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

An interior hallway at Reunification Palace shows the facade’s bamboo design. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

On the basement levels, however, the palace holds a shooting gallery, bunker, map room, war room, and communications rooms.

President's desk in war room at the Reunification Palace. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

President’s desk in war room at the Reunification Palace. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

Old radio in radio room at Reunification Palace. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

Old radio in the communications room at Reunification Palace. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

A US-made Motorola Motrac in the communications room at Reunification Palace. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

A US-made Motorola Motrac in the communications room at Reunification Palace. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

Shooting gallery in the basement of the Reunification Palace. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

Shooting gallery in the basement of the Reunification Palace. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

The palace is one of the last remaining reminders of the war in the booming metropolis of Ho Chi Minh City. Saigonites have worked hard to erase the remnants of war here — tall skyscrapers have sprung up and now even a Starbucks sits across the street from the palace.

Starbucks -- which entered the Vietnamese market last year -- has an outlet across the street from the Reunification Palace, the site of South Vietnamese defeat. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

Starbucks — which entered the Vietnamese market last year — has an outlet across the street from the Reunification Palace, the site of South Vietnamese defeat. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

I did not see any Vietnamese visitors at the Reunification Palace, and, like the nearby War Remnants Museum, the palace’s exhibits seem to be designed with Western tourists in mind. When I asked a South Vietnamese friend of mine why more locals don’t visit these historic sites, he told me that many South Vietnamese still feel the sting of the 1975 loss. Visiting the palace would be merely rubbing salt in the yet-unhealed wounds of war.

Coming up in my next post … I visit the site of the My Lai massacre and see some of the humanitarian projects led by US Army veteran Mike Boehm in Vietnam’s central Quang Ngai Provence.

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