In 1868, shortly after the French had established their new colony, they erected a grand building on this site to house the Governor General of Cochinchina. When the French left the country in the 1950s, the palace became the home of the South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem. However, the building was damaged in an attempted coup and Diem ordered its demolition.
Diem was assassinated by his own troops in 1966, and the new president, Nguyen Van Thieu, moved into the the palace you see today, designed in classic 1960s style and still retaining furnishings of the era and more than a hint of the president’s character in the upstairs rooms. Since the Northern Vietnamese troops stormed its gates on 30 April 1975 in the ultimate act of the war between north and south, the building has stood as the preeminent symbol of a reunited country.
The spacious and airy building is surrounded by a generous tract of parkland dotted with towering trees, and on the lawn stand a couple of tanks, acting as a reminder of that dramatic day several decades ago. Visitors to the palace are not allowed to wander freely around the building, but have to join a guided tour (conducted in various languages), which takes around 45 minutes and includes most of the rooms.
Before starting the tour, visitors are shown a short video explaining the building’s history – an excuse for a bit of patriotic fervour. Then guides show visitors around, beginning with the huge conference room downstairs and then going up to the president’s office and reception room for foreign dignitaries, both equipped with lavish furnishings. The presidential living quarters are tucked away at the back of this floor.
Things get more interesting on the third floor, which reveals much about the interests of the former president. There’s a small casino where he used to gamble with his friends, as well as a small cinema and library. From the terrace on this level, guides point out the helipad in the back garden as well as two red circles that indicate where bombs dropped in the closing days of the war.
Perhaps the most intriguing part of the tour comes at the end, when most visitors probably think they have seen all there is. Guides lead them downstairs to the basement, where dingy corridors reveal a warren of rooms that constitute a war command centre, complete with yellowing maps on the walls, ancient radios and transmitters and ageing electronic equipment. It’s almost as if the place was hurriedly abandoned and then frozen in time.
Little did President Thieu realise when he resided here that 50 years on, thousands of visitors from all over the globe would be wandering through his office, library and casino every day. (Open: 07:30-11:00, 13:00-16:00, last admission 15:30 (daily); Admission: 30,000D; 106 Nguyen Du Street, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, tel: +84 808 5094 , email: firstname.lastname@example.org, website: www.dinhdoclap.gov.vn)