Friendship Foundation of American Vietnamese

Vietnam's Presidential Palace

By Volunteer Becky Clegg
Project XII Participant

Silence. The story of 1975, the tank has stormed the gates of the presidential palace, the National Liberation Front's flag has been hoisted, and the leaders of Saigon's government are sitting drinking tea, waiting to turn over the government of Saigon to the north. It all happened too quickly apparently and once the tank had made its entrance and the flag had its place, momentum was lost when it was realized that preparations have to be made. So everybody sits in awkward silence sipping tea.

How does Vietnam feel about itself? Here of all places, there should be some answers.

I and my fellow tourists seem to document a visit to this historic place by taking photographs of flags and interiors. I love 60's architecture and design. A downstairs of dimly lit tunnels that go nowhere, secret stairwells, grey walls, silent pastel telephones and yellow maps contrast to the opulence of an upstairs of a ladies room with cubist art, ballrooms fit for all-in-one white trouser suits and a swingers' room with rocking chairs and barrel bar. And the door handles, oh, the door handles. I have five photographs of door handles.

What is difficult for the tourist is to fathom the symbolic power of this building.

All of the above, once taken in 1975, led to southern supporters fleeing for their lives, suicide, mass and desperate upheavals out of Saigon and public shootings.

Now this Palace is eerily silent, which is perhaps befitting considering its history. The tank still sits alongside the main gates and multicoloured flags provide a reminder of the story. Groups of tourists shuffle around disturbing the silence and industrial-like fans provide a hum for visitors to mumble quietly to whilst being guided through underground tunnels.

When we are directed to view a bust of Ho Chi Minh, I wonder whether, truly, the new generation find inspiration in him yet? Or is that not really the point? I wonder what this palace represents to the people of Vietnam now. The statistics say two thirds of the country is under 30. What do these things mean to the people who grew up with this legacy?

How does Vietnam feel about itself? Here of all places, there should be some answers. A video at the end of the tour provides the most information. Dropped into this film is the famous scene of the shooting of an apparently unarmed, un-uniformed victim by, we assume, the American Imperialists.

Who is this for? Shame-faced politically sensitive Americans, the Vietnamese populus, the current government?

How amazing it was that this poor and divided country shook off colonial rule and a super power. And what an impressive victory it was. Publicly the government seem to exist on this defiance. Yet this country still seems irreconciled and despite the odd overt strutting of egoism from the military, rather unconfident. Where is the heart of Saigon? Has it been lost? Is this it, in it's early formation?

I went to Hanoi and took a visit to Ho Chi Minh. His mausoleum is a concrete monolith fiercely guarded by soldiers in white who make their every step look like it has been practiced for hours. We tried to walk on the pavement, 30 meters away from the actual building, but were warned off by an armed guard. So we stepped off the pavement onto the huge empty square, punctuated with flagless flag poles that marks the front of the mausoleum. 20 meters along we were allowed back on the pavement and walked around the side of the building to find a small park. In the park were a variety of personnel going about their business; individuals displaying half-hearted attempts at exercise, women sitting about, young militia doing sniper practice above the heads of gardeners. But all of it feels like a performance perhaps more for the people of Vietnam than the visitor. The image of Ho Chi Minh adorns the roads of his city; celebrating victory, independence of its people or perhaps it is necessary to reaffirm what this country is amongst the clatter and the bantering with the dollar rich westerner. A lot of symbolism Vietnam has and the Palace is part of this, but is this the voice of Vietnam?


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