Our final big trip (but not our final final trip) was to Vietnam. I was attending the annual conference of SEAMEO (the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization) at the Vietnamese regional training center (RETRAC). Hence, in a flurry of acronyms, I spent a few days at SEMEO RETRAC. It sounds like some kind of ridiculous military shorthand from a Tom Clancy novel, but no: it’s for real.
But after the conference, we spent a few more days in Saigon—Ho Chi Minh City, if you insist—and then headed north to the beach.
The legacy of French occupation was very clear in some of the sights close to our hotel.
A less happy piece of history is Reunification Palace. It’s built on the site of the 19th-century residence of the French governor of Vietnam (then known as Cochinchina), which then became the head of government of the State of Vietnam after the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. In 1962, two Vietnamese pilots bombed the palace in an attempt to assassinate Ngô Đình Diệm, who in 1955 had set himself up as an autocratic president of the Republic of Vietnam through a fraudulent election. The attempt failed, but it did destroy the palace.
Construction on a new palace began soon thereafter. The new palace was inaugurated in 1966 and looks totally mod. Nine years later, it appeared in photos as North Vietnamese tanks crashed through the gates and occupied the site during the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975.
As this effectively ended the division between north and south Vietnam, the building is now known as Reunification Palace.
It has the feeling of a place that was abandoned all at once, and quickly—since it was. Walking around is actually kind of spooky, even with lots of other visitors there.
Slightly surreal was the realization that half a block from our hotel room was the building—22 Gia Long Street , now known as Lý Tự Trọng Street—that housed USAID workers and (on its top floor) some CIA offices, immortalized in this photo from the Fall of Saigon. (There’s a fascinating article in the New York Times about the fact that this photo is usually described as the “final flight” from Saigon, evacuating Americans from the US Embassy; in fact, it’s none of those things.)
We had a pretty good view of it from our hotel room.
Even more off-putting and strange is the War Remnants Museum, formerly known as the Exhibition House for US and Puppet Crimes. While some of the top floor is dedicated to the deeds of French colonialists, the majority of it is devoted to the United States.
On the grounds outside, there’s a whole suite of captured American military vehicles.
Inside, the rhetoric is heated. Unlike, say, the Peace Museum in Hiroshima—which offered a very balanced view—this one is unrelenting in its indictment of America. Unremarked upon is the South Vietnamese resistance to the North—a single, unified Vietnam is assumed (unsurprisingly).
It’s tough stuff to see. There are copious photos of the effects of Agent Orange, war atrocities, and so on.
On a lighter, more festive, note we also had a nice day trip in the Mekong Delta.
After several days in Saigon, we needed a break, so we took a quick flight to Da Nang (where they are still cleaning up Agent Orange, by the way) and a short ride to Hoi An. There we enjoyed these views:
A short drive away was Hoi An Ancient Town, the entirety of which is a UNESCO World Heritage site.