So today I said goodbye to Hoi An and took a cab to Da Nang airport to catch a plane to Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon. I was surprised to note that the Da Nang terminal was a lot nicer than the one in Hanoi, at least it didn’t look positively sovietic! Also, I was warned about this so I’ll pass it on: when you leave a Vietnamese airport, you have to show your luggage ticket to staff to prove that you’re leaving with your own bag! So don’t throw it away until you’re out!
After a one-hour flight, the first thing that greeted me in HCMC was the heat, as the city is at a smoldering 32°C these days. There’s a taxi terminal right outside the exit gate, so I boarded one for a trip to the city centre that took about 30 min and cost around 180,000 VND (€7,5).
On the way there I was shocked to see how different HCMC is from the rest of my Vietnam stops. It has sidewalks! Streetlights! Skyscrapers! Actual stores! It felt closer to a Western city than the chaotic Hanoi or the sleepy Hoi An. I think it’s gonna be good for me to start preparing myself for the return! That said, the heat throws me off, because 32°C is something that we don’t see in Versailles even in August…
I arrived at my hotel, the Liberty Central Riverside, at around 14:45, too late for a full day of sightseeing and too early to just turn in, so I decided to see just one thing: the Reunification Palace. It closes at 16:30, so I took off at as brisk a pace as the sweaty, steamy weather would allow! It was easy to get to, as I just had to walk the length of Dong Khoi street, the main shopping street here.
The Reunification Palace was built in the 60s as the Presidential Palace for the South Vietnamese government. It was famously stormed in the 70s when the North Vietnamese conquered Saigon, at the end of the war, and renamed it Ho Chi Minh City. It’s been open to the public since, though still sees use -just tomorrow it’s closed to host an international justice summit. Good thing I came today!
The Palace is a pretty curious visit. There’s not a lot in the way of explanations; most rooms have a succint description of what they were used for, but I could have used more historical perspective. But the whole place really does look like the 1975 occupants just walked out the door for a smoke. The stairs, the closed-off elevator, the furnishings even outside of the exhibits… It’s all so painfully 60s!
There are rooms that would be deemed too kitschy to appear on Mad Men: dining rooms with a combination of Cubist paintings and Chinese statues, meeting rooms with Japanese murals and baroquely lavish chairs, a helipad on the roof…
A specially interesting part of the visit is the bunker, an underground shelter where the South Vietnamese retired during raids and bombing runs. Apart from pure refuge, it provided full logistic support: there was a full radio broadcasting facility, a situation room with maps and phones, communications… All the equipment is still there, like they could be used at any moment. Very Cold War, they could shoot a movie there tomorrow if they needed to.
I was done with the visit sooner than I expected -I think some zones were cordoned off due to the summit- so I made my way back to the hotel for a nice air-conditioned rest. I came out again for dinner after dark. After the last two weeks of dark, quiet nights, this felt like Blade Runner: all the lights were on, the avenue was lit on both sides with lamps that changed colours, everybody was out on the street walking or dancing to music or just hanging out… So different, from the rest of Vietnam as well as from Europe or the US! Really a place unto itself!