Bunkers and Ballrooms

By guest blogger Katherine Heaton. Photos by Adrian Harvey.

Buildings are complex things, as much for the stories they hold as for the edifices themselves. In its short life the Reunification Palace in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, has played a variety of roles and been a contested symbol at the heart of one of the most controversial periods of twentieth century history. Completed in 1966, it replaced the Norodom Palace, a French colonial building that had to be demolished after a would-be assassin almost succeeded in blowing up Ngô Đình Diệm, the prime minister of what was then south Vietnam. Following a design competition Diệm appointed a young Vietnamese architect Ngô Viết Thụ to design a new palace.

The brise soleil surrounds the first and second floors, letting light in while keeping the inner rooms cool

Thụ, who’d studied in Paris and Rome in the fifties, designed a building with clear European modernist influences, but the Independence Palace, as it was originally named, also incorporates references to traditional Vietnamese culture.

The plan of the building is, according to official sources, based on the Chinese character ‘Ji’ meaning ‘good’, while the front elevation represents the characters for prosperity ‘ Xing’. A brise soleil (an architectural feature designed to shade the building so keeping it cool, while still letting light through), a typical element of modernist architecture in tropical climates, surrounds the building on the first and second floor, apparently representing a bamboo screen. Personally I can’t help thinking that these references to traditional Vietnamese culture are superimposed meaning, retrofitted to reinforce National ambitions – to me the plan and elevations could look like anything rectangular you want to see there, and I for one can’t see a likeness to bamboo thickets in the brise soleil. But maybe that’s just me.

South Vietnam, at the time the Palace was built, was a new, young country, aspiring to be modern and forward facing, to break away from its colonial history and forge itself a new identity. It is perhaps not surprising, given that construction started less than 10 years after the French returned the Norodom Palace to Diem, that the style chosen to reflect this new aspiration was heavily influenced by the European style of that time. I wonder whether the official interpretation of a building based on Chinese characters and bamboo, is in fact, a way to distance it from the influence of Europe, to reclaim it as a Vietnamese building.

A modernist shelf in the 'Den' is juxtaposed with traditional Chinese style ornaments

Set in lush manicured gardens the Palace sits behind a large oval lawn. Its five storeys consist of a basement bunker (including a shooting range), where military operations were conducted during the Vietnam War; two floors for official functions including state reception rooms, cabinet meeting rooms and a large conference hall; a floor with one wing devoted to entertaining, including dining rooms, a cinema and a den, and the other wing devoted to the prime minister’s private quarters. On the roof, originally a private meditation chamber with glazing on four sides and views over HCMC, was later converted by the first resident into a ballroom for parties; this was the sixties afterall! The furnishings throughout are a strange combination of mid-century modern and traditional in a Chinese style, with the odd grand piano and pool table thrown in. It would be interesting to know how many, if any, of the Chinese furnishings were in situ before the unification of Vietnam.

On the roof two painted circles remind you of the turbulent history of the building. On 8 April 1975 another would-be assassin bombed the palace when a communist spy in the Vietnam air force defected near the end of the Vietnam war. This time, however, the building withstood the attack, but three weeks later a tank of the North Vietnamese Army bulldozed through the main gate ending the Vietnam war. Soon afterwards, following negotiations between North and South Vietnam, the palace was renamed the Reunification Palace.

The palace is now a tourist attraction, a museum and monument to the triumph of the North Vietnamese Amy – a reminder that political power has long since left Saigon. Rather than the residence of a head of state the palace is now available for private hire, so if you’re looking to organise a seminar or party in HCMC, or indeed to stay in the city on a B&B basis, the Reunification Palace is now taking bookings. Just don’t expect to use the shooting range!

A photographic tour of the palace

The main entrance

The approach to the palace across the large oval lawn is a grand one – you can easily imagine limousines rolling up to the door for glamorous parties. The main entrance is actually raised up, so cars and people have to ascend the curved ramp, overlooked by the main central balcony.

Inside the rooms on the left and right on both the ground and first floor are dedicated to official state functions: both a national and international reception room, a state dining room and a cabinet meeting room, while directly ahead on both floors are large conference and baqueting halls.

The state dining room

The cabinet meeting room

The grand staircase

Central circulation space

The brise soleil casts a lovely shadow

The basement bunker is a warren of eerie corridors, connecting countless rooms: offices, operation rooms, radio control rooms, and who knows what other dark secrets.

One of the many seemingly endless corridors

Command room in the basement

Radios, left as they were at the end of the war

...and telephones

The shooting range

Back upstairs on the second floor one wing is devoted to the Prime Minister’s private quarters including his study, while the central section and other wing are for entertaining.

The study

The Prime Minister's wife's private dining room

The private cinema - I love the pivoting padded doors!

The 'Den' - very Mad Men! My favourite room.

One of the two gate houses at the entrance to the palace grounds

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