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INDEPENDENCE PALACE

  1. HISTORY

In 1865, French Colonist attacked Đà Nẵng and began an invasion of Việt Nam (VN). After ten years, they had conquered the six provinces in the South. They built a palace, Norodom Palace, for the Governor-General of French Indochina, on the site of the present-day Independence Palace.

The Japanese ousted the French and took over Norodom Palace on March 9,1945. The Japanese were soon to surrender to the Allies and the French were come-back in Saigon and Norodom Palace before the end of 1945.

The Vietnamese revolutionary army defeated the French at Điện Biên Phủ on May 7th, 1954. France was forced to sign the Geneva Agreement and withdrew from VN. Việt Nam was divided into North VN and South VN, pending a general election that would create a unified VN after two years.

The United States attempted to invade VN. It wanted South VN to become a separated country that would resist the Communists. The US set up a puppet government with Ngô Đình Diệm as President. In September, 1954, Diệm took over Norodom Palace from the French and named it Independence Palace.

The President allowed the family of his brother Ngô Đình Nhu, who was Diệm ‘s counselor, to live in the Palace. Diệm headed a dictatorship whose policies were savage, putting the people into strategic hamlets and taking guillotines around the countryside, executing those suspected of being Việt Cộng (Communists), under Code No.10/59.

This style of government caused not only indignation among the people but disagreement in Cabinet. In a coup d’état, the South Vietnamese Army ordered an aircraft, flown by Nguyễn Văn Cừ and Phạm Phú Quốc, to bomb the Palace on February 27th, 1962. The South wing of the building was destroyed. The President survived.

Considering it would not be easy to repair the Palace, Diệm decided to demolish it and build a new one on the same site. It would be bigger and more solid. World began in 1962, and Diệm and Nhu moved to Gia Long Palace, which is now the Hồ Chí Minh city museum, near Lý Tự Trọng street.

A junta supported by America assassinated Diệm and Nhu on the morning of November 2nd, 1963. Construction of the Palace was delayed for more than six months. At least ten coups d’état took place on three years, from 1963 to 1965.

The Council of the Armed Forces overthrew the civil administration of Phan Huy Quát and established Nguyễn Văn Thiệu as president of a national executive council and Nguyễn Cao Kỳ as Prime Minister in June, 1965. After four years of construction, Thiệu as chairman of the Central Executive Committee, and Kỳ chaired the inauguration of the new Palace on Oct 31st, 1966. In September, 1967, Thiệu became the second President of the Republic of VN (South VN) and he and his family lived in the Palace for eight years, from 1967 till 1975.

In the final days of April, 1975, the Palace was witness to the exit from power of three President of the Republic of VN. Nguyễn Văn Thiệu was forced to resign on April 21, and with the aid of the CIA and the Americans, left the country on April 26 and sought asylum.

The communist soldiers entered the city from four directions early on April 30, 1975. The 2nd Division tanks proceeded quickly across the Thị Nghè bridge and straight to the Palace. At 10:45 Am the leading tank, number 843 with Lieutenant Bùi Quang Thận in charge, broke through a side gate, and the second, number 390, knocked down the main gate and went through to the Palace. Forty-five minutes later, Lieutenant Thận and other soldiers ran up to the 4th floor of the Palace and replaced the South Vietnamese flag with that of the Revolutionary Government. The last president of South VN, Dương Văn Minh, and his cabinet had to surrender unconditionally. The 20-year war of independence had ended.

The Conference of Reunification of VN was held at Independence Palace in November, 1975 and Independence Palace is now often referred to as Reunification Palace. As the site of many of the most important events in VN from the late 19th century to 1975, the Palace was designated a National Cultural and Historical Vestige in 1976. It was opened to the public in 1990, and today is visited by large numbers of people from all regions of VN and round the world. It is used for official receptions and for conferences serving the renovation of VN.

  1. Architecture

Independence Palace is also renowned for its extraordinary architectural value.

It was designed by Mr. Ngô Viết Thụ, who graduated from the University of Architecture in France in 1955 and was the first Vietnamese to win “the Grand Prix de Rome”, a supreme architectural honor.

The Engineers of the South VN army were responsible for construction, led by Lieutenant Colonel Phan Văn Điền. Architects, decorators, technicians and workers from Southern provinces were employed. The materials are of local origin, except for the chandeliers, doors of 12mm glass, lift and air-conditioners.

The Palace has four floors above the ground floor, two mezzanines and a basement bunker. There are 95 rooms, each with fittings and decorations according to its special purpose.

The stylized flowers on the façade of the Palace not only underline the architectural flair of the building but also the advantage of the utilizing natural light.

  1. The Palace in detail

3.1. The First Floor

On the first floor, there are three rooms: the Conference Hall, the Cabinet Room and the Banquet Room.

The Regulating Committee of the City, in charge of security and moral and material wellbeing of the people during the first days of liberation, also used the first floor from 30th of April, 1975 till the end of 1976.

3.1.1. The Conference Hall

The Conference Hall, which served for ceremonial occasions, and still serves for conferences, seminal and exhibitions is the largest room in the palace, at 448 square meters. Two Presidents of South VN resigned and the last surrendered here.

Most of the original fittings remain, including the carpet, crystal chandeliers, glass door and 1966 painting by Trọng Nội, titled “Viet Nam, Ancestral Land”. In the middle of the picture, the first King Hung, the first King of VN, escorted by all officials in the court, is writing “Văn Lang”, understood to be the first name given to VN, a nation with a history spanning several thousand years.

3.1.2. The Cabinet Room

Cabinet used to meet every Wednesday. The green decor, including the carpet, furniture and certain was chosen to mitigate the tension and fatigue of meetings.

At the beginning of April, 1975, General Cao Văn Viên held a meeting with other generals in the Cabinet Room on how to oppose the Communist campaign.

The Revolutionary Government met in the Cabinet room to discuss the draft of the new Constitution of Viet Nam.

3.1.3. The Banquet Room

The Banquet Room was used for official dinners. The dominant color was intended to promote joy and intimacy.

An oil painting contains verses in Chinese characters expressing the richness of the land of VN; it also illustrates the different beauties of the three regions, northern, central and southern.

The last official banquet President Thiệu held was attended by a United Stated delegation investigating whether or not to continue American support to South VN.

3.2. The Second Floor

The second floor includes the President’s office, the President’s Reception Room, the Vice-president’s office and the President’s family area. Among the rooms are:

3.2.1. The Map Room

In the Map Room president Thiệu and his senior officers, sometime with American Advisors, observed, researched, discussed and planned military operations, which were depicted on a series of maps around the room. A secret telephone system connected the Palace to battle zones.

3.2.2. The President’s Office

Behind the President’s chair is an oil painting by Phạm Cơ of the Tri Thủy bridge in Ninh Chữ, Phan Rang, Central Viet Nam, where the President was born. 

In a corner of the room is a hand-embroidered picture on red velvet of a flamingo on a pine tree, a symbol of longevity. It was presented by the South Korean General Mul-Hien The on the occasion of a summit meeting in 1971.

The Revolutionary Army achieved a major victory at Phước Long. The Republic of Viet Nam was in difficulty. Under the Paris Agreement of 1973, the US withdrew all its troops and cut aid. President Thiệu divided South VN into zones that might be lost (which included his native province) and zones that might be held (Saigon and the Mekong Delta). President Thiệu wrote to American President General Ford on March 24,975 seeking B52 bombardment and ground reinforcements. He order abandonment of Huế and Đà Nẵng.

In a corner of the room, there is a brown door to a secret staircase to the basement bunker, from where the President would direct his forces in an emergency.

3.2.3. The President’s reception rooms

There are two juxtaposed President’s reception rooms, with totally different decors, one for foreign guests and the others for local guests.

In the foreign reception room the President’s chair is elevated. Behind it is a three-striped panel representing the flag of the Republic of VN. Opposite the President is the special chair for the premier guest. The arm of all the chairs are sculpted as dragon-heads, though the work on the chairs of secretaries and assistants is different and accords with their status.

Behind the chair of the premier guest is a pair of elephant tusks on a base of sculpted wood and a dragon’s mouth showing the power and strength of the President.

Several meetings took place here between Henry Kissinger, adviser to President Nixon, and President Thiệu from October 19 to 23, 1972. Kissinger had been sent to convince Thiệu to sign the Paris Accord, which Thiệu refused to do.

In the other reception room the decor is simpler and the President’s chair is on the same level as the others.

3.2.4. The Vice-President’s Reception Room

President Thiệu had two vice-presidents in his two-term tenure (1967 – 1975), Nguyễn Cao Kỳ, 1967 – 1971, and Trần Văn Hương, 1971 – 1975. The latter became the third President, for seven days.

The Vice-President’s Reception Room two lacquer work pictures by Thái Văn Ngôn made in 1966. One shows the Pavilion of the Constellation of Literature (Khuê Văn Các) at the Temple of Literature (Văn Miếu – Quốc Tử Giám), the first university in Viet Nam (10th century), showing the studious spirit of the people of VN. The other picture shows King Trần Nhân Tông giving his coat to a beggar, representing the monarch’s love for his people.

 This room is still reserved for less formal meetings between Vietnamese and foreign heads of government.

3.2.5. Stone pillars

One of the architectural beauties of the palace is the stone pillars that curtain the second floor. They catch the sunshine from the West.

3.2.6. Round Carpet

The round carpet was made by local people and installed in 1966. It is red and represents the sun and the permanence of the nation. Two couples of dragons fight for a pearl round the outside. A pair of phoenixes surround the Chinese character “Thọ”, for long life, at the centre.

3.2.7. The central staircase

Sub lieutenant Nguyễn Thành Trung, an adherent of the Vietnamese Communist Party undercover as a pilot in the South Vietnamese Air Force, on receiving an order to bomb Liberation zones, separated from his group in his F5E fighter and bombed the Palace, on the morning of April 8th, 1975. Two bombs destroyed the helicopter pad and part of the central staircase. Trung then landed at Bà Rá Airport in the Province of Phước Long, in a liberated zone. This event had a strong influence on the whole of the South.

The helipad and the staircase were restored after Liberation.

3.2.8. Credentials Room

The Credential Room, where the President and Minister for Foreign Affairs received the letters of credence of ambassadors, was the most luxurious and the most solemn in the Palace.

The furniture is entirely in lacquer, the traditional art of VN.

A large lacquer picture completed by Nguyễn Văn Minh in 1966, taking a-year-and-a-haft of work and composed of 40 pieces, illustrates the peaceful Vietnamese way of life. In the middle, King Lê Lợi announces victory against Minh (Chinese) invaders in the 15th century after ten years.

On two walls are eight lamps shaped like torches, which were always turned on for diplomatic ceremonies.

After liberation, the letters of credence of ambassadors to the Democratic Republic of South Vietnam were received in the Credential Room.

3.2.9. The President’s private living area

In the President’s Private Living Area on the 2nd floor one has the impression of being at ground level, because of the bonsai garden, a little lake and the sunlight.

The room with a white curtain is the prayer room. The President and his family were Catholics.

The double bedrooms of the President’s family are on either side of a corridor.

On the walls are gifts from people and localities in the South.

3.3. The third floor

The third floor was called the “Club”, because was used for president’s family entertainment. It includes:

3.3.1. The Reading Room

The Reading room was used by the president’s family and his generals, and has a library of more than 2,500 books, on topics including fine arts, science, sociology, literature, education, philosophy, administration, military science and legislation in Vietnamese, English and French.

3.3.2. The First Lady’s Reception Room

In the First Lady’s Reception Room, the President’s wife, Madam Nguyễn Thị Kim Anh, held parties and intimate dinners.

A round table bears three ceramic figures representing happiness, luck and longevity, on a wooden base, in keeping with oriental tradition, and a long table with a cubist painting are mordern and European.

All the decorative lamps are in the form of flowers, reinforcing the femininity of the room.

3.3.3. The third floor corridor

The centre of the corridor is for recreations such as billiards and table tennis.

At the end of the corridor, a 1974 oil painting by Lê Chánh shows sisters Thúy Kiều and Thúy Vân, heroines of Vietnam’s greatest author, Nguyễn Du. The painting is called “The Two Mordern Kieus’ “ because the sisters are depicted in the ao dai, the traditional tunic with mordern modifications.

Half-way along the corridor is a 1971 painting by Văn Ba called “Princess Ngọc Hân”, which the President bought at an exhibition in 1972. There is also an oil painting of pine forest in Đà Lạt.

3.3.4. The Projection Theatre

The Projection Theatre was used by the President’s family and his superiors officials. It has the most up-to-date sound-proofing, stage and movie projectors.

Outside, we see a helipad where a US helicopter was kept ready for the President. Two marks remain from where pilot Nguyễn Thành Trung dropped two bombs on the morning of April 8th, 1975. (see notes the 4th floor)

3.3.5. The Casino or Entertainment Rooms

The Casino or Entertainment Room was used by the President and Cabinet members. The circular table in the middle was for cards, the square table in the corner for mahjongg (Mạt chượt).

3.4. The Fourth Floor

The 4th floor is called the “four-direction tower”, more precisely the place of “Tứ phương vô sự lầu”, or “Indemnity of the four directions”. It is also called “Lầu Tĩnh Tâm”. It is calm, fresh and secure. The idea of the architect was for heads of state and governors to reflect on important decisions and first principles. However, Thiệu made the space into a discotheque in order to organizing dancing.

Looking down into the park we can see the two Liberation tanks, 390 and 843, which advance to the Palace. We also see the pole where Bùi Quang Thận, commander of tank 843, hoisted the flag of the revolutionary government.

In the middle of the Palace’s rear courtyard is a helicopter pad, where a helicopter was always already for the President. The machine exhibited there today is of the same model, an American UH-1 restored by the Vietnamese Air Force. Two red circle marks where the bombs landed. A fragment remains in place, signed by the author of the bombing, Nguyễn Văn Trung.

3.5. Basement Bunker

The Saigon Government could direct its war machine from the Bunker, to which all floors of the Palace had access.

The ventilation and air-conditioning were largely sufficient for providing pure air.

The floor of the Bunker is a meter thick and the walls are in general 60cm thick and covered in 5mm of steel, to foil 500kg bombs.

3.5.1. The Command Room

In the Command Room is a great many maps. One shows Vietnam before 1975, when, as a result of the Geneva Agreement Vietnam was divided at the 17th parallel, in effect the Bến Hải river, which is indicated on the map. Another shows the 1,600km Hồ Chí Minh trail, by which the Revolutionary Army’s support staff met up with the Southern Liberation Front via Laos and Cambodia.

One of the documents in the room is on statistics for the number of personnel allied to South Vietnam. The allied countries were, in 1968, America, Australia, Taiwan, South Korea, New Zealand, Thailand, Spain and The Philippines. America had more than half-a-million soldiers in Vietnam.

3.5.2. The Information station

The information station was equipped with the most up-to-date equipment, supplied by the United States in the 1960s. It included a telegraphy room and a code room. Radio sets could replace the post in the Bunker if it was out of order.

The station could communicate with the radar station at Phú Lâm for transmission to Washington and allied countries on long frequencies. Short wave was used to communicate with the battle zones. The station was connected to the President’s office by an underground passage.

3.5.3. The President’s Bedroom and President’s War room

The President’s bedroom for brief rests and President’s War room are on the second floor of the Bunker.

The 2nd floor is 2.5m tall, the same as the first, but this floor was considered the more solid, with concrete walls 1.6m thick cover in 5mm steel designed to withstand two-tone bombs. It was reserved for the President and senior officers. The President could move here from his office on the 2nd floor of the Palace via a small staircase.

In the President’s War Room, Thiệu worked on and directed his tactics. The room had a radio system by which Thiệu could receive information from the field and direct battles. Around the room are the maps, showing the Liberation forces, the forces of the Republic of Vietnam and its allies and the four strategic zones applied by the South.

At a meeting of the Southern Government at the beginning of April, 1975, the Liberation Army had taken Zone I and Zone II, but it was considered Zone III and IV were not in imminent danger, that an attack and the center of Saigon would be difficult. This was entirely mistaken; and the belt of protection was broken.

The tactics carefully worked in the Palace are said to have fail in the end because too much reliance was put on foreign assistance and because the Southern Government did not give sufficient support to the local people.

 

3.6. The Small Corridor

The small corridor was used by non-commissioned officers and the soldiers on guard over the President in the Bunker. Under the principles of security, every member of staff had to follow a fixed path to their duty point.

3.7. Kitchen

This kitchen was used for the Palace banquets. All the kitchen equipment, of stainlees steel, was imported from Japan in the 1960s. Cooking was with gas and electricity. There is a dishwasher, mixer, big woks and dumb waiter to the 4th floor.

At the end of the corridor is a white Mercedes-Benz car used by the President. It was taken under the control of the Liberation Army at 9:10 AM on April 30th, 1975, at the time of the attack on the headquarters of the South Vietnamese Army.

There is also an air-conditioning room, in which some historical documents and pictures relating to the Palace are exhibited.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the tour is finish. Thank you for taking the tour. Good bye and have a good trip.

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