No sleep again last night. We were just too anxious about what was happening with our trip. We went down to breakfast at 6:30 am when they opened. We had been up for hours. Even though our meeting was not until 8:30, at 7:40 Boris went to see if the Cruise Director was there yet. I stayed in the room. He was back pretty quick.
The River ports had been closed and the Cambodian government had cancelled all visas. There would be no cruise. Our city tour was rescheduled to the afternoon so we could use the morning to make travel arrangements. Our tour group which had started at 61 and was down to 16 yesterday, was now at only 6 people. We would have the benefits of the city tour and dinner cruise today. Boris had also talked to the concierge; if the travel agent couldn’t help us they could assist with airline reservations.
Boris immediately called the travel agent. The flights we wanted were still available but we weren’t sure if we needed to just buy new tickets or if we could apply the flights originating in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Boris was almost hysterical as he talked to her on the phone. Yep, I’m the calm one. It looked like we were going to have to pay about $1,000 each on top of the original ticket to get home. Whatever it takes was our attitude.
I started letting a few people know that it looked like we were coming home and how that needed to be handled. We weren’t sure if they would quarantine us or if the flights might even be cancelled before we left the next day. Finally we got an email and a call from the travel agent. We were ticketed to leave at 3:55 pm the next day (Sunday) and the change fee/difference was only going to be $94 each. Whew.
After lunch in the hotel at the Square One Restaurant, we went down at 1:30 for the tour in better spirits. Now our tour group was down to only 4 people. We were given a mask and met the Uniworld employee who would serve as our guide. The other couple had just arrived the day before from Los Angeles. They were originally from Cuba. Our first stop was the Independence Palace commonly referred to as the Reunification Palace.
This building was originally the Presidential Palace. It was “built on the site of the former Norodom Palace…[It] was the home and workplace of the President of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. It was the site of the end of the Vietnam War during the Fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, when a North Vietnamese army tank crashed through its gates.”
Once inside the gates, our guide gave us the briefing that is usually given on-board the ship. He told us a bit about the political history of Vietnam. He spoke of the success of reunification. The other couple had a difficult time with the discussion having lived through the communist takeover of Cuba. As they put it, not all experiments with communism are successful. Our guide was educated under the Communist system, but his father had served in the South Vietnamese army during the war and had endured the re-education camps. At the camps the soldiers were tortured and often left starving. They endured disease and were forced to perform hard labor.
He went farther back in history to an earlier building on this site that had served as the home to the Governor of French Indochina. The countries of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos were collectively known as French Indochina. That structure was known as the Norodom Palace or Governor’s Palace. Construction was complete in 1871. It was briefly the headquarters of the Japanese colonial officials in 1945 before it was returned to the French that same year. In 1954, France withdrew from Vietnam.
After the guide’s general briefing, we walked up to the Palace and toured the interior. I agree with Boris that it is not an attractive building. The building was constructed between 1962-1966. It definitely looks of that era. However, you can see that it was built to take advantage of cross ventilation and any breeze. In the front are the public rooms, including the Cabinet Room, Conference Room, and State Dining Room. The Conference Room is the only one that is still used. Funerals for some political leaders take place here. The rest of the building is preserved for visitors only.
After we toured the lower floor, we went upstairs to view the smaller state rooms in the front of the building. These rooms were more ornate and attractive and there was a wonderful view of the front fountain from the porch on this floor. The interior grew on me.
My favorite upper floor room was the Ambassadors Chamber were newly-appointed ambassadors presented their credentials to the President. The last such event to take place in the Palace was the presentation of the Japanese Ambassador on April 18, 1975. The room is decorated in Japanese-style lacquer. The panels behind the desk depict the defeat of the Ming which occurred under King Le Loi.
From the upper floor you were able to access the private apartment for the President and his family. There was a nice courtyard, but the rooms were rather small. The guide’s father told him that during the war no one knew exactly where the President was. He might have been at the Palace or he might not have been.
Finally, we went down to the lower level bunkers. Here there was a narrow hallway that passed through a series of rooms with old radio and office equipment, mostly American-made. There was also an even lower level for the soldiers. On that lowest level we accessed the gift shop and the outside lawn. We passed by the tanks commemorating the ramming of the Palace gates on April 30, 1975, effectively ending the Vietnam War.
Our next stop was the War Remnants Museum. I had heard this was the most popular museum in the city for visitors. Before we arrived, I asked the guide what the purpose of the museum was. He hesitated and then said, “propaganda aimed at the younger generations”. Wikipedia’s listing of the history of the museum’s name is enlightening.
“Operated by the Vietnamese government, an earlier version of this museum opened on September 4, 1975, as the Exhibition House for US and Puppet Crimes… The exhibition was not the first of its kind for the North Vietnamese side, but rather followed a tradition of such exhibitions exposing war crimes, first those of the French and then those of the Americans, who had operated in the country as early as 1954.”
“In 1990, the name was changed to Exhibition House for Crimes of War and Aggression, dropping both “U.S.” and “Puppet.” In 1995, following the normalization of diplomatic relations with the United States and end of the US embargo a year before, the references to “war crimes” and “aggression” were dropped from the museum’s title as well; it became the War Remnants Museum.”
On display is military weaponry and equipment ceased from or abandoned by the Americans. The 3-story museum is primarily a display of photographs and enlarged quoted language condemning the war. It is completely one-sided. There is no information regarding the Viet Cong’s aggression and torture. “The Việt Cộng, also known as the National Liberation Front, was a mass political organization in South Vietnam and Cambodia with its own army that fought against the United States and South Vietnamese governments during the Vietnam War.”
I had seen most of the photographs before. Perhaps if you are of a younger generation or haven’t studied history, you might be educated by this museum. However, its one-sided focus diminishes its credibility in my eyes. I have noted that it is no longer on many of the recommended visit lists it previously appeared on. I don’t recommend the museum. Look to a more balanced source for an understanding of the Vietnam War.
The next stop on our city tour was the Jade Emperor Pagoda. Our guide told us about the history of the Chinese groups that settled in Vietnam primarily when there was a change in the dynastic ruler in China. Their gods are generally worshiped at separate temples. This one is dedicated to the Ruler of the Universe, the supreme Taoist god-the Jade Emperor or King of Heaven, Ngoc Hoang.
After passing through the outer courtyard with the burning incense and the catfish pond, you go inside and walk through a series of rooms. The main sanctuary is dedicated to the Jade Emperor. The figures are characters from both Buddhist and Taoist lore and are made from reinforced paper mâché. The temple was built in 1909.
The tradition includes the 10 levels of hell. The Hall of Ten Hells features these regions in carved wood panels, each level getting progressively more torturous. The faithful believe in reincarnation and that your present behavior dictates what position you will come back in in the next life.
Our guide told us that the most popular shrine is actually a small room featuring the God of All Women, Kim Hoa Thanh Mau. Women come to pray that they will conceive a child. On the feast day, there are lines around the block to enter the temple. On the side walls “the ceramic figures of 12 women, overrun with children and wearing colourful clothes, sit in two rows of six. Each of the women exemplifies a human characteristic, either good or bad (as in the case of the woman drinking alcohol from a jug). Each figure represents a year in the 12-year Chinese astrological calendar.” From the Lonely Planet Guide.
The final stop on our city tour was the central post office that Boris and I had visited the previous day. Boris had asked the guide about the location of the famous photographs showing people trying to leave the country at the fall of Saigon in April of 1975. The location was identified as the American Embassy or CIA Headquarters in South Vietnam. From the Post Office, we had a view of building. I was very young at the time, but I remember the image and the coverage.
We took a look back inside the Central Post Office. Our guide told us more about the carved wooden phone booths. Back before cell phones, citizens would line up and take a number to make a collect oversees call. When their number was called they would go to a designated phone booth and hope someone on the other end of the call would answer and accept the charges. The large space was usually full of hopeful callers.
We headed back to the hotel. Tonight will be our last in the city. They are picking us up at 6:30 pm to go to the Saigon Princess, a new riverboat, for a dinner cruise on the Saigon River. Until then…Natasha.