Saigon: Palaces and Museums

Started with a nice breakfast—how I will miss these smorgasbord hotel breakfasts—and walked to the nearby Ben Thanh market, but everyone was just seeing up, so we decided to return later. Instead we headed in the opposite direction to Independence Palace (formerly Reunification Palace), in a large park also near the hotel.

We began with viewing an exhibition in a building on the grounds, which covered, in photographs, the history of the original Norodom Palace, built by the French, until its destruction in 1962.

Then we walked to the new palace, built in 1966, as the heat of the day really started to kick in. The place was an amazing 1960s snapshot, like a James Bond villain’s lair complete with a helicopter on the roof, a goofy hang-out room with curved sofas and bars, and a bunker stuffed with period communication gear in the basement. Everything (except the basement) felt very open and airy, perfect for the climate. But it it did seem to be summed up by the fact that the specially architect-designed meditation space on the roof had actually been used for wild parties.

As usual, the puffed-up leaders hold dinners and parties in luxury while the common people work themselves to an early grave for a regular bowl of rice.

From there, we walked to the War Remnants museum. This was a pretty gruelling and emotional experience, and several times I had to hold back tears at the incredibly graphic photographs—not only of victims of war, but later victims of Agent Orange. Now I know what a person blasted into bits by a bomb looks like, and I’ll never not know.

The United States has a lot to answer for—and the war is something that should be fully covered in every US school. That country is imploding because it is not learning from its own history.

It was incredibly hot, and we were exhausted mentally and physically when we left the museum. We had a leisurely lunch in a pretty upmarket restaurant, then went back to the hotel.

I decided to go up to the roof and check out the ‘pool/jacuzzi’, and when I got there, the heavens had just opened and rain was pouring down over the city. A guy in the pool stood at the edge of the drop and opened his arms out in a gesture of power, so I did the same, intoning ‘THIS PLACE IS MINE’ and we both laughed.

After a rest Carol and I headed out again and went to the Rex Hotel rooftop bar. This is where the US army and journalists would have their ‘5 o’clock follies’—the increasingly bullshit press briefings about the progress of the war. It’s also where a friend of mine played for a week with The Beatels back in 2005, and another couple of friends were here on their honeymoon at the same time.

I had a martini, followed by a beer. Down below us in the square people started to gather around big video screens and horns started to blow. There was a big soccer game between Vietnam and the Phillipines on and everyone was out to watch it. Great vibe, if a bit insane with the constant horn-blowing!

We found a restaurant in a nearby side street called The Secret Garden and had an excellent dinner. Later, Vietnam won 2-0. All night—certainly until I finally went to sleep at 1pm or so—people in the street cheered and blew horns.

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