Indochina Day Twenty Five / Twenty Six
26.02.2020 - 27.02.2020
Street corner near the HCMC Museum
Our departure flight to Bangkok, and thence to London, wasn't until 20.10 so we had most of the day free. With no need to get up early we didn't set an alarm, but awoke before seven just the same! So we had a leisurely breakfast, enjoying the wide selection at the buffet.
Check-out was at noon, which would have left us hanging around the hotel lobby for five hours, so we decided to splurge on a late check-out, costing half of the room rate. We considered it well worth it to be able to shower, change and pack just before departure. It also meant we were less wary of getting hot and sticky in the Ho Chi Minh City climate. So after breakfast we went for a walk in the area immediately around the hotel.
The HCMC Museum
I had been admiring the architecture of the HCMC Museum which we could see from our 12th floor bedroom. It was designed by the French architect Foulhoux, who also designed the Central Post Office we had visited yesterday. It has served various purposes over the years, including the HQ of the provisional administration committee after the 1945 revolution, the French High Commissioner's residence after they retook control of the country, and the supreme court under the Nguyen Van Thieu regime. It opened as a museum in 1978.
On the opposite side of the road to the museum we spotted a banyan tree which seemed to be getting some attention from local tourists. Later investigations revealed that the little park around it is called Cong vien Bach Tung Diep and the tree, more than 300 years old, is believed to be the oldest tree in the city. It is known as the four-body banyan because it has four separate clusters of roots.
Banyan tree, Cong vien Bach Tung Diep
I also unearthed the following:
In the colonial era, this area was known as the Devil’s Triangle of Saigon, with three imposing buildings built by the French Governor representing their power in Saigon and Vietnam: the residence of the French Governor (now the Ho Chi Minh city museum), the Court of Saigon and the Big Prison (now the Ho Chi Minh City General Sciences Library).
Back in that dark era, many prisoners in the Big Prison of Saigon were dragged there in front of this tree to be executed publicly by guillotine. The streets were soaked in blood and it was believed that the souls of the unfortunate victims haunted and lived in the tree.
I wondered if the small shrine under another banyan, in the museum grounds, was linked to this? There was no sign to confirm or contradict that idea.
Shrine and lamp in the museum grounds
In the attractive gardens are several airplanes, a tank and an old car, the latter unlabelled.
Old car outside the HCMC Museum
Near the banyan tree is an F-5 Fighter which was used in the bombing of the Independence Palace in April 1975 during the final attack on Saigon.
We paid the small fee and went inside. To be honest, unless you are deeply interested in the city's history, the museum building is perhaps more worth seeing than the exhibits. It has an air of faded grandeur which I found quite photogenic. And I am not the only one - it is a very popular setting for wedding photos.
Entrance lobby and corridor
Bridal photography in the HCMC Museum
As to those exhibits, the ground floor is devoted to the periods from early settlement through to the early 20th century, including commerce, industry and handicrafts.
In the basement you can visit an underground shelter added in the 1960s after the bombing of the old Independence Palace, when the President, Ngo Dinh Diem, moved here with his government. There are six rooms here with walls of reinforced concrete a metre thick. There are four entrances to the shelter – two from inside (we descended from one and emerged at the other) and two outside. A school class were visiting and as we would have had to wait to see inside the rooms and it was very hot and stuffy, we decided to skip the few displays we could half-see by peering over the shoulders of the young people!
In the underground bunker
The first floor is mostly devoted to the revolutionary struggle from 1930 to 1975, which I found more interesting than the earlier history. It was here that I took the photo of the tank crashing through the gates of the Reunification Palace which I included in yesterday’s entry. According to a sign nearby, the sewing machine was used by a Mrs Nguyen Thi Loan who disguised herself as a tailoress in order to sit in watch over the office of the Southern Party Regional Committee. I was drawn to it because it reminded me of my mother’s old Singer, on which she used to make most of our clothes.
Old sewing machine
Another display shows a very young Ho Chi Minh rallying the Saigon resistance to the reoccupation of the city by the French in 1945.
A young Ho Chi Minh rallying the Saigon resistance
A sign nearby describes the establishment of the Southern Resistance Committee in September 1945, which issued a proclamation ‘asking the City’s army and people to form self-defensive teams, make wildcat strikes … not to cooperate with the French colonists and start the resistance in Southern Vietnam.’ It goes on:
‘The Central Party Committee and Ho Chi Minh showed unanimity with the Southern people’s determination to resist. On September 24, 1945, the provisional government sent an instructive order to the Southern people and soldiers: “In this solemn moment, the Government appeals to the Southern people to unite closely, tens of thousands will be united as one, acting bravely and cautiously to bring our liberation to the final victory.”’
It was pretty hot inside the museum, and even hotter outside, so we had a break in the nearby branch of Highland Coffee (the local answer to Starbucks but much preferable to us for being local), with some delicious iced coffees and a table over-looking the museum grounds inside the wonderfully air-conditioned café.
Around City Hall
We then braved the heat, 35 degrees by now, to take a walk around the neighbouring blocks.
Traffic in HCMC
Traffic near City Hall
We reached the City Hall, or more properly the People’s Committee Building, which was built in 1902–1908. It was designed by French architect P. Gardes in a French colonial style, modelled on the Hotel de Ville de Paris. It serves as the headquarters of the Peoples Committee in Ho Chi Minh City and isn’t open to the public.
In front of the City Hall is a statue of Ho Chi Minh, erected in 2015 to mark his 125th birthday.
Statue of Ho Chi Minh
And further along the tree-lined boulevard is a pretty fountain with a sculpture of a pink lotus flower in the centre. We had admired this, with its changing light display, from the hotel's rooftop bar, so I was keen to get a closer look, and of course some photos.
Fountain in front of City Hall
By now though it was very hot indeed outside, and we needed to cool off. So we went back to the hotel to make use of the a/c in our room, given that we had paid extra for it! Later we had a leisurely lunch in the hotel's ground floor Bistro before showering and finishing packing.
Time to go home
Tai picked us up at 17.00 for the fairly short drive to the airport through the now familiarly manic streets. We were there well ahead of the necessary time so had rather a dull long wait for boarding ahead of an on-time take-off at 20.10.
We had a couple of hours to spare at Bangkok Airport. We tried, unsuccessfully, to report the cloning of my debit card on our previous transit through the airport – a lady at the information desk tried hard to help us, despite having limited English and only half understanding the problem, but when she put us in touch, by phone, with the local police they said we had to go outside the airport to report it in person, which of course wasn’t feasible with so little time to spare. So we gave up, bought drinks at a different outlet (naturally!) and stretched our legs with the long walk to our gate.
Waiting to board at Bangkok Airport
Again we boarded on time. The flight was long (13 hours) and unsurprisingly boring, but uneventful. The food was better than average and as on the outward journey I was pleased to find that we had reasonable leg room. I ate the meals (dinner soon after take-off, breakfast a couple of hours before landing), watched a film (The Current War with Benedict Cumberbatch - a bit disappointing), slept a bit (but not enough), read, sorted photos ...
The entire flight was in the dark so I didn't miss having a window seat - we always opt for aisle and middle while flying at night, so as not to disturb others when getting up, which I like to do frequently. We landed about ten minutes early at Heathrow, still in the dark and with heavy rain falling - welcome back to London! Just the sort of weather to remind us why we love to get away at this time of year, and to make us wish we were still back in the warmth of Indochina.
When I drafted this blog entry on the way home and immediately after our arrival I added the following sentence: Ah well, there is always another holiday to plan and look forward to ... Unfortunately at the moment that isn’t possible, thanks to COVID-19, but we can always dream of happier times ahead and meanwhile we have this wonderful trip, and many others, to look back on.