Just before lunch we headed to the Reunification Palace in the centre of Ho Chi Minh City. Home to the president of South Vietnam in 1975 when the North’s tanks came rolling in, it’s stood in a virtual time warp ever since. To get to the palace, we walked through the large pale grey gates surrounding it and past an immaculate round lawn where we headed up a flight of steps to the main entrance.
Inside, the palace is home to ceremonial spaces, a banqueting hall, meeting rooms, seating areas, a dining room, screening room and even an indoor rockery. And as befitting a presidential palace, it’s lavishly decorated in parts.
The enormous Conference Hall (above), for example, is filled with chintzy red sofas and armchairs with a red patterned carpet. While the Ambassador’s Chamber is a large gold-themed room featuring Japanese-style laquered furnishings.
While the entire palace is an ode to the 1970s, when I walked inside the National Security Council Chamber (above), I really felt as though I was stepping back in time. The room has maps all over the walls, basic furniture and an amazing series of pastel coloured phones in a row on a wooden cupboard.
Downstairs in the basement is the war bunker, a claustrophobic space full of sparsely-furnished rooms. One of the rooms was empty bar a table, chair, filing cabinet and a series of phones; another just had a bed, a small table and a couple of phones.
The Reunification Palace is perfectly preserved and there’s lots to see. I really felt as though I’d been transported back to the 1970s as I walked around and it offers an intriguing insight into what life was like at the palace at the time.
Having spent the morning sightseeing, we spent the rest of the day ambling around the city centre, taking a walking tour of the main sights, such as the elegant Municipal Theatre and the People’s Committee Building, and doing a spot of shopping.
Ho Chi Minh City is great for shopping and it’s worth spending a little time exploring the shops around Union Square (above). Le Loi is home to some great boutiques, including my favourite, the Saigon Boutique, where I felt as though I bought half the shop.
If you collect art, Union Square has some great galleries – I bought a striking painting in one of them. The central market, meanwhile, is packed with stalls selling all manner of goods, such as fruit and veg, coffee (including the infamous weasel coffee), souvenirs and clothing, while the Vincom Shopping Centre is a modern mall filled with big name high street stores.
In the evening, we headed back to Union Square to check out the People’s Committee Building. We’d read in a guidebook that the exterior is filled with geckos at dusk and we were keen to see if this was true. It turned out it was – there were loads of geckos all over the facade.
The soldiers guarding the building, though, were less than impressed by our game of ‘spot the gecko’ and we were soon shooed away and told off for getting too close to the building, which isn’t open to the public.
Just before dinner we made our way to the Saigon Skydeck in the Bitexco Financial Tower, one of the tallest buildings in the city. The Skydeck has incredible views in every direction over the city and we stayed there as the sun went down, before stopping off at the bar for a couple of ice-cold margaritas with a view. The perfect way to end a jam-packed day of sightseeing and shopping.