We had a day at sea before reaching Phu My (pronounced like “Phu My once, shame on you. . . “) on March 9. During the sea day we went to the special Vietnamese dinner in the Pinnacle Grill. It was very good & this makes the 3rd day in a row we had Vietnamese food (which we would have again in Ho Chi Minh City).
Phu My is really just an industrial port. We were here to visit Ho Chi Minh City, since 1976 the official name of Saigon. Most people still call it Saigon; our guide said you have to use Ho Chi Minh City when you write it, but when speaking most people use Saigon. A thousand years ago this was a Khmer (the Cambodian ethnic group) fishing village called Prei Nokor but by the 18th century the area was part of the Vietnamese Nguyen empire. The Vietnamese called it Saigon. The French seized this area in 1861 and in 1862 it was declared the capital of French Cochinchina. After ejecting the Japanese from the area in 1945 the British handed it back to the French, and the long independence war against the French & Americans began. In 1975 the Americans evacuated & the city fell to the Vietnamese, who renamed it Ho Chi Minh City a year later.
After a long drive from Phu My we reached Saigon (as I will call it because it is shorter), crossing the Saigon river. The city now has a population of about 9 million & many very tall buildings, as you would expect in a city of that size.
Our first stop was at the Presidential Palace. This has long been called the Reunification Palace but we didn’t see any indication of this while we were there. This is where the Vietnamese tanks broke through the front gate to seize power from the old U.S. supported regime. In fact, long-time President Thieu had helicoptered out a day or two before & turned his office over to a general known as Big Minh. When the tanks arrived Minh announced “I have been waiting since this morning to transfer power to you,” and the general responded, “Your power is gone. You cannot give up what you do not have.” So ended the Vietnam-American war.
The Presidential Palace was completed in 1966. An older palace here was badly damaged by bombs when his own air force tried unsuccessfully to assassinate President Diem in 1962. Diem was successfully assassinated (with American support) in 1963 so he never got to live here. Inside they have preserved most of the ornate rooms used by the president.
We next visited Notre Dame Cathedral and the General Post Office, which are across the street from each other. The cathedral was built by the French in 1880. It is the largest church ever built in the French empire & when it was completed it was the tallest building in Saigon (not any more, by a long shot). Inside it is rather plain; most of its stained glass windows were destroyed in World War II & replaced with clear ones. In front is a statue of Mary, installed in 1959.
The General Post Office across the street was designed by Gustave Eiffel & completed in the 1880’s. It is a huge open space where postal activities are still busily carried on. In the back is a large picture of Ho Chi Minh and near the front are two huge maps, one showing the Saigon area in 1892.
Nearby is the old CIA headquarters, which our guide said was where the last American helicopters left Saigon in 1975, rather than the U.S. Embassy, as most sources say. Actually, there were a number of helicopter departure points around the city, so both of these could have been among the last. Not far away is a socialist realism style sculpture.
Lam Son Square is the site of the Municipal Theater, called the Opera House when it was built in 1899. It looks French, with fanciful stone carvings at the top and by the entrance. When it opened in 1959 the Caravelle hotel was the tallest building in the city at 10 stories. It was a central gathering place for diplomats & journalists during the war. Today the old Caravelle is attached to a much taller addition.
A couple of blocks away is the Rex Hotel. Built in the 1950’s, it did not begin operating as a hotel until after the war in the 1970’s. Its Rooftop Garden bar was the venue for the regular briefings by the U.S. military that came to be known as the “Five O’Clock Follies” because no one believed the extravagant Viet Cong body counts that were routinely announced here. We went up to the rooftop bar, fronted by the large crown that is the symbol of the hotel & is a local landmark when lit up at night. There was a great view here of the People’s Committee Building, which was built by the French in 1908 as the Hotel de Ville (city hall). In 1945 thousands of people gathered here to establish the Provisional Administrative Committee of South Vietnam. It is very French looking & there is a nice park in front with a lot of flowers & a statue of Ho Chi Minh.
We went to lunch at a classy restaurant called Nam Phan. We were seated on the top floor & there was no elevator, so this was not a great plan for the older folks with walking difficulties in our party. But everybody made it & it was quite a good lunch.
Our last stop was for a water puppet performance. People stand in the water behind a screen and use long sticks under the water to manipulate puppets in front of the screen. It was (way) less than thrilling. We found it hard to imagine that even little kids would be enthralled by this tedious business in the age of movies & video games.
We left Phu My after dark. It is an industrial port located up a river from the coast, but there are woods & mountains & fishing boats in the area which we watched as the sun went down & we left Vietnam.