On the 30th of April 1975, at approximately 10:45am, Tank 390 from the North Vietnamese army crashed through the wrought-iron gates of Independence Palace.
And with that, the Vietnam War came to an end, literally at its gates.
Waiting for the North Vietnam soldiers in the reception chamber was General Minh and his cabinet. It was only 43 hours before that he had become head of the South Vietnam state.
For those visiting Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as it is popularly known as, Independence Palace is a must-see. Especially if you are interested in history and have a fair idea of what transpired in the mid-1970s.
“I have been waiting since early this morning to transfer power to you.”
– General Minh, last head of South Vietnam
“There is no question of your transferring power. You cannot give up what you do not have.”
– VC officer who was met by General Minh
A bit of background history
It used to be called Norodom Palace and was the French colonial headquarters when the French ruled the region. When they departed, it became the residence of the South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem.
However, he was such a despised leader that his own air force tried to finish him off by bombing the palace in 1962. He ordered a new residence to be built on the same site, with a bomb shelter, which was completed in 1966. Unfortunately, for him, he never got to see it. He was killed by his own troops in 1963.
General Nguyen Van Thieu, the military head, decided to move into the completed palace instead. In the process, he also changed its name to Independence Palace. It’s from here that he and his commanders tried their best to fend off the communist forces. And then, on the 21st of April 1975, he was evacuated by the US forces in what would be the largest helicopter evacuation, anywhere in the world.
While it was renamed as the Reunification Palace immediately after the fall of Saigon, it is today, known officially by its original name – Independence Palace.
Exploring the palace
The palace grounds are surprisingly well maintained. Palm trees dot the huge lawn, while replicas of the two tanks that broke through are parked on one side of the palace immediately on your left, after you have walked in through the main gate.
Once inside the palace, there is lots to see. On the ground floor are the various meeting rooms. Walk up one floor and you come to the reception rooms, where dignitaries were welcomed. Further up one floor is a card playing room, while on the fourth floor is a casino.
There are also lots of rooms that have been cordoned off, such as the presidential office and bedroom. The rooftop has a helipad along with an old US UH-1 helicopter. It’s from here that staff were evacuated just before the palace was overrun by the North Vietnamese army.
However, the highlight for many visitors remains the basement. Besides featuring tunnels, old communication equipment and maps, it also has many historic photographs. As you walk through, there is also a classic Mercedes-Benz W110 200 used by General Thieu himself.
For years, the official account stated that it was Tank 843, a Soviet-made T54, that broke through the palace gates first. However, by 1995, after enough evidence was presented, Tank 390, a Chinese-made T59, was confirmed as the first tank that crashed through the gates. Today, both are preserved at the military museum in Hanoi.
Information you can use
Independence Palace is open daily from 8 to 11am and 1 to 4pm. However, do reconfirm it is open on the day you plan to visit as there are occasions when it remains off bounds for visitors, especially during special events and official receptions. Entry fee is VND 40,000 per person and must be purchased at the main gate, which is the only way to enter the compound.