If you want to learn more about the history, culture and people of a new place, the first thing you need to do is visit the local museum. When done well, museums are a place where history is brought to life. Objects that can look unremarkable, even ordinary, in themselves become mysterious relics of a bygone era. Just like the people they came into contact with, these objects have their own history that can help us to understand past events and how they have followed us into the present. In Saigon, a place with a fascinating and tumultuous history, there is no shortage of good museums so here is our pick of the top three to visit during your stay.
My favourite museum in Saigon is undoubtedly the Reunification Palace. The Palace has been left, externally and internally, exactly as it was in 1975 when it became dramatic setting of the end of the Vietnamese-American War as a Viet Cong army tank crashed through its wrought iron gates. It is said that newly-elected President Minh told the VC officer he had been waiting to transfer power to him since early that morning. The officer is said to have replied, ‘There is no question of your transferring power’. ‘You cannot give up what you do not have.’ Wow.
The awe-inspiring sense that this building has seen some of the most spectacular and important moments in recent Vietnamese history pervades every room and corridor of this mausoleum to pre-1975 South Vietnamese power. The retro kitsch décor of the private residences looks so seventies it’s hard to believe it’s authentic and the underground bomb-proof bunkers, where the wartime telecommunications centre, maps rooms and meeting rooms still sit untouched, are just spectacular. Make this top of your list of places to visit in Vietnam.
Museum of Ho Chi Minh City
This certainly isn’t the most exciting museum in Saigon, but it’s a good place to start for those who have just arrived in the city with two names. The museum’s main objective is to communicate the changes and developments of Ho Chi Minh City from past to present. It’s a bit of a pick and mix of themes and collection areas with exhibitions dedicated to ancient history and archeological finds, the city’s present day economy and revolutionary struggles. The displays are a bit tired and dated, with no interactivity and very little interpretation for foreign visitors. It’s certainly worth a look around though, if only for the chance to explore one of Saigon’s beautiful old French colonial buildings. Built in 1885 by French architect Foulhoux, the museum was originally the home of the governor of Indochina. In the years that followed the building saw various ruling powers come and go; the French, the Japanese, the British, the People’s Committee of South Vietnam and the Ho Chi Minh People’s Committee have all taken control of the once named Gia Long Palace. The palace has housed a museum since 1978, changing its name from the Revolutionary Museum to the Ho Chi Minh City Museum in 1999. In my experience, taxi drivers seem to know it by its old name so give that a go if there’s any confusion!
War Remnants Museum
This museum is unsurprisingly popular amongst tourists keen to get the Vietnamese perspective on the Vietnamese- American War, which lasted for an incredible 19 years of the 20th century. Once known as the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes, the War Remnants Museum is a contemporary museum with the dual aim of both revealing and remembering the atrocities committed against the Vietnamese people during the war for independence. Many of the exhibitions have a strong focus on photography, using the fruits of the labour of many photo-journalists during the conflict to create exhibitions showing the human cost of the American offensive in horrifying detail. The upstairs Requiem exhibition, showcasing the photographs of photo-journalists on both sides killed in action, is a powerful display, while photographs of the on-going effects of the use of Agent Orange by the American military make for incredibly difficult viewing. The outside space dedicated to a re-creation of French and south Vietnamese prison conditions is harrowing in its detailed recreation of torture and there are various authentic US military vehicles and weapons on display in the museum grounds. A trip to this museum makes for a difficult education but a necessary one.