A bust of Vietnamese revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh at the Independence Palace museum. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
A bust of Vietnamese revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh at the Independence Palace museum. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Many are drawn to Vietnam because of its wartime past. A new exhibit at the iconic Independence Palace in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, aims to update points of interest and will appeal to history buffs seeking new perspectives on the Vietnam War.

The exhibit, inside and about a palace where tanks famously crashed through the gates during the fall of Saigon in 1975, is a departure from the communist propaganda that suffuses much of the city.

From interactive touch-screen videos to photographs etched on cobalt blue glass, the installation starts with Vietnam’s history as a French colony and ends with its war against the United States.

Apart from the displays of palace construction, enemy spies and cyclo-heavy nostalgia, the experience is just as much about form as content.

Entitled “From Norodom Palace to Independence Palace 1868-1966”, the refurbished exhibit takes ample advantage of its location on palatial grounds.

A cylindrical chamber encloses the footage and soundtrack of a war plane; a side hall highlights a “Faces of Old Saigon” exhibit; a wall timeline follows visitors up with each turn of the staircase. The design of the exhibit is smartly structured around the space.

Ho Chi Minh City's iconic Independence Palace museum. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Ho Chi Minh City’s iconic Independence Palace museum. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The first two floors are an appetizer, where curated clips project onto the walls and provide glimpses into the early French transmuting the Indochinese land they had seized.

The “Faces” portion of the exhibit takes creative pains to present scholars, businessmen, revolutionaries and colonial collaborators of the era. Coffee colored glass lend sleek, modern presentation to historic news clippings and aged family portraits.

The main course on the second floor mixes familiar imagery, such as the self-immolation of protesting Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc, with a deeper then previous history of the iconic building.

The material will resonate with anyone who has read Misalliance on Ngo Dinh Diem, the South Vietnam president assassinated while his American allies looked on, or Finding the Dragon Lady, on his Macbeth-like sister-in-law Madam Nhu.

Vietnam – US-Lyndon Johnson – Ngo Dinh Diem – Frederick Nolting – May 12-1961
South Vietnam President Ngo Dinh Diem with then US Vice President Lyndon Johnson and US Ambassador to South Vietnam Fredrick Nolting, May 12, 1961. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In 1962, an aborted coup attempt against Diem resulted in the aerial bombardment of the palace, later renamed “Reunification Palace” by the victorious communists. Madam Nhu fell two stories in that bombing, losing everything she had from the inferno that followed.

The second floor holds plenty for those interested in Diem and the rest of his clan. On one wall is a family tree, on another are hidden cubbies that invite visitors to open and engage with the family’s secrets.

Another tower-like chamber maps out Diem and his brother’s final hours scurrying from point-to-point around the city as they tried unsuccessfully to dodge a palace coup. The step-by-step account is intriguing enough that a Vietnamese military official could be seen tracing the timeline on the exhibit’s opening day.

The palace proper is already a popular spot for visiting foreigners, but it falls victim to the same weaknesses that plague many of Vietnam’s historic tourist sites. There’s the stodgy Communist Party propaganda, as well as relics that are showcased without context or other explanation for viewers.

A picture taken on April 30, 1975 in Saigon shows a tank of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) smashing in the gate of the South Vietnamese presidential palace, South Vietnamese government's last stronghold. (BW only). AFP / VNA / AFP PHOTO / VNA / -
A North Vietnamese Army tank smashes through the gate of the South Vietnamese presidential palace before it was renamed ‘Independence Palace’, April 30, 1975. Photo: AFP via VNA 

But this latest exhibit annexed to the palace fills in some of those gaps, with plans to remain open to the public for at least three years.

Ivy League historian Ed Miller and New York designer James Hicks added an international touch to the museum’s consultation done by locals Nguyen Van Huy and Le Thi Minh Thy and overseen by palace director Tran Thi Ngoc Diep.

Hicks also advised on the Vietnamese Women’s Museum in Hanoi, another attraction whose more modern conceptualization stands out amid the capital city’s many dated tourist offerings.

The exhibit leverages into a recent resurgence of interest in Vietnam and the lessons learned from its wartime past.

Vietnam – Dancers – Independence Museum – January 13-2017
Vietnamese dancers during a performance at the Independence Palace for then US Secretary of State John Kerry, January 17, 2017. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The interest has been sparked by the 40-year anniversaries of such seminal 1968 events as the Tet Offensive and the My Lai massacre, as well as a recent 18-hour documentary series by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick that has reopened many American war wounds.

Visitors to Ho Chi Minh City would usually sate their interest by dropping in on the War Remnants Museum or the Cu Chi Tunnels, where Vietnamese took refuge underground from intense US bombing.

The new palace exhibit is a welcome addition for those interested in revisiting the country’s aboveground wartime past.