was originally built as a theatre in 1900 with a facade similar to the Petit Palais in Paris, but from 1955
to 1975, it served as South Vietnam's Congress House. However, it's the absence of a long-gone monument that tells an interesting tale about the state of the former nation. In the arcade just in front of the Opera House once stood a hulking statue of two South Vietnamese marines charging forward. However, the statue was positioned so that the barrel of a gun faced the front of the then Congress House. According to Gil Simpson, there was a long-running joke that the statue was a message from the army to the legislators: don’t forget who’s in charge. The statue was destroyed shortly after the South Vietnamese government surrendered, though a public park still occupies the space.
Monument to Thich Quand Duc
The Chemins de Fer Affair
The Opera House
French soldier, Continental behind
hidden in plain sight: the american war
Though Saigon remained peaceful relative to the rest of Vietnam, the city was the staging ground for a number of historic events. Some of them, commemorated in plain sight, routinely go unnoticed amidst the city’s frenetic pace. At the intersection of Cach Mang Thang Tam and Nguyen Dinh Chieu in District 3 is a small park centred around an ornate Buddhist stupa. This is the spot where, on the morning of June 11 1963, Thich Quang Duc, a monk from Hue, sat down in front of the Cambodian Embassy, allowed fellow monks to douse him in gasoline and then set fire to himself. The photograph, captured by Malcolm Brown, has since become one of the most iconic images from the period, so much so that the intention behind Thich Quang Duc’s action has been eclipsed by the stark, disturbing imagery. In fact, the self-immolation was a response to persecution of Buddhists by the regime of South Vietnam’s president, Ngo Dinh Diem. The event figured significantly in the Buddhist Crisis of 1963, which began with the shooting of nine protesters by South Vietnamese soldiers on Vesak Day in Hue on May 8. It also catalyzed opposition to the regime at home and around the world. Nguyen Huu Thai (see “Ho Chi Minh City Historians”) was present at the intersection and recalls that day and the effect it had on him: “At first I was an outside observer. Then I could no longer stand idle. I became a participant. I chose sides—the side of oppressed people.” Later that year, on November 1, with confidence in his leadership shattered, Diem was assassinated after his own army staged a coup. car bomb beneath the Brinks on Christmas Eve, 1964, killing two American officers and wounding nearly 60. At the time, the Brinks was a popular hangout for American servicemen. According to Gil Simpson, the rumour was that the attack was meant to coincide with the arrival of Bob Hope, who was due in town for a USO performance. The attack was meant to demonstrate the North’s ability to strike within Saigon. Though urged to launch retaliatory air strikes by his advisers, then U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson refused. After the February 4, 1965 NLF attack on a U.S. Marines barracks in Pleiku, President Johnson approved air strikes. Also in 1965, the NLF bombed the U.S. embassy in March and the My Canh floating restaurant, which was moored along Ton Duc Thang on the Saigon River, in June.
Even more so than the self-immolation of Thic Quang Duc, Eddie Adams’ 1968 photograph of the execution of a handcuffed NLF officer by the chief of the South Vietnamese National Police during the Tet Offensive epitomises the brutality of the war in many minds. The image shocked people across the world when it landed on the front pages of major newspapers, but in Saigon, it was perhaps not so uncommon a sight. Though the railway office opposite Ben Thanh Market has served the same purpose for more than a century, it was annexed for a more sinister purpose for a period. Until 1966, a portion of its façade was covered by sandbags and set off by barbed wire; the highly visible spot was the site of public executions carried out by the South Vietnamese government. Eventually, says Gil Simpson and Thomas Hutchings, the spectacle was deemed damaging to South Vietnam’s image and public executions ceased to be carried out here. Perhaps the most iconic shot of the April 29, 1975 evacuation of Saigon depicts a stream of people ascending a steep ramp to a helicopter perched on the roof of an elevator shaft. But the building is often incorrectly mislabeled as the American Embassy. In fact, it was the Pittman Apartments, located at 22 Gia Long Street, now 22 Ly Tu Trong. The photo was taken by Hubert Van Es, a press agent for United Press International, from UPI’s penthouse office at the Peninsula Hotel. Though Van Es asserted that he captioned the photograph correctly, the misidentification persists widely today. The Pittman Apartments served as housing for CIA staff during the war. The rooftop platform was never intended to hold the weight of a helicopter, but in the weeks before the evacuation, when it became clear that the South Vietnamese would surrender, the elevator shaft was reinforced so that it could serve as a helipad. Today, if you stand just east of Ly Tu Trong on Hai Ba Trung or Dong Khoi, you can still see the makeshift landing pad. Special thanks to Philippe Chaplain and Gil Simpson for providing photographs and vintage postcards to these preceding pages.
The Airlift of 1975
Monument to NLF soldiers, Lam Son Square
Thich Quang Duc’s Sacrifice
The Brinks Bombing
Another little-noticed monument is positioned on the northwest corner of Lam Son Square. Though today the Park Hyatt occupies the space, the Brinks Hotel, a quarters for U.S. military officers, was once located here. The history explains the monument’s imagery. The stone is engraved with the image of a jeep erupting in flames in dedication to two members of the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (NLF) who successfully detonated a
The main structure in Lam Son Square—the Municipal Theatre, better known as the Opera House—also played a significant role in the short history of the Republic of Vietnam. It
The Railway Administration Office, site of public executions