Ho Chi Minh City is home to (at least) two superb palaces, each providing a contrasting superlative example of a completely different style of Twentieth century architecture.
The former palace of the South Vietnamese president, since re-named the Reunification Palace, is nothing short of an Acropolis of modernism. It is widely considered a masterpiece, the model of a forward-looking sixties building for the tropics, open and full of wide breezy spaces. But there are also bizarre touches like a Mad Men-style in-house “nightclub,” a helicopter on the roof and a Benz in the basement, as well as sumptuous meeting rooms and serene private apartments, linked by the airy gleaming corridors and staircases.
Many of the furnishings look like they come straight from the Thunderbirds. It’s a trip.
I had visited the palace on my trip to Saigon ten year previously ( I wrote about it here) but was happy to return, under glowering tropical skies and intermittent fits of cold rain, to see it all again.
The Museum of Fine Arts, on the other hand, was new to me. It is housed in a trio of stunning art nouveau mansions just opposite the Ben Thanh market. The galleries contain many paintings and drawings of human figures, Cubist water buffaloes, war scenes (of course) and a strangely-named section of “ancient contemporary art” but much of this is frankly of poor quality and the real stars, undoubtedly, are the buildings. With chipped stained glass windows, elegant wrought-iron staircases and metallic grills, shuttered windows and walls painted canary yellow or deep red, the buildings were built in the 1920s and thirties for an (apparently ridiculously wealthy) local Chinese merchant family, and they are beautiful.