The Presidential Palace of Vietnam is a hundred-year-old French colonial building in the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex surrounding Ba Dinh Square. Completed in 1906, the Presidential Palace is a a thoroughly French Beaux-Arts edifice painted mustard yellow.
The Palace is inextricably linked to Vietnam's French colonial past, so much so that when Ho Chi Minh took over Hanoi and the rest of North Vietnam, he refused to live in the finer parts of the yellow monstrosity. Ho instead chose to live in servants' quarters behind the building. In 1958, a stilt house was built in the palace gardens to serve as his residence and office.
The Palace interior is not open to tourists, unless you're a diplomat or visiting foreign dignitary - Ambassador-designates present their credentials to the President of Vietnam at the Presidential Palace.
Regular visitors are allowed access to the Palace's botanical gardens, where you can get a good look at the Palace's fruit trees and Ho's stilt house. The Palace is visible from the beginning of the visitors' path, but straying off the path is highly discouraged.
Origins of the Presidential Palace
The French colonizers of Vietnam believed in a "mission civilisatrice" (civilizing mission) that held European culture as an improvement over any native culture. So colonial structures tended to ignore local architecture; instead, French architectural styles were employed for colonial buildings in French-held Vietnam.
The Palace Site. Its construction was ordered by the French Governor-General at the time, Paul Doumer. In his book Hanoi: Biography of a City (buy direct), academic William Logan attributes the creation of the Palace to Doumer's "overwhelming passion to construct a colonial capital that would reflect the glory of France". (p. 86) If some venerable old pagodas stood in the way of Doumer's vision... then so much the worse for old pagodas.
Some of the land on which the Palace would eventually rise was simply confiscated from private owners; the rest was built on the grounds of the thousand-year-old Mieu Hoi Dong Pagoda, which was demolished despite the pleas of indignant devotees.
Beaux-Arts Design. The building was designed under the auspices of the colonial Public Buildings Service headed by Auguste-Henri Vildieu - despite widespread attributions to Vildieu, Logan credits the Presidential Palace's design to Charles Lichtenfelder.
The design of the Presidential Palace reflects the neoclassical Beaux-Arts architectural style favored by French engineers at the time - "its classical building form and baroque omamental details [came] straight out of provincial France," writes Logan. "It had no connection with the Vietnamese culture and was in many ways quite ill-suited to Vietnamese climatic conditions."
The End of an Era. The Palace housed French Governor-Generals from Doumer on to the end of the French occupation of Vietnam. After the French evacuated Vietnam, the Communist Party of Vietnam took over the northern half of the country and Ho Chi Minh moved onto the Palace grounds.
Famously, Ho never moved into the parts of the Palace reserved for the Governor-General; memories of French overlordship were too fresh and too painful. Instead, Ho moved into the palace electrician's former quarters behind the building, where he lived from 1954 to 1958, and from which he would also meet journalists and emissaries.
Australian journalist Wilfred Burchett recalled Ho responding to a request for a photo of himself at work in his office: "But I don't have an office. If it is fine, I work out in the garden; if it rains I work on the verandah and if it is cold, I work in my room." (source)
Ho Chi Minh's Stilt House
While the Palace remains strictly off-limits to visitors, the expansive garden and pond at the rear of the Palace is wide open. A 300-foot path called "Mango Alley" leads from the visitors' entrance, around a carp pond, to the stilt house that housed Ho Chi Minh from 1958 to his death in 1969.
"Uncle Ho's Stilt House", or Nha San Bac Ho in the original Vietnamese, is an integral part of the "Uncle Ho" legend built up by glowing Vietnamese propaganda over the years. The stilt house's design is based on traditional houses from the Vietnamese northwest, which reminded Ho (it is said) of the houses in which he took refuge from the French while he was still a revolutionary.
There are only two rooms in the stilt house, both of which are no larger than a hundred square feet, and contain Ho's spartan personal effects. The house even lacks a toilet - Ho was supposed to have scrapped the toilet from the original design. The void deck under the house was used by Ho as an office and receiving area for important guests.
For more on the stilt house and the garden surrounding it, read our article: Ho Chi Minh Stilt House, Hanoi.
Presidential Palace Complex Operating Hours
The Presidential Palace complex is open every day from 7:30am to 4pm, with a lunch break from 11am to 1:30pm. An entrance fee of VND 5,000 will be charged at the gate.