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The palaces of the last emperor lose their glory


The lonely entrance to Palace I

Vietnam Heritage, February 2011 -- Jostling throughshops, stalls, xe ôm drivers, photographers and beggars, tourists finallyapproach the gate. There they pay VND10,000 (US50 cents) to get in to seePalace III, of the last ruler of dynastic Vietnam, Emperor Bao Dai.

Constructed inthe 1930s on a pine hill in Trieu Viet Vuong Street, in the Central Highlandtourist destination, nowadays, of Dalat, the premises served as the summerretreat for Emperor Bao Dai. Later they became the residence of President NgoDinh Diem, then President Nguyen Van Thieu, of the [southern] Republic ofVietnam. It is now a tourist site under the management of Xuan Huong TravelCompany.

Designed byErnest Hébrard, author of Indochina Architecture and head of the IndochinaArchitecture and Town Planning Service under the French colonial regime, PalaceIII combines the grandeur of French taste with the elegance of Vietnamesearchitectural style. It has been a tourist attraction for a long time.

Yet, inside theart-deco-influenced building, through the sweeping, curved facade, most of theartefacts are gone. The beds are among the few items on display. In the diningroom, a water filter, whose tap is gone, stands humbly near a rusty wash basin.The dining relics of the royal family (which included the Emperor, the Empress,five princes and princesses and servants) also include two chairs, which coverthemselves with stains and dust, and a dining table, which decorates itselfwith patterns painted with filth.



A building on Palace I Campus

Weeds havereplaced precious roses in the royal yards.

Only thesouvenir stores are well tended. And they are everywhere. At the entry. Insidethe palatial building. In the backyard. Along the exit. Everywhere the same:cheap clothes, fake jewellery, children’s toys and all kinds of made-in-Chinaknick-knacks.

Andadvertisements for horse carts for rent.

Despite how muchit has been commercialized, Palace III is the best maintained of the threeformer royal residences in the Paris of Vietnam, Dalat City, in the southerncentral province of Lam Dong, and the only one available for public access.

At theintersection of Tran Phu Street and Tran Hung Dao Street, from 1,540 metresabove sea level, the 26-ha Palace II and grounds have a view of Xuan HuongLake, [presently drained for reconstruction] and the tranquillity of the pineforests.

The mansion of ahigh-ranking French officer, then the residence of Emperor Bao Dai, and laterof Ngo Dinh Nhu, advisor and brother of President Ngo Dinh Diem, it now loomsghostly behind iron gates, which are permanently shut. Despite the large signfacing Tran Hung Dao Street advertising it as a high-class villa-and-restaurantcomplex, Palace II is devoid of people, of life, and of history. Locals toldVietnam Heritage the desertion had been going on for years; and no one knew thereason. 

Two kilometresfrom Palace II, on another poetic, evergreen hill, at the end of a sinuousslope, retreating from any chaos and bustle of city life, Parisian-style PalaceI was a grandiose elaboration on the refined neoclassical style. Yet, thismassive, imposing home is now an abandoned, and probably forbidden, site.

Oxide had put ared-brown coating on the ‘Welcome to Bao Dai Palace I’ sign near the entrance.Behind the ever-closed gate, the period of half-a-century has wiped out almostall the royal vestiges. The palm trees disappeared from the oval front yard,together with the fountain, flower beds, the natural swimming pool. The ancientmulga trees are now like ghosts along the entrance.

The mainpalatial building, which the website of Lam Dong Province describes as ‘willleave visitors awestruck’, is nowhere in sight.

The onlystructure to be seen is the imperial guard house, near the gate. Among pinetrees, behind upturned benches, the guard house appears fit to collapse at anymoment. The tiles on the roof have been falling, showing decayed beams. Windowswere broken. Mortar was falling off, reminding of folklore about flesh peelingon a leper’s body.

A young man inthe security post at the gate and his poker-player fellow, a young woman, werethe only humans on the spot. Their job was to drive any visitor away.

The man toldVietnam Heritage that the former palace now belonged to a Korean company, whosename he did not remember.

Since early2004, local media have reported that KGIM, a South Korean resort and casinogroup, got Lam Dong People’s Committee’s approval to turn the royal residenceinto a 5-star hotel and an international-level casino. The project was to becompleted by the end of 2005.     

It has been sixyears.

‘They wanted tocarry out the plan but the weather didn’t cooperate,’ the security man grunted,eyes still fixing on the cards. ‘Please go away. If my bosses know there arevisitors around I will be punished,’ he told Vietnam Heritage’s reporter.   ­­

Not far awayfrom Palace I, down the slope, a gothic edifice, which looks like a one-timecathedral, is run down after years of being turned into a residential apartmentbuilding. Clothes hang in front of the pointed arch, chicken coops growadjacent to the vaulted glass windows and weeds flourish on the tiled roof.

The buildingsigned No 2, across Tran Quang Dieu Street, is no better off. In 1998, theVietnam Institute of Architecture proposed to the Lam Dong provincialgovernment to list this colonial architecture as conserved.

Now people aretearing it down, making way for a new branch of Ho Chi Minh City University ofArchitecture. (The university will help Dalat build a high school, in return.)

In early 2010,the Dalat government announced the sale of 42 colonial buildings in order tohave the VND500 billion (US$25 million) estimated necessary to build amunicipal administration centre.

Everywherethrough the city, people can see signboards and flyers advertising real estate– ‘Land close to Palace I for sale’, ‘Villa [close by] Palace II to rent out toforeigners’ or ‘Hotel not far from Palace III’.

Text and pictures by Vu Huyen
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