Iconic Saigon war photo locations revisited

There are some cities in the world where I can’t help but think about its troubled past. I lived in London for two years where its ugly post-war buildings are a constant reminder of the blitz. I have spent several months in Budapest where you see plaques everywhere inscribed with 1956. Ho Chi Minh City is another one of those places for me.

For a long time my only association with Vietnam was with the war. Having spend four month here so far I am now associating Vietnam more with food and coffee. Still, there are places in HCMC that continue to remind me of its dark past.

When I arrived here in September 2012 I read about the recent death Malcolm Browne, who took the photo of the self-immolating monk. After reading that article I was soon reading more historical websites and found that many familiar photos from the Vietnam War (or the American War as it is known here) took place in Saigon.

I have have compiled some of those photos here and visited the place where they took place.

The self-immolation of buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc – 1963

Quang Duc self-immolation
[Self Immolation of Quang Duc – AP Photo/Malcolm Browne]

On 10 June 1963 buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc set himself alight in protest over the governments treatment towards Buddhists. After reading the article about Malcolm Browne and the burning monk photo I wondered if there was a monument for Quang Duc. I wasn’t expecting to find anything as there aren’t as many war monuments as I thought there would be in the city. So I was surprised to find one of the most impressive memorial parks to one person I have ever seen.

Quang Duc Memorial - Ho Chi Minh City
[Quang Duc Memorial]

The Venerable Thich Quang Duc Monument is at the intersection of Nguyen Dinh Chieu Street and Cach Mang Thang 8 (previously known as Phan Dinh Phung and Le Van Duyet.) The whole corner block has been given over to a memorial park. There is a statue of the monk in flames, and like in the picture his body is calmly sitting in the lotus position and his face unflinching.

A photo series of the self-immolation can be found at Time LightBox – Malcolm Browne: The Story Behind The Burning Monk.

General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a Viet Cong prisoner – 1968

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug
[Execution of Nguyen Van Lem (Bay Lop) – AP Photo/Eddie Adams]

On February 1st, 1968 during the Tet offensive General Loan shot Viet Cong prisoner, Nguyen Van Lem (also known as Bay Lop) in front of NBC News film cameras and photographer Eddie Adams. It was Adams’ photo that went on to become an anti-war icon, and turned the tide of opinion against the war.

Records say this was on Lý Thái Tổ in District 10, near the An Quang Pagoda. Apparently the phto is on the western sector of the road, looking east. Of course the streetscape resembles nothing like it did in 1968.

Lý Thái Tổ
[Lý Thái Tổ, District 10]

Further Reading
Nguyen Van Lem; He’s just a plain vanilla V.C.
Nguyen Ngoc Loan, 67, Dies; Executed Viet Cong Prisoner

Helicopter Evacuation – 1975

Helicopter Evacuation at 22 Gia Long Street
[Helicopter Evacuation at 22 Gia Long Street – Photo: Hubert van Es]

This photo is often assumed to be of Americans evacuating from the US Embassy during the fall of Saigon, which is incorrect. This photo was taken the day before the fall of Saigon. The building is an apartment at 22 Gia Long Street (now 22 Ly Tu Trong Street), and the evacuees are Vietnamese who were working for the US government.

As Saigon is modernising at such a rapid pace I wondered if this building still existed. I went by 22 Ly Tu Trong Street and there is an old apartment block there, but from the street level is is not possible to see the rooftop. You could see the roof if you are in an office in the Vincom Centre, the shiny new office block on the other side of the road. Seeing I have no access to an office I walked around the to the next block and found that you can see the rooftop if you are standing outside of the old post office near the Notre Dame cathedral.

Rooftop of 22 Ly Tu Trong Street
[Rooftop of 22 Ly Tu Trong Street with the Vincom Centre in the background.]

North Vietnamese tank takes the Independence Palace – 1975

North Vietnamese Tank Takes The Independence Palace
[North Vietnamese Tank – AP Photo]

On 30 April 1975 troops from the Vietnamese People’s Army entered the city, marking the fall of Saigon and the end of the war. Key buildings were quickly occupied, including the Independence Palace, and this picture of a tank crashing through the gates of the Independence Palace came to symbolise the fall of Saigon.

Reunification Palace Gates
[Reunification Palace Gates]

Today the Independence Palace is known as the Reunification Palace. You can still see the same gates as in the photo, and on the palace grounds there is a tank of the same model as in the photo (but not the actual tank).

Further Reading
Australian photographer Neil Davis was in Saigon when the city fell, and he had the foresight to go to the Palace to record the inevitable moment when it would be claimed by the north. His biography, One Crowded Hour, is an excellent read.

US Embassy – 1975

US Embassy
[US Embassy – AP Photo/Neal Ulevich]

This photo was taken on April 29, 1975, the day before the fall of Saigon. A large crowd of Vietnamese are trying to scale the US embassy wall, where helicopter evacuations were taking place. After the fall of Saigon the embassy was abandoned, and it was not until 1995 that the site was handed back to the U.S. government. This is now the U.S. consulate of Ho Chi Minh City. The old buildings were demolished and new buildings were built next to the old site.

 Le Duan - Ho Chi Minh City
[Le Duan]

While reading up on the history of Saigon I found this photo of US Military Police in a gun battle on Thong Nhut Boulevard (now Le Duan Street) outside the embassy.

US Military Police forces outside the US Embassy
[US Military Police forces outside the US Embassy, 31 January 1968 – Franklin M. Davis Collection]

I live half a block from the US Consulate and I walk past it nearly every day. Whenever I walk by I can’t help but think of the history of this place. I walk down the same street where this photo was taken. Sometimes I look at the beautiful tree lined streets and stop to think that there were men with guns hiding behind these very trees. Now this street is the entrance for U.S visa processing, and if you go by on a weekday morning there is always a queue.

There are many places in Ho Chi Minh City which makes me think about what these streets have seen. And there is not a day that goes by when I don’t think about how easy my life is.

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  1. I got shivers looking at these. Very cool idea.

  2. Amazing post James.

    Reading about the history, wars and atrocities in a country you’ve never visited, often doesn’t mean much to most people. Standing in the same location, even when separated by decades, is a very powerful experience. It’s a great reminder of the tragedies and hardships so many people have endured and continue to suffer from, even now in this age of abundance.

    Ground zero at Hiroshima is one of the most humbling and moving places I’ve visited.

  3. Excellent article and research. HCMC is changing so rapidly – I’m sure it wasn’t easy to track these down! As an American – I loved traveling/living in Vietnam as I found the history of the war so fascinating and equally sad.

    • Thanks Sherry. Did you go to the War Remnants Museum in HCMC? I know that splits the opinions of visiting Americans for its portrayal of the war.

      • yes – I was there when it was still called the American Atrocities Museum or something crazy like that! I thought it was really interesting when I went – I particularly loved the photo journalism section. That was about 6 years ago though so not sure how it’s changed since besides the name. When I was there I even met some men who were back in HCMC and had served in the war in Vietnam – they were always interesting to talk to. How long are you in HCMC for?

        • I first visited HCMC in 2005 and I recall the museum being called the American Atrocities Museum, or something like that. They have changed the name since at least. I’m here for four months and I have one month to go.

  4. Hey James,
    Awesome write-up (and pics).
    My wife emailed me this post the other day – knowing I like history. So I ended up reading through (researching) a lot of the events you hinted at. Pretty cool.
    A very sad history – but fascinating nonetheless.
    Are you still in Saigon? If so, let’s meet up for coffee sometime (if you’re up for it).We’re currently in district 5 (right next to district 1).
    All the best 🙂

  5. Really interesting post! Thanks. I’ve lived here for three years and always wanted to visit some of these places but have never gotten around to it. Did you know the car in the background of the monk photo is in a temple in Hue? I also need to go and have some pho at the stand where they planned the Tet Offensive upstairs!

    • Hi Dani, I didn’t know that about the car. I was in Hue last month as well so I missed that. Interesting about the pho stand as well, though anything to do with pho interests me 🙂

  6. I think you got most of these right, but I’m not sure about that the location of the “Execution of Bay Lop”. I’ve been searching for that An Quang Pagoda myself and I don’t think the one in District 10 is the same one.

    All the stories I’ve read said that the execution occurred in Cholon, and District 10 is definitely not Cholon. Cholon is mostly in District 5 and 6.

  7. Wow! My mouth dropped when seeing the photos now and the photos back then. Times sure have changes, while those were all tragic events it’s very interesting to see the differences over time! Great post!

  8. Fabulous post James! I went to Saigon two years ago but didn’t even do half the things that you mentioned on your list…ah well, looks like i’m going to have to pay my friend Ho Chi Minh another visit. 😉

  9. The symbolism of the past and the present really tells me no situation is permanent. Keep pushing and good things will come forth 🙂

  10. James,I remember this war very well! I was in my 20,s. I went to a war protest in Washington, DC. These pictures are actually from films because I saw them on TV in the 60,s, 70,s. There is another classic film of a little girl, maybe 6, running down a street under attack. She is alone and completely naked. See if you can find it. This you will not forget. I have not forgotten it in over 40 years! I had a couple of friends who had to go to Nam during the war. They came back. When soldiers came back from Nam to the USA they basically scorned. This was a terrible time in the USA. Powerful stuff! Brian.

  11. Dick Pellek says

    James, Thanks so much for getting me deeper into the past. Although I got through only 220 pages of Flickr photos and have not yet found specifically what I’m looking for, one of your blog photos is pretty close. Did I mention that the man in the picture in one of my blog entries was my friend and classmate in Hawaii? The photo I’m still looking for was in color and taken from a different angle when it depicted the activity of 29 April 1975, on the cover of Newsweek Magazine.

    A few years ago when I went back to Saigon, I found the house I lived in for about 2 years. Every single house on that street had been upgraded, except the one I lived in, so there was a bit of uncertainty when I started to go down the street looking for it. But even the name of the street was changed and the numbering on the houses. If fact, it seemed that they changed the names of most of the streets. Also could not find my old office at Tan Son Nhut because they apparently bull dozens the entire site and built housing there. Hint: it was across the street from the old Golf Club de Saigon, which has since been converted into a public??? park. There are now high walls around that part of Tan Son Nhut.

  12. elliot bishop says

    Well done on this most interesting venture. These events and images remain crystal clear in my memory. If you revisit Saigon, you may wish to visit the site of the Brinks Hotel bombing, a US BOQ (Batchelor Officers Quarters), at 5.45pm Christmas Eve 1964. Two VC disguised as ARVN soldiers parked a bomb-laden car in the ground floor carpark timed to explode when the 120 or so offices had retired for the day and were preparing Christmas celebrations. Estimates vary, but 2 were killed and 58 wounded. The VC sought to demonstrate the vulnerability of the Americans and expose the myth that the VC only controlled the countryside and that the cities were safe havens. The site is now occupied by the Park Hyatt Hotel, 2 Lam Son Square, near the Saigon Opera House.

  13. Dick Pellek says

    Thanks again, James for keeping me on your mailing list. My wife and I are planning a visit to Saigon early in 2014 and hope that we can meet to discuss iconic photos and places.

    We just returned from a trip to Normandy in France, but due to the shutdown of the US federal government at that time, we were not able to go to the American cemetery there, nor the museums that are supported with US government funds. Did get to see a few things at Sainte Mere Eglise.

    Cheers, Dick Pellek

  14. Thanks for that. The execution photo was taken in Lý Thái Tổ, West-Sector, looking to the east.

  15. Paul Blizard says

    Found your site today as I was doing some research. I live in Saigon and have tracked down most of the sites you have referenced except the execution pic. I did find out it was on Lý Thái Tổ Street. I will be there in the morning so I’m going to poke around and see what I can find.

  16. Jennifer says

    Great idea. I’m in Saigon now and went through all these in real life today. Impressed by rooftop viewing find by post office. Thank you for these.

  17. Are you still monitoring this blog? I am wondering a bit more about the Nguyen Van Lem location. Looking at another photo from the incident you seem to be able to make out an address on two of the buildings.
    Working on the assumption that addresses would stay the same even though a building could be razed or rebuilt would this help pinpoint the location? It looks like the address is 197, and a building next to is is “### – 195” Is this a valid address on Lý Thái Tổ ?

    • Hi Steve, great detective work there, I’ve never seen that photo before! I just left Saigon but I will be back in a few months. I will take a look at Lý Thái Tổ when I get back and see what the view looks like from that number. I’ll keep you posted!

      • Still looking in to this…. It seems from all the photos I can find, there are two things I notice. 1) All the buildings are casing a shadow such that its clear one side of the street is in shade, and the other is not. In early Feb, the sun is still south of the equator, so all shadows, no matter what time of day will track through a path that starts point northwest in the morning then eventually north, then north east as the sun sets. The people are casting pretty long shadows. So I am guessing this is either a mid morning or mid afternoon picture, but I can find now record that says one way or another when the photo was taken. However, based on the shadows, this photo of the shot must be taken looking towards the WEST down whatever street it is in order for the sunny side of the street to be in the background (north). This would also make sense from a photography perspective as you would want your light behind you so as not to have the exposure blown out shooting in the direction of the sun…. So if this is Lý Thái Tổ (or any street really) it has to be looking west, not east. If rather the street is a north-south street, then this view would have to be looking North and it would have to be afternoon. You could not get the shadows to match at any other time. You could confirm this yourself on a sunny day. The sun will not be directly overhead until sometime around April 16.

        Check me on this thinking.

  18. Sonny Olinsky says

    Fantastic blog article. Thanks Again.

  19. Dick Pellek says

    My wife and I returned to Saigon in early March 2017 to discover many changes. Most striking change that is of personal interest pertains to the land that was once occupied by the Golf Club de Saigon. My office at Tan Son Nhut was just across the street from the clubhouse in 1966-69, and I was a member of the golf club. These days the land has been altered to create an 18-hole championship golf course and an adjoining 9-hole executive course. In fact, I could see at least 6 new golf courses from the air.

    There is so much traffic in the suburbs these days that I would not like to live there anymore. But I have to hand it to the Vietnamese, they have embarked on a city modernization program that is very impressive.

    • Hi Dick,

      yes the golf course at the airport has been controversial. It’s part owned by the military and they expanded without any thought that the airport would grow. The government has pressured them to sell it to expand the airport

      • Dick Pellek says

        Thanks for the speedy response, James. The link to the detail about the golf course complex is very helpful. If they are still in archives, I intend to produce an overlay in Google Earth maps of where the MAC-V compound was once located. During the Viet Nam War, MAC-V headquarters was not far from my own office at PA&E, the civilian contractor that serviced virtually all US Army installations throughout Viet Nam.

        I saw General William Westmoreland on many days and had work-related contacts with the engineering staff in that building. After Westmoreland rotated out, I personally installed a small lawn around the house trailer when his replacement, General Creighton Abrams, took up residence. Interesting but sad times.

  20. heyy you got some great contents here thanks for sharing!!!

  21. Dick Pellek says

    We are still looking for the Newsweek cover of March 1974. As time passes, the trail gets cold. My friend was standing on the wall of the US Embassy the day before the fall of Saigon, so that particular Newsweek cover holds a special interest to me.

    If anyone can help me locate that cover, I’d be obliged. My personal searches have been fruitless.

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