Saigon and Cholon in 1899 from Henri Turot’s “Indo-Chine, Philippines, Chine, Japon: d’une gare à l’autre”

The lower end of Saigon’s rue Catinat

In 1899, en route for the Philippines, China and Japan, journalist and amateur photographer Henri Turot (1865-1922) toured Indochina as a guest of Governor General Paul Doumer. This translated excerpt from his 1901 book “Indo-Chine, Philippines, Chine, Japon: d’une gare à l’autre” (Indochina, Philippines, China, Japan, From One Station to Another) describes his short visit to Saigon and Chợ Lớn.

Two days of crossing, and another two days of hardship still separate us from Cochinchina!

What joy, therefore, when at about 3pm on 24 January 1899, land is sighted and the steep, wooded shores of Cap Saint-Jacques begin to grow on the horizon. It’s already too late for us to proceed up the Saigon River this afternoon, but the delay gives us the good fortune to spend a few enchanted hours at the Cap.

Cap Saint-Jacques (modern Vũng Tàu) with the Governor General’s villa in the foreground

The view is charming. Before us is a circle of wooded hills, surrounding a gracefully cut bay; the sun disappears and this sober but captivating landscape is bathed in red and purplish light.

In the foreground, at the centre of the bay, the simple and very elegant new villa of the governor general sets a cheerful tone amongst the green foliage.

We’re eager to go ashore, and after taking the first boat we are soon setting foot on the earth of Cochinchina.

Cap Saint-Jacques is really a most delightful place. Now under the leadership of the administrator M Outré, it’s a pleasant seaside resort to which colonial officials come from time to time to escape the oppressive heat of Saigon.

The family of the Governor General lives there for part of the year; they will soon take possession of the villa I mentioned above, which was completed during M Doumer’s trip to Paris, and inaugurated on the evening our arrival.

The Messageries maritimes vessel “Sydney,” pictured in Australia after 1895

Within hours, a lavish dinner is improvised. Most of the passengers of the Sydney gather at a luxurious table, around which well-groomed waiters circulate, silent and alert. M and Mme Doumer do the honours, surrounded by Admiral Courrejolles, Generals Borgnis-Desbordes and Delombre, and a retinue of officers of all ranks and functionaries of all levels.

It’s undoubtedly very flattering to sail in such distinguished company, but I would advise travellers who enjoy more exuberant crossings to choose a less official vessel.

We leave the dinner table, keen to take the delicious night air, which is far removed from the stifling evenings of Saigon. I take a long walk along by the sea, listening to the legitimate grievances of an engineer.

“What a shame,” says my interlocutor, “to have spent so many millions of Francs creating Saigon, while cap Saint-Jacques could so easily have become an admirable commercial port and a pleasantly situated capital. To stopover, ships wouldn’t have needed to waste four hours sailing up the Saigon river, which as you know is only navigable at high tide.” But what point is there lamenting past mistakes; let’s forget what might have been done, and concentrate only on the work which has already been accomplished – let’s go and see Saigon.

Chinese junks on the Saigon River

We leave at night. The river, which is navigable for ships of the largest tonnage, is winding and very wide; but the banks are monotonous and desolate, lined only with stunted mangroves in which large seabirds roost, uttering mournful cries.

Frequently we encounter large Annamite junks and small commercial steam vessels, few of which – alas! – carry the French flag.

Why, in our own colony, is cabotage in the hands of foreigners? The reason is simple, they tell me. Ships which navigate under the French flag, even in the Far East, are subject to French maritime registration requirements, that’s to say the entire crew – captain, sailors and mechanics – must be French.

Meanwhile, a vessel sailing under the German flag may have only a European master and an entirely Chinese crew. As a result, the costs for a German ship owner are much lower, and ships of that nationality may carry cargo at a more moderate price than ours; in fact, German ships transport much of our rice exports to Hong Kong and many Chinese ports.

Saigon River waterfront cafés in the 1880s

For us, red tape; for the Germans, profit!

Alas! How many times during my trip have I noted our almost absolute lack of practicality, how completely helpless we seem to be in the face of the commercial activity and initiative of our competitors!

The view of Saigon offers some consolation; it really is a beautiful city, with wide boulevards, wide tree-lined avenues, beautiful walks and imposing palaces.

That of the Governor General is certainly the most beautiful building in the Far East. Its exterior has a grand air, and the ballroom and reception areas must impress all those who are admitted.

This is where M Doumer works with indefatigable perseverance, for the prosperity of our colony.

His efforts have already been rewarded with valuable results, and the fiscal situation is now improving every day; at the same time, under his energetic impulse, officials of all grades are working far more efficiently.

By the way, let me do justice to a man who was so passionately attacked for some time – I speak of M de Lanessan.

Governor General Paul Doumer

Certainly, the work of M Doumer is considerable; thanks to him, Indochina has attained the homogeneity and unity indispensable for its development; thanks to his skill and firmness, pacification is almost complete in all parts of our Indochina possessions; thanks to the boldness of his ideas, and to the confidence they inspire, a railway network soon will connect the main centres of exploitation to the coast; and thanks finally to the authority he has been able to exert over all around him, military leaders dare not enter into conflict with our civil power.

But it would be fair to extend to M Lanessan a large part of the praise given to his successor (here, I do not forget that M Rousseau’s administration stands between that of M Lanessan and M Doumer, but its action was almost nil).

Everyone in Indochina has excellent memories of the current Minister of the Navy, and I have heard many talking about his foresight and achievements; it was indeed he who began the task which has been continued so well by M Doumer.

Unfortunately, neither man was able to improve the state of sanitation in Saigon, which still leaves much to be desired.

One is painfully impressed on landing by the sight of the city’s emaciated, anemic and pallid colons. In fact, this is due not so much to the hateful climate than to the imprudence of the Saïgonnais. Nowhere, in fact, have I ever seen anyone absorb absinthe in such huge quantities; day and night, the cafes are full of consumers who imbibe horrible “purees” of the stuff on ice.

Absinthe time at the Hôtel des Nations bar-restaurant

Everywhere, alcohol can be harmful, but here in the tropics, it is especially dangerous, and the pavement cafes of the rue Catinat are certainly more deadly than the rays of the merciless sun, or the pestilential miasmas of the swamps.

Anyhow, let’s go in search of a refreshing breeze on the “Tour de l’Inspection,” the elegant promenade plied by so many Victorias, those dainty English carriages which convey Annamite “congayes” in bright dresses.

On our return journey, we travel through the Botanical Gardens, which are quite pretty, with green lawns, shady trees and small lakes with still waters.

The day is at an end. All that’s left is to go back to the stuffy hotel room and commence that nocturnal combat – unequal and certainly lacking glory – with greedy mosquitoes, tempted by the intact skin of the newcomer.

In Saigon, distractions are rare, and the tourist has little to relieve the despondency which so quickly descends on him, other than the choice of the two promenades: Cholon and the Tour de l’Inspection.

Cholon is half an hour by carriage, and anyone visiting it for the first time is amazed to find himself suddenly transported into a Chinese city.

A rice husking factory in Chợ Lớn

In all of the Far East, Cholon is the city where the most enormous quantities of rice are concentrated, a place to which thousands of sampans come every year. The quaysides along its canals are cluttered with bulging sacks, and there’s always a great swarm of workers connecting the sampans with the dehusking factories, whose great buildings extend over a length of several kilometres.

These factories are, for the most part, the property of rich Chinese businessmen, millionaires several times over, who adopt without any difficulty, in fact one could say with great haste, all industrial improvements and all the most modern processes.

Dare I mention that, even in the exercise of worship, the Chinese seem to apply scientific progress?

In one of the Chinese factories I visit, I wait for the owner in a vast hall equipped with simple carved furniture but sumptuously decorated with red silk hangings bearing sacred inscriptions in black characters. At the back, as in all Chinese homes, a potbellied Buddha sits on an altar, surrounded by tall candles and decorated with many beautiful fruit filled trays. Look closer at the candles and you’ll see that they are in fact made from pieces of long metal tube, painted white to resemble wax, with a small flame-shaped flashlight at the end.

A commercial street in Chợ Lớn (MAP)

A Buddha illuminated by electric light! This is the first time I’ve seen this, which leaves me surprised and perhaps even a little jealous that their worshipping practices have been so perfected, while the Christian god is honoured in our churches only with simple candles and oil lamps.

In the evening, the animation in Cholon is extraordinary. The shops are all illuminated by large red lanterns, and the narrow streets are crisscrossed by Chinese, who trot along, each carrying a small lamp.

While in Cholon, it’s essential to pay a short visit to the Annamite and Chinese theatres, which, incidentally, have much analogy with each other. The Annamite theatre features actors in embroidered costumes who contort their hands and feet in extravagant gestures and utter furious cries as they attempt to be heard over the infernal din of gongs and cymbals. It’s quite impossible for me to understand the plot, which the local spectators follow with an attention unfamiliar to the French public.

The noise level in the Chinese theatre is no less astonishing, but the actors there scream their sentences alternately with the din of the instruments. They use actions and gestures to convey the general sense of the drama: two warriors are at war for the sake of a beauty. A beauty? In fact, she is represented here by a man (Chinese women do not perform on stage) who is made up in a very clever way and plays the part with a very shrill tone, of which my eardrums tire very quickly.

An outdoor theatre performance

I still can’t understand why oriental drama remains so rudimentary when are thousands of learned scholars who are capable of creating more complex works.

A curiosity of Cholon is the elegant mansion of the Phu (prefect), where lovers of culinary peculiarities will be initiated into the complicated mysteries of Annamite cuisine.

The Phu also has two very sweet daughters, each with her own story to tell.

One was formerly in love with a young officer who died unexpectedly before the nuptials, and whose tomb is piously maintained by the Phu. The other had the good fortune to attract the attention of the young Emperor of Annam when he came to Saigon to visit Governor General Paul Doumer. It’s said that at nightfall, the Asian sovereign jumped over the wall of the palace, where he had been offered rather formal hospitality, and made his way to Cholon to engage, under the window of the Phu’s daughter, in manifestations incompatible with royal majesty. M Doumer, who does not take such matters lightly, was called to come and put things right.

Incidentally, I set myself the task of solving a problem I have often asked myself. It seems that not all Annamite women conform to our western ideals of feminine beauty; by reciprocity, are Annamite men indifferent to the charms of European women?

A horse and carriage about to leave for the Tour de l’Inspection

After taking notes, I can affirm that they are not. Indeed, I should mention that, while attending the grand balls of the Governor General, the afore-mentioned Emperor of Annam, far from being completely absorbed with his love for the daughter of the Phu, did not hide his admiration for the buxom charms of M Doumer’s French women guests.

But let’s return to that famous promenade to the Inspectorate, of which I have already spoken.

This is where married French women and Annamite “congayes” strut around in glamorous costumes, for which husbands and lovers are forced to pay, often with some difficulty.

Because money is scarce in Saigon! And officials who fall into debt must pay dearly on the loans they are forced to contract.

Here you can incur interest of 12% on a first mortgage, while loans agreed by simple signature can attract fantastic rates which may reach as much as 60-80%. Is this not an indicator of the shortage of capital, and is it not regrettable to note that, while millions and millions of Francs sleep in France, hidden either in stockings under the bed or in the safes of the major credit institutions, our colony in the Far East is floundering for lack of cash?

But nothing can defeat the pusillanimity of French capitalists, who waste no time assessing the purchase of government bonds as an unwise investment!

Tim Doling is the author of the walking tour guidebook Exploring Hồ Chí Minh City (Nhà Xuất Bản Thế Giới, Hà Nội, 2014) and also conducts Saigon and Chợ Lớn Heritage Tours.

A full index of all Tim’s blog articles since November 2013 is now available here.

Join the Facebook group pages Saigon-Chợ Lớn Then & Now to see historic photographs juxtaposed with new ones taken in the same locations, and Đài Quan sát Di sản Sài Gòn – Saigon Heritage Observatory for up-to-date information on conservation issues in Saigon and Chợ Lớn.




Date With the Wrecking Ball – Ernst Thälmann Secondary School

The Ernst Thälmann Secondary School at 8 Trần Hưng Đạo

This article was published previously in Saigoneer

In the wake of last week’s announcement in Thanh Niên newspaper that Korean construction company Jimiro will build three 55-storey office buildings, a 30-storey five-star hotel and a 10-storey commercial centre in the “Golden Triangle” enclosed by Trần Hưng Đạo, Phạm Ngũ Lão and Nguyễn Thái Học streets, one of the city’s most historic schools has been earmarked for demolition.

The Ernst Thälmann Secondary School at 8 Trần Hưng Đạo was originally built in 1931 as a kindergarten for local girls, known as the École maternelle de Chodui. The design by early modernist architect Leo Craste has been praised in the blog Saigon Modernist for its optimisation of natural ventilation through the addition of wall louvres and the use of staircases as wind towers.

The École Maternelle de Chodui in the early 1930s

In the late colonial period, the École maternelle became a high school known as the École municipale Ton-Tho-Tuong, named after renowned Nguyễn dynasty scholar, Saigon-born Tôn Thọ Tường (孫壽詳; 1825-1877). During this period, the original entrance on Phạm Ngũ Lão street was bricked up and the former rear gate on Trần Hưng Đạo became the school’s main entrance.

It was in this capacity, in 1950, that the school became the site of the first anti-American demonstration in Việt Nam. Starting in the 1920s, Saigon had a long tradition of high schools being hotbeds of anti-colonial activity, and on 9 January 1950 police opened fire on a student protesters as they marched through the centre of the city, injuring 30 and killing 19-year-old Trần Văn Ơn, a student from the Lycée Pétrus Ký, now Lê Hồng Phong High School. Thereafter the authorities cracked down hard on any form of dissent.

The École municipale Ton-Tho-Tuong in the late colonial period

In March 1950, two destroyers from the US Seventh Fleet, USS Stickell and USS Richard B Anderson, docked at Thủ Thiêm in Sài Gòn, while aircraft from the carrier USS Boxer flew over the city. Foreseeing that this could be a prelude to American involvement in Việt Nam, communist activists under Nguyễn Hữu Thọ (later Acting President of Việt Nam) organised city-wide protests against US interference in March 1950. On 18 March, a grenade was thrown into the lobby of the Continental Hotel where a visiting American delegation was staying, and mortars were also fired at the two warships at Thủ Thiêm. Then at dawn on Sunday 19 March, rallies were held in various locations around the city. The main event was the rally held at the École municipale Ton-Tho-Tuong, which reportedly attracted over 250,000 people. Nguyễn Hữu Thọ addressed the crowd, and at around 9am on the third floor of the school, students hoisted a red flag. This event is commemorated by a plaque outside the main entrance of the school.

In 1954, the school became the Phan Văn Trị Primary School (Trường Tiểu học Phan Văn Trị), and in 1962 the Cô Giang Secondary School (Trường Trung học Cô Giang).

The stele outside the main gate which commemorates the revolutionary history of the school

After Reunification, the school benefitted from educational links with East Germany, and in 1979 it was twinned with a school in Leipzig and named after Ernst Thälmann (1886-1944), who led the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) during the Weimar Republic years.

This is the third occasion over the past 10 years in which revolutionary monuments have been destroyed in favour of development – see The Curious Case of the Vanishing Revolutionary Monuments to learn about the fate of the room in which the Việt Nam Revolutionary Youth League’s Cochinchina Regional Committee was set up in June 1928 and the villa at 43 Lê Thị Hồng Gấm which once housed the offices of the revolutionary Dân Chúng newspaper.

Tim Doling is the author of the walking tour guidebook Exploring Hồ Chí Minh City (Nhà Xuất Bản Thế Giới, Hà Nội, 2014) and also conducts Saigon and Chợ Lớn Heritage Tours.

A full index of all Tim’s blog articles since November 2013 is now available here.

Join the Facebook group pages Saigon-Chợ Lớn Then & Now to see historic photographs juxtaposed with new ones taken in the same locations, and Đài Quan sát Di sản Sài Gòn – Saigon Heritage Observatory for up-to-date information on conservation issues in Saigon and Chợ Lớn.

Saigon’s First Tourism Office Opens, 1911

Baie d´Along, la pêche miraculeuse – Hạ Long Bay, the miraculous catch

“12 December 1911 saw the opening of the South Indochina Tourist Office, sponsored by Monsieur Ernest Outrey, Résident-supérieur in Cambodia and Delegate-general of the Touring Club of France in Indo-China.

Saigon, capital of Cochinchina, indeed promises in future to be an important centre of tourism. Thanks to propaganda activity which began four years ago (though as yet, unfortunately, does not have any worthy means of implementation), there is hope that, despite the distance, tourists will eventually come to prefer Indochina over Egypt.

Our ruins of Angkor, the beauty of which has been celebrated in the illustrations of Loti, are certainly not inferior to the Pyramids. No scenery along the Nile Valley may be compared to our Halong Bay, with its picturesque rocks seeming from a distance to be gigantic statues of sea gods. Our imperial tombs of Hue give an impression of melancholic grandeur at least equal to that of the sarcophagi and mummies of ancient Egypt. Our climate, from December to March, is inoffensive and sweet. And our big game hunts (tiger, elephant and wild buffalo) and our autoroute network, flat and smooth as a billiard table, are unique throughout the Far East.”

From Le Courrier Saigonnais, 1 March 1912

Tim Doling is the author of the walking tour guidebook Exploring Hồ Chí Minh City (Nhà Xuất Bản Thế Giới, Hà Nội, 2014) and also conducts Saigon and Chợ Lớn Heritage Tours.

A full index of all Tim’s blog articles since November 2013 is now available here.

Join the Facebook group pages Saigon-Chợ Lớn Then & Now to see historic photographs juxtaposed with new ones taken in the same locations, and Đài Quan sát Di sản Sài Gòn – Saigon Heritage Observatory for up-to-date information on conservation issues in Saigon and Chợ Lớn.

“Saigon and Cholon,” from Indo-Chine et Japon, journal de voyage, by Emile Jottrand

Saigon Cathedral in the early 1900s

Belgian travel writer Emile Jottrand clearly didn’t stay long enough to get a true picture of the city, but her account of Saigon and Chợ Lớn in 1900, published in the book Indo-Chine et Japon, journal de voyage (1909), contains a few interesting observations

15 October 1900

Thus passes our quiet stay at Cap Saint-Jacques. We have no extraordinary adventures to relate; neither are we obliged, like the guests in our neighbouring hotel, to defend ourselves against a one-metre-tall monkey.

The baie des Cocotiers, Cap-Saint-Jacques (Vũng Tàu)

Nor against the Annamite gendarmes, who arrested an Austrian adventurer couple aboard a steamer when it passed the Cap. We don’t even have to protect ourselves from the rain, the rare showers graciously choosing to fall at siesta time, thus preparing for us a fresher and more pleasant journey. As for the temperature, it is always 25 to 28 degrees, that’s to say perfect, with plenty of fresh air and plenty of shade.

We leave at 9am. A carriage takes us with our luggage to Binh-Dinh, and for the last time we see the pretty road, lined with tranquil lotus ponds, cactus hedges, Annamite temples. Shall we ever return to this beautiful corner of the world?

Just as we reluctantly depart the baie des Cocotiers, we see a gunboat at anchor, the Styx, which has just arrived. It is newly built and carries state-of-the-art equipment. However, we learn that gross miscalculations were made in its construction, and that as a result, the gunboat has unstable equilibrium. For that reason, it cannot sail the high seas, and in fact hardly renders any service at all. The gunboat is currently being used to supply the Chasseloup-Laubat, which has been quarantined downstream from Saigon. What a waste! Several millions thrown into the water!

The Messageries maritimes wharf at Cap-Saint-Jacques (Vũng Tàu)

My colleagues cannot understand why I am surprised, citing all the other monumental gaffes – bridges we must remake, buildings whose plans get redrawn five times – which we hear about every week, gaffes which are surely only the tip of the iceberg!

Along the road we pass carriages with uniformed coachmen and see a dashing Annamite aide-de-camp waiting on Monsieur Paul Doumer, Governor General of lndo-China. And indeed, shortly after leaving the Cap, we see his ship, the Laos.

We reboard our excellent Chinese boat. On the pier, they are selling lobsters, which squirm in baskets.

The journey is uninspiring all the way to Saigon. By way of diversion, we are served an excellent tiffin, and are entertained by the boarding of local vendors arriving from villages on the nearby arroyos. Our boat slows down for them, but does not stop.

Our eyes follow the flight of some brightly-coloured birds, whose plumage contrasts with the universally muddy and dreary landscape.

The “Tour de l’Inspection”

Finally we catch sight of the twin towers of Saigon Cathedral, which begin their annoying hide and seek game. After one last detour, we reach Saigon port.

Our hotel is very crowded and we are given poor rooms in which we find ourselves suffocating after the fresh air of the Cap. Fortunately we will not be here for long.

It’s 5pm when we set off for a sunset walk, Saigon’s traditional “Tour de l’Inspection.” Excellent roads, nice scenery. elegant ladies and their officer husbands in superb carriages driven with finely dressed teams of horsemen. We leave at dusk, and on the return journey Saigon dazzles us with its lights. The vast rue Catinat is lit with electric globes, its great cafés competing with each other to have the best illumination and attract the most customers.

Entering one of these cafés, sitting at a marble table and ordering a cherry-gobbler cocktail, one may believe oneself to be in Europe, and the illusion is complete when an urchin comes to sell his roses and a hawker his trinkets.

Rue Catinat, Saigon

We return on foot to our hotel, watching scenes much like those we would see in Paris.

Saigon is a city so European, so French, that we encounter relatively few local people in the streets. It seems a very quiet and pleasant place, with traffic on the streets extremely moderate, just like on the river. We are a long way from the New Road in Bangkok!

It should be noted, moreover, that out of some 2,500 Europeans in Saigon, officials and their families number about 2,000. Of the remainder, only around 150 are traders, and all of those are suppliers to the above officials. There is no trade or industry; heavy customs tariffs, according to what I am told, have killed Saigon and all Indochina. People speak to me of a golden age, long ago, when business boomed, but since the establishment of protective tariffs, bankruptcies have occurred in quick succession.

Such is the outcome of a policy devised by small-minded politicians who want to squeeze and drain the French colonies to please a small number of powerful voters – cloth merchants from Elbeuf and silk merchants from Lyon, people who are still unable, despite the excesses of the system created on their behalf, to counter the threat posed by imports from Germany and other foreign competitors.

Rue des Marins, Chợ Lớn

In the evening we go to Cholon, the Chinese city located along an arroyo, 5 kilometres from Saigon. This is undoubtedly the most important commercial city in all of Indochina. While it is home to fewer than 100 Europeans, Cholon contains 60,000 Annamites, 40,000 Chinese, 150 Indians and 15 Cambodians. It is the place where immense Chinese fortunes have been made, through prodigious activity by the “Celestial Ones,” whose business methods always confound the European.

When we arrive in the city it is already late, and many shops are closed. We admire the wide streets, the spacious sidewalks, the air of ease that reigns everywhere. There are also cafés in the French style and everything which can please the European of Saigon; because, despite all the nonsense that is written about the Chinese, there is no race of people more eager for foreign invention, as long as commercial advantage is to be gained.

The elegance, the wealth, the order of the Chinese stores in Cholon is beautiful to see. Elaborately carved and gilded wooden signs and outdoor lanterns compete with each other to be the most brilliant and elegant, all for the cause of attracting the dollar! But the newcomer who believes Cholon to be a typical Chinese city would be a mistaken, judging by what we saw in Peking and Canton.

Barges on the arroyo Chinois in Chợ Lớn

Nothing is more curious than the history of this city; for it shows how persecution can help build a strong and powerful race.

In this country, less than a century ago, the Chinese were treated as outcasts; the Emperor of Annam forbade them to settle in his territory without the special permission of the court. Their number in villages was limited by regulation and they could not own property without a licence. They were forbidden to export products other than rice, and they paid high taxes on all things (see H L Jammes, Souvenirs du pays d’Annam, 1900).

Settling in Cholon, which was initially a ghetto, a place of outcasts, they grouped together their business interests. And thanks to their secret associations, the enormous unregulated power of which we cannot conceive of in our own country, they soon dug canals, deepened rivers, created docks, built industrial plants, opened schools and even higher education colleges, lit their streets, and built roads and bridges, without help of persons other than themselves. This is what the Chinese have done in a country where they were once banned by the Annamites, where they are still frowned upon today, where they are taxed heavily just because they are Chinese.

A rice husking factory in Chợ Lớn

They did all this without a penny of subsidy, welcoming the Annamites who had formerly proscribed them, and attracting foreign commercial benefits. However, in Saigon, just an hour away, the French colons are still very confident, and will be for a long time yet, in their belief that it is impossible to build a street or open a school without some paternal government support!

In the city of Cholon there are eight large rice husking plants. This is of course the biggest industry in the area. The factories are owned by the Chinese and they work day and night, using machinery which came from England. They make, it seems, huge profits. Together they can produce 7,000 tonnes of rice per day – note that in 1898, Siam exported 2,000 tonnes per day. A new factory will be built this year. The factories are fuelled by rice husks. Unhusked rice, which is also eaten here by animals, is called “paddy.” It enters the factory in that form and leaves as white rice, such that we find in the shops.

Cholon also has brick kilns, potteries, sawmills, dry docks and boat-builders. One also finds here every kind of trade, including jewelers, keymakers, cabinet makers, tanners, dyers and blacksmiths, along with importers of teas, silks, embroidery and other fabrics. All of these professions and all these trades are the preserve of Asians.

16 October 1900

The Nestlé building at the lower end of the rue Catinat

This morning we start to explore the city of Saigon, the plan of which is simple: the streets generally intersect at right angles and the city is built in squares. We do not see in the urban area any market gardens or sugar cane fields as in Bangkok.

For us Europeans, a city is hardly worthy of the name without having a perfect road network, and that of Saigon is excellent.

But what is missing here, which we regret, are the glazed roofs of gold, green and purple palaces and temples; the disorder of native huts scattered in villages; the canals with their incessant traffic of various boats; the river with its junks and houseboats, and the locals cheerfully attired in light colours. Saigon presents, from the Asian point of view, no originality.

The most important street in the city is the rue Catinat, which divides the city in two. It is home to some fine shops, the Theatre, the Post Office and the Cathedral.

Cathedral square in the early 1900s

The Saigon Cathedral, which cost two million, is trivial at best. But all colonies pay royally for their civic buildings; through the incapacity of some, and the treachery of others, every public building costs two or three times its true value. They recruit architects who have never seen a plan, and entrust major projects to those who are unsuitable.

The Municipal Theatre, completed this year, cost about three million francs, though none of the 2,500 Europeans of Saigon seem worried about that! It is small and contains only 800 seats. However, it must be said that the building is graceful and successful in all respects, and the interior decoration is charming. The performing troupe has just arrived and we buy our tickets for the evening performance.

The Post and Telegraph Office occupies a nice, well laid-out and decorated building, but one which is copied from European models without any appreciation for the climate. I have already said in a previous chapter how the scarcity of wood here is a great obstacle to the construction of galleries, balconies and verandas. The chalet, so suitable in hot countries, is unfortunately absent from Saigon.

The Palais de justice

The streets are filled with public offices, we see nothing else! Such a large administration!! Yet how could it be otherwise, since according to official reports, Cochinchina has 66 civil servants for every 100 persons!

The Courthouse (Palais de justice) is rich and comfortable. I meet very few people here; in one chamber of the civil court, two lawyers are arguing a case before three judges, and all are in full robes! One of the lawyers pleads, with all the volubility of a Frenchman, a case concerning roads and public areas. None of the parties are present, and there are no curious spectators in the room. The hearings last from 7am to 11am.

To practise as a lawyer in Saigon, it is necessary to have a government permit. This is a monopoly; they are only 10 or 12 lawyers at the most and their positions are enviable. I am told that one of them earns 150,000 francs per annum.

If Saigon is in the doldrums, the lawyers are certainly not doing badly. The Saigon Courthouse has jurisdiction over appeals of the Consulate of France in Bangkok, and I understand that the Siamese government is afraid to become involved in any trials involving French subjects, because it would be too expensive!

The Palace of the Government General

The Palace of the Government General is very grand. It is surrounded by a beautiful garden, where we see, growing and blooming with exuberance, all kinds of tropical plants and trees.

Apparently the reception rooms and apartments are very luxurious. It also appears that the looting of the buffet on the occasion of the 4 July Ball is truly a sight to behold!

Not far away is the Palace of the Lieutenant Governor of Cochinchina, also built with classical lines, but facing the street.

Suddenly, we see a surprising spectacle before our eyes, right in the middle of one of the city squares – a statue of a man in a fur coat, bareheaded, with a tanned complexion, haranguing the people. Fully occupied with his address, he recklessly exposes himself to the heat of the tropical sun, without appearing in the least bit troubled. Who is this crazy man?

The Gambetta statue

We approach curiously: it’s Gambetta! What bizarre circumstances led the old tribune to Indochina? No one could tell us … maybe he was lost en route to Paris or some other French city and they accidentally shipped him here, forgetting to remove his coat first!

Thus dressed, he seems to have been subjected to the torture once invented by Petrus to shorten the duration of parliamentary debates in Belgium … five minutes more and he will fall exhausted, begging for mercy!

At other places in the city we see further monuments dedicated to the memory of Admiral Rigault de Genouilly, who conquered Saigon in 1858; to Doudard de Lagrée and Francis Garnier, who explored the little known banks of the Mekong and sought its origins in the period 1866-1869; and finally to the Bishop of Adran, who acted as advisor to the Emperor Gia Long at the beginning of this century.

We do the “Tour de l’Inspection” again. Half way through our promenade, we find in the middle of the forest a pleasant café, around which much of Saigon’s elegant high society is clustered. Carriages line both sides of the road. We join them, thinking of the Laiterie in the Bois de la Cambre.

Back at the hotel, we learn with great pleasure that Monsieur and Madame Mottet have decided to accompany us to Angkor Wat, which is the main purpose of our little trip. The departure will be early tomorrow morning; meanwhile we go to the Theatre to see Carmen.

Saigon Municipal Theatre

The auditorium, full of men in dazzling white suits, presents an unexpected appearance. The ladies enhance and contrast that tonality with their low-necked dark, often black dresses.

Alone, absolutely alone, one man in a tuxedo may be seen: as he leaves, we see on the head of this social upstart a most extraordinary hairstyle, a true masterpiece. I thought this kind of perfection possible only in demonstrations by professional hairdressers.

During the intervals, as we walk to the foyer, we rediscover the joys of greeting in the French, or rather Latin, manner. Suddenly an English woman enters, swinging her arms, her chest trapped under a tight corset, her neckline timidly high, her hair bunched under an invisible hairnet. She greets while walking, sometimes almost running. How much prettier and elegant she would look in a simple tennis blouse!

In contrast, when the French woman is out on parade, she makes the most of her daring décolletage by arching her body and walking without fear. Back home she is relaxed, but when she goes out, the difference in her appearance is striking.

We are pleasantly surprised by the production of Carmen, which is performed very satisfactorily. All in all we are delighted with our evening and very jealous of the Saïgonnais, who can afford this pleasure three times a week!

During the first act there is a downpour so heavy that that we can hardly hear the choruses. Fortunately, these rains are usually as short as they are noisy; but it seems to me that a theatre season would be difficult to reconcile with a rainy season.

Tim Doling is the author of the walking tour guidebook Exploring Hồ Chí Minh City (Nhà Xuất Bản Thế Giới, Hà Nội, 2014) and also conducts Saigon and Chợ Lớn Heritage Tours.

A full index of all Tim’s blog articles since November 2013 is now available here.

Join the Facebook group pages Saigon-Chợ Lớn Then & Now to see historic photographs juxtaposed with new ones taken in the same locations, and Đài Quan sát Di sản Sài Gòn – Saigon Heritage Observatory for up-to-date information on conservation issues in Saigon and Chợ Lớn.

Saigon’s Old French Planter Villas

The old Bec villa at 33 Lê Quý Đôn, pictured in December 2011

This article was published previously in Saigoneer

Despite the ongoing destruction of colonial buildings in Saigon, there’s still a small quarter of District 3 where it’s possible to identify villas which were once occupied by rich French rubber planters.

The area of District 3 bordered by Nam Kỳ Khởi Nghĩa, Nguyễn Đình Chiểu, Lê Quý Đôn and Võ Thị Sáu has long been known unofficially as Saigon’s “rubber plantation district.” In the early 20th century, many rich French rubber planters bought or rented homes in this area, close to the Saigon offices of companies like the Société plantations des terres rouges, the Compagnie des Caoutchoucs de Padang, the Compagnie des Caoutchoucs d’An Vieng and the Compagnie des Caoutchoucs de Cambodge.

17 Lê Quý Đôn

All of these offices were located at nearby 236 rue Mac-Mahon, now 236 Nam Kỳ Khởi Nghĩa, an address which even today is still home to the Rubber Research Institute of Việt Nam (Viện Nghiên Cứu Cao Su Việt Nam) and the Việt Nam Rubber Group (Tập Đoàn Công Nghiệp Cao Su Việt Nam).

The French villa at 17 rue Barbé/Barbet, now 17 Lê Quý Đôn, first appears in colonial records in 1923 as the home of Monsieur J Pierret, proprietor of the Société des plantations de Route-haute in Tây Ninh. In 1923-1925, Pierret served as Treasurer of the Union of Indochina Rubber Planters (Syndicat des Planteurs de caoutchouc de l’Indochine). By 1928. he could be found renting another villa (now demolished) at nearby 167 rue Mayer, now Võ Thị Sáu.

The old Bec villa at 33 Lê Quý Đôn, pictured today, completely hidden by trees

During the same period, the villa at 33 rue Barbé/Barbet, now Gạo restaurant at 33 Lê Quý Đôn, was the residence of Monsieur Bec, owner of the plantation An-Nhon. In contrast to number 17, this villa was actually owned by the Bec family, and their crest may still be seen today above the entrance door of the villa. In the early 1950s, the Becs sold the property to King Bảo Đại’s uncle Prince Nguyễn Phúc Bửu Lộc before returning to France.

Further along the same road is another heritage property at 45 rue Barbé/Barbet, now 45 Lê Quý Đôn. In 1924, this was the residence of Monsieur Perot, Director of the Société des plantations de Courtenay, but by 1927 it had become the residence of a senior government administrator named Blanchard.

45 Lê Quý Đôn

While serving as President of the Cochinchina Budget Commission, Monsieur Blanchard was the Director of no fewer than three large rubber plantation companies – the Compagnie des Caoutchoucs de Cambodge, the Compagnie du Caoutchouc Padang, and the Société des plantations des Terres Rouges.

Perhaps the best-known relic of Saigon’s “rubber plantation district” is the grand mansion at 169 rue Mac-Mahon, now the Hồ Chí Minh City Children’s House at 169 Nam Kỳ Khởi Nghĩa. It was built in 1927 for millionaire plantation owner Madame de la Souchère, a larger-then-life character who is often cited as the model for the character of plantation owner Éliane Devries, played by Cathérine Deneuve in Régis Wargnier’s 1992 film Indochine.

The former Souchère mansion at 169 Nam Kỳ Khởi Nghĩa

Vacated by Souchère in 1933 after she lost her entire fortune in the great economic crash, the mansion later became the residence of General Philippe Leclerc (1945-1946), commander of French forces in Indochina after World War II, and in the late 1960s the residence of the Deputy President of the Republic of Việt Nam. In 2015 it underwent a sympathetic renovation.

Like so many other old structures of their kind, these few surviving colonial planter villas are not recognised as heritage buildings and as such their future remains uncertain.

Tim Doling is the author of the walking tour guidebook Exploring Hồ Chí Minh City (Nhà Xuất Bản Thế Giới, Hà Nội, 2014) and also conducts Saigon and Chợ Lớn Heritage Tours.

A full index of all Tim’s blog articles since November 2013 is now available here.

Join the Facebook group pages Saigon-Chợ Lớn Then & Now to see historic photographs juxtaposed with new ones taken in the same locations, and Đài Quan sát Di sản Sài Gòn – Saigon Heritage Observatory for up-to-date information on conservation issues in Saigon and Chợ Lớn.

90 Years Ago This Week: “Annamite woman abused by tramway conductors”

An electric tram on Saigon’s boulevard Bonard (Lê Lợi) in the late 1920s

This article appeared in the Echo Annamite newspaper on 19 April 1926.

On the 6th April at 2:45 p.m., a young Annamite [Vietnamese] woman was abused by two tramway conductors – one an Indian, Mr Dayot, and the other a local, Mr Ngu – in the following circumstances:
Pressed by the departure of the train, our young traveller climbed on board and sat in first class, although she was only equipped with a second-class ticket.
Mr Ngu ordered her to move.
As the tram had already moved out of the station, the young woman begged him to leave her where she was for now, promising to relocate to second class as soon as they reached the next station.
Instead of showing the elementary gallantry and common decency due to this frail individual, who also happened to be one of his compatriots, Mr Ngu proceeded to pour shovel loads of insults on his interlocutor.
And that, in front of many other passengers.
“If you wish,” replied the young woman, “I’ll pay extra. But let please do not use these offensive words.”
The other refused to listen and was about to hit her, when Mr. Dayot arrived.
“Shut up or get off!” he yelled, making threatening gestures at the poor lady, on whom he bestowed, in turn, a string of curses.
For what must be the thirty-sixth time, we draw the attention of the Director of the Tramway Company to the total lack of education of his staff members of all nationalities.
We begin to tire of this situation.
Let him take tough sanctions against these officials, otherwise the trams risk being deserted by travellers who pay to be well served, and not to be insulted.

Tim Doling is the author of the walking tour guidebook Exploring Hồ Chí Minh City (Nhà Xuất Bản Thế Giới, Hà Nội, 2014) and also conducts Saigon and Chợ Lớn Heritage Tours.

A full index of all Tim’s blog articles since November 2013 is now available here.

Join the Facebook group pages Saigon-Chợ Lớn Then & Now to see historic photographs juxtaposed with new ones taken in the same locations, and Đài Quan sát Di sản Sài Gòn – Saigon Heritage Observatory for up-to-date information on conservation issues in Saigon and Chợ Lớn.

Marshal Joffre’s visit to Saigon, 9-13 December 1921

General Joseph Joffre in 1915, before he became a Marshal (Musée Carnavalet)

This article was published previously in Saigoneer

French government photographers have left us a detailed photographic record of Great War hero Marshal Joffre’s December 1921 visit to Saigon 

After distinguishing himself in World War I, former French Commander-in-Chief Joseph Joffre (1852-1931) became a Marshal of France and turned his attention to diplomatic affairs. It was in this capacity, in 1921-1922, that Joffre embarked on a grand goodwill tour taking in the United States, Indochina, Siam, Japan and China.

Marshal Joffre in Saigon

Altogether, Joffre spent nearly a month in Indochina, visiting Cochinchina, Cambodia, Annam and finally Tonkin, where he had served between 1885 and 1888 as an engineering officer. In advance of his visit, several streets and squares were named after him.

From the time of his arrival in Saigon on the morning of 9 December 1921 to his departure for Phnom Penh on 13 December 1921, Joffre’s visit was tightly choreographed and very thoroughly documented by government photographers.

Here is just a small selection from the many images taken during Joffre’s visit, along with his complete itinerary, which was published in the Écho annamite newspaper (22 November 1922) nearly two weeks before his visit!


An “Arc de Triomphe” was installed in the rue Catinat in honour of Marshal Joffre

Marshal Joffre and the Governor-general leave the Palace

Day 1 – 9 December 1921

8am – Embarcation at the Rigault de Genouilly pier
9.30am – Presentation of government agencies and services at the Palace of the Government-general
11am – Reception at the Town Hall, address by the Mayor
12pm – Private lunch at the Palace of the Government-general
4pm-5pm – Visit to Saigon, passing through the place du Maréchal Joffre (former water tower square)
5.30pm – Visit to the Governor of Cochinchina
6pm – Reception for war veterans
7.30pm – Private Dinner at the Palace of the Government-general
8.30pm-9pm – Torchlight procession
9.30pm – Fireworks display

Marshal Joffre and the Governor-general visiting the Chinese city

Marshal Joffre meeting notables in Cholon

Marshal Joffre at the ceremony for laying the foundations of the TSF station in Cholon

Marshal Joffre at the horse races

Day 2 – 10 December 1921

9am-10am – Visit to Cholon
10.15am – Laying the foundations at the new TSF (Wireless) Station, Cholon
12pm – Lunch at the Palace of the Government of Cochinchina
4pm – Horse Racing
5.30pm – Reception for indigenous notables of the Government of Cochinchina
6pm – Reception for Catalans at the Continental Hotel
8pm – Dinner at the Palace of the Government-general
9.45pm – Ball at the Palace of the Government-general

Officers stand to attention as Marshal Joffre reviews the troops in Saigon on 11 December 1921

Tanks parade before Marshal Joffre in Saigon

Day 3 – 11 December 1921

7.30am – Grand review of garrison troops
12pm – Private lunch at the Palace of the Government-general
4.30pm – Flower parade
7.30pm – Dinner at the Palace of the Government-general
9pm – Reception at the Cercle militaire

Ethnic minorities visiting Saigon in honour of the arrival of Marshal Joffre

The Palace of the Government-general in Saigon, illuminated in honour of Marshal Joffre

Day 4 – 12 December 1921

Morning – Excursion to Cap-Saint-Jacques, breakfast at the Cap
Afternoon – Return to Saigon, or trip to Thudaumot, Bienhoa
8pm – Private Dinner at the Palace of the Government-general
9pm – Public ball, boulevard Charner

Day 5 – 13 December 1921

8.30am – Departure from Saigon to Phnom Penh

Officers in charge of different parts of the programme

Torchlight procession: COMMANDANT GUILLERMEAU
Flags, Illuminations and Fireworks: Messrs. JOSSE & ROCHÉ
Horse races: M. BALLOUS
Public ball: Messrs. MARTIN & FONTANA

Tim Doling is the author of the walking tour guidebook Exploring Hồ Chí Minh City (Nhà Xuất Bản Thế Giới, Hà Nội, 2014) and also conducts Saigon and Chợ Lớn Heritage Tours.

A full index of all Tim’s blog articles since November 2013 is now available here.

Join the Facebook group pages Saigon-Chợ Lớn Then & Now to see historic photographs juxtaposed with new ones taken in the same locations, and Đài Quan sát Di sản Sài Gòn – Saigon Heritage Observatory for up-to-date information on conservation issues in Saigon and Chợ Lớn.

The Railways of Viet Nam – an illustrated talk

A “Rafale” armoured train pictured in south-central Việt Nam during the late 1940s, image from the archives of ECPAD (Etablissement de Communication et de Production Audiovisuelle de la Défense)

The Railways of Việt Nam is a new one-hour illustrated talk by Tim Doling, author of The Railways and Tramways of Việt Nam (White Lotus Press, 2012).

Illustrated by over 140 historic maps and images, this one-hour talk recounts the fascinating story of Việt Nam’s rail network, most of which was built as a tool of colonial exploitation by the French between 1885 and 1936.

One of the Saigon-Mỹ Tho line’s five SACM Belfort 4-4-0T “locomotives à grande vitesse” stands at Saigon Depot in the early 1900s

Its turbulent history mirrors that of Việt Nam through more than 90 years of colonialism, 30 years of devastating war and 40 years of reconstruction.

The first half of the talk traces the growth of the Vietnamese rail network, starting with the very first railway lines from Saigon to Mỹ Tho (1885) and from Phủ Lạng Thương (Bắc Giang) to Lạng Sơn (1894), and continuing through the construction of the Transindochinois (North-South line), which was opened in five successive stages between 1905 and 1936.

It examines French attempts to build lines of exploitation into southern China via Lào Cai and Đồng Đăng, and also looks at the abortive 1920s scheme for an “Interior rail route” through the Mekong valley, of which only the extraordinary rail-and-cable-car connection from Tân Ấp to Xóm Cục and Ban Na Phao (see The Railway which Became an Aerial Tramway) and the so-called “Rubber Line” from Saigon to Lộc Ninh (see Saigon’s Rubber Line) were actually achieved.

One of over 960 sabotage incidents on the South Vietnamese railway network in 1965

It also considers the repeated failure of the French to connect Phnom Penh with Saigon, the “missing link” which, when eventually completed, will link Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok directly with Beijing, Moscow and Europe.

The second half of the talk examines the devastating effect on the railway network of more than three decades of war, beginning with Allied bombing during the later years of Japanese occupation (1943-1944), and continuing with the catastrophic damage inflicted during the First and Second Indochina Wars (1945-1975).

The talk assesses the impact of war on the rail network both in the North (Democratic Republic of Việt Nam) and in the South (Republic of Việt Nam).

It brings the story up to date by looking at the gradual reconstruction and development of the rail network which took place after 1975.

66 TrainThe talk concludes with a brief overview of recent plans to develop a modern twin-track electrified standard gauge railway, linked not just to China but also to Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia and Thailand.

For more details please email

Tim Doling is the author of The Railways and Tramways of Việt Nam (White Lotus Press, Bangkok, 2012) and also conducts 16-day and 13-day Việt Nam Rail Tours.

A full index of all Tim’s blog articles since November 2013 is now available here.

Join the Facebook group Rail Thing – Railways and Tramways of Việt Nam for more information about Việt Nam’s railway and tramway history and all the latest news from Vietnam Railways.

Date with the Wrecking Ball – The Catinat-Cine Mosaics

The main mosaic panel, located in the corridor alongside the former Catinat-Ciné building

This article was published previously in Saigoneer

Over the past 12 months, a great deal of attention has been paid to the fate of the 1924 Moroccan mosaic staircase in the lobby of the Tax Trade Centre. Yet that great work of art is not the only mosaic in Saigon which is currently under threat of destruction.

The 151 rue Catinat entrance to the Catinat-Ciné (now the Art Arcade at 151 Đồng Khởi), pictured in the late colonial period

The redevelopment of 151 Đồng Khởi, announced last year, will involve the demolition of a tiny former film theatre building, situated in an alleyway between Đồng Khởi and Nguyễn Huễ boulevard and still decorated with some of the most intriguing mosaics of the late colonial era.

Believed to date back to the mid 1930s, the Catinat-Ciné became popular in the late colonial and early VNCH periods for its cheap ticket prices and “non-stop cinema” – in reality, 1pm-to-midnight screenings of second-run films which had already done the rounds of the major cinemas.

According to one local historian, by the 1960s the Catinat-Ciné had become a “tea room” music venue, known initially as Au Chalet and later as Đêm Màu Hồng, where the group Phượng Hoàng performed in the days before singer Elvis Phương joined its ranks and transformed it into one of Saigon’s leading pop groups.

Since 1975, the old Catinat-Ciné building has been used as an office space, but the original building survives, and with it the unique mosaic panels which decorate it.

An early 1950s view of the 151 rue Catinat entrance to the Catinat-Ciné (now the Art Arcade at 151 Đồng Khởi)

These include small mosaics on either side of the front entrance, plus a large mosaic panel in the corridor alongside the building which will be familiar to regular patrons of l’Usine restaurant upstairs. Despite some minor damage, most of the mosaic tiles remain in place. Sadly, the name of the artisan who created the murals is not known.

There can be no doubt that these unique works of art will face the wrecking ball unless a conservation campaign is launched to remove, restore and reinstate them in whatever new building is constructed on this site.

The smaller mural panels, located either side of the front doors of the former Catinat-Ciné building

The exterior of the former Catinat-Ciné building

Decorative coving and light fittings in the 151 Đồng Khởi entrance to the former Catinat-Ciné, now the Art Arcade

Decorative work on the walls of the 151 Đồng Khởi entrance to the former Catinat-Ciné, now the Art Arcade

Tim Doling is the author of the walking tour guidebook Exploring Hồ Chí Minh City (Nhà Xuất Bản Thế Giới, Hà Nội, 2014) and also conducts Saigon and Chợ Lớn Heritage Tours.

A full index of all Tim’s blog articles since November 2013 is now available here.

Join the Facebook group pages Saigon-Chợ Lớn Then & Now to see historic photographs juxtaposed with new ones taken in the same locations, and Đài Quan sát Di sản Sài Gòn – Saigon Heritage Observatory for up-to-date information on conservation issues in Saigon and Chợ Lớn.

Pierre Coupeaud and the Great Cyclo Trial of February 1936

Cyclos outside the Halles centrales (Bến Thanh Market) in the late 1940s

This article was published previously in Saigoneer

Banned from an ever-increasing number of city streets, the cyclo is rapidly becoming an endangered species. But spare a moment to appreciate this much-maligned form of transport, invented by Phnom-Penh-based French industrialist Pierre Coupeaud and launched here exactly 80 years ago this month by means of a high-profile demonstration run from Phnom Penh to Saigon.

By the early 1930s, the use of human-powered rickshaws in many parts of Asia was increasingly viewed with concern on humanitarian grounds. In 1933, trials were held in Paris to test a number of pedal-powered alternatives. The French Public Works Ministry recruited two former Tour de France champions, Speicher and Le Grèves, to test a variety of different “tri-porteurs” (three-wheel pedal-driven passenger-carrying vehicles) along the wide paths of the Bois de Boulogne in Paris.

The human-powered “pousse-pousse” rickshaw

Two years later, a Phnom Penh-based industrialist named Pierre Coupeaud designed his own lightweight “vélo-pousse.”

A keen athlete from the Charente region of France, Coupeaud had moved to Indochina in the late 1920s, and by 1933 he managed one of Cambodia’s leading bicycle companies, Établissements Pierre Coupeaud et Cie at 147-151 rue Galliéni, Phnom Penh.

Coupeaud arranged for his “vélo-pousse” to be built in Paris and then brought it back to Phnom Penh where, in 1935, after securing a public service licence from the city government, he manufactured a small fleet of the vehicles for use on the streets of the Cambodian capital.

Flushed with this initial success, Coupeaud then tried to sell the idea of cyclo travel to the Saigon authorities, but they were not interested. Eventually, he devised a plan to prove publicly how good his new invention was.

An article published in Le Journal magazine of 11 April 1936 describes what happened:

The most curious race ever to be organised

Two Indochinese cyclists recently travelled from Phnom Penh to Saigon on a “vélo-pousse,” the cyclist and passenger swopping places to complete the journey in shifts.

Coupeaud’s “crew” poses for photographs after the successful February 1936 demonstration run from Phnom Penh to Saigon

We thought we had exhausted every possible formula for the cycle race, but we were wrong! A French sportsman, who is also a businessman, has just invented, quite by accident, a new style of performance cycling competition. Once a cyclist and soccer player in France, this young man, Pierre Coupeaud, emigrated to the Far East and settled in Phnom Penh, capital of Cambodia, where he now sells bicycles and sporting goods.

Cambodia is home to a human-powered rickshaw known as the “pousse pousse.” Many of us will be familiar with this vehicle, which is used throughout the Far East. It comprises a large wicker chair mounted on lightweight wheels, which the Chinese and Indochinese pull by means of stretcher poles, taking the traveller at full speed through the cluttered cities of the Far East.

We have been trying for several years to find a more humane replacement for the “pousse pousse” by replacing arm and leg power with pedal power. Just a few years ago, while I was organising the first “tri-porteur” trials in Paris, I received a visit from a Russian colonel who owned several significant rickshaw concessions in China and was keen to demonstrate a new passenger-carrying “tri-porteur,” but he was unable to produce the intended machine.

Our friend Pierre Coupeaud had more perseverance. Coming to Paris last year, he left with a passenger “tri-porteur” which he had manufactured here. Unfortunately, setbacks awaited him in Indochina, where the Saigon administration, considering the invention to be revolutionary, refused him permission to put his “cyclo-pousse” into circulation. In vain, our friend argued that pedalling with a passenger in the front appeared less degrading to the driver and was certainly more humane than expecting him to run along the road pulling a rickshaw. However, knowing the strength of Eastern traditions, colonial officials would not yield.

Undaunted, M. Coupeaud trained up two local cyclists to demonstrate his machine. They were in fact two excellent riders who had participated in many cycling competitions, and by using them, Coupeaud determined to show the authorities what his new vehicle was capable of. He therefore organised a trial run from Phnom Penh to Saigon via Souairieng – a total of 240 km – to demonstrate the performance qualities of his “cyclo-pousse.”

A cyclo driver in Saigon in the late 1930s

The event was scheduled for Saturday 9 February 1936, departing from the Chamber of Commerce in Phnom Penh. The “cyclo-pousse” was followed by a car carrying officials equipped with chronometers.

Coupeaud’s “crew” left at 4pm that afternoon and travelled all night, arriving in Saigon the following morning at 9.30am, having covered the entire distance in just 17 hours 20 minutes. Excluding a 50 minute ferry trip, an average speed of around 15 kilometers per hour was achieved.

The two cyclists took turns to pedal the vehicle, swopping places from time to time to permit some rest. They were both fed and watered regularly en route, so that they were able to arrive perfectly fresh in Saigon the next morning.

Will we introduce such races to France? Could we in future see Speicher-Archambaud and Guerra-Olmo “cyclo-pousse” race teams competing in the Tour de France?

L. A.

Following this successful and very high profile demonstration run from Phnom Penh to Saigon, the Mayor of Saigon authorised the commissioning of the first 20 cyclos for public use. By 1939, the Cochinchina capital had 200 cyclos, and this versatile vehicle had also been introduced to the streets of Hà Nội. By 1940, the Indochina “pousse-pousse” or human-powered rickshaw was no more.

A Saigon cyclo

A cyclo driver waits for passengers outside the Saigon Municipal Theatre in the late 1950s

Tim Doling is the author of the walking tour guidebook Exploring Hồ Chí Minh City (Nhà Xuất Bản Thế Giới, Hà Nội, 2014) and also conducts Saigon and Chợ Lớn Heritage Tours.

A full index of all Tim’s blog articles since November 2013 is now available here.

Join the Facebook group pages Saigon-Chợ Lớn Then & Now to see historic photographs juxtaposed with new ones taken in the same locations, and Đài Quan sát Di sản Sài Gòn – Saigon Heritage Observatory for up-to-date information on conservation issues in Saigon and Chợ Lớn.