The Hanoi-Dong-Dang Railway, from Alfred Cunningham, The French in Tonkin and South China, 1902

A train waits to depart from Dap-Cau station in 1901

There are perhaps few British merchants practically interested in the commercial development of China who are actually aware of what France is doing in Tonkin and South China in the matter of railways. There are even fewer who consider seriously the ambitious programme which M. Doumer and his supporters have mapped out for the commercial and political conquest of the region.

Paul Doumer (1857-1932)

It may be admitted that there are Frenchmen who do not hesitate to publicly question M. Doumer’s schemes, but opposition apparently exercises no restraint on the carrying out of the programme. The administration of M. Beau, the new Governor-General in Tonkin, may or may not affect French ambitions in South China, but such possibilities can no longer be an excuse for British indifference, official and commercial, in regions which we have, from our geographical advantages, complacently regarded as our own.

The British Consular officials have hitherto failed to attach to the subject the importance it merits, for occasional references in their reports to French railway schemes impress the reader with the idea that our colonial neighbours have more money than wisdom in endeavouring by such means to secure trade from allegedly barren and unproductive districts.

This impression has been accentuated by a recent speech of Lord Curzon, who, as Viceroy of India, was reported to be opposed to spending money on extending Burma railways to Yunnan on the possibility of securing trade, when such capital might be well spent within their borders with the assurance of profitable results. Such a position is undoubtedly sound, and an assured percentage of profit on capital is to an administration preferable to speculation. What Lord Curzon’s ideas are, however, with regard to the duties of the British in Hongkong and South China, is another question, and we can only gather from his published works that he is of the opinion that in commercial enterprise, pioneering work and progressive administration, it will be an unfortunate day for the British when they allow themselves to be outstripped in these matters by their foreign rivals.

French Railways in East Asia map from Alfred Cunningham, The French in Tonkin and South China, 1902

Prince Henri d’Orleans wrote: “Why did why take Tonkin? In order to gain access into China!” The original idea of the French was to enter China by means of the Red River, but thanks to M. Doumer, that is a plan of the past: France will now enter by her railways.

It is to be hoped that the following pages and map will testify to the fact that French railway enterprise in Tonkin and South China is something more than visionary, and that although the French official may be the spendthrift that we with our commercial prejudices consider him to be, he is surely not unpractical nor unwise to squander millions of francs in simply demonstrating to the Asiatic mind the wonder of civilisation as revealed by locomotives.

M. Doumer may have had political objectives in exploiting Tonkin, and if so, judging from the results, he deserved to attain them. Curious enough, from his own remarks, it was the British railway system in Burma which served him as an example.

The first railway built in Tonkin was a small steam tramway running from the town of Phu-Lang-Thuong to Lang Son near the Kwangsi border. The gauge of the line was only 60 centimetres (23.6 inches) and the quaint little locomotives and small open passenger cars may still be seen in the sidings at Phu-Lang-Thuong.

A train stands at Lạng Sơn station during the time of the original 0.6m gauge Decauville military line

It was constructed by the Military to facilitate the transport of troops and commissariat during the campaign, the town of Phu-Lang-Thuong being then, as it is now, an important military centre. A few years ago it was decided to increase the narrow gauge to 1 metre; to connect the line from this town to Hanoi, the capital of Indo-China; and to extend the northern terminus from Langson to Dong-Dang on the Chinese frontier. This has been accomplished and the visitor is now enabled, by leaving Hanoi at 7 o’clock in the morning, to reach the Kwangsi border at 3 o’clock the same afternoon. A description of the journey may be of interest in showing one of the railways in operation.

Through the courtesy of Monsieur Broni, the Acting Governor-General, we were provided with a special pass and an open letter of introduction to the officers commanding the military districts; our departure was telegraphed ahead, and at one station a sergeant-major inquired for us and asked if we were comfortable.

Boats on the Red River

We left the hotel at 6.30am and reached the steam ferry, which took us across the river in time to catch the 7.30am train. The ferry was a wonderful object in appearance, and consisted of an ancient and very dilapidated steam-launch with two native boats fastened to it on each side, the boats being boarded over with a platform, with side rails for protection. These were reserved for natives and their goods, chattels, provisions, buffaloes, trucks, ponies, market baskets, fish, etc, whilst the fore part of the launch was allotted to Europeans and their baggage. In charge of the ferry were two Cantonese, who levied a toll of seven cents on each foreign passenger for the trip of about one mile.

We clambered up the steep path leading to the temporary station, forcing a passage with some difficulty though the crowd of natives and their belongings, and entered the train.

An eastbound train leaves Gia Lâm station in the early 1900s

The trains are made up of about eight cars, which are divided into 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th classes. The Europeans patronise the 1st and 2nd classes, which are very comfortable, the cars being built on the Pullman model, with central corridor. The seats are comfortable and well-upholstered, and there is a lavatory. An old carriage has been temporarily transformed into a dining car, with kitchen behind, and lunch is served to those who require it for the moderate sum of $1.50, inclusive of wines. The locomotives in use are tank engines, with small coupled driving wheels and outside cylinders, and appear to be very suitable for the purpose, as the speed required is not high. The average speed on the easy gradients is 35 kilometres (21.7 miles) an hour.

All the rolling stock, the locomotives and the bridges, are made in France. The French evidently believe in patronising home industries, as these French manufactures enter the colony free of duty. This is a very attractive policy, providing the prices are reasonable.

The Doumer Bridge, opened in 1902

The temporary station has now been dispensed with, for the trains now cross the magnificent new bridge over the Red River. Travellers to the new terminus in Hanoi are thus saved the inconvenient journey in the unpleasant ferry.

The new bridge at Hanoi, like the one at Fujiyama in Japan, overshadows everything. It is a splendid structure, built of steel, on columns of dressed Tonkin stone, which is a kind of grey limestone. Before passing over the river, the bridge traverses for a considerable distance flat, marshy country, and continues on the other side in a long stone viaduct.

It is one of the longest bridges in the world, its total length being 1,680 metres (5,505 feet). It is designed to carry a single line of rails, with a passage on either side for pedestrians. According to Doumer’s memoirs, the engineers who constructed it were Messrs Daydé et Pillé, Creil (Oise), and the superintendent engineer in charge of its erection informed us that his task had been very difficult owing to the subsidence of the soil and the bed of the river. The earthwork leading up to the bridge had sunk three times, to a total depth of three metres, but he thought that was final.

The entrance to the Doumer Bridge

The stone columns, 14 metres high, are built up on metal cylindrical piles, 30 metres deep, which are filled with cement. There are 20 stone columns. The total cost of the bridge was 6,000,000 francs ($2,608,695), and some idea of its dimensions may be gathered from the fact that it absorbed 80 tons of paint, costing 80,000 francs, and the total weight of the steel is 5,000 tons. The bridge was opened for traffic in April, 1902. It is a magnificent work of which the French Colonial Government may well be proud, as a feat of modern engineering skill, and as a colossal monument to their desire to improve the communications between the provinces and the capital.

Leaving the terminus, the first stations of importance are reached at Bac-Ninh and Dap-Cau. At 11am we arrived at Phu-Lang-Thuong, the former terminus of the line. This is full of relics of the previous Lilliputian railway, and possesses numerous sidings, an engine shed and repairing shops.

Dap-Cau Bridge

From Hanoi to some distance beyond Phu-Lang-Thuong, the country is very fertile, being one vast plain of paddy fields. As the train proceeds, the low-lying productive country is left behind and we soon reach the hills. The line has been constructed with the idea of avoiding tunnels, and consequently, once among the mountains, it is a succession of sharp curves and gradients, the train winding between the hills. The scenery is wild and beautiful. Solid rocks, hundreds of feet high, covered with foliage to the summit, rise in chains. Mountain streams overhung with trees, pretty glens, thickets of bamboo and dark woods are passed, as the little engine puffs and pants ahead, temporarily relieved when it rounds a rock and dashes down a gradient to a picturesque valley beneath. High above the surrounding uplands and valleys are built the military outstations, really miniature forts in appearance and actuality, from which float the tricolour. Overlooking and protecting every station is one of these small isolated strongholds, no doubt of great use in former days when piracy was rampant. Here and there are noticed curious large rocks, of stalactitic formation, and in numerous places are quarries worked by the Military, which supply stone for ballast and bridges on other lines in course of construction.

The “Blockhaus du Lang-Giai,” one of the French military posts guarding the line

As Langson is neared, the scenery changes slightly and the gigantic tree-covered rocks give place to hills almost devoid of verdure. The earth has a rich appearance and there are many indications, as in the hilly country previously passed, of former cultivation. Today, however, all is desolate. The country is practically depopulated, the inhabitants having apparently been killed or frightened away by deprivations of Chinese pirates on one hand and fear of the French on the other. Occasionally, small clusters of huts are seen, but even at the railway stations there are no villages of any size. It is said that the hills are more populated than their appearance betokens.

When Langson is in view, the country shows more signs of life and Tonkinese mingle with the Chinese, apparently on good terms. It is the ambition of the French to transport natives from other densely-occupied parts of the colony to the uninhabited hill districts, and to offer them inducements to settle.

Langson is a town of some importance, and the native population is chiefly made up of Chinese, whose quarters are on the northern side of the French settlement. The Songki-Kong River flows past Langson and enters China in the adjacent prefecture of Lung-Chow. It is crossed by a steel railway bridge 130m long.

A westbound train waits to depart from Lạng Sơn station in 1903, by Louis Salaun

Langson was a walled city with a citadel, when in Chinese hands, and then had a Chinese garrison, although nominally under an Annamite governor. There is a small French garrison stationed here. There is a good local trade done, and an aboriginal tribe called the Tho, who inhabit the adjacent western hills, sell here the course cotton material they weave. It is also the centre of the aniseed oil industry, in which a profitable business is done, the price reaching $300 a picul.

The town has been laid out in that spacious, effective way which characterises all French settlements; the roads are straight, wide and well-kept. The railway line runs through the central thoroughfare, bordered with attractive bungalows on either side. The Residency is a large, handsome edifice, and there is a spacious and well-constructed market. The railway station is an important building, with yards, sidings and outhouses, and, on the whole, Langson presents the appearance of a flourishing settlement.

Accommodation is provided at the Hôtel de Langson, and it is no exaggeration to state that we partook of one of the best dinners we had in Tonkin at the modest little hotel and cafe which overlooks the railway. After dinner the cafe presents the customary appearance, the tables being occupied by officers and the few civilians, gossiping and playing cards.

Đồng Đăng station

From Langson, the journey may be resumed to Dong-Dang, a settlement distant about 30 miles, where the present service of trains terminates. There is a garrison here of French and Tonkinese troops, who are quartered in barracks built on a hill overlooking the station. From Dong-Dang, the line has been continued to the “gate of China,” a few miles further on. A trolley was kindly placed at our disposal and we thus reached the end of the line and the limit of French territory.

A loopholed wall, connecting a chain of Chinese forts situated on lofty hills, marks the boundary, and the view is very picturesque. Hills are on every side, on top of several of which stand out clearly the grey stone forts of the Chinese, whilst a little French military station built on a smaller hill keeps watch and wards against invasion by Chinese rebel, pirate or imperialist.

The French have a concession by which the Langson line can be extended to Lungchow-fu, the largest town on the Kwangsi border, and to Nanning-fu on the West River, and they are now commencing to build the extension to those places.

End of the line – the frontier at Nam Quan

The cost of transforming the Phu-Lang-Thuong-Langson line in 1897 from a gauge of 0.6 metres to 1 metre in 1900, and extending it from the former terminus to Hanoi, was 20,000,000 francs. Its length is 165 kilometres (103 miles).

There are 28 stations or stopping places and the rolling stock consists of 12 locomotives, 43 passenger cars and 48 waggons. There are only 17 French officials employed on the line, the stationmasters, telegraph operators, guards and engine-drivers being Annamites. The number of passengers carried monthly averages 75,000, but the goods traffic is small. The receipts amounted to $1,730 a kilometre, the total for 1901 being $263,000, against an expenditure of $210,000, showing a balance of $53,000. The native can travel 150 kilometres for $1!

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.

Old Saigon Building of the Week – Former Saigon Adventist Hospital, 1961

The former Saigon Adventist Hospital building on the Phú Nhuận crossroads

This article was published previously in Saigoneer

The Phú Nhuận Red Cross Association building at 2 Hoàng Văn Thụ originated in 1960-1961 as the Saigon Adventist Hospital.

It was American missionary Randall H Wentland who in 1929 introduced the teachings of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church to Việt Nam. By 1937, there were five Adventist churches in Cochinchina, plus a training school and publishing house at the organisation’s headquarters in Saigon’s Phú Nhuận district.

Opened in May 1952, the Saigon Adventist Hospital was originally housed in a French villa

In the late 1930s, a sea captain named Thomas Hael donated US$4,500 to launch a programme of Seventh-Day Adventist medical work in Indochina. However, because of restrictions by the French administration, the money was used instead to develop medical programmes in Siam (Thailand).

Plans to set up an Adventist medical programme in Indochina were revived in 1949, following the establishment of Bảo Đại’s transitional State of Việt Nam administration. Three years later, permission was granted to open a public hospital in Saigon. With the help of a US$2,500 contribution from the Bangkok Adventist Hospital and donations from supporters in the United States and Việt Nam, the church acquired the former villa of a departing French planter at 2 rue Lacaut/đường Chi Lăng (modern Hoàng Văn Thụ), right next to its Phú Nhuận headquarters, and converted it into a small hospital. This first Saigon Adventist Hospital opened on 22 May 1955.

In 1960-1961 the villa was demolished and replaced by a purpose-built 38-bed hospital

Popular from the outset with local people, the new hospital quickly became so over-subscribed that, in 1960-1961, it was decided to demolish the old French villa and replace it with the current building, conceived as a modern cottage hospital with 38 beds.

During its 12 years in Phú Nhuận, the Saigon Adventist Hospital struggled to keep pace with demand for its services. A newspaper article of 1969 commented that it was always full, despite its less than ideal location right next to one of the city’s busiest and noisiest junctions:

“Besides the fact that every room and hall is crowded to capacity, huge traffic jams during the rush hours make the noise deafening. The only ‘fire escape’ for the building is the lofty palm tree outside.” Geyersville Press, California, 25 September 1969.

The US Army 3rd Field Hospital at Tân Sơn Nhất in 1969 and the same building in 1973 after it was taken over by the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, photos by LLU/Ralph S Watts

In the early 1970s, the Seventh-Day Adventist Church in Saigon drew up plans to build a larger hospital near Tân Sơn Nhất Airbase. Construction began early in 1973, but following the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in February of that year, the church was invited temporarily to take over the 325-bed US Army 3rd Field Hospital, also near Tân Sơn Nhất, which was then being vacated by departing American troops.

In March 1973, the Seventh Day Adventist Church transferred its hospital from Phú Nhuận to Tân Sơn Nhất. Staff from the School of Medicine at the Loma Linda University (a Seventh-Day Adventist training institution based in Southern California) were brought in to assist with the running of the new hospital, and in 1974 they are said to have performed the first open heart surgery in Việt Nam.

The move into the former US Army 3rd Field Hospital was only envisaged as a temporary one, pending completion of the new purpose-built Saigon Adventist Hospital. However, the latter was still unfinished when PLA tanks rolled into Saigon in April 1975.

The Saigon Adventist Hospital in 1966, photo by Darryl Henley

After 1975, all Seventh-Day Adventist Church premises were taken over by the new government. The former US Army 3rd Field Hospital buildings at Tân Sơn Nhất were subsequently converted into the South East Region Armed Forces Museum (Military Zone 7 Museum), while the church’s Phú Nhuận headquarters and the old hospital building were reallocated to various civil society organisations.

In 2008, the Vietnamese government granted permission for the Seventh-Day Adventist Church to resume operations in Việt Nam and gave back its former Phú Nhuận headquarters. A new church building was subsequently constructed on the site.

As for the old Saigon Adventist Hospital building next door, vacated by the church in 1973, its present occupant is the Phú Nhuận Red Cross Association (Hội Chữ Thập Đỏ Quận Phú Nhuận).

The Saigon Adventist Hospital in 1969, photographer unknown

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 Phu Lang Thuong-Lang Son railway line, from Autour du Tonkin (“Around Tonkin”) by Henri-Philippe d’Orléans, 1894

The inauguration of the completed 0.6m gauge Phủ Lạng Thương-Lạng Sơn line in December 1894

Opened in 1894, the first railway line in northern Việt Nam was a military line connecting Phủ Lạng Thương (Bắc Giang) with the border post of Lạng Sơn. A costly failure, the line was upgraded in 1899-1902 and transformed into today’s 1m gauge Hà Nội-Đồng Đăng line – but not before French aristocrat Henri-Philippe Marie d’Orléans had laid into the authorities for the gross incompetence surrounding its construction and the unsuitability of its rolling stock.

The main street through Đáp Cầu, a town on the Phủ Lạng Thương-Lạng Sơn (later Hà Nội-Đồng Đăng) line

I was recently invited to the inauguration of our new national road from Hanoi to Hai-Duong; it starts on the left bank of the Red River, a little above Hanoi. Only just completed, this road is excellent, though it has not yet been subjected to the test of the summer rains. The region it traverses is currently full of barren swamps, but over the next year these will be replaced by fertile rice paddies. Such results have already been achieved between Phu-Lang-Thuong and Kep.

In military terms, new roads like this benefit our troops more than they do the pirates and brigands of the far north, indeed, the latter prefer to see our settlements remain isolated from each other. The old narrow paths, known only to local people, are very difficult to access, and serve those who wage guerilla war against us. On our wide new highways, it’s possible to move easily in more than just single file, and under these new conditions our enemies lose much of their advantage.

A bridge on the 0.6m gauge Phủ Lạng Thương-Lạng Sơn line

In the same way, the new Tien-Yen-Lang-Son road, which I believe has also just been completed, crosses the eastern region of the country parallel to the open border with China, and will undoubtedly be of great strategic importance.

This new system of 11m wide highways, also capable in future of accommodating tramways, certainly represents progress, but it’s not perfection. Railways would be preferable, and the example given by the English in their colonies should serve to guide us. Upper Burma was taken by the English in 1885; by 1887, a railway had reached Mandalay. Despite the competition of easy navigation along the Irrawaddy River, that line has since proved more successful than any of the East Indian Railways.

Here in Tonkin, just one proper railway line – the line between Hong Hai [Hòn Gai] and Kebao being simply a mining tramway – has so far been built, linking Phu-Lang-Thuong with Lang-Son near the Chinese border.

A works train hauled by one of the line’s three 5-tonne Decauville 0-4-0T locomotives, pictured during construction of the 0.6m gauge Phủ Lạng Thương-Lạng Sơn line

We should therefore examine its strategic and commercial importance. Far be it for me to discuss in detail the construction process; I don’t want to name or attribute blame to anyone in particular, yet it is good for the public to know how this enterprise of general interest was entered into and conducted. A few facts will therefore be exposed, for common sense to judge.

The construction of the line was granted to a M. Soupe, who later passed it to sub-contractors.

According to the tendering specifications, the administration reserved the right to purchase the rolling stock, and also paid directly for the construction of bridges. But they preferred to engage an expensive contractor, and, as a result, to pay under the terms of his contract, a commission of 18%, amounting to 300,000 Francs which could otherwise have been saved.

Plenty of warnings were given to the administration, flagging up how detrimental this was to the state, but no one seemed to take any notice.

Kép station on the 0.6m gauge Phủ Lạng Thương-Lạng Sơn (later Hà Nội-Đồng Đăng) line, pictured in 1893

Written instructions by the Under Secretary of State were often contradictory and caused the greatest embarrassment to our engineers in Tonkin.

The means of purchase being known, we should also consider the type and quality of rolling stock, and above all the decision to adopt a track gauge of 0.6m. A Dutch engineer, who I met while travelling, expressed surprise that the French had chosen this gauge. “Neither in the English colonies, nor at home,” he told me, “do they use a gauge of less than 1m. Above all, where a line covers distances of more than 100km, as this one does, 0.6m gauge equipment will wear out very quickly and must be constantly renewed. Furthermore, the route of this line travels through mountainous country, and with gradients of up to 30mm/m, Decauville locomotives can hardly haul convoys of more than three wagons. The more practical 1m gauge has already been used in Tonkin by a private company for the coal operations of Hong-Hai, where only a small distance is covered; all the more reason, it seems, to select the larger gauge for longer journeys. ”

Two of the line’s three 5-tonne Decauville 0-4-0T locomotives (No. 40 “Amiral Courbet,” No. 62 “Langson” and No. 80 “Haiphong”) were displayed at the Exposition Universelle of 1889 in Paris before being shipped to Indochina

As for the quality of the rolling stock, they sent to Phu-Lang-Thuong some of the rolling stock which had been displayed at the Exposition Universelle of 1889 in Paris; I myself saw one of the locomotives and several carriages. Had the latter even been in perfect condition, which I think is not always the case, we could still reproach them for being entirely unsuitable for use in hot countries.

During the enquiry into the Phu-Lang-Thuong to Lang-Son railway line, which took place on 27 November 1890 at the Chambre des députés, the Deputy Secretary of State said that he had been pushed to commence work on the line without consulting the Chambre by a “superior interest,” namely that of supplying troops to, and transporting sick soldiers back from, a remote military outpost.

However, on this last point, an objection may be made. The wagons purchased were entirely unsuitable for hot countries; no modifications were made to the French-built rolling stock in order to counter the dangers of sunstroke. For the countries of the East, one does not build as for Europe, and on this subject I refer the reader once again to the example of our neighbours, the English.

“The wagons purchased were entirely unsuitable for hot countries; no modifications were made to the French-built rolling stock in order to counter the dangers of sunstroke”

So, to justify the preference given to Decauville over other railway manufacturers, it is difficult to invoke strategic and military interests; transportation in Decauville rolling stock will be slow in highlands and, in the hot season, dangerous for troops.

Let us now leave aside the criticism that can be directed to the adoption of the 0.6m track gauge and the choice of rolling stock to focus on the operation of the line.

In November 1890, it was announced that “Part of the line will be in operation by early 1891 and the entire line will be functioning by the end of that year.”

Here we are in 1893; the government forecasts were incorrect.

Was the line mapped properly?

Construction of the 0.6m gauge Phủ Lạng Thương-Lạng Sơn line

The tender specification states: “Before the works commence, the route will be mapped by state engineers; the contractor will assist in this operation.”

I believe that a preliminary route was mapped, but due to the difficult security situation in that area, the landmarks and marker posts were repeatedly destroyed. In addition, the route was originally mapped for a track gauge of 1m, and was not therefore suitable for a line of 0.6m gauge. As for the entrepreneur, he demanded the implementation of the initial route, purely in order to give him more work.

Besides this, the representative of the contractor M. Soupe did not appear to have the necessary expertise for the establishment and management of railway construction sites, so the state engineer offered his assistance, and work was begun with the help of his staff. But the contractor’s Paris office disapproved of this situation and secured the dismissal from the project of the state engineer, M. Lion. He has recently returned to Tonkin to work as consulting engineer for M. de Lanessan.

Construction of the 0.6m gauge Phủ Lạng Thương-Lạng Sơn line

After the departure of M. Lion, significant concessions were made to the contractor.

He was permitted to rebuild completely, under the pretext of poor mapping at the commencement of the line, 3km of the 18km already in existence. Cost – 30,000-40,000 piastres on top of the existing budget.

On the section of line west of Bac-Le, instead of paying the workers according to working hours (with upward adjustment of wages to reflect the increase received by the company), the contractor was allowed to institute a system of infrequent payments to its workers. Then, beyond Bac-Le, it began to pay workmen per cubic metre of earthwork. This new system, disadvantageous to the state, permitted the contractors to sub-contract the work.

The first mode of payment would have been preferable, had its application had been applied strictly; but the local workers were paid by the company at the rate of 15 cents per head, the latter alleging that it also provided them with clothes and food, and then falsely accounting to the state a wage of 30 cents per head. This was duly reported by whom it may concern; then everyone moved on.


Between 1890 and 1895, seven 9.5-tonne Decauville 0-4-4-0 “Mallet”patent compound jointed locomotives were purchased for the line – No. 83 “Eugène Étienne,” No. 84 “Phu-Lang-Thuong,” No. 85 “Commandant Rivière,” No. 86 “Carnot,” No. 126 “Commandant de Lagrée,” No. 188 “Kinh Luoc” and No. 195 “Francis Garnier”

When they arrived at an insurmountable obstacle, the construction team simply gave up and restarted elsewhere. East of Bac-Le, no fewer than six different track plans were adopted, one after the other; the last earthworks having been washed away, they simply embarked on another.

Besides, how may one believe in the good direction of an enterprise when it passes so often into different hands? Disclosure of reports is very instructive for those of us who have colonial questions at heart, showing how the interests of the state are taken into account by the authorities which have the primary mission of defending them.

It is not only in the work of mapping this line that we encounter culpable negligence. The operation of train services from Phu-Lang-Thuong to Lang-Son was initially granted for a period of two years to an entrepreneur with a guarantee of 3.60 Francs per tonne per kilometre, but after two years it was seen that the concessionnaire had won greatly, so the line was placed out to tender again and someone else acquired the franchise for just 1.20 Francs per tonne per kilometre. Difference: about 345,000 Francs that the state should have been able to save.

The 1m-gauge Port-Courbet (Hòn Gai)–Hà Tu mining tramway in Tonkin, built after 1888 by the Société de charbonnages de Hon-gay

I am now told that, thanks to the intervention of the Governor-General, work to upgrade the 0.6m gauge line to 1m gauge is finally underway. I hope so, better late than never.

When M. de Lanessan visited the mines of Hong-Hai, he marvelled at how cheaply the laying of 1m track could be achieved by a private company for its own operations, with an eye to economy. Between Phu-Lang-Thuong and Lang-Son, the interest of the state was at stake, yet the line was seen as a cash cow to be milked at pleasure, forgetting that the milk was that of France, and there will come a time when it will no longer be provided.

In summary, the construction of the Phu-Lang-Thuong-Lang-Son railway line, estimated initially to cost 4 million Francs, has already cost us more than 8 million, and if, on completion, it costs less than 12 million, we will consider ourselves lucky. In the space of two years, on flat terrain and without great physical difficulty, barely half of the line has been built – that’s not even 40 kilometres in a straight line! Meanwhile, during the same period, in rugged and difficult country, the English have laid nearly 200 kilometres of 1m gauge track.

These are results which are painful to see, yet I feel it is my duty to speak out. Let us take stock of the situation and we will find, if we want, that the situation is easily remedied.

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.

“Another old Cochinchinois disappears,” L’Éveil économique de l’Indochine, 12 October 1924

$_57 (20)

After the recent death of old Father Charton, that doyen amongst the old Cochinchinois colons, we must now mourn the passing of Father Vidal, old “Danh-Ca” as he was called by the locals.

Father Vidal lived for 45 uninterrupted years in Cochinchina.

He originally came to the colony to work as a foreman at the Arsenal, and then became very attached to this land, making it his country of adoption. He gave up completely on European customs and went to live in the depths of Phu Nhuan village, in the province of Gia Dinh, amongst the workers he had under his command.

There he took an Annamite companion and lived completely in the native mode.

When the time came for retirement, he had himself appointed Huong-Ca of his village; that’s why the locals were accustomed to call him Danh-Ca.

He had, in this corner of Cochinchina, a very big influence. Many villagers came to submit their disputes to him. He dispensed justice in the Phu Nhuan area in the manner of King Solomon, sharp, final and with his usual common sense.

He ate and lived in the local style, and often, in recent times, he could be seen travelling around Phu-Nhuan in his horse-drawn Victoria carriage, his feet bare, wearing silk trousers and chewing betel.

Father Vidal had renounced the religion and customs of his childhood. He could often be seen making sacrifices to the Buddha in pagodas; he was even, in recent years, the head of a Buddhist society.

The approach of death did not change his feelings, because he wanted to be consistent with himself to the end. He therefore asked to be buried in the local style, with all the trappings of the Far East.

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.

Inauguration of the First Section of the Langbian Cog Railway, 1927

A passenger train on the Langbian Cog Railway

This article was published previously in Saigoneer

The Langbian Cog Railway was opened in stages between 1919 and 1932. The first 40km of the line from Tourcham (Tháp Chàm) to Krông Pha travelled through relatively flat terrain and required only conventional adhesion rail technology, but the remaining 44km from Krông Pha to Đà Lạt rose from 186m to 1,550m above sea level, demanding the use of state-of-the-art Swiss crémaillère (cog railway) technology. This short article, published in L’Éveil économique de l’Indochine on 20 February 1927, describes the inauguration of the first and most challenging 10km section from Krông Pha to Bellevue (Eo Gió, km 50) on 10 February 1927.

Henri Lartilleux’s map of the Krông Pha-Đà Lạt section of the Langbian Cog Railway

At 10.15am our train moves off and travels at a brisk pace along the 1,500m of almost flat rail track which separate us from the start of the rack section.

Suddenly the speed decreases; the pinion wheels of the locomotive engage with the rack and we attack an incline of 80mm/m, which soon becomes the 100mm/m and then 120mm/m. It’s like climbing a staircase, but effortlessly and at the steady speed of 10kph.

The first rack section on the Langbian Cog Railway

We feel as though we’re hanging on a vine at the edge of a precipice!

To reach the top, the locomotive makes use of full power, and no obstacles stand in our way.

We cut through sloped trenches in the granite. A great bulge of volcanic rock seems to block our way, but we pass through it easily via a 160m tunnel which leads us out onto a precipice, flanked by piles of rocks.

The train continues, and we soon arrive at another granite outcrop, which dwarfs us with its mass.

We cross torrents over bold bridges, and then we arrive at a train station on a bridge, set between the two great walls of a gorge… it’s Kabeu.

There’s just time to water the engine before the climb begins again, taking us over another section of rack rail, up through the rocks and peaks towards a sky which becomes steadily deeper and bluer as the air gets fresher and livelier.

A train arriving at Bellevue Station

Everything now reminds us strangely of France; the illusion is almost complete when, after crossing the last slopes and passing the most recently built structures, the train leads us onto the Dran plateau, where we see carnations and roses amidst the pine forest.

We are told that it will take several more months to achieve the final sections through the mountains of Annam, but the hardest and most costly part of this line has already been achieved. The laying of track between Bellevue and Dran is now nearing completion. Beyond it, the earthworks for another rack section from Dran up to l’Arbre Broyé are almost finished. If sufficient manpower is available, track laying will commence as soon as the next rainy season is over.

Soon, thanks to our skilled engineers, Dalat too will be much easier to access from Saigon.

A works train in the Bellevue Pass in early 1927

A train descends the first rack section on the Langbian Cog Railway

Kabeu Station

One of the line’s initial nine rack-and-pinion locomotives, Schweizerische Lokomotiv- und Maschinenfabrik (SLM) of Winterthur’s superheated 35.7-tonne HG4/4 0-8-0T number 701

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.

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, 1931

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.