King Marie I of the Sedang

Marie-Charles David de Mayréna (1842-1890), posing as “King Marie I of the Sedang”

This article was published previously in Saigoneer

Many will have heard of Englishman James Brooke, the so-called “White Rajah” who in the 1840s established the Kingdom of Sarawak, or indeed of French lawyer Orélie-Antoine de Tounens, who in 1860 founded the Mapuche Kingdom of Araucanía and Patagonia. Perhaps not so well known is the short-lived attempt in 1888-1890 by French adventurer Marie-Charles David de Mayréna to carve out an independent kingdom in the Central Highlands of Việt Nam.

A Sedang warrior

Born in Toulon on 31 January 1842, Marie-Charles David de Mayréna first came to Indochina in 1863, serving for several years in the French navy in Saigon. He was later decorated for bravery after being wounded in the Franco-Prussian War. Described as “good-looking, a crack shot…. intelligent and energetic,” de Mayréna spent the rest of his life as an “unscrupulous adventurer.”

In 1883, De Mayréna left France in a hurry after being accused of embezzlement. He then spent nearly a year in Java before being deported by the Dutch authorities in August 1884, apparently following another embezzlement charge. Returning to Cochinchina, he set up a plantation in Baria.

During this period, Siam began to extend its influence over the ethnic groups of the central highlands, then still a loosely-administered border region. In February 1888, French Jesuit missionary Father Jean-Baptiste Guerlach (1858-1912) succeeded in setting up, within the French sphere of influence, a Bahnar-Rengao Confederation based at Kontum, but the Sedang and the Jarai remained outside of this grouping.

Marie-Charles David de Mayréna (1842-1890), posing as “King Marie I of the Sedang”

Seeing an opportunity to enrich himself, de Mayréna persuaded the then Governor of Cochinchina, Charles Le-Myre-de-Vilers, that he was the right man to lead a secret expedition to negotiate treaties with Sedang and Jarai, and definitively to woo the various central highland ethnic groups away from Siamese influence and into the arms of France. Under the guise of prospecting for gold in the Attapeu region, an expeditionary force was assembled and placed under de Mayréna’s command. A bemused Father Guerlach was requested to provide de Mayréna with all necessary support.

Dressed in all his military finery, and accompanied by Father Guerlach and another French adventurer named Mercurol, de Mayréna made a great impression on the ethnic chiefs. However, instead of securing their submission to France, de Mayréna convinced them that, since they had never been vassals of the emperor of Annam, they should instead form their own kingdom – under his rule.

On 3 June 1888, in the village of Kon Gung (now Dak Mar commune in the Đắk Hà district of Kon Tum province), the chiefs of the Sedang, Bahnar and Rengao submitted to de Mayréna and elected him as “Marie I, King of the Sedang.”

The flag of the Kingdom of Sedang

They then signed an 11-point document known as the Constitution du Royaume Sedang (Constitution of the Sedang Kingdom), which declared a hereditary, absolute monarchy with its own flag (solid blue with a white cross and a red star at the centre), and a royal capital at Kon Gung, which henceforth would be known as Pelei Agna or “Great City.” Human sacrifices were banned and all religions were to be freely practiced in the Sedang kingdom.

In September 1888, after cementing alliances with the other ethnic groups in the region, “King Marie I” went to Quy Nhơn and then to Hải Phòng, where he secured the publication of the Constitution of his new kingdom in the French newspapers. He then opened negotiations with the French authorities, offering to surrender his kingdom in exchange for a monopoly on the region’s mineral rights, while simultaneously spreading the rumour that the management of his territories had been left in the hands of missionaries “who were ready to take up arms at his merest signal.” When French officials declined his offer, de Mayréna hinted, treasonably, that if the French showed no interest, then perhaps the Prussian government might do so instead.

The “Ordre du Mérite Sedang”

In early 1889, having been dismissed as a joke by the French authorities, de Mayréna travelled to Hong Kong, where was received by the British authorities. Although nothing came of the subsequent discussions, he did occupy his time there by commissioning the manufacture of a range of royal regalia – including a set of official stamps and various gold insignia, including the “Ordre de Sainte Marguerite” for military valour and the “Ordre du Mérite Sedang” for services to the king.

A few months later, de Mayréna returned to France, where he is said to have “graced many high society functions” and “held court in many of the fashionable cafes of Paris,” all the while selling titles, medals and mining rights to anyone who would offer him support.

In July 1889, seeking to escape an ever-increasing volume of law suits, de Mayréna relocated to Belgium, where he persuaded an industrialist named Somsy to pay off all his debts and finance his return to Indochina. He eventually left Marseille under the assumed name Comte de Mars, along with a team of supporters, 11 cases of arms and ammunition, and plentiful supplies.

One of the official stamps of the Kingdom of Sedang

However, when the party arrived in Singapore in February 1890, the arms were seized by the police and de Mayréna was informed by the French Consul that he could not return to Indochina. He then sought permission to enter the Central Highlands via Siam, but this request was denied.

By this time, the patience of the Indochina authorities was running out. In early March 1890, Pierre-Paul Rheinart, Resident-Superior of Annam, instructed the Resident of Quy Nhơn to lead an armed force into the Central Highlands to take control of the region for France. This force very easily secured the submission of the highlanders, and soon afterwards the Bahnar-Rengao Confederation was placed under French control and a Delegation de Kontum set up, initially under missionary control.

In that same month, a despondent de Mayréna left Singapore and took refuge, along with a colleague named de Villenoy d’Augis, in Pulau Tioman, a tiny, uninhabited island in the Straits Settlements. Both men died there under mysterious circumstances on 11 November 1890, one by poison and the other by gunshot wound. The bodies were discovered the next day.

Tim Doling is the author of the walking tour guidebook Exploring Hồ Chí Minh City (Nhà Xuất Bản Thế Giới, Hà Nội, 2014).

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.

At the House of the “Chinese King” (1927)

Prince Nguyễn Phúc Bửu Lân, the former Emperor Thành Thái

Following his La Réunion interview with the exiled Prince Nguyễn Phúc Vĩnh San (the former Emperor Duy Tân), An Emperor of Annam in La Réunion, published in the Écho annamite newspaper on 7 March, Charles Wattebled went searching for Prince Vĩnh San’s reclusive father Prince Nguyễn Phúc Bửu Lân (the former Emperor Thành Thái), who had also been exiled on the same island. The following article by Marcel [sic] Wattebled, published in the Écho annamite on 9 March, is translated below, along with a critical editorial published in the same newspaper a week later.

If, by his affable manners, distinction and friendliness, Prince Vinh-San has attracted the sympathies of the elite of the Bourbon population, his uncle [sic], the former Emperor Thanh-Thai, who calls himself Prince Buu-Lan, on the contrary does not enjoy the same popularity on the island of La Réunion. He lives, moreover, in the fiercest retirement.

The race course in St-Denis, La Réunion

He stands accused of some acts of cruelty that I cannot mention here; I will simply quote to you the latest: being the owner of a pretty Australian mare named Crémone which he trained himself, he one day, in a fit of rage after it lost a race, put out its eye with a crack of his whip.

When I presented myself at the address which had been given to me, no-one seemed to know about him.

Seeing on the street corner an attractive dark-haired lady with gleaming white teeth smiling behind her stand full of juicy mangoes, perfumed bananas and stinking jackfruit slices, I asked her:

“Can you tell me, dear child, where is the home of Prince Buu-Lan?”

“Who that? Who Prince Buu Lan?” she replied in a sing-song voice, “Me not know.”

Then, after reflecting for a moment:

“Ah! Maybe you look for “Chinese king?”

“Yes, that’s him, the “Chinese king.”

“Oh! Me not know! But his house not in rue St-Denis. His house in rue Ste-Anne, tenth door along.”

A street in St-Denis, La Réunion

Passing through the latticework gate to which I had been directed by that lady, I saw, in the shade of a large mango tree and surrounded by beautiful rose bushes, a wooden house of humble appearance.

No one answered my call, so I opened the door. In the middle of an unfurnished anti-chamber swarmed a dozen Annamite boys, some naked, others dressed in a short tunics; they fixed their great fearful eyes on me, not understanding any of my questions.

Just then, a nice girl with a bright expression arrived and stared inquisitively at me with her pretty eyes.

“Please can you tell me, where is your father, Prince Buu-Lan? I wish to see him.”

“No, me not know where he go.”

And raising a fine and graceful hand, the daughter of Thanh-Thai beckoned to me that he had gone very far.

“I will return later,” I told her, and went out, while the servants, still looking frightened, made a gesture to see out the “makoui” who had dared to enter the house.

Out of spite, I placed my camera in position in order to take a photograph. Even if I could not take a picture of the “Chinese King,” I thought, I can at least take one of his house. Then suddenly, as a strong breeze began to blow through the large clumps of flowers, sending out puffs of fragrant air, a voice came from neighbouring house:

La Réunion

“Here he comes, the Chinese King!”

Turning, I saw at the bend in the street a small, stocky man, wearing a khaki suit and a grey hat. He had the peaceful demeanour of a good bourgeois returning from market; the basket which he held on his arm was full of fruit, preserves and Chinese joss sticks. At his side walked a very pretty Annamite woman who very gracefully wore a long and richly-decorated black lace tunic over broad white silk trousers. As soon as he approached, I noticed that his dark glasses concealed a kind of exotropia [a form of eye misalignment in which one or both of the eyes turn outward]; his look was very hard, his lips tightly pinched.

Politely I approached him, but I had hardly mentioned the word photography when he replied abruptly:

“You are wrong! I am not the king of Annam!”

“I know you are no longer king.”

A passer-by, hearing this strange conversation, turned and looked at us with a disturbed air.

Due perhaps to his pride at being caught in humble attire, or even because he wanted his life to remain mysterious, the “Chinese king” – because it was, indeed, he who did not want his picture to be published, at least in his present state devoid of ceremonial costume – replied gruffly:

“You should not surprise people like this. If you wish to see me, come back in the afternoon.”

Prince Nguyễn Phúc Vĩnh San, the former Emperor Duy Tân, pictured at his house in St-Denis, La Réunion

“Alas, I cannot. I must return to the port earlier to board the Dumbea. Your nephew [sic], Prince Vinh-San, understood this; he very kindly posed for my camera this morning.”

“Oh, him, that’s all he wants; but me … I’m not the same.”

However, when I presented my card – made from a fine strip of Japanese wood and adorned with a beautiful Japanese landscape – his arrogance dissipated.

“Your card comes from Japan!” he said in surprise. “So you know that country?”

“Yes, for nearly 20 years, and I like it very much. You also?”

“Oh! I have travelled from north to south; I know the big cities; Tokyo, Kyoto, Kobe. I spent three years in Japan as a cavalry captain!”

And we embarked upon an exchange of impressions of Japan, recalling shared memories.

“Well!” He said finally in a softened tone, “As you cannot return later, and because I do not want to let you go away empty-handed, wait a moment. I’ll give you my portrait.”

And, a few moments later, inside his house, he gave me a photograph of him dressed in Annamite costume, with the Légion d’honneur around his-neck.

And we parted good friends.

The Hôtel de ville in St-Denis, La Réunion

I had hoped that during this conversation, the friend who had accompanied me would hasten to photograph the scene, but he told me as we left that, suddenly captivated by the fresh beauty and bewitching eyes of the “Chinese Queen,” he did not give one thought to operating the shutter of the camera.

And that is why I cannot show you today the image of the house of the former Emperor Thanh Thai!

Marcel Wattebled

Editorial, 16 March 1927: Their Majesties Thành-Thai and Duy-Tan – A word about the errors of Monsieur Wattebled.

However, when I presented my card – made from a fine strip of Japanese wood and adorned with a beautiful Japanese landscape – his arrogance dissipated.

“Your card comes from Japan!” he said in surprise. “So you know that country?”

“Yes, for nearly 20 years, and I like it very much. You also?”

“Oh! I have travelled from north to south; I know the big cities; Tokyo, Kyoto, Kobe. I spent three years in Japan as a cavalry captain!”

And we embarked upon an exchange of impressions of Japan, recalling shared memories.

A view of St-Denis, La Réunion

This passage is taken from the article by Monsieur Marcel Wattebled (whose first name was Charles when he signed his previous interview with the former Emperor Duy Tan, perhaps he has two first names, and uses each in turn according to his preference?) when he shared with us his interview with the “Chinese king.”

These lines could be cited as a model of fantasy reporting, and at the very least we may say that the subject’s comments about Japan were only uttered to mystify the interviewer, a caprice which would hardly be surprising from Thanh-Thai, from whom we know of other exploits of a similar kind.

We have said that which needed to be said in the “Premier-Saigon” column of the Écho Annamite last Saturday.

In fact, the “Chinese king” has never set foot in the land of the Rising Sun; this being the strongest reason why he has never served the Mikado as a cavalry captain.

Certainly, Thanh-Thai could not have served in such a capacity before ascending the throne, that is to say before he reached the age of 10 years!

Furthermore, he could not have done so after his accession. Khai-Dinh was the first king of Annam “in office” to venture outside his kingdom, in order to attend the famous parade at the Exposition coloniale in Marseille in 1922, and this deviation from the ancient traditions earned him many critics, whether justified or not – though we do not have to discuss it here.

Revolutionary Prince Cường Để (Nguyễn Phúc Đan), who went to Japan in 1905

As to the idea that Thanh-Thai stayed in Japan after his forced abdication, and above all that he was recruited, in any capacity, into the Japanese army, nothing could be more absurd, because we may understand perfectly that the French government would, in all of its authority, have opposed and prevented it.

Probably Thanh-Thai knew some information about the country of chrysanthemums, either through reading or through the epistolary relations he would have had with Prince Cuong-De, who himself acquired there over a period of many years, information that the former emperor could have called upon cleverly in order to give an air of reality to his imaginary stay in that archipelago. An archipelago which is visited, with tragic regularity, by earthquakes!

Anyway, we will admit, until proven otherwise, to the documentary value of Monsieur Wattebled’s reports, originally published by our local sister paper l’Opinion, about the lives led by the exiled Annamite princes, and that is why we have reproduced them in our newspaper.

All the same, it is surprising that almost all of the information contained in the above report is of such an inexactitude such that some people might be tempted to place all of Monsieur Wattebled’s articles in the same boat, leading therefore to a loss of authority, because of their questionable nature.

The following extract from his interview with Prince Vinh-San, is no exception to the rule – if necessary, one may call it a “rule of error” or “rule of fantasy.” In it, he recounts many incontestable truths amongst the inaccuracies regarding that which is commonly known as the Hue conspiracy of 1916.

It’s the ex-emperor Duy-Tan speaking, at least Monsieur Wattebled related his words directly:

Prince Nguyễn Phúc Vĩnh San, the former Emperor Duy Tân, pictured at his house in St-Denis, La Réunion

“After occupying the throne of Annam from 1907 to 1916, the best years of my life, I was one day misguided by some members of the ‘Young Annam’ party, who wanted me to lead a revolutionary movement. I fled the palace of Hue on the night of 3 May 1916 to join the conspirators. My flight was quickly discovered. Four days later, remorseful, I went to see Messieurs Le Fol and Saunier, who led me to the Resident-Superior, Monsieur Charles.”

“After occupying the throne of Annam” – this would suggest that Duy-Tan was no longer emperor on the outbreak of the 1916 affair in which he was involved.

In reality, Duy-Tan was still emperor when the plot was discovered; and it was under that title that he participated in it, giving it a meaning which was much more severe, and also of increased gravity; his gesture was dictated neither by the spite of having lost the crown, nor by the ambition to win it back.

“Four days later,” we read again, “remorseful, I went to see Messieurs Le Fol and Saunier.”

The truth is that, after the discovery of his retreat – a pagoda near Hue – Duy-Tan was arrested. A Tonkin newspaper even reported this response by His Majesty to someone who asked him if he was armed: “Do you think if I was armed I would let you talk to me in this way without punishing you for your insolence?” This reply is far, I would suggest, from a reflection of any remorse, and is entirely consistent with Duy-Tan’s pride of character, which was well known at that time. In addition, it indicates that if the young king was taken to Messrs Le Fol and Saunier, this was certainly not of his own accord.

But the 1916 uprising attempt deserves to be known in more detail, if only for historical interest. The articles of Monsieur Wattebled do, at least, have the merit of providing us with the opportunity to begin to tackle a task which has long tempted us.

E. Dejean de la Batie

Tim Doling is the author of the walking tour guidebook Exploring Hồ Chí Minh City (Nhà Xuất Bản Thế Giới, Hà Nội, 2014).

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.

An Emperor of Annam in La Réunion (1927)

Prince Nguyễn Phúc Vĩnh San, the former Emperor Duy Tân, pictured at his house in St-Denis, La Réunion

This article by French Journalist Charles Wattebled about his chance encounter in La Réunion with Prince Nguyễn Phúc Vĩnh San, the former Emperor Duy Tân, was published in L’Écho annamite: organe de défense des intérêts franco-annamites on 7 March 1927.

The isle of La Réunion is accustomed to receiving “fallen” characters; thus did it once host Saïd-Ali, Sultan of Comoros, and Queen Ranavalo of Madagascar, both now deceased; and most recently the former emperors of Annam, Thanh-Thai and Duy-Tan, who at present still live in the capital, St-Denis.

The eight-year-old Emperor Duy Tân after his coronation in 1907

I was already very curious to know more about the kind of life led by these two exiles; so who would have thought that chance – that great god of journalists – would enable me meet one of them in person, and in the most picturesque of circumstances!

One evening, as I returned very tired from a long trip to the mountains and walked slowly up the beautiful, wide rue de Paris, inhaling the deliciously fresh night air, I was suddenly brought to a halt outside the Hôtel de ville by the chords of a familiar symphony; the Philharmonic Society was rehearsing Peer Gynt. My old passion for music suddenly reawakened, I entered the large hall. There on the stage, a dozen instrumentalists applied themselves harmoniously, under the baton of a long-haired conductor, to the death of Ase. Two or three listeners listened religiously, hidden in the shadows.

After a few moments, I noticed that my neighbour, an elegant young man with Asian features, was following the score; during the intervals, he climbed onto the stage and conversed familiarly with the conductor and musicians.

Intrigued, I said to him:

“You like the music of Grieg, Monsieur?”

“Very much” came the reply. “I play the violin, and also, in the orchestra which you are listening to. I often play the oboe.”

“Really? Then you must know Peer Gynt very thoroughly, since you do not find it necessary to rehearse tonight.”

“Oh no, I usually attend rehearsals assiduously; but last Sunday I fell from my horse. I was taking part in the Grand Prix, riding Verdun, a beautiful but fiery beast, which, alas, sent me into the ditch before the start of the race. Look, my right hand is bandaged up.”

“Oh! Excuse me! So, therefore, you are an oboist and a jockey.”

Prince Nguyễn Phúc Vĩnh San, the former Emperor Duy Tân, pictured at his house in St-Denis, La Réunion

“And many other things: photographer, laureate of the Société académique Sciences et Arts. My favorite composers are Beethoven, Saint-Saëns and Gounod. I also spend time listening to the radio, and I love driving my automobile.”

Increasingly taken aback, I continued to converse with this singular young man, who seemed able to do everything, and whose curious accent, slightly creolised, left me feeling rather disconcerted.

I found the answer to the riddle when we exited the hall and exchanged cards; on his, I read:

Grand Croix du Dragon d’Annam
St-Denis, Réunion

“Grieg be praised!” I exclaimed. “I was only just wondering if I might visit you, and now, by pure chance, I have been able to make your amiable acquaintance!”

And very kindly, the former Emperor Duy-Tan, known in La Réunion by the name of Prince Vinh-San, or “The Chinese Prince,” offered me an appointment at his home the very next morning.

At the house of Prince Vinh-San

Arriving in the low-rent district of St-Denis, on the rue du Conseil, I arrived at a single-storey wooden house, fronted by a tiny courtyard.

At the door to greet me was Prince Vinh-San, small and thin, with a tanned complexion, his raven hair combed back. Dressed in a stylish grey jacket, he greeted me courteously, with a friendly smile framed beneath large spectacles.

Prince Nguyễn Phúc Vĩnh San, the former Emperor Duy Tân, pictured with a race horse in La Réunion

He gave me a tour of his apartment of three small, cramped rooms. In the first, a desk cluttered with dusty papers and disparate objects, a rickety chair and a music stand; in the second, a wireless set and disorderly piles of photographs; two modest iron beds entirely filled the third.

While I set up my camera equipment, the Prince told me his story in the most correct French:

“After occupying the throne of Annam from 1907 to 1916, the best years of my life, I was one day misguided by some members of the “Young Annam” party, who wanted me to lead a revolutionary movement. I fled the palace of Hue on the night of 3 May 1916 to join the conspirators. My flight was quickly discovered. Four days later, remorseful, I went to see Messieurs Le Fol and Saunier, who led me to the Resident-Superior, Monsieur Charles.

Afterwards, I bitterly regretted that which I regarded as an act of madness. But you already know about this unfortunate affair, so I need not say more.

Travelling on the Guadiana, I arrived at the Pointe-des Galets on 20 November 1916, after a non-stop journey of 17 days.

At that time, I was just 19 years old. I was completely disoriented, and at first I found it very difficult to acclimatise to La Réunion; I was frequently gripped by fever and I suffered three bouts of Malarial Haematuria.

Admittedly, however, I have only praise for my relations with the inhabitants of La Réunion; they have always been very considerate towards me.

Prince Nguyễn Phúc Vĩnh San, the former Emperor Duy Tân

I cannot complain about this admirable country, in which I have visited all the beautiful sites – I especially like Cilaos, its wonderful setting of mountains, fantastic canyons, ideal climate – but all these beautiful places cannot make me forget Annam.

With the very small pension I receive from the Government General of Indochina, I live as you see, very simply, together with my brother, Prince Vinh-Chuong. For private reasons, I have no contact with my uncle [sic], the former Emperor Thanh-Thai.

I only agreed to take part in the horse races as a jockey because I wanted to augment my income; it has at least made possible the purchase of that small car which you will photograph.

My dearest wish, however, would be to live in France, in Paris, the only place where I could really indulge my passion for music, which I learned without a teacher – and for literature, because twice I have been a laureate of the Académie de la Réunion.”

As he said this, the prince presented me with a book which he had authored, entitled Trois nouvelles, published in St Denis in 1922 and dedicated to a “Mademoiselle F..”

More exactly, this book contained two short stories and one comedy in two acts. Do not be fooled by appearances, it was written in a French which lacked nothing in elegance; I noticed in it many Parisian as well as Creole expressions.

See also Wattebled’s second article At the House of the “Chinese King” which describes his interview with Prince Vĩnh San’s reclusive father, Prince Nguyễn Phúc Bửu Lân (the former Emperor Thành Thái).

Tim Doling is the author of the walking tour guidebook Exploring Hồ Chí Minh City (Nhà Xuất Bản Thế Giới, Hà Nội, 2014).

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 Madness of Emperor Thanh Thai

Emperor Thành Thái (ruled 1889-1907)

Nguyễn dynasty Emperor Thành Thái (ruled 1889-1907) is often remembered at best as eccentric, at worst as mentally unstable. Some historians have claimed that his madness was fabricated by the French in order to diminish his authority. Others have suggested that Thành Thái himself feigned madness in order to confuse the French. While there may be good reason to doubt some of the more lurid accounts of Thành Thái’s behaviour, it’s clear that by 1907 there was a serious constitutional crisis at the court of Huế.
Here is a selection of contemporary French descriptions of the events leading to Thành Thái’s eventual detention and removal from the throne.

Excerpt from Henri Turot’s “Indo-Chine, Philippines, Chine, Japon: d’une gare à l’autre,” 1901
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.

A young Emperor Thành Thái (ruled 1889-1907) with his two brothers, from Quelques notes sur l’An-Nam, L. de Sainte-Marie, 1895

“Le Roi d’Annam” (The King of Annam), in La Croix, 5 October 1906
The Courrier d’Extrême-Orient, which arrived yesterday in Marseille on the ship Calédonien, has provided us with the following account, which is reproduced here with the most express reservations.
“The old palace of the kings of Annam has been the scene of a new act of madness by Thanh-Thai. Recently, with the return of his bloodthirsty fantasies, this prince killed some of his women, in circumstances which displayed the heinous and dangerous state of mind of the master of Annam. Now, the king has murdered with a revolver the prince president of the Council of the Royal Family. The victim, who enjoyed general respect, was already of great age, with him was extinguished the last son of the Emperor Minh-Mang.
Afterwards, the king locked himself in his private apartments, refusing to receive the Résident supérieur, that is to say an act which is considered an affront against the representative of France in Annam. His own ministers also were the object of a similar exclusion.”

“La Folie d’un Empereur” (The Madness of an Emperor), from Le Progrès, 3 July 1907
There’s currently a great deal of talk in colonial circles about the sanctions which will be imposed in response to the lamentable excesses committed by the Emperor of Annam.
Thanh-Thai, who only last year was received with great pomp and ceremony in Hanoi, has become mad. In his own palace he has committed cruelty on the people around him reminiscent of that of the decadent Roman emperors. One of his wives was delivered naked to tigers, others were riddled with bullets, others tortured in a hundred abominable ways: In truth, it’s already a few years since Thanh-Thai, obviously suffering from some physiological defect, began to indulge in this kind of bloodthirsty sadism. We were able to recognise in him some traits which left no doubt in this regard. We knew that he has always rebelled against any moral direction. When M. de Lanessan was Governor General of Indochina, Thanh-Thai, then barely 15 years old, already had a harem of a dozen women. One of them, the daughter of one of his ministers, exercised great influence over his mind and ruled him entirely through the senses, pushing him to the most culpable wrongdoing.
M. de Lanessan recounted how that intriguing minister had himself thrown his daughter into the arms of the emperor, the better to establish his authority in Hue. His plan was to get rid of the Queen Mother, and once that unwelcome guardianship had been discarded, to seize power entirely for himself.
During a trip to Hue, M. de Lanessan had the occasion to get to know Thanh-Thai. He struck the Governor General as being like a little boy, capricious but intelligent. Yet he seemed ignorant and badly brought up. M. de Lanessan admonished him severely about his conduct.

Jean Marie Antoine de Lanessan, Governor General of Indochina 1891-1894 (Photographie Marius)

But already, to another resident of France who had previously made similar representations to him, the young emperor had answered: “Why are you criticizing me? It was you who raised me.”
It’s unfortunate that Thanh-Thai never received a proper education and that while he was still young he was abandoned to the violence of his perverse instincts. Following the admonition of M. de Lanessan, he promised to correct his flaws. But scarcely had the Governor General left than the young sovereign resumed the course of his vicious life.
Thus, over a long period, were the pranks, the eccentricities and the criminal follies of this degenerate kept secret. The old mandarins of the court knew them so well that they had gave Thanh-Thai only their official deference. The old Queen Mother deemed the problem so severe that she was always opposed to his freedom.
What is new is the sudden fuss which is now being made about the excesses of this unbalanced prince, given that in the past everyone seemed content to deplore his activities in silence. The result of the publicity surrounding his behaviour is that the emperor was submitted to an examination by doctors, who declared the “non-accountability” of the sovereign.
Thanh-Thai has been detained in his palace so that it is impossible for him to cause any further harm. What should be done now? M. Beau, the current Governor General of Indochina, has studied this question and the Minister of Colonies has given him full powers to resolve the issue.
Several solutions come to mind. Whatever course of action is decided, it is very important that the government of the French Republic remains in the background as much as possible, or at least gives the appearance of so doing, and that it is seen to yield in accepting the pressure of the court, of the Co Mat (Council of Ministers), the literati.
This much is certain: Thanh-Thai is already discredited in the eyes of the Annamite people. Since the day he appeared in a chauffeur’s costume, hair cut short under his cap and large dark glasses on his nose, driving a motorcycle furiously, he was lost to them.
Accustomed to see their rulers only from afar and in a setting of apotheosis, with their chignons gathered on their heads, advancing majestically in silk robes, the Annamite people have only the most profound contempt for an emperor who drives around the streets, exposing himself to all curiosity, to all the familiarities and taunts of the crowd.

Thành Thái and his brother in 1900

If, thus, the emperor were to be deposed, his disrepute is such that the people will likely do nothing to restrain the hand which removes his crown.
If approached by the Governor General, members of Co Mat of the Annamite empire will surely not be far from seeking his deposition. But it is understandable that M. Beau does not wish to approach them until all the ministers are fully agreed on this matter.
Another solution would be to consult the people by way of referendum. But it seems a priori difficult to organise such consultation.
In addition, once the emperor has been deposed, should we replace him or should we instead abolish the monarchical principle in Annam? Paul Bert already considered such abolition, several years ago, giving thought to the idea of equipping the country with parliamentary institutions. There is no shortage of scholars who would support a move in this direction. But what would the people think of a solution which, in depriving them of their sovereign, removes the religious leader of Annam?
More numerous, it seems, are those inclined to replace the deposed sovereign. But then the question arises regarding the choice of successor. With whom should we replace Thanh-Thai? Most would argue that a prince of the imperial line should be called to the throne. Some have already posed the candidature of Ham-Nghi, who has now lived for several years in Algiers. But we oppose this candidacy, on the grounds that Prince Ham-Nghi, having married a French woman, would have no influence over his people from the religious point of view, and would only cause us serious embarrassment.
In the meantime, M. de Lanessan has asked the Queen Mother to issue an edict dispossessing Thanh Thai of his prerogatives and investing all royal powers in a Regency Council. Thanh-Thai, confined to his palace, may one day be cured of his madness. In any case, being isolated, he will be harmless.
M. Beau is currently studying these various solutions. What is important, regardless of the decision taken, is that the Co Mat is seen by the Annamite people to assume all responsibilities for that decision.

Riverside decorations in preparation for a river trip by Thành Thái

“L’empereur d’Annam” (The Emperor of Annam), in Bulletin de la Société de géographie commerciale de Paris, August 1907
The Emperor of Annam, Thanh Thai, having indulged in numerous acts of violence which denoted a veritable intellectual impairment, obliged us in 1906 to impose certain monitoring measures to prevent the recurrence of his deplorable excesses.
However, we have recently had to reach a more rigorous decision regarding him.
On 30 July 1907, the Résident supérieur arranged for the detention of the emperor in his palace and the setting up of a Council of Regency to take charge of affairs under the control of the Résident supérieur.
A phantom of a sovereign, Thanh-Thai was only a hieratic idol, dressed in yellow silk; he never took active part in the government.

“l’Intèrnement du Roi d’Annam” (The Detention of the King of Annam), in Journal des débats politiques et littéraires, 2 August 1907
Readers will recall that in the month of August 1906, after Thanh-Thai, King of Annam had indulged in many acts of violence, veritable movements of madness caused by habitual debauchery, the Résident supérieur was obliged to take, with the Co Mat (Council of Ministers), measures to put an end to the king’s scandalous conduct.
Since that time he has been monitored constantly, and for a while it seemed that he had returned to a state of reassuring calm. But towards the end of May 1907, the mandarins placed at his side expressed concern about some changes in his manners, some alteration of his features, outward signs by which, periodically, his acts of madness were manifested.
Furthermore, the Résident supérieur had to be brought in to witness the awakening of the king’s bad instincts when he inflicted the most serious abuse on members of his entourage.
All of the facts and specific information gathered by the Résident supérieur now leaves no doubt about the disorder observed in the state of Thanh-Thai, on his recklessness and on the dangers of letting him continue to exercise royal power.
In these circumstances, the government recently decided that it was necessary to detain the king in his palace and to establish a Regency Council, composed of members of Co Mat and chaired by the Minister of Justice, under the overall and ongoing control of our representative in Hue.

Emperor Thành Thái (ruled 1889-1907)

In implementing this decision and in accordance with instructions of the Minister of Colonies, the Résident supérieur proceeded on 30 July 1907 with the detention of the king in his palace and the establishment of the Regency Council, which immediately took over the direction of royal affairs, under the supervision of the Résident supérieur.
The Governor General, in providing the information above, remarked that these measures were executed without any incident occurring.

“L’Empereur Fou” (The Mad Emperor), in Les Annamites: société, coutumes, religions by Colonel Édouard Diguet, 1907
The Emperor Thanh Thai will be deposed, but no one yet knows whether the monarchical principle in Annam will be removed or maintained.
M. Beau, Governor General of Indochina, has been concerned, since his arrival in the Far East, with the Emperor Thanh-Thai, who is now confined to his palace, out of harm’s way.
Members of Co Mat or Council of Ministers of the empire of Annam, when approached by the Governor General, were unanimous in asking for the mad emperor to be deposed. They have proposed as his successor a child, descendant of the Emperor Gia Long. The candidacy of Ham-Nghi, the dethroned former Emperor, was ruled out by the Co Mat, the latter having lost, through his marriage with a French woman, any link with his race; indeed, the return of Ham-Nghi would have been viewed very badly in Annam, where the prince is now considered a stranger.
M. Beau, before formally consulting the Co Mat, wondered if we might profit from the deposition of Thanh-Thai by abolishing the monarchical principle in Annam, and replacing royalty in this country by a sort of parliament. This is an old idea which Paul Bert came up with some years ago when he thought of creating in Hanoi a permanent Congress of all the Councils of Notables. A certain number of Tonkinese and Annamite scholars, those dedicated to civilising ideas, would not take a dim view of the introduction of such a parliamentary system in this country. But what would the people think of a solution which, by depriving them of their sovereign, removes the religious leader of Annam?
This issue is indeed very serious. M. Beau is studying it very carefully, and we know that the Minister of the Colonies has given him full authority to resolve it. It’s in Annam, and not in Paris, that this matter must be determined.
From all points of view, whether a new emperor ascends the throne in Annam or a parliamentary system is introduced, the fate of Thanh-Thai is in no doubt. This mad sovereign, when the issue is laid before the Co Mat gathered in solemn assembly, will be deposed.

Paul Beau, Governor General of Indochina 1902-1908

But it is understandable that M. Beau is prudent enough not to proceed until members of the Co Mat are all agreed on the correct course of action in retaining or abolishing the monarchical principle in Annam. – F H

“La Folie de l’Empereur d’Annam (The Madness of the Emperor of Annam), in La Lanterne: journal politique quotidien, 7 September 1907
The newspaper l’Opinion, while expressing reservations about this information, relates that a few weeks ago, the Emperor of Annam experienced an acute fit of madness, the tragic manifestations of which required the intervention of M. Lyce, Résident supérieur of Annam, who, if warned in time, could have prevented a scene of carnage in the palace of the young sovereign.
Armed with a revolver, Thanh-Thai rushed into the apartments of his concubines, and, at close range, allegedly killed three of his women. Continuing into the private apartments of high ranking concubines, he proceeded to tie up two of them, including the Empress herself, and whipped them until they were bleeding.
The Co Mat, which is the great Council of Ministers of the Annamite empire, moved by the demented attitude of the sovereign, has drafted a report containing eight complaints about Thanh-Thai, among which, apart from the above facts, is one very serious in the eyes of Annamites – bathing naked in the river of Hue.
Since ancient times, the Annamites, like their educators the Chinese, like to surround the majesty of the sovereign with a mysterious and divine character. It would have been clever of the French government to keep this character in the emperors we ourselves placed on the throne of Annam, those who had already committed, in the eyes of the people, the crime of being our creatures. But, like awkward and curious children, we broke the idol which represented the Annamite design of royal majesty. The Emperor Thanh-Thai promenades around the city on a bicycle, or in a Victoria carriage with one or two of his wives, thus exposing himself to a promiscuity which greatly undermines his prestige. What must his subjects think?
We could see the concern in their eyes at the 1897 celebrations in Saigon and at the Hanoi Exhibition in 1902. One whom the Annamite regards with not a shudder of awe, only a curious eye and a tad of maliciousness, cannot be his king. He thinks bitterly that we should have left untouched the majesty of the emperor, whose sovereignty we had already removed.

Emperor Thành Thái (ruled 1889-1907)

“L’Internement du Roi d’Annam (The Detention of the King of Annam), in La Quinzaine coloniale: organe de l’Union coloniale française, 1907
Thanh Thai, the King of Annam, has been detained by order of the government. One cannot say that this measure is a surprise. Indeed, it’s more than a year already since the government signalled its intention of taking this decision, and at that time everyone agreed with the idea, finding it amply justified by the scandalous fantasies and atrocities which surrounded the name of Thanh-Thai, both in his kingdom and throughout the Far East, an orgy of bloodthirstiness and debauchery.
However, under the influence of considerations whose value now escapes us, it was eventually thought better to give him the benefit of the doubt. Sadly, if we were hoping to see from the young king some kind of repentance, recent events have been quick to show that we overestimated his wisdom. After seeming, for a few months, to have mended his ways, Thanh-Thai returned to his bloodthirsty excesses.
This time, the government had to recognise that it was no longer possible, under pain of incurring grave responsibilities and provoking perhaps an uprising in the Annamite population, to continue to entrust the exercise of royal power to a sovereign who has, for his subjects, became an object of ridicule, disgust and hatred. It was therefore decided to detain Thanh-Thai in his palace and to establish a Council of Regency, composed of members of the Co Mat, which will operate under the chairmanship of the Minister of Justice and under the control our representative in Hue.
It must be said that the stern measures which have been taken to address the delicate and complex situation created by the state of dementia displayed by Thanh-Thai have not given rise to the slightest criticism. The constitution of a Council of Regency is viewed, indeed, as the only regular and normal way of ensuring continuity in the exercise of the royal function in a country where a sovereign who is unable to reign nonetheless remains invested with the title of king.
But isn’t it the case that press coverage of the events which have just occurred in Hue have been, if not inaccurate, at least incomplete on an essential point? When we telegraphed from Saigon that the king had been deposed without difficulty or incident, we purposely emphasised the word “deposition.”

The Đại Cung Môn, main entrance to the Forbidden Purple City in the Huế Citadel

This was to show that Thanh-Thai was not only seen to be removed from the exercise of power, but also that he had been deprived of the title and dignity of king. In other words, the government had opened the vacancy of the throne for an indefinite period, effectively removing the monarchy.
If that were so, this matter would be extremely serious. It would be nothing less, in fact, than a revolution in the inner constitution of the kingdom, a tacit abrogation by unilateral means of the conventions which govern the organisation of our protectorate in Annam and determine the nature of the relationship which binds the Annamite nation to France and its representatives.
One will understand, under these conditions, that a further explanation of the nature and scope of the measures taken by the government appear to us essential. We hope that those explanations will permit nothing to subsist of the hypothesis that we have issued. If it were otherwise, we can only regret a dangerous sudden change of course in our Indochina policy, by a measure imposed by no necessity.
Thai-Thanh himself, despite his follies and bloodthirsty extravagances, has never been an embarrassment to us; his detention has rendered him harmless, without any need to take away the title of king. If one decided to go that far, it could only be on the condition of nominating a successor immediately, who, whatever the choice of candidate, will not more seriously hamper our actions.
In short, whatever the personality of the sovereign, what is needed is to retain the monarchy, which in this country is little more than decor, facade, but a facade to which the Annamites are accustomed, an important component of their traditional institutions behind which our action is exercised with ease and freedom. Indeed, we could not exercise that action to the same open and convenient degree without the visual deception provided by this fiction.
We would like to think that the government does not think differently from us on this point and that the deposition of Thanh-Thai did not take place in way we have dared to imagine above. This is one more reason why the authorities must hasten to put things straight by means of an authorised communication which defines precisely the new situation created by the measures taken in respect of Thanh-Thai.

The young Emperor Duy Tân (ruled 1907-1916)

“Un Roi Fou” (A Mad King), in Le Journal, 7 October 1907
Thanh Thai has abdicated and it is the young Duy-Tan, aged only eight, who has succeeded him on the throne.
Marseille, 6 October – The newspaper Le Courrier Saïgonnais, which arrived this afternoon, gives the following details on the abdication of King Thanh Thai and the ceremony of elevation to the throne of his fifth son, aged eight, the second of his surviving children, who will reign as Duy Tan.
In the morning, in the presence of the Governor General and the Résident supérieur, various rituals took place aimed at choosing the regnal name of the sovereign and presenting the royal regalia.
Official receptions were held in the afternoon. The new king thanked the French government, in the person of the Governor General, for the support which it has always given to the kingdom of Annam. The Governor General responded with his wishes for the new king to enjoy a long reign and for the prosperity of Annam. Then, on behalf of the French government, he declared the recognition of Duy Tan and led him to the throne, accompanied by the Résident supérieur. The ceremony completed, the king accompanied the Governor General out of the throne room.
The next day, 6 September, His Majesty Duy-Tan, accompanied by members of the Council of Regency and senior mandarins of the court, visited the Governor General. The king again thanked the French government for the powerful support it continues to lend to Annam in all circumstances.
The President of the Council of Regency, on behalf of His Majesty, members of the Regency Council and the mandarins of the court, thanked the French government for agreeing to nominate a new king for Annam and giving the country a government in line with its Constitution.
Responding, the Governor General offered His Majesty Duy-Tan the best wishes of the government of the French Republic. “The protectorate government,” he added, “will partner Annam with great heart, as it has always done, supporting the work of moral and material progress. France will continue to offer all of its powerful assistance to the empire of Annam in order to avert the dangers of war, but it is necessary that the mandarins also bring us, from their side, the most dedicated assistance.”
After the visit, the king was taken to his carriage by the Résident supérieur. Military honours were rendered by troops of the garrison of Hue.

Thành Thái took up residence in Cap-Saint-Jacques after he was deposed

“L’empereur Thanh-Thai” (Emperor Thanh-Thai), in Les Annales coloniales: organe de la France coloniale modern, 31 October 1907
Thanh Thai, the former king of Annam, arrived this morning in Cap-Saint-Jacques on the steamship “Cachar.” He was accompanied by five women, 10 children, six nurses, a doctor and 20 servants. Disembarking at Cap-Saint-Jacques, he was received by the administrator of the province and an aide of the Governor General. The former king has settled provisionally in the villa of Governor General. The landing and reception did not give rise to any incident.

De Java au Japon par l’Indochine, la Chine et la Corée by A Maufroid, 1913

Do the Annamites glorify their future by building new tombs in memory of the sovereigns who have held the throne since our conquest? No, probably because in reality, since Tu-Duc, there have been no more all-powerful and respected Annamite emperors.
Can the Annamite recognise as their leaders puppets chosen by the French to govern in their name? Hiep-Hoa, and after him Dong Khanh, were humiliated by the invaders. Thanh-Thai in recent years was dismissed as a mere clerk. Without doubt, the excesses of Thanh-Thai brought a ferocious sadism. He cut the breasts of his women, climbed into the branches of trees and hunted them with the shots of his rifle, like birds.
But ultimately, it was above all his lack of docility towards the Resident Superior which motivated his exile in Saigon.
There, Thanh-Thai continues to live out his fantasies in a disorderly way. However, he seems to have become quite harmless. His last joke was to simulate a deep love for the daughter of the official responsible for monitoring him. Whenever that official presented himself to ensure the state of his charge, Thanh-Thai overwhelmed him with huge bouquets, destined for the lady of his thoughts.
Today, is the little Duy-Tan a true emperor to the Annamites? Certainly not; they know very well that this youngster of thirteen is, like his predecessors, a mere plaything in the hands of foreigners from the West.
His palace, by a curious irony, as is trapped in the citadel built in the eighteenth century by the Frenchman Ollivier for the great Emperor Gia Long. It looks a bit like the tombs scattered around the countryside of Hue. It is an immense dead city, surrounded by walls and ditches near the beautiful river with its transparent water.

Governor General Paul Doumer (1897-1902)

An excerpt from Indo-Chine française (souvenirs) by former Governor General Paul Doumer, 1930 edition
On the right bank of the Perfume River, where the king and his retinue disembark, waited a convoy accompanied by the huge elephants of the palace. One of them was coupled to a chariot of colossal dimensions, utterly out of proportion with the beast which dragged it. That chariot in which the king sat was painted with red lacquer and decorated with gold ornaments trimmed with yellow silk.
That was, I think, the last time, in 1897, that Thanh-Thai agreed to go to the Nam-Giao Esplanade in this manner. He later adopted, despite his mandarins’ protests that he should maintain the ancient traditions and rituals, a more simple and modern means of transport.
For Annamites whom European civilisation has not yet touched, the mass of elephants, the size and richness of the chariot well symbolised the royal power and majesty. It was bigger, in fact, that our small steel cannon up there on the ramparts, which could if necessary have swept aside all those processing along the long road with their elephants and altars. But that French cannon was not their enemy; it was their protector, which maintained the internal and external security of the kingdom, respected the lives, customs, beliefs and religious practices of the Annamite people, and was respected by all.
Good little cannon of France, stay on your high wall, silent, at rest, but always vigilant, always ready; the future of this country depends on it!

The Nam Giao Esplanade

The royal sacrifice to Heaven and Earth always takes place at night. The king, who in this ceremony assumes the office of high priest, prepared himself by fasting and meditating in a specially-built pagoda, located not far from the Nam-Giao Esplanade. He went directly there after leaving the palace. In the afternoon, he attended as a spectator the preparations, or more precisely the rehearsal of the massive and complicated ceremony to be staged that evening.
There, he gave me an appointment and, while his courtiers practiced the movements, dances and songs they would perform a few hours later, I had with Thanh-Thai, one on one, long conversations on over a hundred different subjects, which enabled me to obtain an idea of his character, his intelligence, his worth, his upbringing.
My judgment was subsequently confirmed during the five years I encountered him in his daily life, during which time, won over by the sympathy I showed him, he opened up to me and let me see the depths of his soul.
Thanh-Thai was not, to any degree, the mad, bloodthirsty man we talk about all too readily. He had, on the contrary, a keen intelligence, a clear reason, a great sense of self-possession. But his education as a young king, the absolute power closed to all eyes which he exercised in his royal residence, where the authority of the Queen Mothers and regents was felt only intermittently and only in the most serious cases, had developed in him defects that would have destroyed any other. He was deliberate, capricious, even whimsical.
Locked in his cold, dark palace, and, more than that, chained by the narrow rites which since time immemorial had regulated the doings of the kings of Annam and which could only be broken with poison, he was gripped by the desire for freedom that our presence helped to provoke. It was very difficult, indeed, to bend a young sovereign to the tyrannical rules from which he saw the French as being exempt, to persuade him to respect ancient practices, unpleasant to bear, when they were to us, as he knew well, a subject of mockery.

The Commander of the Royal Guard and his Escort

From there sprang the breaches that were imputed as crimes, the freedom of manners and language of which the court complained, bringing their grievances to the Résident supérieur, who sometimes had to intervene.
Added to this, at an age when most Annamites were rarely married, Thanh-Thai had a large harem of legitimate wives, concubines and servants, and this hardly helped his intellectual and moral balance. In the long hours of confinement and idleness, he indulged in brutalities, even appalling cruelties, which were too easy for us to explain, and which we exaggerated at pleasure. Readings made to him from French books, histories of the lives of our ancient kings, were not always edifying. They excited his imagination, pushing him to seek dangerous experiences.
It did not seem feasible to me that we should continue to keep this young king as tightly locked and bound by rules of another age as his predecessors had been. When everything around the royal citadel was being transformed, when a free life, the right to move, to work in a place of one’s choice, to acquire and to possess, would become the common lot of his subjects, should the King of Annam alone be cloistered, controlled, manipulated like a puppet?
The rites, some sacrosanct as they are, could surely benefit from some alterations, be softened and modernised. By using the great authority of the regents, one should reach a modus vivendi which is equally accommodating to both king and court.
For all that, the accusations against Thai-Thanh will probably never cease; but their cause would disappear, and that is essential.
While I was able to talk at length with the king during the daytime rehearsal, on the night of the festivities I had to be a discreet and silent witness to the great religious ceremony over which Thanh-Thai once more presided. Already, in the Spring of the years 1891 and 1894, he had made sacrifice to the spirits of Heaven and Earth, since in the period of trouble which followed the death of Tu-Duc in 1883, no other king had twice offered the triennial sacrifice. It was an index of the restoration of political stability in Annam, and I did not fail to point this out to my royal interlocutor that afternoon.

The Nam Giao Esplanade

I arrived around midnight at the Nam-Giao Esplanade, led by an interpreter of the palace. The silent crowd formed groups around the village altars they had brought. They could only see, of the ceremony, glimmers of smoke drifting skyward, beyond the dark area of pine wood. They only knew that in that mysterious compound, their king and his mandarins were trying their best to secure the most favourable outcome from Heaven and Earth, that is to say, giving them a reason to live and hope, that for which they prayed fervently. From this human mass, enveloped by the darkness of a moonless and starless night, arose not a cry, not a murmur. The presence of so many people created the most profound silence, heavier than if there were no-one here at all.
At a signal, the door of the enclosure opened to let us pass. We crossed the dark and empty wood where nothing sounded, nothing moved. Here and there, standing next to the trunk of a tree and merging with it, a soldier stood silent and immobile. He was not looking to see who we were; no-one who did not have the right to enter would ever dare set foot in this inviolable enclosure, no-one would ever dare commit the double crimes of lèse-majesté and lèse-divinité.
We arrived at last at the great square esplanade which represents the Earth. We climbed the stairs; the show was unexpected, unforgettable. The surrounding terrain was filled with vast altars, decorated, lit, on each of which a large buffalo, killed and skinned, spread its white flesh. A mandarin officiated at one altar with a few servants. Close by burned a large fire which, in a moment, would roast the entrails of the victims. These were the scenes of ancient Greece which we had before our eyes, as we discovered the cult of ancestor worship of the Annamites and Chinese.

Tim Doling is the author of the walking tour guidebook Exploring Hồ Chí Minh City (Nhà Xuất Bản Thế Giới, Hà Nội, 2014).

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 Emperor Khai-Dinh” by François Tessan, 1922

Emperor Khải Định (ruled 1916-1925) presides over a state ceremony (Agence Meurisse press photo)

François Tessan’s article “The Emperor Khai-Dinh,” published in the 1922 volume Dans l’Asie qui s’éveille: essais indochinois (In an Awakening Asia: Indochinese essays), offers a uniquely French colonial view of the penultimate Nguyễn emperor.

It’s in Hue, capital of the “Empire of the Pacified South”, that we have the opportunity to see, in all his Asian splendour, the almighty sovereign on whose countenance at one time no-one could look, except on pain of death. There is surely no city in the whole of Indochina which has retained a more distinct character and a more meditative physiognomy.

“The Perfume River – view from the famous beauty spot named “Bellevue” (modern Vọng Cảnh Hill)

There emerges from Hue a perfume of supreme philosophy. The emperor Thieu-Tri, in his famous poems, eulogised his 20 main beauty spots, expressing with delicacy the visible and invisible charms of these predestined places.

Over time, Hue has remained a city jealous of its beauty, of its traditions, of its originality, where the “Duc-hoang-de,” the Absolute Master, symbol of divine and humane virtues, reigns according to the principles of the dynasty of the Nguyen.

Not far from the Perfume River, whose waters wander lazily between the rows of flame trees and Japanese lilac which decorate its banks, in the palaces, courtyards and gardens which together form a vast fortress, lives the “Son of Heaven” who is responsible for all Annam. He is doubly hidden from prying eyes, because, apart from the path of the Perfume River, Hue is surrounded on three sides by the Annamite mountain range. Furthermore, this Perfume River does not communicate directly with the sea. At its mouth, a barrier prohibits navigation and the lagoons in which the city is hidden pose no less significant obstacles.

Boats on the Perfume River

When one talks about the “capital,” one should not interpret this word in the strictly Western sense, that is to say, by imagining a city which is imposed on a region by virtue of its geographical position, and which permits easy communication in all directions, facilitating the movement of trade. Hue is above all a place of magnificent retreat, by virtue of the majesty of its surrounding landscape, the scale of its great Citadel, the abundance of its monuments and the peace of its royal tombs, in short, its very mystery. It is a spiritual and political capital that its founders chose for reasons of magical order.

Indeed, they found that here in Hue were concentrated all supernatural influences. Was it not in this place that the energy of the Long-Mach (dragon veins) was discovered, all those centuries ago? To the dynasty of the Nguyen goes the honour of having restored the national tradition, to have infused new life into Annam, having restored strength to that Dragon.

R P Cadière wrote a very nice article on the intervention of spirits in favour of Hue, which pointed out that all of its mountains, woods, rivers are populated by spirits: “Everywhere,” said the missionary scholar, “legends consecrate the stranglehold of the spirits over the capital, and at the same time their beneficent influence, their constant intervention.

The Citadel in Huế

These benevolent actions by supernatural beings are both the cause and the effect of sentiments which animate the people of Hue towards their heavenly protectors. From the top to the bottom of the social ladder, from the Emperor who makes sacrifices to Heaven at the Nam-Giao esplanade to the humble peasant who makes offerings on festival days, from the profound silence of great palaces to the most squalid hut or the most miserable of boats, days already established by custom or required by the spirits are celebrated. Hearts freeze in awe and respect as incense is smoked, garlands suspended, special dishes offered, rice wine and tea poured, and bodies prostrated.”

Thus are the piety and religion of man reciprocated by the goodness of the gods! Hue is therefore the ideal retreat, where the sovereign is in the best place to contemplate his duties and to cultivate the science of government. Surrounded by conducive terrestrial and celestial influences, he must fulfil his mission so that he becomes the enlightened guide of his people’s souls, “the father and the mother of his subjects.” It’s precisely because Hue offers so many harmonious conditions for the direction of the people of Annam that the Emperor Thieu-Tri proclaimed the superiority of his “marvellous capital” over all other cities.

A colonial-era photo of the An Cựu Bridge over the An Cựu River (Canal) in Huế

Taking a walk along the Phu-Cam Canal, around 1km south of the Forbidden City, one will find on the left bank, just before reaching the An-Cuu Bridge, a large native-style portico. Behind this screen of curious aesthetic there is a garden whose exoticism is skillfully disciplined, and, behind the garden, a villa whose mixture of western coquetry and Annamite art cannot fail to surprise the visitor. Before him is the city residence of the present Emperor, His Majesty Khai-Dinh. This is where, very often, the monarch comes to rest from his governmental worries. He likes to retire to this house, not only to escape the strict etiquette of palace and its administrative fatigues, but because the past draws him to this nest of greenery. Part of his youth was spent here. But at that time the house was more modest, comprising only a single-storey building and a small temple for the worship of the ancestors. There were not many servants. The life that he led then was simple and frugal. At that time, when bowing before the tablets of his ancestors, the young Prince Phung-Hoa, now His Majesty Khai-Dinh, doubtless hardly dared think of the day when his name would be transcribed in the Book of Gold and displayed in all the temples of the ancient kings and in the Nam-Giao – the Temple of Heaven.

Emperor Đồng Khánh (ruled 1885-1889)

Following what adventures did the young prince take power? This is the most recent history of Annam that I will recount as briefly as possible.

The Emperor Dong-Khanh, who had ascended the throne in 1885 in succession to his brother Ham Nghi, unfortunately ruled only three and a half years. He was a great friend of France and we based our best hopes on his collaboration, but he was taken at the age of just 30. He left two daughters and a son named Buu-Dao, who later took the title Prince Phung-Hoa (“One who transforms into a phoenix”), but was then just three years old and deemed too young to reign. In place of Phung-Hoa – who later became Khai Dinh – the two governments, Annamite and French, chose a prince from another branch of the royal family, Buu-Lan, who took the name of Thanh-Thai (“Absolute happiness and success in everything”).

The two widows of Dong-Khanh – his first and second queens (the latter being the mother Phung Hoa) – retired with their son to the tomb of the late emperor in the Hue countryside. While leading a materially poor and very discreet existence, they did nonetheless give the young prince a strong traditional education and equipped him with the essential notions of writing, reading and morality. They associated these teachings with their cult, following the recommendations of Confucius: “Respect that which the ancestors have respected; cherish what they have loved; serve the dead as if they were alive; honour those buried in their tombs as if they were still present. Is this not the height of filial piety?” They inspired his sense of personal dignity, just as the Book of Verse says: ”Be careful of yourself in your own house. Thus the sage attracts respect, even when he does not appear in public.”

Prince Nguyễn Phúc Bửu Đảo, granted the title Phụng Hóa Công 奉化公 in 1906, eventually succeeded to the throne as the Emperor Khải Định (Huong-Ky Photographie d’art, Hanoï)

When he had reached his 18th year, Phung-Hoa came to live in the small villa at Phu-Cam, about which we were talking earlier. By then he had already acquired a good knowledge of the Chinese classics, and he continued to study them. He was no less interested in the study of ritual questions and of the history of his country. Those who approached him could only praise the dignity of his life and recognise the nobility of his feelings. “Ong-Hoang Ca” (Mr Crown Prince) – as he was called by the natives – showed perfect courtesy towards all. His physical distinction, his soft voice, his agreeable physiognomy, attracted the sympathy of all the people around him. He did not forget that other precept of Confucius: “He who loves his fellow man is truly a man.” And this humane attitude contrasted strongly with the arrogance of certain other members of the royal family. The philosopher noted the sympathetic influence of he who sought the good of those around him: “He shines like the sun and moon. His consistency is comparable to that of the four seasons. His influence recalls that of the spirits. If he anticipates Heaven, Heaven will not oppose him. If he follows Heaven, he will conform to the seasons. And if Heaven does not resist him, still less will men and the spirits resist him!”

The Emperor Thanh-Thai was, in fact, very hostile to this young prince, who, however, did not take umbrage. Thanh-Thai spared him no bullying. Thus, access to the Palace was forbidden to Phung-Hoa during major religious holidays. He was denied all honours. A derisory pension was allocated to him. But Phung-Hoa wisely bided his time, accepting all these miseries. In his villa at An-Cuu, which he decorated himself with exquisite taste, he occupied his time with painting and music.

Emperor Thành Thái (ruled 1889-1907)

An artist in every sense of the word, and one of refined sensibility and remarkable manual dexterity, he oversaw everything in his little domain. He excelled at designing his garden, pruning shrubs in the Chinese and Japanese fashion, and cultivating fruit trees. He also knew how to train horses for racing or for pulling carriages. In this way, apart from reading the canonical books and other literary works, he was not embarrassed to fully occupy his leisure time. Perhaps he neglected a little the knowledge of French. But if he didn’t speak our language correctly at that time, at least he was already able to hear and usefully follow a conversation.

Phung-Hoa never made any allusion to the throne of Annam. While remembering that he was the son of an emperor and – despite the material difficulties of his existence – maintaining impeccable elegance, he never ever thought of planning for the future. Like any prudent Annamite, he awaited with patience the course of his destiny.

Thus in 1907, the Emperor Thanh-Thai, worn out and half-mad, abdicated in favour of his son Duy-Tan (“Friend of Reforms”), who was just seven years old. If Phung-Hoa felt some bitterness about that choice, he carefully concealed it and he never abandoned his customary discretion. He did nothing to force events. Those were the events which, in a few years’ time, would pull him from the darkness.

Former Emperor Duy Tân (ruled 1907-1916) in his later years

In 1916, a vague conspiracy was formed in Hue and the feeble Duy-Tan was ready to believe the conspirators. Did he sincerely believe that he could escape the French protectorate by making war, or did he dare to turn his back after having become embroiled in the plot?

Whatever the case, on that evening of 3 May 1916, the young emperor left his palace to lead the insurgents. He was soon joined by our agents, members of the Security Service, who were fully aware of his actions. After an escapade which lasted three days, Duy-Tan was taken back to the capital. On 8 May, Governor-General Ernest Roume arrived from Hanoi. During a meeting he presided over, assisted by Monsieur Charles, Resident-Superior in Annam and attended by members of the Grand Privy Council, it was decided to dethrone Duy-Tan, who was then placed under arrest in the Citadel. It was then decided unanimously – all members belonging to the Thanh-Thai branch of the royal family having been excluded – to call on Prince Phung-Hoa. On 10 May, at the Résidence supérieure, Monsieur Roume had his first interview with the future emperor, who arrived alone, in a pousse-pousse. The prince was so moved that he found it hard to express his thanks to both governments for thinking of him, a person who had never intrigued for power. Head high, he would soon cross the threshold of the palace of his ancestors which he had left 27 years earlier. Phung-Hoa took the regnal name of Khai-Dinh – which means “Era of progress.”

Emperor Khải Định on the throne

On 18 May 1916, a day regarded as favourable by royal astrologers, Khai-Dinh was enthroned amidst official pomp in accordance with ancient rites, and his name was inscribed in the Golden Book, which was opened only at the beginning and end of each reign.

The industriousness of Emperor Khai-Dinh was not long in coming. First, relations with France were cordially restored and a range of planned reforms agreed with the protectorate government. Monsieur Albert Sarraut, and then Monsieur Maurice Long, found in him an enlightened mind ready to work honestly to improve the institutions of empire. Recently, for example, an Indigenous Consultative Chamber for Annam was established.

This young ruler is imbued with a different idea of his function than his predecessors. He claims to draw on the principles that guided the great Nguyen monarchs. The title of “Emperor of the Pacified South” is no empty title. Heavy are the honours and the duties attached to it. It would be incorrect to judge the role of an Asian emperor by comparing it with the role of a Western emperor. Back home, we speak gladly of the despotism of distant monarchs, who often appear to many as autocrats with no limits to their fancy. In reality, if this absolutism is in appearance tempered by no written rule, it is, nevertheless, limited by the duties inspired by Confucian doctrine and the rights of community and family. All Annamite society is steeped in the utilitarian morality which arises from the sacred texts and teachings of the philosophers. The Emperor has custody of this morality, and no upper class may come between him and his subjects. The “Duc Hoang de,” supreme judge, incarnation of the law, speaks and acts on behalf of his nation.

Portrait of the Emperor Khải Định

His intermediaries, the mandarins, divided into nine classes, are not a hereditary caste. They are recruited by examination. Even the poorest children of the rice field, if they are distinguished by their intellectual merits, can become one of the “Four Pillars of the Empire,” that is to say, one of the Four Ministers. It’s from the people that emerge the agents of the all-powerful master. By obtaining university degrees, and through the public demonstration of high moral qualities, they may arrive at the top of the administrative hierarchy. But their descendants have no birth right to special offices of the state, neither do they retain any privileges. They are simply entitled to honours which decrease from generation to generation. And if, after a while, the little sons of those who once occupied the highest offices have not acquired a high personal knowledge and passed the royal examinations satisfactorily, they will fall, lost amongst common mortals.

As for the Emperor himself, if he fails in his mission, if he does not observe the rites, or shows himself unworthy of the honours conferred upon him, he can be excommunicated by the people. Denounced by his subjects, who would consider him as having failed the Mandate of Heaven, he would be driven from the palace. This has happened. Bloody revolts have broken out in history. Thus do dynasties collapse.

Portrait of the Emperor Khải Định

By the same token, when the emperor governs with prudence, any attack against him is repressed with ferocity. His life and prestige are backed by implacable laws. Not only the man guilty of an attack against the sovereign, but also his family, can be destroyed after appropriate punishment for the misdemeanour.

In the palaces of Hue, etiquette remains extremely severe. The regulations for royal escorts, royal guards and interior police allow no harm whatsoever to the imperial dignity. In the capital itself, we feel awe hovering over everything.

The Emperor Khai-Dinh has neglected nothing to enhance the lustre of this protocol and to revive past traditions which combine with contemporary ideas to create an elegant modernism. His artistic tastes have also been imposed liberally since his accession. Hardly was he installed as emperor than the private apartments of the palace, the Palace of the Queen Mothers, outbuildings and courtyards, gardens and temples whose maintenance had previously left much to be desired, were rehabilitated. We have witnessed a complete transformation and a rebirth of the Annamite aesthetic. The tomb of Dong-Khanh was a particular object of devotional attention for Khai-Dinh, who has never failed in the precepts of Confucianism. The monarch has also chosen, with the help of his astrologers and geomancers, the locations of his own grave and of the tombs of the Queen Mothers – which in Annam is a high mark of solicitude and love. His generosity has been no less apparent with regard to Thanh-Thai and the princes and princesses of that family, which, however did not cease to create setbacks for him. The Emperor Khai-Dinh did not want to remember the offences committed against him when he was Prince Phung-Hoa.

Empress Từ Cung with her son Nguyễn Phúc Vĩnh Thụy (the future Emperor Bảo Đại)

A single son -the prince Vinh-Thuy – has been born to the sovereign of Annam. This prince, aged nine, accompanied his father to France in May 1922. He has since remained in Paris for his education and upbringing. Monsieur Charles, former Resident-Superior in Hue, has been made responsible for introducing him to Western culture. No more complete proof of the attachment of His Majesty Khai-Dinh to France may be provided to us than his desire to see his child deeply connected with us through spiritual and cultural ties.

The very fact that the emperor himself left his kingdom to pay a visit to the protecting nation appears no less significant. It is unique in history. On that occasion, His Majesty Khai-Dinh spoke in the language of his country’s scholars about the benefits of France’s involvement in the Far East.

“Yours,” he declared, “is a great living intellect, active and creative. We, on the other hand, are a meditative and calm intellect which revels in the pious contemplation of dead things. Still, you have come, by way of the mind and the heart, to respect our past and make it serve the glorious edification of your future. Thanks to your supreme and subtle intelligence, as far as the Annamites are concerned, you have denied nothing, despised nothing. That is why I have come across the oceans to learn from you, from your clear genius, the great conciliatory lesson that will unite forever the fate of my people to the destinies of sovereign France.”

What comment can one add to such a tribute?

The French Résidence-Supérieure in Huế

Emperor Khải Định at his desk (Huong-Ky Photographie d’art, Hanoï)

Emperor Khải Định at his desk (Huong-Ky Photographie d’art, Hanoï)

Emperor Khải Định at his desk (Huong-Ky Photographie d’art, Hanoï)

The Đồng Khánh Mausoleum was remodelled by Emperor Khải Định


The An Định Palace, built in neo-classical colonial French style on the site of the former Phủ Phụng Hóa in 1917 and renovated and enlarged between 1917 and 1919


Emperor Khải Định visited Paris in 1922

The funeral of Emperor Khải Định

Tim Doling is the author of the walking tour guidebook Exploring Hồ Chí Minh City (Nhà Xuất Bản Thế Giới, Hà Nội, 2014).

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 Bombing of Saigon,” 5-6 May 1944

American B-29 Superfortresses dropping incendiary bombs over Asia in 1945 (U.S. Air Force photo)

From L’Écho annamite, organe de défense des intérêts franco-annamites, 11 May 1944

Saigon, 6 May 1944. – The city of Saigon was bombed on the night of 5-6 May 1944 by successive waves of Allied aircraft. Populous residential districts were hit, leaving at least 200 dead and 356 wounded, with many women and children victims still not accounted for. All of the victims were Indochinese, with the exception of a European who was injured. Two enemy planes were damaged by the D. C. A. (Press)

The Écho annamite bows with emotion before the coffins of victims of this raid and begs the cruelly bereaved families to find here an expression of its sincerest condolences.

After the bombing

Saigon, 6 May – M Hoeffel, Governor of Cochinchina, accompanied by M Parisot, Prefect of the Région de Saigon-Cholon, went immediately after the bombing to the affected areas, and also visited those in hospitals.

Admiral Jean Decoux, Governor-General of French Indochina from July 1940 to 9 March 1945

This morning he went to the bedside of the wounded and expressed his gratitude to the staff of the Grall and Lalung-Bonnaire Hospitals, the Clinique St-Paul, and the Choquan Hospital, for the outstanding dedication with which they have devoted themselves to their tasks.

The Governor of Cochinchina congratulated the Prefect of the Région de Saigon-Cholon for the excellent organization and functioning of the Civil Defence Services, whose staff had carried out most efficiently the mission entrusted to them.

Admiral Decoux attends the funeral of the victims

The Vice Admiral of the Fleet, Jean Decoux, Governor General of Indochina, informed us of the tragic events that have cast a pall over Saigon as and when they unfolded, and insisted on going immediately to visit the unfortunate victims, so that he could bring them the comfort of his presence.

In the late afternoon he presided over a moving ceremony held at the Annamite Cemetery of Chi-Hoa, in the presence of the Governor of Cochinchina, the President of the Chairman of the Joint Commission of the Colonial Council, the General Commander of the Cochinchina and Cambodia Division, the Vice Admiral Commander of the Navy in Indochina, Monsignor Cissaigne, Vicar Apostolic of Saigon, the First President of the Court of Appeal, and the Attorney General at the Court of Appeal, as well as the Administrator of the Région Saigon Cholon, the President of the Légion des Combattants, and numerous other civil and military dignitaries.

Bomb damage

The Japanese Mission, Army and Navy were represented by their General Chief of Staff, their General Commander in Chief, their Lieutenant Colonel Head of the Liaison Section of the Japanese Army, their Frigate Captain Chief of the Liaison Section of the Japanese Navy and a representative of the Consul General, Head of the Japanese Mission in Saigon.

After the Buddhist ceremony, the Governor General bowed before the coffins of the 213 victims, while buglers of the local civil guard sounded the honors to the deceased.

…. and visits the disaster areas

On the morning of Sunday 7 May, the Vice Admiral of the Fleet, Jean Decoux. Governor General of Indochina, went in the company of M Hoeffel, Governor of Cochinchina, M Parisot, Prefect of the Région Saigon-Cholon, and M Aurilles, Director of the Cabinet, to visit the neighbourhoods affected by the 5-6 May bombing and the hospitals where the survivors are being treated.

Leaving his palace on boulevard Norodom at 8.30am, the Admiral toured the residential streets affected by bombs, stopping in particular at the Municipal Theatre, the interior of which was devastated by a projectile.

At the Grall Hospital, the Admiral talked to M Denis, a young man of 17 who had sustained an injury while at his passive defense post.

At the Choquan and Lalung-Bonnaire Hospitals, the Governor General of Indochina and the Governor of Cochinchina visited wards which still house, in very large numbers, those injured as a result of the despicable aggression of 5-6 May.

Saigon Municipal Theatre was also hit

The Admiral stopped at the bedsides of many of the wounded, listening to the stories of those most seriously affected and paying particular attention to the fate of some young children, innocent victims of this abhorrent attack on our city of Saigon.

After visiting the injured, the Admiral was taken to meet the Médicin general, Dr Giotron, the Director of Health in Cochinchina, who presented to him the medical staff who had worked tirelessly, making the many necessary interventions and giving all their attention to the wounded from the start of the alert until late the next morning.

He expressed his warm compliments to all of the medical and nursing staff and doctors, notably: Drs Deleg, Roque and Dauplin at the Grall Hospital; Colonel Dr Testes and Dr Harmant at the Choquan Hospital; and Drs Fabry, Tran Quang-D, Do Van Hoanh and Raglot at the Lalung-Bonnaire Hospital.

The Admiral also stopped briefly at the Clinique St-Paul, where he thanked its Chief Doctor, Dr Roton, and the medical and hospital personnel of this private clinic, for the very important role that they have played in the provision of emergency care to the victims.

During his visit, the Admiral was also presented to the personnel of the Police, and complimented several officials of that body, whose attitude and dedication during the bombing and during the tedious hours that followed, are worthy of the greatest praise.

Tim Doling is the author of the walking tour guidebook Exploring Hồ Chí Minh City (Nhà Xuất Bản Thế Giới, Hà Nội, 2014).

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 its Surroundings in Early 1866

Saigon in 1863 (MAP)

Tainted throughout with the usual colonial racist arrogance, Artillery Lieutenant P C Richard’s account of Saigon just a few years after the French conquest, “Saigon et ses Environs au Commencement de 1866,” written for the Revue maritime et colonial of September-December 1866, nonetheless contains some interesting observations about the city during that period.


Since our victorious arms completed the conquest of a part of Lower Cochinchina, many in France have been occupied with this corner of Asia, a region hitherto virtually ignored. However, although many documents have already been published about this country, our new colonial capital of Saigon is little known and has not yet been described in a comprehensive manner. We do not pretend to fill this gap here, but will nevertheless say a few words about this city and then on its surrounding areas.

The Messageries impériales headquarters

The capital of French Cochinchina is located on one of the arms of the Donaï, called the Saigon river, and located at the north-north-east extremity of a vast alluvial country, an immense delta barely raised above sea level, and crossed by numerous mouths of the Donaï, the Soirap and the Cambodia rivers. Here one finds many arroyos (waterways) which, projecting in all directions, form many routes favoured by the tide, which is felt far inland in territories which it waters twice daily.

This city is located entirely on the right bank of the river and the left bank of the arroyo Chinois [Bến Nghé creek], 100km from the sea. It is protected downstream by a fortress known as the Fort du Sud, and defended in the north, next to the plain, by a citadel built by French engineers.

This place is very well situated for defence. It is enclosed in a quadrilateral which has for its sides the Saigon river to the east, the arroyo Chinois to the south, the arroyo de l’Avalanche [Thị Nghè creek] to the north, and a canal that links the latter two arroyos to the west. It is quite safe from attack. It could perhaps be attacked by water, but it is connected with the sea via a long river of 25 leagues. This river is sinuous and very easily defended by fortresses, which, appropriately placed and armed with our formidable engines of destruction, would deter all enemy fleets.

Ships on the Saigon River in 1868

Located between India on the one hand, and China and Japan on the other, this city has a military and strategic importance which is undeniable. Foreigners know that well, and today, not without jealousy, they call it “the French Singapore.”

Moored in front of the city is a fleet of warships, grouped around the Duperré, a ship with two decks which flies the flag of the Vice-Admiral Governor and Commander in Chief of our troops. Further down, between Saigon and the Fort du Sud, one may find the commercial port, where elegant European vessels lie at anchor alongside massive Annamite or Cambodian boats and Chinese junks, all richly coloured and decorated with fantastic dragons, which give the port a very picturesque appearance.

Nothing is more curious to observe than the junks of the great Annamite mandarins, who come from time to time to salute our Governor, and who, in such circumstances, deploy all the oriental pomp of which they are capable. We love to see their shiny spearheads, their tridents and their peacock feathers, all hallmarks of the royal official. We love to see those who we fought so recently coming quietly and humbly now to bow beneath our tricolour. A doleful-sounding drum may be heard from time to time during these processions, giving each a certain imposing and almost majestic je ne sais quoi.

“Saigon – Literati come to salute the Governor”

Here we see a real floating city; the quays are lined and the harbour is constantly filled with junks and sampans; the latter are made from tree trunks carved and shaped by the Annamites, just like the canoes built by the Gauls out of the trunks of huge oak trees from their beautiful forests. These sampans have a singular form; in the middle there is a cabin covered in palm leaves, where may be found all the utensils of the Annamite kitchen – because the boatman is born, lives, suffers and dies on his boat. Each end of the boat is raised and it is there that one finds the rowers, usually women, who stand, facing forward.

Some of the larger boats, junks, for example, are equipped with sails made with coarse mats, which are manufactured either from coconut leaves or from rushes. Such junks are filled with many families, who often have no other place of habitation.

In neighbourhoods inhabited by Annamite people, generally located far from the centre of the city, there is usually a large population. Until they reach the age of 12 or 14, children of both sexes live an unfettered life, wallowing in mud or rolling in the dust.

The “Asiatic quarter” of Saigon in 1875 (engraving)

Those who took part in the conquest of Saigon will certainly no longer recognise the poor Annamite town of yesteryear. Where there were once wretched huts set amid stinking marshes, there are now pretty houses bordered by beautiful boulevards. All that’s lacking now is the cool shade of beautiful trees which we will enjoy one day in the future when those already planted have grown sufficiently to intercept the sunlight. The ugly wooden huts that once lined the right and left banks of the arroyo Chinois, before which one could not pass without being inconvenienced by the nausea-inducing smell of nuoc-mam (a sort of brine made with rotten fish which is used to spice Annamite dishes), have now disappeared to make way for the pretty quai Napoleon [now Tôn Đức Thắng], which is around 50m wide, is divided into sandy paths and flowerbeds, and is bordered by lawns planted with trees. The perfectly aligned shop houses of our principal traders are located along one side of this pleasant boulevard, which is also adorned with a column raised by Saigon traders in memory of one of the first French administrators.

On the other side of the arroyo Chinois, the beautiful buildings of the Messageries Impériales form a nice area which at present, unfortunately, may only be accessed from the city by boat.

The former Grand Canal in Saigon

Canals criss-cross the city and facilitate the movement of merchant traders. Large boats enter them and carry their loads directly to the storefronts and markets.

Wide boulevards, roads and bridges, hitherto unknown in Cochinchina, allow horse-drawn carriages easily to reach places where previously one could not even circulate on foot without sinking deep into the mud.

It’s truly a pleasure to see the horse-drawn carriages of our colons pass quickly between heavy old freight carts of primitive construction, each of their solid wheels cut from one piece of a tree trunk. Those gaudy vehicles, with bells and whistles attached to the ends of their shafts, are hauled by a special breed of buffalo from Cambodia known as “runner buffalo,” which can trot and even gallop. The resulting cacophony is capable of offending the eardrums of the less delicate.

We may still encounter in Saigon some remains of ancient Buddhist monuments, among others a very pretty little pagoda located right in the middle of the city, which will soon to be an object of curiosity dear to archaeologists, because Annamite monuments disappear very quickly to make way for private houses.

Let’s now visit Saigon’s public buildings and facilities.

Saigon’s first purpose-built cathedral, the Église Sainte-Marie-Immaculée (Church of Saint Mary of the Immaculate Conception).

Our Cathedral is of a modest size which hardly does justice to its grand title. But it has the distinct honour of being the first Christian church built on this land, which for so long was vested with the coarsest and most stultifying paganism. The Cathedral was once surrounded only by small huts inhabited by miserable individuals who had taken refuge here under the sign of the cross, but today it is already dwarfed by the buildings that surround it. The need for a larger church now arises, because many Annamite Catholics are only able to attend its services by standing outside.

The Hôtel du gouvernement (Governor’s Palace) is also very modest. A replacement, more worthy of its function and of the capital of our new settlement, is being planned.

The Imprimerie imperial (Imperial Printing Office), located near the Governor’s Palace, offers nothing remarkable.

The Hôtel de la Direction de l’intérieur (Internal Affairs Office) is newly completed and occupied; it is a grand and well-ventilated building.

The first Governor’s Palace

Another government building which certainly will not lack residents has also just been completed. I refer, of course, to our new Maison centrale (City Prison), where prisoners are certainly better housed, and better fed and cared for than some of their free countrymen. We have neglected nothing to soften their captivity; and many of the inmates here may well enjoy a comfort they cannot experience at home.

The Direction de l’artillerie (Artillery Directorate) of the Navy and the Colonies, soon to be completed, deserves special mention.

The site it occupies was once a vast muddy swamp, crossed by several rivers. We had to fill this to create a large area of solid ground on which buildings could be constructed. Thanks to our powerful impulse and intelligent management, the marshes and streams vanished, piles were dug, and large workshops were built, all of which now function perfectly.

Soon these workshops will be equipped with that most powerful agent of modern industry – the steam engine. Thus will be achieved the laudable goal ardently pursued by senior officers who have successively commanded this institution, to equip our young colony with an Artillery Directorate worthy of the great role France can be expected to play in Far East.

The personnel of the Director of the Arsenal in 1875

A canal, each end of which communicates with the Saigon river, runs through this facility and facilitates the transport of equipment and ammunition for the French fleets of China, Japan and Cochinchina.

The Artillery has a spacious, well ventilated barracks building, thus far the only one in Saigon, because one can hardly give the name “barracks” to the poor huts of the Camp des Lettrés (Camp of the Literati, Trường Thi), which currently house our marine infantry.

Officer housing, especially the villa of the Director of Artillery which is very well located on a plateau, is deemed more spacious and better ventilated. It is thus more suitable to climatic requirements and therefore, at present, the safest housing in Saigon.

The Direction des constructions navales (Naval Construction Directorate) must be placed first among the institutions of our new colony. It occupies a large compound which is 1km in length with an average width of 250m, located at the junction of the Saigon river and the arroyo de l’Avalanche; it is separated from the Artillery Directorate by a rectangle of about 300m long and about 150m wide which will house our future naval stores.

Saigon port in the 1860s

This establishment is already functioning. A canal facilitates water-borne transport of large amounts of wood from the forests of Tay-Ninh, the Central Highlands and Cambodia, into facilities where they can be put to use.

A small dry dock, 72m in length and 24m wide, can repair and clean small gunboats and other ships with a draft of less than 4m. However, surveys we have made in the land of the Directorate indicate that there is plenty of space in which to build a much larger dry dock. While we wait for that dock to be built, we have just installed and launched a floating dock, which will save us from having to send our great ships for repair in Hong Kong, Singapore, or Bombay. Our great frigate Persévérante was placed in this floating dock on 8 August last.

Saigon, becoming the tète de ligne of the Messageries Impériales, is bound to grow in importance.

Thus will be fulfilled the wish expressed by M Guizot, who, when he was foreign minister, exclaimed, “We must not, in case of damage, send our ships for repair in the Portuguese colony of Macau, in the English port of Hong Kong, or in the arsenal of Cavite on the Spanish island of Luzon.”

A corner of the Botanical and Zoological Gardens

The Zoological and Botanical Garden is close to the Naval Construction Directorate, from which it is separated by a boulevard. Here one’s eyes may rest pleasantly on the trees which have recently been planted. Beside the native species of recognised utility, one may find here other no less useful varieties from Réunion, Singapore, Batavia, etc. The breadfruit tree is the subject of a special predilection by the director of this institution, and promises to endow the colony with a fruit superior to the native jackfruit.

A swamp covered with water lily, lotus and other aquatic plants is inhabited by wading birds such as cranes pelicans, egrets and ibis.

After the field of waders comes the park of the ruminants and the aviaries which contain many of Cochinchina’s most beautiful birds; in the latter, we have already collected peacocks, pheasants, green pigeons and doves.

A palace has been built here for the colony’s different species of quadrupeds. There is a long line of cages for wild animals which already contain a civet, a porcupine, a wild boar, a wild cat and a young tiger of the most beautiful species.

A crocodile enclosure in the Botanical and Zoological Gardens

A crocodile is enclosed in a small fenced park, through which a stream flows.

A large garden area, planted with beautiful trees, bushes and flowerbeds, is intersected by well shaded pathways, offering visitors a pleasant walk alongside the arroyo de l’Avalanche.

North of the garden are located the general stores, where large supplies of rice are kept. The rice is brought by ship from all parts of Cochinchina. It was in one of its huge buildings in February 1866 that our colony hosted its first agricultural and industrial exhibition, the results of which were impressive.

We are pleasantly surprised when we enter the lovely Parc de l’Espérance (“Hope Park”), with its abundant fruit trees and amenities. Once the home of mandarins travelling in the service of the emperor of Annam, this park was given to the Artillery of the Navy, which established here its ammunition and gunpowder stores and ateliers. This would be an excellent place to build a barracks. The scene here is very animated, with sampans and river boats gliding along the nearby arroyo de l’Avalanche, and birds twittering on flowering or fruit-laden evergreens.

Now let’s visit the city’s religious institutions.

One of Saigon’s earliest schools

The Collège des Missions (College of the Missions) is built almost in the Greek style, with oriental ornamentation.

While visiting this place, where we may already find many Annamite students being taught by the Fathers, let’s pay a tribute of praise to our missionaries, those intrepid pioneers of civilisation who, listening only to their zeal, left their country, their friends and family to traverse immense seas and arid deserts, to reach countries devoted to idolatry. There they raised the holy cross, that symbol of faith so comforting to the poor and unfortunate, teaching them that Christ was born poor, lived poor and died persecuted. Thanks to the work of these courageous apostles, who fought so hard for all nations to break their idols and submit to the Gospel, we have responded to the cries of our martyrs by conquering Lower Cochinchina and opening the doors to the Far East.

Mingling without fear with the native people, our missionaries acquired considerable influence over them. They learned the Annamite language and translated into that language passages of Holy Scripture, hymns, psalms and prayers, all of which are now repeated in chorus by converts in a manner which is strange and monotonous to hear. Thanks to the zeal of our missionaries, superstition and belief in evil spirits is gradually giving way to the civilising dogma of Christianity.

A pousse-pousse station

Next door to the College of Missions is the École française de l’évêque d’Adran (Bishop of Adran School), a very useful institution founded on 21 September 1861 by the fertile mind of the first Admiral who landed in Saigon. This officer quickly recognised that, in order to assimilate the local people, it was necessary to disseminate French education, language and customs among them. He also realised that it would be a mortal blow to the influence of the old literary mandarins if, using our Latin characters, the children of local people could learn within months the science which scholars had devoted all their life to acquire. The Admiral Governor saw in this school a nursery for the dedicated public servants of the future, who knew the laws, manners and customs of the country, and had been called to render great service to our colony.

Already, students who can read fluently their own language printed in Latin characters will soon be able to write it too. Many can now read French, and a few are beginning to understand and speak it. Thanks to the care of our government, schools have been established in various locations, and students, showing great intelligence and ability, have made significant progress.

At the riverside

It must be said that the beginnings of this institution were rather painful. The population, newly conquered and unaccustomed to care from their own rulers, did not, even could not, understand an idea so generous as this. Also, the first calls made to parents to send their children to this school were suspected of being a method of military recruitment; traditional village chiefs raised children for service as we raise a tax, and parents of recruitees received a certain sum as compensation, so that far from paying for the instruction of their children, they were instead used to paying for them to remain uninstructed.

But things have changed since that time, and shortly after the creation of this institution, increasing pressure for places meant that the school had to be enlarged. The families of notables now strongly solicit the admission of their children as a favour and honour and now, despite the efforts of the administration, the school is not large enough to meet demand.

Carmelite nuns

In front of the College of Missions is a house of dark appearance with only one opening, topped by a small stone cross which is already blackened by time. This house contains the Carmelites, who came in Cochinchina to devote themselves to the contemplative life and to pray, suffer and die here. Despite the austerity of their regime, we find amongst the Carmelite Order several indigenous postulants who aspire to the happiness of becoming the mystical brides of Christ. Already some have been deemed worthy enough to don the humble clothes of penance, and have traded the joy of almost unlimited freedom enjoyed by Annamite women for absolute seclusion.

Let’s leave those cloisters and have the pleasure of visiting the beautiful convent of Saint-Enfance and its delicious small chapel, topped by an elegant spire which dominates the entire countryside and announces to travellers the capital of oriental France. A cross crowns this edifice, and the French flag flying next door appears to protect this sacred sign of our civilisation.

The architecture of the convent recalls that of Italy, blended with the caprices of Annamite ornamentation. The chapel, in Gothic style, is bedecked with paintings of questionable taste, which will surely soon be devastated by the weather and the rain.

The Sainte-Enfance in the 1870s

All this is the work of an Annamite priest from Tonkin, an improvised architect without any training in that field, who designed and executed the plan of this beautiful establishment, in his own words, for the greater glory of God. “Faith moves mountains!”

Let’s say a few words about this institution.

The institution of Sainte Enfance, the most useful, the most moral and the most charitable that we have in Cochinchina, was founded in 1861 by the virtuous and courageous Sisters of Saint-Paul de Chartres and under the high patronage of Her Majesty the Empress of the French, the consoler of so many afflicted, the mother of so many abandoned; This refuge is open not only to orphans, but also to all unfortunate children, regardless of the religion of their parents.

The nuns receive small poor abandoned creatures found by police, soldiers and sailors on their rounds or during their excursions, as well as those brought by infirm fathers, widows deprived of resources, or grandparents unable to feed their young orphaned grandchildren. Here we may find many poor little creatures, abandoned but without doubt well advised, who came to knock at the door of the asylum.

Reverend Mother Superior Benjamin (1821-1883), founder of the Sainte Enfance in Saigon

Orphans who survived the war, children of victims of Bien-Hoa, Baria and Go-Cong, have found here the arms of charity open to receive them and have not been neglected. Thanks to the care of the resident nuns, all these children are now clean and tidy, learning to count, read and write in French. The girls are trained in needlework and initiated in household care, order and cleanliness, while the boys work in the garden and make and mend their own garments. These children also used their leisure time in the manufacture of cigars made with tobacco from Cochinchina.

Later, when these kids grow up, they will be capable of earning an honest living. The girls will be free either to leave or to remain in the convent, because the Sainte-Enfance now also has indigenous novices, postulants and even sisters.

Apart from the children abandoned or brought here by their parents, the ladies of Saint-Paul de Chartres also run a pensionnat or boarding school, which receives students who pay for their maintenance, care and instruction. This school currently draws on the local budget to the tune of 24,000 francs, which is divided into 100 scholarships and increases or decreases according to the number of students.

The pensionnat is also open to children of Europeans (girls) and offers, for a relatively low price, an elementary education, religious and moral education and loving care.

A clinic run by the sisters of Saint-Paul de Chartres

We must still visit an establishment which casts over our thoughts a dark veil of sadness; This is the Thi-Nghe Clinic, truly an asylum of suffering and pain! Here, as everywhere, we find the sweetness, self denial, boundless beneficence and sublime charity of the nuns of Saint-Paul de Chartres, who are always on hand at the bedside, encourage patients with soft words and calming their despair with their touching care!

What heart would not be moved at the sight of these sublime women, who dedicate their lives to the relief of human suffering! They are truly admirable and holy women, real angels of charity, whose delicate hands mend physical injuries, while their soft voices, echoes of a heart overflowing, and their chaste glances, often veiled in tears, heal spiritual wounds.

The outlying districts of Saigon

Now let’s leave Saigon and take a promenade outside the city.

Travelling along the left (north) bank of the arroyo Chinois, we follow a long populated and very lively quayside, which is lined with huts on each side. Those located on the side of the arroyo are literally in the water, which penetrates them at high tide. These huts make up the 12 villages of Cau-ong-lanh (Cau being the Annamite word for bridge), Cau-mui, Cau-khom, Cau-kho, Cau-ba-tim, Chu-Sao, Cau-ba-do, Cau-moï, Cho-quan, Binh-yen, Khanh-hoï and Vinh-hoï; the latter two are on the right bank of the arroyo.

Gia Định countryside

All of these villages are inhabited by Annamites who fled during the conquest and returned later, titles in hand, to reclaim their properties. We hasten to add that the French administration upheld their claims and reinstated them in Saigon.

Ten of these villages are suburbs of Saigon, while the other two are suburbs of Cholon (Chinatown) as they connect the two cities. We will stop leisurely at one of these villages, Cho-quan, which occupies roughly the middle point between the two cities and resembles a large garden, with its huts shaded by tamarind, mango, areca, coconut, papaya, banana, grapefruit, orange, jackfruit, breadfruit and mahogany trees, flame trees and many other species. Around their trunks climb golden betel leaves and beautiful lianas with dangling berries which dance in the breeze above the heads of the numerous noisy and almost naked children of both sexes who play in the fresh gardens.

The huts, well kept, thinly scattered and surrounded by well-cultivated gardens, are connected to each other by pretty pathways lined with euphorbicaea and other flowering shrubs, which perfume the air and delight the eye.

A waterway in the environs of Saigon

The people of Cho-quan are Christians. They live a modest life of relative ease, making silks, cottons and small furniture inlaid with mother of pearl; but their main industry is the smelting of copper, bronze and even gold and silver, which they turn into jewelry.

This village has a church and a large hospital; the latter, long assigned to sick members of the Expeditionary Corps, has now been delivered to the service of indigenous patients, who may find there the sweet care of the sisters of Saint-Paul de Chartres and the medical skill of the naval surgeons attached to the property.

Since we have left the banks of the arroyo for an excursion in the gardens of Cho-quan, we will continue along this road as far as the Mares (Ponds). There is a pagoda here, one of two on the site which we call the Pagode des Mares (Pagoda of the Ponds), because of the two small pools located in front of its enclosure. It is known by the natives as the Pagode de la fidélité éclatante (“Pagoda of brilliant loyalty”) and was originally a kind of Annamite Panthéon containing the ancestral tablets of great men.

Khánh Hội landscape

Among those were the ancestral tablets of a Frenchman, a Breton sailor named Manuel, named Men-oe by the Annamites. However, since our conquest of the country, the residents have erased the characters inscribed on those tablets, so we can no longer know the deeds and titles of this brave sailor, once a fleet commander of Gia-Long, whose cause he had embraced. All we know of our illustrious compatriot is that the prince he served rewarded him with many lavish titles and honours, and that he died gloriously in a naval battle by blowing himself up with his warship rather than surrendering to the Tay-Son. These rebels, as we know, were defeated at the beginning of the 19th century.

Before the conquest, old invalid monks were responsible for the maintenance of the pagoda, as well as the magnificent tombs of the great men which surrounded it. They were responsible for offering sacrifices to the spirits of these heroes, the guardian gods of Cochinchina.

Alas, due to the sad effect of the war, this pagoda is now used as a gunpowder store, and its outbuildings are used as a barracks. The surrounding land, where there are so many beautiful funeral monuments, has been transformed into a meadow where the artillery takes its fodder, but there are still many beautiful trees here, making it a very pleasant site.

On the road to Chợ Lớn

On the edges of the road from Saigon to Cholon which runs through the plain, we may see great and very rare fruit trees, whose magnificent pear-shaped fruits contain a sticky, clear edible substance which, when cooked, produces a kind of jam which tastes like honey, and of which the Annamites are very fond.

The pagoda is surrounded by tall trees with straight and slender trunks. In a normal breeze, their branches emit sighs like plaintive whispers which recall the noise of small waves as they come ashore on a smooth beach; but if the wind blows more strongly, the same branches emit lugubrious groans, similar to the distant sounds of an angry sea smashing its waves against the rocks. In recent years, hearing such noises, superstitious and frightened Annamites living in the neighbourhood have redoubled their offerings and sacrifices, believing the noises to be angry threats from spirits that we have driven from the pagoda.

All these spirits have their own legends, some quite frightening, which old men recount at night, lying on the mat, surrounded by their children and grandchildren who listen, trembling.

Tombs on the plain between Saigon and Chợ Lớn

One of the dependencies of the pagoda and nearly half of its enclosure have been devoted to the establishment of a stud farm, whose management has been entrusted to a cavalry officer thoroughly acquainted with equestrian science.

To the north of the Mares is the wide Plaine des Tombeaux (Plain of Tombs), which contains countless funeral monuments, some very beautiful. Those of the Chinese are generally shaped like a horseshoe; while those of the Annamites are shaped like slender pyramids or pretty small pagodas in miniature. Some more modest graves take the rough shape of a recumbent saddled horse. All of the small structures in this “city of the dead” are built from brick or clay and then covered with a thick layer of brown-coloured plaster which is made by infusing with water the viscous sap from a tree known to the natives as cay hiuoc. This plaster is easy to mould, and when dried it becomes as hard as brick and may easily be mistaken for stone. This substance is also used widely to coat the floors of local houses.

Besides these monuments, we sometimes chance upon corpses only partially covered with a little soil, or the edges of a coffin sticking up out of the ground. Perhaps the relatives fled during wartime before the burial had been completed.

The Plain of Tombs

This immense cemetery is very famous and it is deemed an honour to be buried here. The Plain of Tombs not only receives the dead of the immediate area, but also those of neighbouring provinces who, before dying, chose this as their last resting place. Many Annamites are convinced of the benefits of being buried here and there are even some who wish to die here too, in the place where they will later be buried.

Among the tombs roam flocks of vultures, unclean animals which nature seems to have created to rid the soil of rotting corpses and filth, and which perfectly fulfill the lofty mission of public hygiene and sanitation that was assigned to them.

This plain is traversed by two fairly busy roads; one part of it is now used as a parade ground by our Saigon garrison troops.

The plateau between Saigon, the arroyo de l’Avalanche and the Plain of Tombs is occupied by several villages. These include Yong-Guiton, at the intersection of boulevard Chasseloup-Laubat and the route de Tong-kéou; Phu-hoa, Han-hoa and Hiep-hoa, grouped near the Third Avalanche Bridge which connects them with the large village of Phu-Nhuan; Banian, located a few hundred metres from the citadel close to Saigon; and finally Tourane, a village established by Christians who, during the evacuation of the port of Tourane, followed the French to Saigon and were given land on which they built the village to which they gave the name of their place of origin.

Riziculture near Saigon

The latter unfortunates have not ceased to be dedicated and helpful; they are energetic, clever, and provide many workers for the civic establishments of the city.

The other villages mentioned are inhabited largely by poor indigents from the interior, who, due to war, were forced to take refuge around us.

Near the village of Tourane is the French cemetery, another “Plain of Tombs,” where already too many of our brothers in arms are buried!

The plain north of Saigon is delightful. It is full of large trees which thankfully escaped the axes of our soldiers and now make possible a very nice promenade, especially in the early months of the year when flamboyants like erythrena charm our view with their “domes of fire.” During that period, the area around the Pagode Barbé (Barbé Pagoda) is magnificent.

Located at a crossroads near the citadel, the Pagode Barbé was formerly the Khai-Tuong (Aurore des presages) Pagoda, built by order of Minh Mang, son and successor of Gia-Long, on the site of the hut in which he was born during the war with the Tay-Son. It was near this pagoda that Captain Barbé was murdered, hence its current name.

A sacred tree near Saigon

The greatest banian tree I have ever seen in Cochinchina is definitely that which stands next to the eponymous village of Banian, on the road leading to the village Binh-hoa which crosses the Second Avalanche Bridge. The base of this majestic tree is formed from several thick trunks welded together and surrounded by a network of roots comprising branches which fell vertically and became implanted in the ground. These trunks and roots now resemble elegant and slender columns and form cool and shady porticos into which one could easily retire to escape from the rays of the pitiless sun – if it were not for the numerous reptiles that have taken up residence there.

This beautiful tree is animated by flocks of green pigeons, which come to peck at berries, and which are shot ruthlessly by our hunters, who lie in wait under a neighbouring tamarind tree. Near this colossal representative of Cochinchina vegetation there are also a number of other banyan trees of different species, the leaves of which are eaten by the local people. These trees, now devoid of greenery, have a rather sad aspect.

Crossing the arroyo de l’Avalanche by the first bridge, we arrive in the village of Phu-My at the entrance to the Bien-Hoa road. Then, after heading along the left bank of the same arroyo, we emerge into a large, beautiful and fertile plain which is remarkably well cultivated – the plain of Go-Vap.

Gò Vấp

Nothing around Saigon is as lively as this corner of land; here we find workers who lie almost naked on the floor shelling peanuts, and, their costume aside, remind us of our farmers harvesting potatoes and other vegetables destined for the market. Here too, we may find growers of cotton and mulberry; Go-Vap silk is of very good quality and could become the source of a lucrative industry. Finally, we see everywhere men, women and even children bent under the weight of the foodstuffs that they are carry either to the market in Saigon or to that in the village of Go-Vap, one of the biggest markets in this rich country. One does not, however, visit the Go-Vap Market without a handkerchief under one’s nose, because of the smell of salted fish and nuoc mam which exudes from every stall.

Continuing our promenade, we encounter beautiful plantations of tobacco, objects of particular care on the part of the Annamites, who spend a large part of the day watering this plant. Each field has its own beam pump, similar to those encountered in our French villages of Champagne, Burgundy or Lorraine. These “nodding donkeys,” almost constantly in motion, give the plain great animation.

A herd of buffalo

Next to the plantation graze huge herds of buffalo whose broad heads are armed with long crescent-shaped horns. At the first sight of a European, these giants throw back their heads and snort angrily. They have been known to injur or even kill us with their horns. However, these animals are always very gentle with Annamites, and a child aged 12 to 15 years is sufficient to guard a herd.

At all points around the plain, one may hear the song of the grey blackbird, that friend of the farmer which follows him at a distance, feasting on the worms which he has just dug up. One may also hear the lark, that virtuoso of the air which seems to live almost entirely in the sky during the dry season, and whose song is of incomparable purity.

Pleasantly situated in the midst of a charming grove just a few kilometres from Saigon, we may find a very pretty temple which is a regular rendezvous for walkers. Built by order of Emperor Gia Long in honour of Monsignor Pigneau de Behaine, Bishop of Adran and Apostolic Vicar of Lower Cochinchina, this monument contains the mortal remains of this eminent man, who laid the first foundations of our domination over this country.

Pierre Joseph Georges Pigneau de Behaine (1741-1799)

The history of this prelate, whose evangelical virtues and apostolic zeal never diminished his patriotism, is not well known in France, so we cannot resist the desire to say a few words, pending the arrival of a more authorized biographer who can rescue such a beautiful life from oblivion.

Pierre Pigneau de Behaine was born in 1741 in a village near Laon. He arrived in Cochinchina in 1767 and was later named Bishop of Adran and Apostolic Vicar of Lower Cochinchina, a country whose destiny was to become French. The Bishop of Adran became the friend and close adviser of Gia-Long after the prince, driven out by the Tay-Son rebels, took refuge in the Gulf of Siam islands. He strongly advised his royal friend to seek the support of the court of Versailles, and offered to go to France himself to negotiate an offensive and defensive alliance between Louis XVI and Gia-Long. He left, in fact, accompanied by the Crown Prince, and signed on behalf of the Annamite monarch a treaty under which France was to send four frigates and 1,600 men to the assistance of the latter, who in turn would yield to France the island of Poulo-Condor and the port of Tourane, give the French complete freedom of traffic and permit them to found on the continent of Cochinchina all relevant institutions to facilitate their navigation and trade.

The Bishop of Adran then left France and travelled to India, where he awaited the promised assistance. But as we know, the ill-will of the comte de Conway, Governor of French territories in India, together with the events of 1789, prevented compliance with the treaty. The comte de Conway evaded Pigneau’s questions, and the prelate then learned from the court of Versailles the king’s decision that “the Cochinchina expedition would not take place.”

The Tomb of Pierre Pigneau de Behaine in 1867

This broken promise from the French government saddened, even humbled, the prelate, but it did not discourage him. Along with some French officers and a number of volunteer sailors engaged in India, he presented himself in Saigon, climbing a commercial building and casting terror among the troops of the Tay-Son by spreading the rumour that the soldiers that he had brought with him were only the vanguard of a huge army sent by the King of France to exterminate the rebels. The troops of Gia-Long, trained by French officers who had arrived with the prelate, took the offensive, penetrated as far as Hue and restored the royal authority.

After several brilliant successes, the Tay-Son were completely destroyed (1802). But the illustrious bishop, who had contributed so much to the reinstatement of Gia-long on the throne of his ancestors, could not see the culmination of his work. He died in 1799, surrounded by esteem and general admiration. The emperor, accompanied by the royal family, had gone to visit him during his illness, and after his death Gia-Long wept as one weeps for a father, along with his queen, his sisters and his concubines (the title of concubine not being a dishonorable one in Cochinchina), and organised a great funeral at which both Christians and idolaters flocked around the body of the emperor’s good friend and wise counsellor, whom they all called their “good father.”

The screen in front of the Pigneau de Behaine tomb

The funeral rites were all carried out according to royal protocol, and the body of the bishop was, according to his last will, buried in a garden that he owned outside Saigon. It was in this same garden, and over the tomb of the prelate, that Gia-Long commissioned the construction of the current pagoda. Here one may still find tablets exalting Pigneau’s merits, his talents and the services he rendered to the country, recalling the friendship which bound him to the emperor, and listing his titles, including the highest dignity after royalty, the title of teacher to the Crown Prince and the epithet “accomplished.”

In this way, the Bishop of Adran, helped by his countrymen, laid the groundwork for a French administration in the kingdom of Annam, which so marvelled our compatriots that they later carried out the conquest of Lower Cochinchina, founding there all our municipal hierarchy, from the mayor and councillors to prefects.

It is especially during the dry season, when the sky is illuminated every night, that one should visit this delightful last resting place of an illustrious son of France, returning to Saigon on a beautiful starlit evening through the mysterious Plain of Tombs.

A quayside scene in Chợ Lớn

Cholon, often referred to as Chinatown, was originally to have been incorporated into the boundaries of Saigon. But we have since had to modify the plan of a city that was believed to contain 500,000 inhabitants, and reduce it to more modest proportions. The city of Cholon having thus been separated, it now has its own municipality and administration. It is connected with Saigon via the high road along boulevard Chasseloup-Laubat and the low road alongside the arroyo Chinois.

Anyone who has not visited Cholon for a few years will be pleasantly surprised to discover, instead of a muddy city with narrow, fetid streets, a new city with mostly wide streets and pretty quays which has nonetheless preserved its oriental character. Many of the houses which now line the streets and quaysides have white walls and red roofs, and some have several storeys. All are brilliantly decorated with various designs in vibrant colours, which blend perfectly with the profusion of Chinese lanterns and banners, garlands and corporation signs, each inscribed in gold characters. While the city’s appearance owes much to the initiative and intelligent direction of our Inspector of Chinese Affairs, we must also pay tribute to the enormous sacrifices made by the city’s intelligent Chinese merchants, people of spirit and practicality, some of them millionaires many times over, who are not afraid to spend their own money in the cause of civic pride.

Shop houses in Chợ Lớn in the 1870s

Many of these merchants spontaneously proposed demolishing their old buildings in order to build nice new shop houses, and offered money to embellish the streets and waterfront areas in ways that now charm visitors.

Nothing is more picturesque than the canal which runs through the Chinese city. It is constantly covered with boats, inhabited by whole families. Their boats are their only homes.

As noted above, despite its embellishments, Cholon retains its Chinese character, its eastern face, its local colour. It still contains a large number of pagodas, each with its idols, its hideous monsters and its many inscriptions, which I’m afraid that I can’t decipher. It’s curious to see the West, represented by our insouciant soldiers, laughing heartily in front of a big fat Buddha, who, sitting lazily, seems to symbolise the East. Almost all of Cholon’s pagodas are abandoned and have become homes to large colonies of bats, which are huge but perfectly harmless vampires, despite the ominous name they bear.

Among the monuments of Cholon, we must mention the Great Pagoda, a masterpiece of its kind, dedicated to the goddess of Kuang-chau Huay-quan, patron saint of sailors and travellers. It is filled with curious interior decorations, including a fresco ceiling, friezes and reliefs, gold inscriptions, paintings and a number of very original statues. The latter include a grotesque large gilt bronze Buddha, a gigantic goddess statue and many other smaller statuettes.

The Guangzhou Assembly Hall in Chợ Lớn

These should not be dismissed as mere festoons, rather we should consider them as objects which deserve to be studied, especially those on the outside, made from artistically-moulded clay, baked, painted and coloured, representing mountains, trees, flowers, butterflies, insects, birds, palaces, pagodas and bizarre characters in all poses, from those at rest to those in combat, either on foot or on horseback. There are also monsters dragons and other horrible and fantastic animals, such that even the liveliest European imagination could never dream of, and demons with hideous heads arranged in the most bizarre way. This curious specimen of Chinese architecture is worthy in every way of the attention of archaeologists and certainly deserves the honour of a special study by a competent researcher.

Seeing the many unfortunate beggars at the door of this monument, we regret very much the lack of a hospital. The Chinese who possess in the highest degree the spirit of association and civic pride, and who have been able to invent the pawnshops and the bank, have not yet been able to provide hospitals here. Perhaps this type of institution stems from an eminently Christian virtue of charity. We are currently involved in the construction of a hospital in Cholon.

The Chợ Lớn creek which ran through the centre of the town

One thing that we must not fail to mention among the relevant sights of the Chinese city are the famous Puits de l’éveque d’Adran (Bishop of Adran Pumps), a water well located in the middle of the arroyo whose excellent water is transported by boats throughout the southwest part of the province of Saigon, and sometimes even as far as My-Tho. This well takes the form of an island, a mound of earth covered with greenery, which is constantly surrounded by boats collecting water to quench the thirsts of those who inhabit the low and marshy plains.

Cholon has about 40,000 inhabitants, among whom there is not at present a single Catholic. Almost all are traders or workers; but it is the Chinese who hold the trading monopoly, not only in Saigon, but throughout all of Cochinchina. They aim to compete even with the Europeans, and it is for this purpose that several Chinese merchants have already ordered small steam ships from France.

These traders not only concern themselves with matters concerning their small town, but also take on board, with surprising ease and rare intelligence, our ideas and our civilisation. They are very attached to the destinies and interests of our young colony, which can count on their professionalism and dedication, since its future is also theirs.

Boats on the arroyo Chinois

The establishment of the Chinese colony here does not only date from our conquest of Cochinchina; it may be traced back to the late 17th century. At that time, some Chinese remained loyal to the Ming dynasty, and wanting to escape the domination of the Qing, were authorised by the King of Annam to go and settle in the province of Gia-Dinh (Saigon), then newly conquered from the Cambodians. They chose the island of Cu-Lao-Pho, near Bien-Hoa. This island quickly prospered in their hands, and soon the new colony was providing woven and dyed silk and cotton to the Annamites of this region, who at that time were unfamiliar with the arts of cultivating mulberry and cotton trees, weaving and dyeing.

The revolt of the Tay-Son came to disturb this prosperity, and the settlers were forced to withdraw to the territory of Saigon, where they founded the city of Cholon. Thereafter its commercial importance increased day by day under the direction of its skilful founders, who soon invited more of their countrymen to join them. Some of these settlers were periodically replaced by others, but large numbers lived in the city for a long time and intermarried with the Annamites, without thinking of returning to China. That is why Cholon has so many Chinese-Annamite mixed-race people, known as Minh Huong. However, if death surprised them away from their homeland, almost all would still have their mortal remains transported back to their ancestral land, in order not to be deprived of the proper worship made by the living to the dead.

The Chinese have imported to Cochinchina their morals and religion, so it is not absolutely necessary to go to China to study the inhabitants of the Middle Kingdom.

The Pagode des Clochetons, Chợ Lớn, in 1861

Near Cholon, one may also visit the Pagode des Clochetons and the small fort of Cay-Mai, two names cited in relation to the Battle of Ky-Hoa.

Fort Cay-Mai is named after a tree which gave flowers with a pleasant scent reminiscent of the smell of violet. Before we arrived in this country, it is said that young girls and young boys (especially students) would gather under its shade to make offerings to the Buddha, sing love songs and strew the ground with flower lotus and water lily.

We will stop here, because to say any more would necessitate describing all of our colony, the whole of our Asiatic France, which we must postpone until another time.

P C Richard, Artillery lieutenant of the navy and the colonies

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 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.

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