Sinister Goings-on by the River – The CIO Building

SINISTER GOINGS ON IMAGE

The colonial villa at 3 Tôn Đức Thắng.

The white villa at 3 Tôn Đức Thắng in Hồ Chí Minh City’s District 1  has a rather sinister past.

From 1961 until 1975 this nondescript building was the headquarters of the notorious South Vietnamese Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO), the state espionage agency formed with American assistance to co-ordinate South Vietnamese foreign and domestic intelligence operations.

It has been claimed that the CIA, which was directly involved in setting up the organisation, also maintained its own interrogation facility within the building.

In his book Saigon 1975, Italian journalist Tiziano Terzani describes how when South Vietnamese authorities surrendered on 30 April 1975, four employees of this organisation whom no-one had suspected to be revolutionary activists suddenly took out guns, forced other employees to leave and barricaded themselves inside the building until North Vietnamese troops arrived.

In this way, they managed to save all the secret dossiers compiled over the years by South Vietnamese secret police in collaboration with the CIA.

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

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

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

Saigon Tramway Network

1 The grand opening of the SGTVC....

The grand opening of the Saigon–Chợ Lớn “high road” steam tramway line on 27 December 1881

As ever-increasing levels of traffic congestion and air pollution turn many of Hồ Chí Minh City’s road junctions into choking bottlenecks, many hopes are pinned on plans to construct a new urban railway network in the southern metropolis. Yet urban railways are hardly a new concept in this city, which was once home to one of Southeast Asia’s largest urban tramway networks.

Indochina’s first mechanised rail-guided transportation system was the 1m-gauge Saigon–Chợ Lớn “high road” steam tramway, operated by the Société générale des tramways à vapeur de Cochinchine (SGTVC) and opened to the public on 27 December 1881.

8 CFTI Low Road tramway grand opening

CFTI’s original 0.6m gauge Decauville tramway pictured in 1891

Ten years later, the Compagnie française des tramways de l’Indochine (CFTI) established a rival steam-hauled tramway line from Saigon to Chợ Lớn, which followed the “low road” along the north bank of the Bến Nghé Creek.

In 1895, the CFTI extended its tramway northwards from Saigon to Gò Vấp, but the company soon discovered that its initial choice of 0.6m gauge Decauville equipment had been a costly mistake – beset by technical problems and obliged to replace all of its track and rolling stock, the company was declared bankrupt in 1896.

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Saigon Tramway Station in the 1890s

However, the Colonial Council approved a generous refinancing arrangement and in subsequent years the company was transformed into a highly profitable operation which left SGTVC struggling to compete on the Saigon-Chợ Lớn route.

Indeed, so remarkable was the CFTI’s financial turnaround that between 1899 and 1906 it was able to afford a costly regauging of its entire network from 0.6m to 1m, and also to build an 800m slip road linking its Gò Vấp tramway station with the newly-built Saigon–Nha Trang railway line.

Other new lines followed, from Gò Vấp to Hóc Môn in 1904 and from Gò Vấp to Lái Thiêu in 1913. However, plans drawn up in 1912 to electrify the CFTI network and re-route tramway services through the city centre were delayed by war in Europe and not put into effect until 1923.

27 CFTI electric tram Cholon

A Galliéni line tram in Chợ Lớn in the 1940s

The dynamic growth of CFTI during this period was in stark contrast to the declining fortunes of SGTVC, which lost its Saigon–Chợ Lớn “high road” steam tramway franchise in 1911. The line then reverted to government control, becoming a run-down and loss-making component of the main-line Réseaux non concédés, but in 1925 it was acquired by CFTI and rebuilt as an electric tramway connecting Saigon and Chợ Lớn via the newly opened boulevard Galliéni (Trần Hưng Đạo boulevard).

In 1927-1929 the CFTI extended its network further from Lái Thiêu to Thủ Dầu Một, electrified the Gò Vấp-Lái Thiêu-Thủ Dầu Một and Gò Vấp-Hóc Môn lines and extended the “low road” tramway line west to Chợ Lớn’s Bình Tây Market.

37 CFTI electric tram Cholon

Another Galliéni line tram in Chợ Lớn in the late colonial era

During the same period, the company also began work on a further extension from Thủ Dầu Một to Bến Đồng Sổ, entering into a lucrative partnership with the Compagnie des voies ferrées de Lộc Ninh et du centre Indochinois (CVFLNCI) whereby freight trains on their new rubber plantation line from Lộc Ninh to Bến Đồng Sổ could use CFTI metals to access Saigon port – for more details, see Saigon’s Rubber Line. When that new branch opened in 1933, CFTI also secured the concession to run passenger services on behalf of CVFLNCI, thereby adding a further 69km to its existing 87km operational network.

During the 1930s and 1940s, the CFTI shrewdly diversified its operations to ensure that it also controlled the greater part of the city’s bus services.

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A CFTI electric tram circumnavigates the municipal theatre in the 1940s

However, both its tram and bus systems suffered serious damage during the Allied aerial bombing of 1943-1945 and the subsequent August Revolution of 1945. The events of the First Indochina War and the lawlessness occasioned by the Bình Xuyên organised crime syndicate in the early 1950s impacted heavily on CFTI revenue and in the period from 1950-1954 the company gradually closed its tramway lines and also threatened the withdrawal of bus services unless the government reviewed the terms of its contract.

In response, the Ministry of Public Works terminated CFTI’s franchise on 10 November 1956, at the same time announcing that the trams would be “abolished permanently and replaced by buses.” By 1957 the entire Saigon tramway system was no more.

338. Hồ Chí Minh City Urban Rail Network

The planned Hồ Chí Minh City Urban Rail Network

Unlike in Hà Nội, where electric trams soldiered on until as late as 1989 (see Hà Nội Tramway Network), it is now nearly 60 years since the Saigon tramway network was deemed surplus to requirements.

In some countries of the world, old tramway systems like that of Saigon have survived and still operate today much as they did when they were first built over a century ago. In others, new modern tramway systems have been created which run along public streets as well as on segregated sections of track.

However, in Việt Nam, with its more relaxed sense of road discipline, plans for new urban railway systems in both Hồ Chí Minh City and Hà Nội have thus far focused on a combination of underground and overhead light railway systems – which wisely keep running track at arm’s length from the chaos on the streets.

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.

You may also be interested in these articles on the railways and tramways of Việt Nam, Cambodia and Laos:

A Relic of the Steam Railway Age in Da Nang
By Tram to Hoi An
Date with the Wrecking Ball – Vietnam Railways Building
Derailing Saigon’s 1966 Monorail Dream
Dong Nai Forestry Tramway
Full Steam Ahead on Cambodia’s Toll Royal Railway
Goodbye to Steam at Thai Nguyen Steel Works
Ha Noi Tramway Network
How Vietnam’s Railways Looked in 1927
Indochina Railways in 1928
“It Seems that One Network is being Stripped to Re-equip Another” – The Controversial CFI Locomotive Exchange of 1935-1936
Phu Ninh Giang-Cam Giang Tramway
Saigon’s Rubber Line
The Changing Faces of Sai Gon Railway Station, 1885-1983
The Langbian Cog Railway
The Long Bien Bridge – “A Misshapen but Essential Component of Ha Noi’s Heritage”
The Lost Railway Works of Truong Thi
The Mysterious Khon Island Portage Railway
The Railway which Became an Aerial Tramway
The Saigon-My Tho Railway Line

A Relic of the Steam Railway Age in Da Nang

A RELIC OF THE STEAM AGE IMAGE 1

“Mikado” 2-8-2 number 141-521 hauls the first through train on the refurbished 1,100km “Transvietnamien” railway line ran from Đông Hà to Sài Gòn on 7 August 1959

The Chính Gián and Tam Thuận wards of Thanh Khê district in Đà Nẵng are home to a fascinating relic of the age of steam railways – a disused loop line built to turn around steam locomotives following the transformation of Đà Nẵng Central Station from a through station into a terminus.

The original main line from Hà Nội to Sài Gòn passed straight through Đà Nẵng Central Station, heading south through busy suburban streets and creating a major traffic hazard.

In 1955-1956, to solve this problem and also to permit the planned expansion of Đà Nẵng Air Base, the South Vietnamese railway company Hỏa Xa Việt Nam (HXVN) built the “déviation de Phông Lê” west of the city centre alongside National Highway 1.

Part of the old line was then repurposed as a freight branch across the Hàn River to the Tiên Sa Port area.

A RELIC OF THE STEAM AGE IMAGE 2

A map of the Đà Nẵng rail lines in the late 1950s, after the construction of the loop line

However, the building of the new line created a new problem – passenger trains now had to enter and leave Đà Nẵng Central Station via the same section of track, turning it into a terminus. In the absence of a turntable, a loop then had to be built to turn steam locomotives around before they could continue their journey.

The initial choice of lighter-grade rail in the construction of this loop proved to be something of a false economy; upgrading work was subsequently required under the Railway Reconstruction Program of 1957-1959 to permit its use by heavier express locomotives such as 141-500 “Mikados.”

Today the loop line remains intact, although according to Vietnam Railway officials it has not been used since the early 1990s.

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A view of the old loop line today with the rail track still in place

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Another view of the old loop line today with the rail track still in place

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Another view of the old loop line today with the rail track still in place

DA NANG LOOP LINE

The loop line as seen on Google Earth

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.

You may also be interested in these articles on the railways and tramways of Việt Nam, Cambodia and Laos:

By Tram to Hoi An
Date with the Wrecking Ball – Vietnam Railways Building
Derailing Saigon’s 1966 Monorail Dream
Dong Nai Forestry Tramway
Full Steam Ahead on Cambodia’s Toll Royal Railway
Goodbye to Steam at Thai Nguyen Steel Works
Ha Noi Tramway Network
How Vietnam’s Railways Looked in 1927
Indochina Railways in 1928
“It Seems that One Network is being Stripped to Re-equip Another” – The Controversial CFI Locomotive Exchange of 1935-1936
Phu Ninh Giang-Cam Giang Tramway
Saigon Tramway Network
Saigon’s Rubber Line
The Changing Faces of Sai Gon Railway Station, 1885-1983
The Langbian Cog Railway
The Long Bien Bridge – “A Misshapen but Essential Component of Ha Noi’s Heritage”
The Lost Railway Works of Truong Thi
The Mysterious Khon Island Portage Railway
The Railway which Became an Aerial Tramway
The Saigon-My Tho Railway Line

Did Finn Mac Cumhaill visit Viet Nam?

Ghềnh Đá Dĩa 2

A stretch of extraordinarily shaped basalt columns in coastal Phú Yên province bears an uncanny resemblance to the world-famous Giant’s Causeway UNESCO World Heritage Site in Northern Ireland.

Ghềnh Đá Dĩa 1No visit to Northern Ireland is complete without a trip to the famous Giant’s Causeway in County Antrim, where the cooling and solidification of ancient volcanic lava created around 40,000 vertical or gently inclined polygonal columns of extraordinary beauty.

According to legend, the columns and their identical counterparts at at Fingal’s Cave on the Scottish island of Staffa (which inspired Felix Mendelssohn’s famous overture “The Hebrides”) are the remains of a causeway which was built by pugnacious Irish giant Fionn mac Cumhaill (Finn MacCool) to reach his Scottish rival Benandonner, who had challenged him.

Ghềnh Đá Dĩa 3While the Giant’s Causeway was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986 and voted the fourth greatest natural wonder in the United Kingdom in a 2005 poll, a similar geological wonder right here in Việt Nam remains relatively unknown.

Accessed via a 14-kilometre dirt road leading west from Highway 1 at Ngân Sơn, 30 kilometres north of the Phú Yên provincial capital of Tuy Hòa, Ghềnh Đá Đĩa (“Plate Rock Cliff”) comprises a 200-metre stretch of mainly pentagonal and hexagonal basalt columns, uncannily similar to those at Giant’s Causeway.

Though recognised as a National Landscape Vestige in 1997, Ghềnh Đá Đĩa has yet to find its way onto international tourist itineraries.

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.

Ha Noi Tramway Network

HANOI TRAMWAYS IMAGE 1

A CTEH Line 1 tram at the place des Cocotiers terminus

When they first drew up plans for a citywide tramway network in 1894, it seemed as though the Hà Nội authorities would follow Sài Gòn’s example by opting for steam traction. Yet by the time government approval was forthcoming in 1899, advances in technology made it possible to construct the entire system as a state-of-the-art 1m gauge electric tramway.

In 1900, the Compagnie des tramways électriques d’Hanoï et extensions (CTEH) was to set up to build the first two tramway lines, which were jointly inaugurated in November 1901.

HANOI TRAMWAYS IMAGE 2

A CTEH Line 1 tram passes the “Petit Lac”

Setting out from the place des Cocotiers terminus next to the Petit lac (Hoàn Kiếm Lake), Line 1 led southward to Bạch Mai and Line 2 northeastward to Giấy village, near the today’s Bưởi Market. A subsequent decision of 20 July 1905 authorised the extension of Line 1 to Chợ Mơ on the route Circulaire (now Đại La street).

In 1904, work began on Line 3, which led east from the Petit lac to the Pagode des Corbeaux (the Temple of Literature) and then headed southwest to Thái Hà Ấp. This line was extended to Hà Đông in 1914 and to Cầu Đơ market in 1938.

Construction of Line 4 got under way in 1907. Following the path of Line 3 from place des Cocotiers to the Pagode des Corbeaux, it then branched westward to the Pont du Papier (Cầu Giấy).

HANOI TRAMWAYS IMAGE 3

A CTEH Line 3 tram at Hà Đông

In its early years, despite its apparent popularity, the Hà Nội tramway network suffered continuous financial problems and until as late as 1913, CTEH remained a deficitary operation. Thereafter profits remained relatively modest, precluding adequate maintenance on its rolling stock, track, catenary and buildings. In 1929, the increasingly run-down network was taken over by the Compagnie des tramways du Tonkin (CTT), which upgraded large stretches of track and catenary and ordered replacement second-generation tractor and trailer sets from France.

It was under the CTT that the final stage of network expansion was implemented. A decision of 14 November 1930 authorised the creation of Line 5, which branched off Line 3 and headed south along the route Mandarine to Kim Liên and northward from place Neyret to Yên Phụ on the Red River dyke. In 1943, Line 5 was extended further south as far as the route Circulaire, in order to serve the René Robin Hospital, the radio station and Bạch Mai airfield. With the completion of Line 5, the tramway network in Hà Nội had reached approximately 30km in length.

HANOI TRAMWAYS IMAGE 4

A Hà Nội Line 1 tram (1927 stock) heads south along Hàng Bài towards Bạch Mai in 1960

In 1952, at the height of the First Indochina War, the CTT was renamed the Société des transports en commun de la région de Hanoï. However, on 1 June 1955 this company ceased operations and all track, equipment and rolling stock was transferred to the new Democratic Republic of Việt Nam.

Unlike its Sài Gòn counterpart, the Hà Nội tramway system continued to function for nearly 30 years after independence, in fact in 1968 the Hà Nội People’s Committee even built an additional spur from the Cửa Nam junction along phố Cột Cờ (now đường Điện Biên Phủ) and đường Hùng Vương, rejoining Line 2 south of Trúc Bạch Lake. However by the early 1980s, track, catenary and rolling stock had deteriorated to the extent that the tramway was no longer fit for purpose. Line 1 (Bạch Mai Phong) was closed in 1982, followed in subsequent years by Line 4 (Cầu Giấy), Line 3 (Hà Đông), Line 5 (Yên Phụ) and finally in 1989 Line 2 (đường Bưởi).

HANOI TRAMWAYS IMAGE 5

A Hà Nội Line 2 tram (1927 stock) picture in the 1980s

Line 4 (Cầu Giấy) was offered a brief reprieve of sorts in 1986, when the route was taken over by a small donated fleet of old trolley buses from Eastern Europe. The Hà Nội-Cầu Giấy trolley bus fleet outlasted the trams, soldiering on until 1993, when it too fell victim to modernisation.

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.

You may also be interested in these articles on the railways and tramways of Việt Nam, Cambodia and Laos:

A Relic of the Steam Railway Age in Da Nang
By Tram to Hoi An
Date with the Wrecking Ball – Vietnam Railways Building
Derailing Saigon’s 1966 Monorail Dream
Dong Nai Forestry Tramway
Full Steam Ahead on Cambodia’s Toll Royal Railway
Goodbye to Steam at Thai Nguyen Steel Works
How Vietnam’s Railways Looked in 1927
Indochina Railways in 1928
“It Seems that One Network is being Stripped to Re-equip Another” – The Controversial CFI Locomotive Exchange of 1935-1936
Phu Ninh Giang-Cam Giang Tramway
Saigon Tramway Network
Saigon’s Rubber Line
The Changing Faces of Sai Gon Railway Station, 1885-1983
The Langbian Cog Railway
The Long Bien Bridge – “A Misshapen but Essential Component of Ha Noi’s Heritage”
The Lost Railway Works of Truong Thi
The Mysterious Khon Island Portage Railway
The Railway which Became an Aerial Tramway
The Saigon-My Tho Railway Line

 

The Saigon-My Tho Railway Line

saigon mytho locomotive

SACM 4-4-0T No. 8 “Vaico” pictured at Sài Gòn Depot

Inaugurated on 20 July 1885, the Sài Gòn-Mỹ Tho line was the first railway line in French Indochina.

SÀI GÒN-MỸ THO LINE IMAGE 2Originally conceived as part of an abortive grand Mekong Delta railway network, the Sài Gòn-Mỹ Tho railway line had a long and difficult birth, marred by bitter disputes between the contractor and the colonial authorities.

One particular bone of contention was the failure of the Maison Eiffel to compensate for track subsidence on marshy ground, leading to problems with the access ramps of its three metal viaducts at Bình Điền, Bến Lức and Tân An.

In 1888 the colonial authorities withdrew the franchise from the original operator, the Compagnie des chemins de fer garantis des colonies françaises (CCFGCF). The line was subsequently managed by the Sài Gòn tramway operator Société générale des tramways à vapeur de Cochinchine (SGTVC) until that company’s demise in 1911, after which it became part of the Réseaux non concédés, the network of railway lines operated directly by the Government General of Indochina.

Throughout its history, the line’s original 20kg/m rails were never upgraded, rendering it unsuitable for anything other than lightweight rolling stock.

10 SACM 4-4-0 “Express” locomotive No 7

A train leaving Mỹ Tho station in the early 1900s

During the 1930s, when competition from road transportation began to impact seriously on passenger numbers and revenue, the authorities responded by substituting Renault ABH-2 300hp diesel railcars for locomotive-hauled passenger trains.

During the First Indochina War, the French military began using the branch to move men and equipment in their campaign against southern revolutionary bases. On several occasions, Việt Minh forces responded by inflicting serious damage on the line’s track and bridges, but on each occasion repairs were carried out swiftly and the line remained open for the duration of the conflict.

15 Renault ABH7 railcar

A second-generation Renault ABH-7 300hp diesel railcar at Sài Gòn depot in the mid 1950s

By the 1950s, the road network in the Mekong Delta had expanded significantly. Lacking investment, the dilapidated line was increasingly unable to compete with faster trucks and motor coaches. With losses mounting, the South Vietnamese Department of Railways (Sở Hỏa Xa Việt Nam, HXVN) opted for closure. The last train from Sài Gòn to Mỹ Tho ran on 30 June 1958.

However, that wasn’t quite the end of the story. The railway track from Sài Gòn to Chợ Lớn (km 6) and Phú Lâm (km 8) remained in place after 1958 and continued to function intermittently as a local freight spur until at least 1970.

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.

You may also be interested in these articles on the railways and tramways of Việt Nam, Cambodia and Laos:

A Relic of the Steam Railway Age in Da Nang
By Tram to Hoi An
Date with the Wrecking Ball – Vietnam Railways Building
Derailing Saigon’s 1966 Monorail Dream
Dong Nai Forestry Tramway
Full Steam Ahead on Cambodia’s Toll Royal Railway
Goodbye to Steam at Thai Nguyen Steel Works
Ha Noi Tramway Network
How Vietnam’s Railways Looked in 1927
Indochina Railways in 1928
“It Seems that One Network is being Stripped to Re-equip Another” – The Controversial CFI Locomotive Exchange of 1935-1936
Phu Ninh Giang-Cam Giang Tramway
Saigon Tramway Network
Saigon’s Rubber Line
The Changing Faces of Sai Gon Railway Station, 1885-1983
The Langbian Cog Railway
The Long Bien Bridge – “A Misshapen but Essential Component of Ha Noi’s Heritage”
The Lost Railway Works of Truong Thi
The Mysterious Khon Island Portage Railway
The Railway which Became an Aerial Tramway