The Changing Faces of Sai Gon Railway Station, 1885-1983

Saigon 1946

The second Saigon Railway Station (1915-1983) depicted on a 1946 map

Travellers arriving by train in Hồ Chí Minh City sometimes express surprise that the main Sài Gòn Railway Station is located in Hòa Hưng, some distance from the Central Business District. In fact, this is the third railway terminus in a city where each successive station has been built further away from the river.

IMAGE 2 The site of the first Sài Gòn Railway Station

The location of the first Sài Gòn Railway Station

Opened in 1885 to serve Indochina’s earliest railway line from Sài Gòn to Mỹ Tho, the first Sài Gòn Railway Station was located at the riverside end of rue du Canton (modern Hàm Nghi boulevard). From there, the rail track ran west along the centre of the boulevard, cutting through what is now Quách Thị Trang square and following the path of modern Phạm Hồng Thái and Lê Thị Riêng streets en route for Chợ Lớn and Mỹ Tho.

The line’s first operator, the Compagnie des chemins de fer garantis des colonies françaises (CCFGCF), built a large dépôt-atelier next to the line, in the area now occupied by the west end of Hàm Nghi street and Quách Thị Trang square.

Saigon1900GSmR35Light

A map of 1900 showing the route of the Sài Gòn–Mỹ Tho and Sài Gòn–Nha Trang lines

After 1903, CCFGCF’s successor, the Société générale des tramways à vapeur de Cochinchine (SGTVC), added a freight spur which branched west from the station throat along rue d’Adran (now Hồ Tùng Mậu street) to connect with Sài Gòn docks via the pont tournant (Khánh Hội) swing bridge.

When construction of the Sài Gòn–Nha Trang line got underway in 1901, its route initially followed the existing Sài Gòn–Mỹ Tho line from rue du Canton – by then known as boulevard Krantz-Duperré – as far as the present-day Phù Đổng junction, where it branched northward along the route de Thuan-Kieu (now Cách mạng Tháng 8 street) to Hòa Hưng and onward to Biên Hòa.

Realising that the existing terminus was too small to serve two railway lines, the authorities drew up plans to build a larger station on the site of the existing dépôt-atelier at the western end of boulevard Krantz-Duperré. However, when this scheme fell through, a temporary terminus had to be set up next to the modern Hàm Nghi/Nam Kỳ Khởi Nghĩa intersection. Consequently, when the first 29km section of the Sài Gòn–Nha Trang line was inaugurated on 13 January 1904, trains on the new line departed from this temporary terminus, while Sài Gòn–Mỹ Tho line trains continued to use the old riverside station.

10 Sài Gòn Station in 1916

The second Sài Gòn Station (pictured left) in 1916

The redevelopment which accompanied the construction of the new Halles centrales (Bến Thành Market) from 1910 onwards gave the colonial authorities the chance to rectify this unsatisfactory state of affairs by rerouting both the Sài Gòn–Mỹ Tho and Sài Gòn–Nha Trang railway lines into a single terminus southwest of the new market.

Construction of this second Sài Gòn Railway Station got under way in 1911 and it opened in September 1915. Its southwest-facing alignment — preserved to this day in the shape of 23-9 Park on Hồ Chí Minh City’s popular “backpacker street,” Phạm Ngũ Lão — necessitated only minor modifications to the route of the Sài Gòn–Mỹ Tho line, but the Sài Gòn–Nha Trang line had to be completely realigned southward from Hòa Hưng along what is now Nguyễn Thượng Hiền street.

12 Second Saigon Station

A “platform’s eye view” of the second Sài Gòn Station

At the same time, the old dépôt-atelier was demolished, permitting boulevard Krantz-Duperré to be extended westward into a spacious new square named place Eugène Cuniac (now Quách Thị Trang square), where a grand southern headquarters for the Chemins de fer de l’Indochine (CFI) was built opposite the station entrance.

A single-track line was left in place along boulevard Krantz-Duperré to maintain freight access to the Saigon port and this was connected to the new station by a rail spur across place Cuniac.

Unfortunately in subsequent years the colonial authorities realised that the new railway station blocked several main traffic arteries and in the mid 1920s its location was deemed to be “the cause of deplorable circulation and atrophication” in the city centre.

27 Ham Nghi with rail track 1960s

The old freight track on Hàm Nghi boulevard pictured during the 1960s

By this time too, as the construction of the Transindochinois from Sài Gòn to Hà Nội neared completion, it was increasingly felt that the new station had insufficient capacity to deal with the anticipated increase in both passenger and freight traffic. Plans were therefore drawn up to relocate the terminus yet again – this time out of the city centre to Hòa Hưng.

North of Hòa Hưng, the original path of the Sài Gòn-Nha Trang line took it along rue Capitaine Faucon (modern Trần Quang Diệu and Trần Huy Liệu streets). However, a 3.6 million-piastre project of 1931 recommended that the line should be rerouted to the west of this alignment to terminate at Hòa Hưng, where a new Sài Gòn Railway Station would be built, along with a locomotive depot and a Gare de marchandises (freight depot). To access the new station, the final stretch of the Sài Gòn–Mỹ Tho line would also be diverted northward from Phú Lâm. In fact, the project ran into various difficulties and was only partially completed.

23 Saigon Station 3

Sài Gòn Railway Station pictured in 1968

By 1938 the Sài Gòn-Nha Trang line north of Hòa Hưng had been rerouted along its current path and new freight and locomotive depots had been built on the deviation. However, for the time being Sài Gòn Railway Station was left where it was.

Following the closure of the Sài Gòn–Mỹ Tho branch line in 1958, CFI’s successor, the South Vietnamese Department of Railways (Sở Hỏa xa Việt Nam, HXVN), drew up its own scheme to close the unloved city centre railway terminus and relocate it to Hòa Hưng. However, since it was unable to secure the necessary funds, the long-mooted northward relocation of the southern rail terminus would not be realised until after Reunification.

From 1967 onwards, National Liberation Front and North Vietnamese army attacks on the southern railway network intensified and in the wake of the Tết Offensive of 1968 the HXVN found it increasingly difficult to maintain train services. By 1971 scheduled services in and out of Sài Gòn had effectively ceased.

The first “Unification Express”arrives from Hà Nội on 4 January 1976

After Reunification in 1975, the restoration of the entire North-South railway to operation became a political priority. In December 1976 the first through train services since 1945 ran between Hà Nội and Sài Gòn, now known as Hồ Chí Minh City.

Construction of the current terminus – the third Sài Gòn Railway Station – began in 1978 on the site of the old French Gare de marchandises. It was completed in November 1983 and after its inauguration the old railway track into the city centre was removed. The site of the old city-centre terminus became “23-9 Park,” named in memory of those patriots killed while resisting the British Indian forces who helped the French to reoccupy Sài Gòn on 23 September 1945.

IMAGE 7 The third and current Sài Gòn Railway Station

The third and current Sài Gòn Railway Station

Interestingly, current plans for the future development of Hồ Chí Minh City as a rail hub call for the southernmost stretch of the North-South line from Bình Triệu into Hồ Chí Minh City to be rebuilt as an elevated fast line and extended through the city to a new terminus in the southwest suburb of Tân Kiên. Perhaps in future the sound of railway trains will one day be heard in the heart of the southern capital.

IMAGE 1 The original path

The paths of the Sài Gòn–Mỹ Tho and Sài Gòn–Nha Trang lines from 1904 until 1915, superimposed on the modern street map

IMAGE 6 The final path

The paths of the Sài Gòn–Mỹ Tho and Sài Gòn–Nha Trang lines after 1938, superimposed on the modern street map

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 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

Gateway to Nowhere – The “Gia Dinh Gate,” 1913

1. The so-called “Gia Định Citadel Gate”

The so-called “Gia Định Citadel Gate”

It’s claimed by several tourism websites that a gateway from one of the ancient Gia Định citadels has survived and may be viewed on the Đinh Tiên Hoàng/Phan Đăng Lưu street intersection in Bình Thạnh district, close to the Lê Văn Duyệt Mausoleum. However, a little research into the history of that area reveals that the gateway in question has more recent origins.

The gateway, popularly known as the Gia Định Citadel Gate (Cổng thành Gia Định), is built into the outer wall of the Trương Công Định Primary School and does bear a very superficial resemblance to the east gate of the 1837 Gia Định Citadel as depicted in the famous drawing of the French attack of 1859, although clearly it was conceived on a significantly smaller scale.

2. A 1966 map of what is now

A 1966 map of what is now the Đinh Tiên Hoàng/Phan Đăng Lưu junction

In fact, since neither the Lũy Bán Bích city walls of 1772 nor the two citadels of 1790 and 1837 (see my earlier post The Citadels of Gia Định) were located anywhere near this neighbourhood, the idea that it ever formed part of those structures may be ruled out.

Old maps reveal that the Trương Công Định Primary School stands on part of the site formerly occupied by the historic Gia Định School of Drawing (École de dessin Gia-Dinh), an applied arts school set up by the French in 1913 to provide continuing studies for graduates of the Thủ Dầu Một School of Indigenous Arts (École d’art indigène de Thu-Dau-Mot, teaching mainly woodwork and lacquerware) and the Biên Hòa School of Arts (École d’art de Bien-Hoa, teaching mainly ceramics and bronzecasting).

An important training ground for many pioneering southern painters and sculptors, it was renamed the Gia Định School of Applied Arts (École des arts décoratifs de Gia-Dinh) in 1940 and after 1954 it became the Gia Định Secondary School of Decorative Arts (Trường Trung học Trang trí Mỹ thuật Gia Định).

3. The École de dessin Gia-Dinh

The École de dessin Gia-Dinh pictured in the 1920s

After 1955, this Gia Định Secondary School of Decorative Arts became the Sài Gòn National College of Fine Art (Trường Quốc gia Cao đảng Mỹ thuật Sài Gòn) and the original 1913 École de dessin Gia-Dinh building was demolished to make way for a larger and more modern structure.

After Reunification in 1975, the Sài Gòn National College of Fine Art became the Hồ Chí Minh City College of Fine Art (Trường Cao đảng Mỹ thuật Thành Phố Hồ Chí Minh). This institution was upgraded in 1981 to the status of a university.

While the original École de dessin Gia-Dinh building was being demolished in 1955 to make way for a new structure, the art school’s large campus was reduced in size, and the area closest to the junction with Lê Văn Duyệt (now Đinh Tiên Hoàng) street was repurposed to build a new primary school, now the Trương Công Định Primary School.

However, it seems that the attractive old 1913 gateway bearing the name “Gia-Dinh” caught the eye of city planners, who decided to preserve as part of the primary school wall.

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.

K20 Resistance Base in Da Nang

The few surviving relics of one of the American War’s most intriguing revolutionary vestiges would appear to be under threat as the developers transform Đà Nẵng’s historic Ngũ Hành Sơn district.

1. Directions to the K20 Resistance Base

Directions to the K20 Resistance Base showing (1) the Traditional House, (3) the House of Mrs Nguyễn Thị Hải, (5) the House of Mr Huỳnh Trưng and (6) the Mrs Nhiêu Temple

Many Đà Nẵng visitors and residents are familiar with the old Nước Mặn helicopter base, which is situated next to the Đà Nẵng-Hội An road in Ngũ Hành Sơn district.

2. Nước Mặn Airbase

Nước Mặn Airbase pictured in 1968

Part of the 1964-built US Airforce base has survived and is currently home to a cement factory, though it retains its runway and several clusters of Hardened Aircraft Shelters.

Yet relatively few people seem to be aware of the existence of a former underground resistance base which once operated little more than a stone’s throw to the west of it.

Known by the code name K20, this secret base was set up by the National Liberation Front (NLF) in 1962 in an area of 4km² beneath the former villages of Đa Phước, Nước Mặn, Mỹ Thị and Bà Đa. Still the subject of a major display in Đà Nẵng Museum, K20 functioned right down to 1975 and comprised at its height a dense network of up to 157 interconnected tunnels which were used for the storage of weapons and as a base for NLF commando units.

3. A stele outside the House

Stele outside the House of Mrs Nguyễn Thị Hải

Most of the secret tunnels have long since disappeared and much of the area (situated immediately west of the new Đà Nẵng Women and Children’s Hospital) now resembles a large building site. Even the “K20 Traditional House,” a small museum located next to the People’s Committee Building on K20 street, has seen better days and is currently closed pending refurbishment.

However, a visit to the surviving village of Đa Mặn reveals that a few old revolutionary vestiges have survived the bulldozers.

4. A secret tunnel under the

Entrance to a secret tunnel under the House of Mrs Nguyễn Thị Hải

Standing near the westernmost end of K20 street, the House of Mrs Nguyễn Thị Hải (Nhà bà Nguyễn Thị Hải) was the site of the area’s very first secret tunnel, dug in 1962 to hide revolutionary cadres. Two interconnected tunnel systems could once be accessed through hatches in the floor beneath a rear building, but the partial collapse of the structure last year has left only one small cellar accessible.

Further west, near the banks of the ancient Cổ Cò river, lies another small cluster of revolutionary vestiges.

5. The secret entrance to the tunnel

Entrance to the secret tunnel under the House of Mr Huỳnh Trưng

The main focus of interest here is the House of Mr Huỳnh Trưng (Nhà ông Huỳnh Trưng), where a secret tunnel was built in 1968 and maintained in constant usage right down to 1975. The septuagenarian owner, a young cadre at the time of the American War, proudly invites visitors into his family temple, opens a secret door beneath the main shrine and leads his guests into a cramped hidden space. With a torch it is possible to locate the hole in the floor which was used to access an underground escape passageway leading out to the fields bordering the riverbank.

Underneath the nearby Mrs Nhiêu Temple (Nhà Thờ bà Nhiêu), the NLF constructed a network of six tunnels and underground rooms which once functioned as the clandestine headquarters of the Đà Nẵng Party Committee. Today the entrance has been bricked up for safety reasons to discourage visitors from descending into what remains of the tunnel network.

6. The Mrs Nhiêu Temple

The Mrs Nhiêu Temple

According to a recent article in the Báo Đà Nẵng, the Nước Mặn Air Base is currently scheduled for redevelopment as a modern helicopter and seaplane base as part of the plan to make Đà Nẵng the most modern city in Việt Nam by 2030.

In a city where many historic structures have already been lost in the headlong rush for modernity, it can only be hoped that other important heritage sites like K20 Resistance Base can be saved for future generations.

Getting there
Khu ăn cứ K20, Phường Khuê Mỹ, Quận Ngũ Hành Sơn, Thành phố Đà Nẵng

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 Citadels of Gia Dinh

The location of the first Gia Định Citadel of 1790, superimposed on the modern street map

Tourist guidebooks often remind us that Sài Gòn once had its own citadel. In fact, within the relatively short space of 70 years (1770-1840), this city saw the construction of three major fortifications by the ruling Nguyễn family.

The earliest of these was the Lũy Bán Bích (or Bán Bích Cổ Lũy), built in 1772 by one of Lord Nguyễn Phúc Thuần’s generals, Nguyễn Cửu Đàm, to protect the settlement from invading Siamese armies.

IMAGE 2

The location of the Lũy Bán Bích city walls of 1772

The Lũy Bán Bích was not a citadel but a fortified city wall, which stretched over 8.5km from the Bình Dương River in the Minh Hương settlement (Chợ Lớn) to the Thị Nghè creek in Bến Nghé (Sài Gòn). Though no traces of this structure have survived, it left a footprint in the configuration of several modern streets, including Lý Chính Thắng and Trần Quang Khải.

In his 30-year war against the Tây Sơn brothers, Nguyễn Phúc Thuần’s nephew Lord Nguyễn Phúc Ánh turned first to Siam and later to France for military assistance. Thanks to funds raised in the late 1780s by his French ally Pierre Pigneau de Béhaine (1741-1799), Bishop of Adran, he was able to modernise his armed forces and to engage the services of French military advisers to train them in the latest techniques of European warfare.

IMAGE 3

Nguyễn Phúc Ánh, later King Gia Long (1802-1820)

French military assistance also extended to the construction of several new fortifications. The largest of these was the first Gia Định Citadel, built in 1790 by a team of 30,000 labourers under the charge of French engineering corps mercenaries Olivier de Puymanel and Théodore Le Brun to serve as Nguyễn Phúc Ánh’s temporary royal capital (Gia Định Kinh). Although built in accordance with the principles of Vauban military architecture, the polyhedron-shaped citadel’s perceived similarity to an octagon and the fact that it had eight gates gained it the popular local name, Bát Quái (“Eight Trigrams”) Citadel.

Located on a 1.2km x 1.2km site corresponding to the area between the modern Lê Thánh Tôn, Nam Kỳ Khởi Nghĩa, Nguyễn Đình Chiểu and Đinh Tiên Hoàng streets, the citadel was constructed from Biên Hòa granite, with 5m high walls and bastions surrounded by a deep moat. It was dominated on its southern side by a large flag tower and the main Càn Nguyên southern gate stood in the vicinity of today’s Đồng Khởi/Lý Tự Trọng street junction, where surviving sections of bastion wall were unearthed during construction work in 1926. The citadel was connected with the royal wharf on the Sài Gòn river by what is now Đồng Khởi street.

IMAGE 4

This 1793 map depicts the first Gia Định Citadel (1790) and the eastern end of the earlier Lũy Bán Bích city walls (1772)

At its centre (close to the modern Lê Duẩn/Hai Bà Trưng street junction) was the King’s Palace, flanked on its left by the Prince’s Palace. Immediately behind it was the Queen’s Palace, and in front of it was a large parade ground and armoury. Other buildings included an army barracks, a hospital, a wagon workshop, an arsenal, a forge and three gunpowder stores. The citadel was the focal point of a highway network known as the Thiên Lý road, which led west to the Mekong Delta, north west to Cambodia and north east to Huế and Thăng Long (Hà Nội).

His newly-upgraded forces and fortifications gave Nguyễn Phúc Ánh a qualitative military edge, contributing in no small way to his final victory over the Tây Sơn and facilitating his accession to the throne in 1802 as the first Nguyễn dynasty king, Gia Long (1802-1820). He subsequently chose Huế as his royal capital, but Gia Định remained a settlement of great strategic importance and during the first three decades of Nguyễn dynasty rule it was afforded a significant measure of political and economic autonomy under a series of royal Viceroys, the best known being Marshal Lê Văn Duyệt (1763-1832). However, this autonomy subsequently attracted the wrath of Gia Long’s successor Minh Mạng (1820-1841), who after Duyệt’s death in 1832 set about restoring central government control, pointedly downgrading Gia Định to the status of a mere provincial capital.

Later, in a symbolic act designed to discourage any further separatist tendencies after the failed southern uprising of 1832-1835, Minh Mạng had his father’s great royal citadel of 1790 demolished and replaced by a considerably smaller one.

The location of the second Gia Định Citadel of 1837, superimposed on the modern street map

This “Phoenix Citadel” of 1837 stood in the area now bordered by Nguyễn Đình Chiểu, Nguyễn Du, Mạc Đĩnh Chi and Nguyễn Bỉnh Khiêm streets. It, too, was built in accordance with Vauban principles, though in the shape of a square with 5m high walls and four corner bastions, surrounded by a 3m deep moat.

Although no traces of this second Gia Định Citadel have survived, an almost identical structure – the Điện Hải Citadel (see later post Dien Hai – Da Nang’s forgotten Vauban citadel) – may still be seen today in Đà Nẵng.

The French attacked the south gate of the 1837 Gia Định Citadel in February 1859 (top); the French demolished the Citadel and in 1872-1873 built their 11th Colonial Infantry Barracks on the site (middle); the gatehouses of the former 11th Colonial Infantry Barracks still stand today on the junction of Lê Duẩn and Đinh Tiên Hoàng (bottom)

The Phoenix Citadel survived for just 22 years; following the conquest of 1859, the French razed it to the ground and in 1870-1873 they built a Caserne de l’infanterie (infantry barracks) over its front section. Despite the demise of Minh Mạng’s citadel, the French continued to call the area “Citadelle” throughout the colonial period.

The Caserne de l’infanterie originally contained rows of handsome iron-framed colonial barracks buildings, identical to those which may still be seen today at the nearby Children’s Hospital 2 (the former Grall Hospital).

IMAGE 7

The front gate of the barracks in the aftermath of the November 1963 coup

Following the Japanese coup of March 1945, they were used briefly to intern French troops. Then in 1956, South Vietnamese President Ngô Đình Diệm renamed the Caserne de l’infanterie as the Thành Cộng Hòa (Republic Citadel) and turned it into the headquarters of his elite Presidential Guard. Consequently the compound suffered serious damage during the coup of November 1963 which deposed him.

After the coup, the remaining military installations were moved out of the old barracks compound and an extension to Đinh Tiên Hoàng street was driven right through the middle of it.

By 1967 Sài Gòn University had taken up residence in the southwest section, while the American Armed Forces Radio Television Service (AFRTS) and the locally-run Việt Nam Television (Truyền hình Việt Nam, forerunner of Hồ Chí Minh City Television, HTV) occupied much of the northeast section. Today the former barracks site is shared between the Hồ Chí Minh City University of Social Sciences and Humanities and HTV.

Despite all of this redevelopment, it’s still possible today to identify the buildings which frame the entrance to Đinh Tiên Hoàng street on the Lê Duẩn junction as those which originally stood either side of the main gate of the 1873 Caserne de l’infanterie – buildings which constitute our last link with the lost royal citadels of Gia Định.

A front view of the 11th Colonial Infantry Barracks in the early 1900s and the same view of the Lê Duẩn-Đinh Tiên Hoàng intersection today

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 Langbian Cog Railway

1. An SLM HG4

An SLM HG4/4 0-8-0T rack-and-pinion locomotive negotiates the Bellevue Pass in early 1927

For many people it comes as a surprise to learn that before 1975 Việt Nam had its own Swiss-built cog railway line, an 84km branch which connected Tháp Chàm in Ninh Thuận Province with the central highlands resort of Đà Lạt.

701

SLM HG4/4 0-8-0T rack-and-pinion locomotive No 707

The history of Đà Lạt may be traced back to the 1890s when it was founded by the French as a high-altitude health spa where colonial residents could escape from the heat of the Mekong Delta and coastal region.

Plans to connect the town by rail with the North-South line at Tourcham (Tháp Chàm) were drawn up before the end of the 19th century, but in the event the 84km branch line took almost 30 years to build.

Work on the first 40km from Tourcham to Krông Pha got under way in 1903, but although it involved only conventional adhesion rail technology, the project suffered numerous delays and the line was not inaugurated until 1919.

15 HG 4-4 Bellevue Pass

An SLM HG4/4 0-8-0T rack-and-pinion locomotive in the Bellevue Pass in the 1930s

The final 44km involved an ascent from 186m to 1,550m, with steep gradients of up to 120mm/m, so the Swiss cog railway company Schweizerische Lokomotiv- und Maschinenfabrik (SLM) of Winterthur, represented in Indochina by the Société d’entreprises asiatiques, was entrusted with the work. Construction began on 20 March 1923 and the line was completed in 1932.

At the outset, nine Schweizerische Lokomotiv- und Maschinenfabrik (SLM) superheated 46-tonne HG4/4 0-8-0T rack-and-pinion locomotives (originally numbered 701-709) were purchased to haul trains on this line. Seven of these (701-705, 708-709) were built at SLM’s Winterthur factory, while the remaining two (706-707) were built on their behalf by Maschinenfabrik Esslingen.

The new cog railway played a key role in the development of Indochina tourism, but the bulk of the line’s revenue was earned by transporting fresh fruit, vegetables and flowers from the market gardens of the Langbian plateau down to the lowlands.

76. SLM HG4 4 0-8-0T cog locomotive

SLM HG4/4 0-8-0T rack-and-pinion locomotive no 704 between Bellevue and Dran in early 1927

At the start of the first Indochina War in 1945-1946, the Langbian Cog Railway suffered extensive damage at the hands of the Việt Minh, who destroyed four of the line’s original HG4/4 locomotives, leaving just 40-302 (702), 40-303 (703), 40-304 (704), 40-306 (706) and 40-308 (708) in operational condition.

The line was repaired and reopened to public service in 1947. In that year, to replace the locomotives lost during the conflict, the CFI purchased an additional four second-hand 42-tonne SLM HG3/4 2-6-0T rack-and-pinion locomotives (numbered 31-201-31-204) from the recently-electrified Furka-Oberalp Railway in Switzerland.

For financial reasons, proposals in the 1960s by the South Vietnamese railway operator Hỏa Xa Việt Nam (HXVN) to electrify the line were abandoned, and in the years which followed, lack of investment, coupled with deteriorating security, began to impact seriously on the operation of the line.

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The stylish art deco Đà Lạt Station building pictured in 1948

The Langbian Cog Railway continued to offer a public service until September 1969, when HXVN announced that “because the operation of the line is unprofitable, the line is short of locomotives and safety cannot be guaranteed, the HXVN will suspend operations until the security situation has improved.” In the event, the security situation did not improve and the line remained closed. After 1975 the track was removed.

Considerable controversy was generated in Việt Nam by the sale in 1990 of the surviving cog locomotives which lay rusting in the station yard at Đà Lạt. HG 4/4 locomotives Nos. 40-304 and 40-308, along with the four HG3/4 locomotives 31-201-31-204, were purchased by the Furka Cogwheel Steam Railway (Dampfbahn Furka-Bergstrecke, DFB) as part of the project to reopen the mountainous section of the old Furka-Oberalp Railway, and then repatriated to Switzerland. Since that time, 40-304 and 40-308 have been restored to service under their original numbers 704 and 708.

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Rusting cog locomotives commencing their journey back to Switzerland in 1990….

However, the fate of the magnificent three-span iron railway bridge over the River Đa Nhim—broken up and sold for scrap in 2004 while the provincial authorities reportedly turned a blind eye —suggests that their return to Switzerland may have saved the old engines from an untimely end.

Since that time, the growth of tourism in Đà Lạt has fuelled a revival of interest in the abandoned cog railway. In 1992 the art deco Đà Lạt Station building was renovated as a national heritage site and a 7km adhesion rail section of the line from Đà Lạt to Trại Mát was reopened for tourists, using diesel traction. The Dalat Train Villa currently offers exploratory walks through abandoned tunnels and stations.

Since 1996, various plans have been advanced to rebuild the Langbian Cog Railway, but as yet it remains uncertain how and when this will be achieved.

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…. now restored to their former glory on the Furka Cogwheel Steam Railway (image copyright Dampfbahn Furka-Bergstrecke)

Due to the specialist nature of cog railway technology, a complete reconstruction will be both complex and expensive, and success is likely to be contingent on the involvement of international technical expertise. At the time of writing a feasibility study has yet to be undertaken.

Had the original Tháp Chàm–Đà Lạt line survived intact, there can be little doubt that it would now be one of Asia’s most important tourist attractions and most probably also a UNESCO World Heritage Site like India’s famous Nilgiri Mountain Railway. If the plan to restore it is successful, Việt Nam could one day becoming one of Asia’s prime railway heritage tourism destinations. Understandably, the progress of the scheme to rebuild it has since been watched with great interest by the Vietnamese tourist sector.

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 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

Saigon’s Favourite Churches – Hanh Thong Tay Church

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The urban sprawl of Hạnh Thông Tây in the Gò Vấp district of Hồ Chí Minh City is the rather unlikely setting for what is believed to be Việt Nam’s only Byzantine style Roman Catholic church.

Hạnh Thông Tây Church was built under the auspices of the Société des Missions Étrangères de Paris (MEP) in 1921-1924. The land was provided by one of wealthy landowner Huyện Sỹ’s sons, Denis Lê Phát An (1868-1946) and his wife Anna Trần Thị Thơ, who also paid most of the construction costs, the remainder being met through donations.

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Hạnh Thông Tây Church pictured from the rear

The work was initially entrusted to a French contractor named Baader. However, on one of his frequent visits to the site during the construction period, Denis Lê Phát An noticed many major technical errors, particularly on the façade, so he issued Baader with a warning and later sacked him altogether, bringing in a new contractor named Lamorte to finish the job.

Uniquely for a church built in Việt Nam, its architecture was influenced not by Gothic or Romanesque but by Byzantine style, reportedly taking as its model the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy. Italian bricks were used throughout the interior to give the impression of a traditional Italian sanctuary. The church underwent extensive but sympathetic restoration in 2011-2012.

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The tomb of Denis Lê Phát An

Hạnh Thông Tây Church has a traditional cruciform-shaped groundplan and the interior features a high vaulted nave flanked by flat-roofed side aisles, a transept and a raised sanctuary which terminates in an apse.

The hemispherical semi-dome above the apse features a large painting of Christ on the Cross. A 20m high dome is located immediately above the crossing and the ring at its base is similarly decorated with paintings of Christ’s Disciples. The high altar is made from white marble and features elaborate floral engraving. Shrines to Mary and Joseph stand in front of the transept walls, either side of the sanctuary. The 14 Stations of the Cross are situated between the windows along both church walls.

When Denis’s wife Anna Trần Thị Thơ died on 18 January 1932 at the “Monjoie villa” in Thủ Đức, she was buried in an elaborate tomb in the east transept of the church. Fourteen years later, when Denis himself died on 17 September 1946 in Sài Gòn, he was buried in a matching tomb in the west transept. The two tombs are elegantly realised in Renaissance style by unnamed French sculptors and depict effigies of the couple kneeling in prayer, each mourning the other.

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Hạnh Thông Tây Church during the 1968 Tết Offensive

The church originally incorporated a 30m high steeple, but in 1953 the spire was removed at the request of Indochina Airlines, reducing its height to 19.5m for reasons of aviation safety.

The shortened tower later suffered damage during the 1968 Tết Offensive, after NLF Special Forces famously used it to fire on American positions at the nearby Tân Sơn Nhất Air Base.

The church and its recently-built conference hall stand in a compound with large statues of Jesus and Mary located either side of the main entrance. The interior walls of the compound feature 15 elaborately carved sculptures depicting scenes from the New Testament.

Getting there
Address: Nhà thờ Hạnh Thông Tây, 53/7 Quang Trung, Phường 11, Quận Gò Vấp, Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh
Telephone: 84 (0) 8 3895 8069, 84 (0) 90 999 4688
Opening hours: By permission of Father Clêmentê Lê Minh (office behind the church), 8.15am-11am, 2pm-4pm Tue-Sat

You may also be interested to read these articles:

Saigon’s Favourite Churches – Huyen Sy Church
Saigon’s Favourite Churches – Tan Dinh Church
Saigon’s Lost Protestant Chapel

BYZANTINE TREASURE SPARE IMAGE

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

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

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

Saigon’s Favourite Churches – Huyen Sy Church

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Huyện Sỹ Church

Widely regarded as one of the most beautiful churches in the city, the Église Huyện Sỹ in District 1 was constructed in 1902-1905 the corner of rue Frère Louis (now Nguyễn Trãi street) and rue Frère Guilleraut (now Tôn Thất Tùng street).

The church was designed by Father Charles Boutier (1845-1927), an architect of considerable merit who had previously designed the Thủ Đức Church and redesigned the Sisters of Saint Paul de Chartres’ École de Sainte-Enfance complex after its original wooden buildings had been damaged by termites.

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The nave of Huyện Sỹ Church

The church was built through the benificence of Huyện Sỹ (1841-1900, real name Philippe Lê Phát Ðạt) who, according to the popular 19th-century saying Nhất Sỹ, nhì Phương, tam Xường, tứ Hỏa – “First Sỹ, second Phương; third Xường and fourth Hỏa” – was once the richest man in the south.

Huyện Sỹ also funded the construction of the churches in Chí Hoà and Thủ Đức, while his son Denis Lê Phát An later built the extraordinary Byzantine church in Hạnh Thông Tây.

Born in Cầu Kho (Sài Gòn) to a Catholic family from Tân An (Long An), Huyện Sỹ was sent to Pinang (Malaysia) to study for the priesthood, where he learned Latin, French, Chinese and quốc ngữ (Romanised Vietnamese).

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The high altar

After his return to Sài Gòn, the French authorities appointed him as a government interpreter and in 1880 he received the rare honour of being made a member of the Cochinchina Colonial Council, in which capacity he was able to acquire the large tracts of land from which he made his fortune.

So spectacular was Huyện Sỹ’s rise that his granddaughter, Marie-Thérèse Nguyễn Hữu Thị Lan, later became Queen Consort Nam Phương, first and primary wife of King Bảo Đại.

Together with his wife Huỳnh Thị Tài (1845-1920), Huyện Sỹ donated one seventh of his family inheritance to build the church and also contributed the land on which it sits. Sometimes known as Nhà thờ Chợ Đũi (Đũi Market Church) because it was located in Chợ Đũi parish, Huyện Sỹ Church is dedicated to St Philip the Apostle.

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Detail on the front of the high altar.

Immediately in front of the church stands a statue of St Matthêu Lê Văn Gẫm (Lê Văn Bôi, 1813-1847), a Vietnamese priest and merchant from Biên Hòa Province who was captured and beheaded in the Chợ Đũi area on the orders of the Nguyễn-dynasty court for his Catholic missionary activities. He was beatified by Pope Leo XIII in 1900 and a festival of remembrance is held at the church every year on 11 May, the date of his execution. The grounds also contain numerous other shrines, including a statue to St Joseph and a Mountain of Our Lady, built in 1960. A Chapel of Rest has recently been added.

The church itself has been refurbished on numerous occasions, most recently in 2007-2009. It measures 40m long by 18m wide and was built from brick with pillars and decorative work in Biên Hòa granite. Above the front vestibule is a 57m bell tower. A statue of St Philip stands at the main entrance.

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The Huyện Sỹ mausoleum.

The design of the church is Gothic with Romanesque decorative elements and comprises a vaulted nave flanked by vaulted aisles, decorated in pastel green and white. The windows are adorned with images of Bible stories in Italian stained glass. Along the walls are statues of Biblical and Vietnamese saints and the 14 Stations of the Cross. On either side of the transept are small chapels dedicated to the Virgin Mary and St Joseph.

The chancel features a richly-decorated marble high altar, which stands on an open platform and features ornate gilding work and exquisitely-carved bas-reliefs of biblical scenes, including the Last Supper and Mary being visited by the Angel Gabriel.

Huyện Sỹ passed away in 1900 before the church was complete. When his wife Huỳnh Thị Tài died in 1920, he was reburied alongside his wife in the axial memorial chapel immediately behind the chancel. Elaborately carved from the finest marble, the tombs feature full-length effigies of the couple. Busts of Huyện Sỹ and Huỳnh Thị Tài are also installed on the walls.

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The effigy of Huyện Sỹ.

The bell tower contains four bells which were cast in France in 1905. The donor of the two smaller bells (diameter 0.95m) is not known.

However, the two largest bells (diameter 1.05m) were presented to the church by one of Huyện Sỹ’s sons, Jean Baptiste Lê Phát Thanh, and his wife Anna Đỗ Thị Thao. To honour their contribution to the Huyện Sỹ Church, their busts are also displayed in the Huyện Sỹ memorial chapel behind the chancel.

Getting there:
Address: Nhà thờ Huyện Sỹ, 1 Tôn Thất Tùng, Phường Phạm Ngũ Lão, Quận 1, Thành Phố Hồ Chí Minh
Telephone: 84 (0) 8 3833 0820, 84 (0) 8 3925 5806
Opening hours: By permission of the Priest, Father Ernest Nguyễn Văn Hưởng, 8am-11am, 2pm-4.30pm Tue-Sat

You may also be interested to read these articles:

Saigon’s Favourite Churches – Hanh Thong Tay Church
Saigon’s Favourite Churches – Tan Dinh Church
Saigon’s Lost Protestant Chapel

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.

Off the Tourist Trail in Saigon – The People’s Army Delegation HQ

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Located just a short walk from the Lê Văn Duyệt Mausoleum in the Phú Nhuận District of Hồ Chí Minh City, the rather grandly named “Headquarters of the Delegation Linking the Việt Nam People’s Army High Command with International Monitors of the Truce in Sài Gòn (1955-1958)” opened to the public in 2012 after a period of restoration and affords a fascinating glimpse into the dangerous world of 1950s Sài Gòn.

In the aftermath of the victory at Điện Biên Phủ in 1954, the Geneva Accords provided for the temporary division of Việt Nam along the 17th Parallel, pending national elections in 1956 to reunify the country. An International Control Commission (ICC), chaired by India with Poland and Canada as members, was set up to monitor the implementation of the Accords.

In April 1955, Phạm Hùng (1912-1988), former head of the People’s Army of Việt Nam delegation in the South and later Prime Minister of Việt Nam, was sent to Sài Gòn as head of the 16-strong Delegation with a brief to maintain a presence on behalf of the People’s Army and to monitor the situation in the south. On 17 May 1955 the Delegation set up operations in the former French district military headquarters at 61 Liên Tỉnh 2 street in Đông Ba village,  Phú Nhuận, Gia Định.

In the event those elections were never held, but the Delegation remained in Sài Gòn until May 1958. During this period it is said that South Vietnamese authorities posted guards outside the building, placing restrictions on their travel, tapping their telephones and routinely cutting off their electricity supply.

A National Historic Monument, the Delegation HQ has been restored with authentic 1950s fixtures and fittings and is now open to the public. Visitors can tour the Delegation’s offices, residential accommodation, secret cellar and attic and confidential files block at the rear (to which apparently only high-ranking cadres were admitted).

Vintage car enthusiasts will also be thrilled to hear that there’s even a vintage white Citroën in the garage….

Getting there
Address: Trụ sở Phái đoàn liện lạc Bộ Tổng Tư lệnh QĐND Việt Nam cạnh Phân ban quốc tế giám sát và kiểm soát đình chiến tại Sài Gòn (1955-1958), 87A Trần Kế Xương, Phường 7, Quận Phú Nhuận, Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh
Telephone: 84 (0) 982 847 7774 (Ms Nguyễn Viên Thi, Vietnamese language only)
Opening hours: 8am-11am, 2pm-4.30pm Tue-Sat

See also Off the Tourist Trail in HCMC – Tran Phu Memorial Museum

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.