Off the Tourist Trail in Saigon – Tran Phu Memorial Museum

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The main entrance to the Trần Phú Memorial Museum at Hồ Chí Minh City’s Chợ Quán Hospital

A Hospital for Tropical Diseases is perhaps not the most obvious visitor attraction, but a national historic site within the grounds of Hồ Chí Minh City’s Chợ Quán Hospital is worth a visit.

Founded in 1864 and managed until 1909 by the Sisters of Saint-Paul de Chartres, Chợ Quán Hospital, now known as the Hospital for Tropical Diseases (Bệnh viện Bệnh Nhiệt đới), is the oldest hospital in Hồ Chí Minh City.

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Inside the old secure psychiatric ward building

Focusing initially on the treatment of infectious diseases, it began specialising after 1904 in mental illness. Today this specialism is handled by the Psychiatric Hospital (Bệnh viện Tâm thần), located on the same campus.

As opposition to French rule intensified during the last few decades of colonial rule, the prison system became increasingly overcrowded, obliging the authorities to convert other public buildings into jails. One such building was the secure psychiatric ward at Chợ Quán Hospital, which by the late 1920s doubled as a jail where political prisoners were held for interrogation.

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A group cell with a raised platform for the inmates to lie on with their legs in shackles

In the 1980s that ward was restored in period style and today it is open to the public as a small museum, dedicated primarily to the memory of its most famous inmate, Trần Phú, first Secretary General of the Indochina Communist Party.

Trần Phú (1904-1931) was born on 1 May 1904 at An Thổ village in Tuy An district of Phú Yên province. The son of a minor official, he attended the National School in Huế where his brilliant intellect soon became apparent. After co-founding the Việt Nam Revolutionary Party (Việt Nam Cách mạng Đảng) in 1925, Phú went to Guangzhou in the following year to negotiate his party’s merger with Nguyễn Ái Quốc’s Việt Nam Revolutionary Youth Association (Hội Việt Nam Cách mạng Thanh niên).

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Trần Phú (1904-1931)

In 1927 he went to the Soviet Union to study Marxist-Leninist doctrine at the Eastern University in Moscow and in the following year he attended the sixth session of Communist International. When the Indochina Communist Party (Đông Dương Cộng sản Đảng) was set up in October 1930, Trần Phú was elected as its first Secretary General.

Trần Phú was among several members of the Indochina Communist Party tried and convicted in absentia by a court in Nghệ An on 11 October 1929. Captured by French police on 18 April 1931 while visiting the Party’s printing house at 66 rue Champagne (now 66 Lý Chính Thắng) in Sài Gòn, he was detained in several different locations before being moved to the secure psychiatric ward at Chợ Quán Hospital on 26 August 1931.

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The cell where Trần Phú died on 6 September 1931, aged just 27

On his third day at the hospital he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and transferred into the isolation ward. He died 11 days later on 6 September 1931, aged just 27.

Many other revolutionaries were incarcerated at Chợ Quán Hospital during the years of resistance against France, including Hà Huy Tập and Trần Não.  Another of its famous inmates was the founder of the Hòa Hảo sect, Huỳnh Phú Sổ (1920–1947), who was incarcerated here from 1940-1941 and is said to have converted his psychiatrist, Dr Tam to the Hòa Hảo faith.

After 1955 the South Vietnamese authorities continued to use the south wing of the prison ward to intern political prisoners.

In 1976 the old prison ward once more became part of the main hospital, but in the 1980s, because of its historic association with the revolutionary struggle, it was declared a historic site.

The Trần Phú Memorial Museum is located within the Chợ Quán Hospital compound, around 200 metres from the main entrance gate.

DSC04760The yard in front of the building has been converted into a small memorial garden with a bust of Trần Phú and a stele in Vietnamese which reads:

Mr Trần Phú, Secretary General of the Indochina Communist Party (now the Communist Party of Việt Nam), born 1.5.1904, sacrificed 6.9 1931 in this prison.
Before he passed away, he reminded his comrades: “Remain determined to fight.”
His last words tell of the heroic mettle of the communists who never succumbed to the violence of the enemy in whatever situation they found themselves. These words became a powerful weapon for the Vietnamese people to wield against enemy forces, helping them to overcome difficulties on the revolutionary road.

The former secure psychiatric ward – a U-shaped building with bare concrete walls and a tiled floor – is divided into both individual and group cells, each with a raised platform for the inmate or inmates to lie on with their legs in shackles.

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Another of the group cells in the former secure psychiatric ward

The door of each room has a small peephole through which guards could monitor the activities of the inmates inside.

The main section of the prison ward contains a narrow area for female prisoners at the front and behind it a larger area for male prisoners. The female area contains three large cells, two individual cells, two windowless solitary confinement spaces and a bathroom, while the male area contains three large cells, one individual cell, two windowless solitary confinement spaces and a bathroom.

When Trần Phú first arrived at Chợ Quán Hospital, he was detained in the largest of the three main cells in the male section, along with around 20 other activists.

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The south wing, used to intern political prisoners during the period 1955-1975

The north wing was once the isolation ward (Khu cách ly) and is made up of two large cells, four individual cells, two windowless solitary confinement spaces and two bathrooms. After it was discovered that Trần Phú had contracted tuberculosis, he was placed in one of the large cells here, together with fellow revolutionaries Nguyễn Văn Nhung and Châu Văn Sanh. When his condition worsened, he was moved into one of the individual cells and it was there that he died. A small shrine has been set up in his memory and memorial rites are often performed.

The south wing of the prison ward (Khu biệt giam) was the main area used to intern political prisoners during the period 1955-1975. Part of that wing has been turned into an exhibition facility containing photographs and documents (in Vietnamese only) recounting the history of the site and the life of Trần Phú. Visitors can also view two large and two small cells in the rear section of this wing.

The Trần Phú Memorial Museum at Chợ Quán Hospital was recognised as a national historic monument by the Ministry of Culture and Information on 16 November 1988.

Getting there
Address: Khu trại giam Bệnh viện Chợ Quán – Nơi đồng chí Trần Phú hy sinh, Bệnh viện Chợ Quán, 766 Võ Văn Kiệt, Phường 1, Quận 5, Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh
Directions: Entering the main gate, take the lane immediately to the right of the large sign containing the plan of the hospital – a signpost on a nearby tree tells you that this road leads to the Đơn vị khám chuyên khoa gan (Specialist Liver Unit). If you walk down this road (in front of the Bách Hóa Canteen) you will find the Trần Phú Memorial Site compound a bit further along on the right hand side, surrounded by flags.
Telephone: 84 (0) 16 5250 6566
Opening hours: On request 8am-11am, 2pm-4.30pm daily
Admission: free of charge

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

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.

 

American War Vestiges in Saigon – 606 Tran Hung Dao

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The elegant colonial villa at 606 Trần Hưng Đạo, currently threatened by demolition

This article was published previously in Saigoneer http://saigoneer.com

The grand old villa at 606 Trần Hưng Đạo, one of Chợ Quán’s few remaining heritage buildings, is currently threatened with redevelopment.

According to local historians, 606 Trần Hưng Đạo was once the site of an old Khmer pagoda, but by 1932 that had been demolished to make way for the current building, an elegant villa built for the state-franchised charity lottery company known as the Société pour l’amélioration morale, intellectuelle et physique des indigènes de Cochinchine (SAMIPIC).

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The MAAG headquarters at 606 Trần Hưng Đạo in 1962 (unknown photographer)

Founded in 1926 and run by a committee which “grouped together the élite of Annamite society” (Gazette coloniale, 1936), SAMIPIC sold 2-piastre lottery tickets to the public and then donated a substantial part of its income to charitable, health and educational causes in Cochinchine. It also “organised conferences, and every year offered a number of scholarships in France and in the colony to the most deserving students.”

SAMIPIC’s achievements included setting up the Maison des Associations Annamites in Saigon in 1929 and funding the construction of the “Maison indochinoise” at the Cité Universitaire de Paris, which was inaugurated on 22 March 1930 by French President Gaston Doumergue and the young King Bảo Đại.

SAMIPIC was housed initially in a small villa near the Parc Maurice Long [today’s Tao Đàn Park], but on 16 February 1933, La Croix newspaper reported the inauguration of its brand new headquarters at 96 boulevard Galliéni (now 606 Trần Hưng Đạo). The building was later described as “superb,” with “magnificent decor” (Écho annamite, 6 September 1941).

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Another view of the MAAG headquarters at 606 Trần Hưng Đạo from 1963 (unknown photographer)

After the departure of the French in 1954, the villa was acquired by the American government and became home to the Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG), which co-ordinated the supply of military hardware, training and assistance to the French and subsequently to the Republic of Việt Nam. Because of its high profile, the villa was one of three US installations in the city targeted by the National Liberation Front on 22 October 1957.

In February 1962, following the arrival of the first US Army aviation units, MAAG became part of the Military Assistance Command Việt Nam (MACV), which was set up to provide a more integrated command structure with full responsibility for all US military activities and operations in Việt Nam.

At first, MACV staff shared the villa at 606 Trần Hưng Đạo with their MAAG colleagues, but in May 1962 they were given separate accommodation on Pasteur street (see 137 Pasteur). From that date until 1966, the villa at 606 Trần Hưng Đạo was known as “MACV II.” MAAG survived as a separate entity until May 1964, when its functions were fully integrated into MACV.

The Republic of Korea Forces Vietnam (ROKFV) Headquarters Building

The Republic of Korea Forces Vietnam (ROKFV) headquarters building at 606 Trần Hưng Đạo in February 1969 (photograph via fold3.com)

In 1966, following the transfer of all MACV operations to the new “Pentagon East” complex at Tân Sơn Nhất Air Base, the villa at 606 Trần Hưng Đạo was vacated by the Americans and became the headquarters of the Republic of Korea Forces Vietnam (ROKFV), which remained at the villa until the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in 1973.

The villa at 606 Trần Hưng Đạo is currently home to several local businesses. However, according to reliable sources, there are plans to demolish it and replace it with a new office block.

You may also be interested to read these articles:

In Search of Saigon’s American War Vestiges
American War Vestiges in Saigon – 60 Vo Van Tan
American War Vestiges in Saigon – 137 Pasteur
American War Vestiges in Saigon – Former “Free World” HQ
American War Vestiges in Saigon – Former USIS Headquarters

MACV II Compound (606 Tran Hung Dao)

The MACV II headquarters at 606 Trần Hưng Đạo, pictured some time between 1962 and 1966 (unknown photographer)

The Republic of Korea Forces Vietnam (ROKFV) Headquarters. Feb 1969

The Republic of Korea Forces Vietnam (ROKFV) headquarters building at 606 Trần Hưng Đạo in February 1969 (photograph via fold3.com)

Bộ Tư lệnh Lực lượng ĐẠI HÀN tại Việt Nam (606 Trần Hưng Đạo Saigon)

The Republic of Korea Forces Vietnam (ROKFV) headquarters building at 606 Trần Hưng Đạo in the late 1960s (unknown photographer)

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The Republic of Korea Forces Vietnam (ROKFV) headquarters building at 606 Trần Hưng Đạo in 1969 (unknown photographer)

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.

Graham Greene’s Saigon

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A view from the Bùng Binh Sài Gòn traffic circle in 1955

The Saigon locations used by British writer Graham Greene in his acclaimed anti-war novel The Quiet American have long been a favourite topic for travel writers. Here by request is a recap of the most significant landmarks.

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Looking down rue Catinat in 1955 with Greene’s “hideous pink cathedral” in the foreground (photo by Raymond Cauchetier)

During the period March 1952 to June 1955, Graham Greene made four trips to Sài Gòn as a foreign correspondent. While based here, he wrote The Quiet American, a prophetic tale of a naïve young American’s misguided efforts to bring democracy to the Far East.

While he was in Saigon, Greene’s life was focused almost exclusively on the privileged expat world of the city centre, and in particular on rue Catinat (modern Đồng Khởi street), still at that time the epitome of colonial chic.

Greene is known to have taken a daily constitutional up this street, “to where the hideous pink cathedral blocked the way.” The Notre Dame Cathedral end of Đồng Khởi street therefore makes a great starting point for a tour of some of the real-life places Greene used to flesh out The Quiet American.

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A 1960s shot of Bót Catinat

The large building opposite the Saigon Metropolitan Tower at 164 Đồng Khởi was once the Direction de la Police et de la Sûreté, workplace of Inspector Vigot, the French detective responsible for investigating the death of the title character, American agent Alden Pyle. Although it was set up in around 1917, the current building dates from 1933 when its facilities were expanded. It was known in Vietnamese as Bót Catinat (Catinat Police Station) and during the late colonial era it is said that many political prisoners were tortured in its basement cells. The plaque outside the main entrance commemorates the four weeks after the August Revolution when the Việt Minh flag flew over Bót Catinat. However, following the return of the French in late September 1945, Bót Catinat resumed its original function as the city’s colonial police headquarters. Passing it during his daily constitutional, Greene clearly took a disliking to the building, talking in The Quiet American of its “dreary walls” which “seemed to smell of urine and injustice.” After the departure of the French in 1954, the compound served as the Interior Ministry (Bộ Nội vụ) of South Việt Nam until Reunification in 1975. It currently houses the offices of the Hồ Chí Minh City Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism, although since it currently forms part of a redevelopment zone, it is earmarked for demolition.

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The main entrance to 213 Đồng Khởi, formerly 213 rue Catinat

One block south of the old Sûreté headquarters stands another location featured in The Quiet American – the art-deco-style 213 Đồng Khởi, once one of the most prestigious addresses in the city. After the departure of his girlfriend Phương, anti-hero Thomas Fowler briefly considers finding a new place to live and comes here to view “the pied-a-terre of a rubber planter who was going home.” During the late colonial era, 213 rue Catinat was home to diplomatic missions, international corporations, property companies, popular French magazines and beauty institutes. It was also a centre of French haute couture, with several up-market fashion outlets, including a branch of Galeries Lafayette! However, most of the building was occupied by luxury apartments. One of its best-known former residents was Saigon rubber baroness Madame Janie-Marie Marguerite Bertin Rivière de la Souchère, who rented an apartment here from 1932 to 1938 after losing her magnificent estate in the Great Depression. Greene clearly disliked this edifice too, since Fowler refers to it disparagingly as a “so-called modern building (Paris Exhibition 1934?) up at the other end of rue Catinat beyond the Continental Hotel.” It is currently earmarked for demolition. POSTSCRIPT: REGRETTABLY THIS BUILDING WAS DEMOLISHED IN MAY 2014.

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The Continental Palace Hotel Terrace in the late 1950s

Still known in Greene’s day as place Garnier, Lam Sơn square is home to Greene’s favourite hostelry, the Continental Hotel at 132-134 Đồng Khởi.

The history of this venerable old Saigon institution may be traced right back to the late 19th century, but by the early 1950s its central location made it popular with many foreign correspondents, including Lucien Bodard (1914-1998), Jean Lartéguy (1920-2011) and of course Graham Greene himself, who apparently insisted on staying in room 214 on the corner of the building, so that he could get the best view of all the goings-on in the square below.

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Siesta time outside the Continental Palace Hotel

The ground floor of the hotel once opened straight out onto the sidewalk to form the Continental Terrace, a focus for café culture in the city centre. In The Quiet American, Fowler’s nightly ritual is to start the evening with a 6pm beer at the Terrace, where the dice rattle as the French play Quatre cent vingt-et-un.

Back in 1955, just as Greene was putting the finishing touches to his novel, the Théâtre de Saïgon next door was converted into the Lower House of the South Vietnamese National Assembly and politicians began meeting regularly for drinks at the Continental Terrace. Inevitably the journalists followed, turning it into a centre of gossip and intrigue. Sadly the hotel is now a cocoon of air-conditioned luxury and the few forlorn tables outside on the hotel sidewalk fail to conjure up the atmosphere of the Greene era.

Here’s one for longer-term residents. When Graham Greene arrived in Sài Gòn in 1952, Givral Café had just opened its doors on the corner opposite the hotel, where Đồng Khởi street meets Lam Sơn square.

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Givral café on the corner of the block which was demolished in 2009 to make way for the Union Square shopping mall

A much-loved Sài Gòn landmark, it was used by Greene as a model for the “milk bar” in which Phương meets her friends every day at 11.30am. Renovated and used as a location for Phillip Noyce’s 2002 film, Givral continued to function until as recently as 2009, when it was closed to permit the demolition of the entire block and the construction of the Union Square shopping mall.

In The Quiet American, place Garnier/Lam Sơn square is the location where, with tacit support from the Americans, the sinister “Third Force” led by General Thế detonates a car bomb, killing many civilians. Greene based the character of General Thế on real-life warlord General Trình Minh Thế (1922-1955), who began his career in the army of the Cao Đài church, but left in 1951 to form the Liên Minh militia, a private force implicated in a series of bombings between 1951 and 1953.

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The Grands Magasins Charner in 1948 (photo by Jack Birns)

One block west of Lam Sơn square is the Bùng Binh Sài Gòn traffic circle, where Lê Lợi (formerly boulevard Bonard) meets Nguyễn Huệ (formerly boulevard Charner). The Sài Gòn Tax Trade Centre at 135 Nguyễn Huệ, originally built in 1924 as the up-market Grands Magasins Charner, was Greene’s “big store at the corner of the Boulevard Charner,” outside which Fowler stands to witness one of the citywide detonations of bicycle pump bombs, dubbed “Operation Bicyclette” by its perpetrators. POSTSCRIPT: REGRETTABLY THIS BUILDING WAS CLOSED IN AUGUST 2014 AND IS ALSO NOW AWAITING DEMOLITION TO MAKE WAY FOR A NEW 43-STOREY TOWER BLOCK – see Date with the Wrecker’s Ball (3): Saigon Tax Trade Centre.

Charner/Nguyễn Huệ boulevard briefly appears in The Quiet American as the location of Le Club, a restaurant frequented by members of the Sûreté, where Fowler runs into Vigot two weeks after Pyle’s death. However, since its real-life prototype remains a mystery, it’s more rewarding to head back to Đồng Khởi street, where the lower end of the former rue Catinat is home to a few more relics of the Greene era.

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The Saigon Palace Hotel in the late colonial period

After Phương leaves him for Pyle, Fowler tries to forget her by making regular visits to an opium den he describes as “a good house on rue d’Ormay,” now Mạc Thị Bưởi street, which exits Đồng Khởi street on the left hand side.

Further down the street is another Greene landmark, the Grand Hotel at 8 Đồng Khởi. This building originated in the late 1920s as a café run by the Société du Grand Hôtel de Saigon, but was subsequently leased to Corsican entrepreneur Patrice Luciani, who oversaw the construction of a new 90-room hotel and became its first manager when it opened in 1933 as the Sài Gòn Palace Hotel. By the late 1940s it had been converted into rented apartments, and although Greene himself never stayed here, he is said to have chosen it as the model for Thomas Fowler’s “room over the rue Catinat,” where much of the action in the book takes place.

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The Majestic Hotel as it appeared after its remodelling of 1951

The final stop on Graham Greene’s rue Catinat is the Majestic Hotel at 1 Đồng Khởi, another of the writer’s favourite haunts, which appears as one of Thomas Fowler’s regular watering holes in The Quiet American. Most evenings, after his 6pm drink at the Continental, Fowler heads down rue Catinat for “cocktail time” at 7pm in the Majestic’s Rooftop Bar, where he can relax and enjoy “the cool wind from the Sài Gòn River.” Though remodelled on several occasions since it first opened in 1925, the Majestic still has that Rooftop Bar with its excellent view of the river, which remains a popular spot for sunset cocktails.

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The first US Embassy pictured in the 1960s

A brisk walk from the Majestic two blocks south along the quayside and then one block west on Hàm Nghi boulevard leads to Pyle’s place of work, the “American Legation” – better known as the first United States Embassy at 39 Hàm Nghi. This yellow building, to which Fowler angrily comes looking for Pyle after Phương’s departure, was the home of the American diplomatic mission from 1950 to 1967. However, following a car bomb attack in 1965, a decision was taken to build a new and more secure embassy compound on Thống Nhất (now Lê Duẩn) boulevard – the compound which in April 1975 would be the scene of the final US withdrawal from Việt Nam.

Đ?i Th? Gi?i - Rue Des Marins (Ngày X?a Ngày Xưa)

A 1950 shot of the Grande Monde, now the site of the District 5 Cultural Centre.

Although it doesn’t appear in the pages of The Quiet American, Greene himself is known to have made regular visits to the exclusive Cercle Sportif Saïgonnais on rue Chasseloup-Laubat, now the Labour Culture Palace at 55B Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai.

Interestingly, the book mentions that Pyle’s apartment is close to the Cercle Sportif on tree-lined rue Duranton, now Bùi Thị Xuân street.

Chợ Lớn is mentioned on several occasions in The Quiet American, as the location of Mr Chou’s godown, the Chalet restaurant and the Grande Monde where Fowler recalls first meeting Phương while she was working as a “taxi dancer.” The Grande Monde casino, originally known to the French as the “Parc au buffles,” was located on the site of the modern District 5 Cultural Centre.

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The modern “Đa Kao Bridge”

No tour of Graham Greene’s Sài Gòn would be complete without a visit to Đa Kao (“Dakow”), which the author depicts in The Quiet American as being under constant threat from attack by Việt Minh forces based on the north side of the Thị Nghè canal. Fowler comments to Inspector Vigot that every night, as soon as the police have withdrawn, Đa Kao reverts to being Việt Minh territory. The canal bridge which today connects Nguyễn Văn Giai street in Đa Kao with Bùi Hữu Nghĩa street in Bình Thạnh district is a modern replacement for the original iron road/tramway bridge which Greene calls the “Dakow Bridge.” It is underneath this bridge that Pyle’s body is eventually found, floating face down in muddy water. Right next to the bridge is the fictional Vieux Moulin restaurant, guarded by armed police “with an iron grille to keep out grenades,” where Fowler agrees to meet Pyle, thereby setting him up for assassination. Greene delights by telling us that the patron of the Vieux Moulin “had grown fat on his own rich Burgundian cooking” and that the restaurant “smelt of capons and melting butter in the heavy evening heat.”

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The Cao Đài Cathedral in Tây Ninh

One of the most gripping parts of The Quiet American is the chapter which describes Fowler and Pyle’s dangerous night journey back to Sài Gòn after attending a festival at the Cao Đài Holy See in “Tanyin” (Tây Ninh). Modern visitors to Hồ Chí Minh City still follow in their footsteps – albeit rather more safely – to tour the extraordinary Cao Đài Cathedral, situated around 90km northwest of the city and described by Greene as “a Walt Disney fantasia of the East, dragons and snakes in technicolour.” These days the trip is usually made as an adjunct to visiting the famous underground VC tunnel network at Củ Chi.

Sài Gòn has changed a great deal in the six decades since Graham Greene walked its streets and anyone looking for seedy opium dens, exotic taxi dancers and world-weary colons will be sorely disappointed. Yet for those in search of the faded colonial charm which Greene knew and loved, modern Hồ Chí Minh City still has a great deal to offer.

You may also be interested to read these articles:
Saigon on the Silver Screen – The Quiet American, 1958 and 2002
Saigon on the Silver Screen – The Lover, 1992

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.

Old Saigon Building of the Week – Eiffel’s Pont des Messageries Maritimes, 1882

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The restored “Rainbow Bridge” (formerly the Pont des Messageries maritimes) today

This article was previously published in Saigoneer http://saigoneer.com/

Many people will be familiar with the spurious claims that French civil engineer and architect Gustave Eiffel (1832-1923) was responsible for two of Việt Nam’s most iconic buildings, the Long Biên Bridge (Pont Doumer) in Hà Nội and the Central Post Office in Hồ Chí Minh City. The prevalence of such claims makes it all the more strange that so few visitors to Hồ Chí Minh City are given the chance to visit the “Rainbow Bridge,” formerly the Pont des Messageries maritimes, which in truth is Eiffel’s only major surviving work in Việt Nam.

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Gustav Eiffel

In 1872, recognising that there was serious money to be made from the flurry of infrastructural projects then getting underway in the new French colony of Cochinchine, Gustave Eiffel opened an office on Saïgon’s rue Mac-Mahon, now Nam Kỳ Khởi Nghĩa street. In subsequent years his company made a name for itself by constructing canal bridges all over the Mekong Delta.

Starting in the early 1880s, the colonial authorities began to build railways and tramways in order to enhance lines of communication and provide investment opportunities for French capitalists. After a shaky start building the defective Bình Điền, Tân An and Bến Lức viaducts for the Sài Gòn–Mỹ Tho line (opened 1885), the newly-renamed Compagnie des Établissements Eiffel soon emerged as the leading manufacturer of colonial railway bridges. In 1888 it won a lucrative contract to design and build all of the metal bridges on the first railway in the north, the 98km Ligne de la porte de Chine, which ran from Phủ Lạng Thương (Bắc Giang) to Lạng Sơn.

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Eiffel’s Tân An viaduct on the former Sài Gòn–Mỹ Tho railway line

However, most of the company’s work was focused on the south, where it was engaged to build a wide variety of structures, ranging from the markets at Cao Lãnh (1887), Ô Môn (1888), Tân Quy Đông (1889) and Tân An (1889) in the Mekong Delta to the imposing Halles des Messageries fluviales building on the Saïgon riverfront.

In 1882 the Établissements Eiffel built the Pont des Messageries maritimes (also known as the Pont de Khanh-Hoi) over the Arroyo Chinois (Bến Nghé Creek) to connect the ville basse or lower town with the headquarters of the Compagnie des messageries maritimes in Khánh Hội. Two years later, they built an almost identical bridge named the Pont des Malabars in Chợ Lớn, to connect that city with what is now District 8.

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The Pont des Messageries maritimes in the late 19th century

Sadly, the Pont des Malabars was demolished in the 1930s, but its sister bridge, the Pont des Messageries maritimes, has survived and was sympathetically refurbished in 2010 as part of a landscaping project which transformed it from a road bridge into a footbridge. Known in Vietnamese as the Cầu Mống (“Rainbow Bridge”), the 371m structure with its single wrought-iron arch and colonial lamp fittings has recently been discovered by wedding photographers and is now a popular local beauty spot.

Just seven years after the Pont des Messageries maritimes opened to traffic, Eiffel built his world-famous Eiffel Tower for the 1889 Universal Exposition in Paris. However, in 1893 he was forced to retire in disgrace, implicated in the financial and political scandal which surrounded the failed French project to build a canal across the Panama Isthmus.

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The Bình Lợi Bridge in the early 20th century

Nonetheless, working under the new name Société Constructions Levallois-Perret, Eiffel’s old company continued to play an important role in the development of the French colony, building much of Saïgon’s port infrastructure as well as a large number of the bridges on the North-South (Transindochinois) railway line. In 1937, confident that the Panama scandal could no longer dent its founder’s reputation, the company changed its name to Anciens Établissements Eiffel.

A few later Levallois-Perret works such as the Bình Lợi Bridge in Hồ Chí Minh City and the Tràng Tiền (formerly Thanh-Thai, Clémenceau) Bridge in Huế may still be seen today, but those in search of an authentic pre-1893 Eiffel monument in Việt Nam need look no further than the Bến Nghé Creek to admire the great man’s handywork.

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The view today from District 4 where the “Rainbow Bridge” spans the Bến Nghé Creek

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.

Old Saigon Building of the Week – Former French Masonic Lodge, 110 Nguyen Du, 1900

110 Nguyễn Du

Today the former masonic lodge building at 110 Nguyễn Du serves as the Hồ Chí Minh City office of the Công An (Police) Newspaper.

This article was published previously in Saigoneer http://saigoneer.com/

Saigon got its first French masonic lodge in the 1870s, when the Société civile le Réveil de l’Orient set up the Hôtel de la Loge Maçonnique Le Réveil de l’orient (Awakening of the East) at 17 rue d’Espagne, now Lê Thánh Tôn.

That first lodge was founded under the jurisdiction of the Grand Orient de France, so in the wake of the schism of 1894 over whether belief in the “Supreme Being” should be a prequisite for membership of the freemasons, a rival masonic lodge known as the Les Fervents du progrès (Devotees of progress) was set up at 116 rue Mac-Mahon (Nam Kỳ Khởi Nghĩa), affiliated to the newly-established Grande Loge de France.

An early photo of the second Hôtel de la Loge Maçonnique Le Réveil de l’orient building which still stands today

The former masonic temple which stands today on Nguyễn Du street was built between 1898 and 1900 to replace the original Le Réveil de l’orient building on rue d’Espagne, following receipt of a large subvention from the Cochinchina authorities. The street on which it stands has been renumbered since the colonial period, so although its address was originally 32 rue Taberd, it is now located at 110 Nguyễn Du.

Perhaps due to lack of funding, the breakaway lodge Les Fervents du progrès continued in existence only until 1913, when it was merged with Le Réveil de l’Orient. Thereafter a single masonic lodge functioned at 32 rue Taberd until the departure of the French.

Today, the old lodge building houses the Hồ Chí Minh City office of the Công An (Police) Newspaper.

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

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

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

Old Saigon Building of the Week – First Chambre de Commerce Building, 1867

The heavily modified 1868 Chambre de commerce de Saïgon building today

This article was published previously in Saigoneer http://saigoneer.com/

Over the years, Mê Linh square – known immediately after the French arrived as the Rond-point and later as place Rigault de Genouilly – has lost many of its old buildings, including the imposing Commissariat de Police for the 1st Arrondissement, which once stood on the site of today’s Renaissance Riverside Hotel Saigon.

Chambre de commerce building 1880s

The Chambre de commerce de Saïgon building on place Rigault de Genouilly in the 1880s

However, one important colonial edifice has survived to this day. The unassuming white villa at 11 Mê Linh, currently a restaurant, is one of the oldest surviving colonial buildings in the city, constructed in 1867-1868 to house the Chambre de commerce de Saïgon.

When it was first set up on 3 November 1867, the Chambre was found temporary accommodation in the compound of the Direction de l’Intérieur, now the Hồ Chí Minh City Department of Information and Communications at 59-61 Lý Tự Trọng, but on 30 September 1868 it moved into this building, where it would remain for 60 years.

Chambre de commerce building 1904

The Chambre de commerce de Saïgon building in 1904

After March 1928, when the Chambre de commerce was given a larger and more imposing seat next to the Bến Nghé Creek in the heart of the city’s wealthy financial district (the building which later became the South Vietnamese Senate House and now serves as the Hồ Chí Minh City Stock Exchange, see Second Chambre de Commerce building), the old Chambre headquarters became home to a variety of companies, including the Plantations Indochinoises de Thé and the Société des Sucreries et Raffineries de l’Indochine.

Chambre de commerce building 1960s

The former Chambre de commerce building in the 1960s

Since 1954 the building would appear to have been used mainly as a bank and until quite recently it was still the main Hồ Chí Minh City office of ANZ.

These days this old building seems to change hands all too frequently, and since it is not a listed monument, each change of ownership brings yet more modifications to the façade.

Postscript: This building was demolished in late June 2016.

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.

By Tram to Hoi An

15. One of the trains which ran

One of the second-hand Decauville 0-4-4-0 “Mallet” patent compound jointed locomotives which once pulled trains to and from Hội An

One hundred years ago, visitors to Tourane (Đa Nẵng) could alight from their train right outside the Hàn Market and, after crossing the Hàn river by ferry, take a steam train all the way to Hội An.

1 “Tramway de Îlot de l'Observatoire”

A map of the “Tramway de Îlot de l’Observatoire” while it was still under construction

When the French secured control over Tourane (Đà Nẵng) in 1888, the nearby port town of Faifo (Hội An) was still an important trans-shipment point for all kinds of trading goods, and its long-established community of Chinese merchants continued to play an important intermediary role between the French and the people of the interior.

For centuries, the Cổ Cò River had provided merchants with a sheltered inland route between the two ports, but the steady silting of that waterway during the 19th century made the transportation of goods by boat between Faifo and the main Tiên Sa port area increasingly difficult.

In 1902, with the support of the Tourane Municipal Trade Office, a consortium led by tea merchant Dérobert lobbied the Indochina government to build a 0.6m-gauge steam tramway between Tourane and Faifo to replace the fast-dissappearing Cổ Cò River. The project was subsequently taken forward by the Société anonyme des docks et houillères de Tourane (Tourane Docks and Coal Mine Company, SADHT), which mapped out a 35.5km route from the “Îlot de l’Observatoire” at the northwest tip of the Sơn Trà peninsula along the east bank of the Hàn River to Faifo.

Observatory Station

The track plan of the Îlot de l’Observatoire station and depot at Tiên Sa port area

In 1903, the colonial authorities authorised SADHT to proceed with the construction of the line, granting the company a 60-year concession and also donating a large quantity of redundant track, signalling, rolling stock and other equipment from the Phủ Lạng Thương–Lạng Sơn railway line in Tonkin, which had been upgraded in 1899-1902 from a 0.6m gauge Decauville tramway into a 1m gauge railway. However, delivery of this equipment was delayed, and when it did arrive it was found to be in very poor condition.

A preliminary 9.5-kilometre stretch of tramway line from the Îlot de l’Observatoire to Tourane Mỹ Khê was inaugurated by SADHT on 9 November 1905, but soon after that the company was declared bankrupt. The partly built tramway then lay abandoned for nearly a year, during which time it was devastated by a typhoon.

Gare Marche 4

Tourane Marché station on the west bank of the Hàn river

In October 1906, after extensive discussion, the line was placed under the control of the Chemins de fer de l’Indochine (CFI). It immediately set to work laying the remaining 26km of track, refurbishing the rolling stock, building new stations and adding a short spur from Tourane Mỹ Khê to Tourane Fleuve on the east bank of the Hàn River, which provided ferry access to the Tourane Marché main line terminus.

The “Tramway de l’Îlot de l’Observatoire” finally opened to the public on 1 October 1907. The line incorporated 10 stations: l’Îlot de l’Observatoire (km 0), Tien Sha (Tiên Sa, km 1), Plantation Guérin (km 5), Tourane Mỹ Khê (km 9.5, with a 0.5km spur to Tourane Fleuve wharf), Montagne de Marbre (Marble Mountain, km 17.5), Cẩm Sa (km 26), Có Lưu (km 28), Thanh Hà (km 31) and Faifo (km 35.5). A depot was built at Tien Sha. Three round-trip train services were offered daily — two in the morning and one in the afternoon.

Marble Mountain 1

The track bed around Marble Mountain was destroyed by a typhoon on 27 October 1915

Steam trams entered Hội An along what are now Nguyễn Tất Thành and Lý Thương Kiệt streets, terminating at a tramway station on the northeast corner of the modern Lý Thương Kiệt/Nguyễn Trường Tộ street junction, just across the road from what was then the spacious compound of the Résidence de France in Quảng Nam. Though very convenient for the handful of French administrators who worked there, this terminus was some distance from the wharf area, the final destination for much of the freight carried by the tramway.

However, the inconvenient location of the Faifo terminus was the least of its problems. Like other Decauville lines in Indochina, the Tramway de l’Îlot de l’Observatoire was beset by technical problems and its frequent failures soon made the tramway something of a laughing stock.

IMG_2695

Part of the old tramway trackbed repurposed in the early 1960s as a freight spur may still be seen today next to Yết Kiêu street, east of Tiên Sa port

In subsequent years, as road transportation became increasingly popular, the quantity of freight transported by the line grew smaller and smaller. Passenger travel alone proved insufficient to sustain the branch, and when the track bed around Marble Mountain was destroyed by another typhoon on 27 October 1915, the government of Annam suspended operations. The line was closed permanently on 31 December 1915 after just eight years of service. Soon after that the track was removed and the rolling stock and other equipment placed on the market.

However, that wasn’t quite the end of the story. In 1955-1956, the South Vietnamese railway company Hỏa Xa Việt Nam (HXVN) rerouted the main North-South line by building the “déviation de Phông Lê” west of Đà Nẵng city centre (see my earlier post, A Relic of the Steam Age in Đà Nẵng). Part of the original main line was then repurposed to create a new freight branch across the Trịnh Minh Thế (now Nguyễn Văn Trỗi) Bridge to the Sơn Trà peninsula, where rails were relaid along the northernmost section of the old tramway trackbed as far as Tiên Sa Port. This freight spur from Đà Nẵng Central Station to Tiên Sa continued in existence until the mid 1990s, when it was definitively abandoned.

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 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
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

Foulhoux’s Saigon

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The windows of Foulhoux’s Customs House building, decorated with opium poppies

It has been said that few colonial officials made their mark on the urban fabric of Saïgon as distinctively as Cochinchina’s first chief architect, Marie-Alfred Foulhoux (1840-1892).

Born in Mauzun (Puy-de-Dôme) on 23 September 1840, Foulhoux studied architecture at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris from 1862 to 1870 and subsequently became an Architect-Inspector with the Compagnie des Chemins de fer de Paris à Lyon et à la Méditerranée (PLM), one of the most important private railway companies in France.

In 1874 he left for Saïgon, where in the following year he succeeded Paulin Vial as Director of Civic Buildings. Then in 1879, following the establishment of the first civil regime in Cochinchina under Governor Charles Le Myre de Vilers, Foulhoux was appointed Architect-in-Chief, permitting him to focus exclusively on what he did best – designing civic buildings for the colony.

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The Palais de Justice (1885)

It was in this capacity that Foulhoux created his first major work, the Palais de Justice, now the People’s Law Court at 131 Nam Kỳ Khởi Nghĩa. Built in 1881-1885, this two-storey neo-classical edifice incorporated exterior verandas to enhance ventilation and featured decorative work and statuary by Notre Dame Cathedral architect Jules Bourard. In 1961 a rear extension was built to a clever design by Xá Lợi Pagoda architect Đỗ Bá Vinh which harmonised perfectly with the original.

Sadly, Foulhoux’s second major work in Saïgon, the headquarters of the Direction du Service local which once stood on the site of today’s Sheraton Saigon Hotel, was demolished in the 1950s. However, three other important Foulhoux works have survived for posterity.

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The Hôtel des douanes (1887)

After the colonial authorities ended Cantonese trader Wang Tai’s monopoly on the supply and refining of opium in 1881 (see Wang Tai and the Cochinchina opium monopoly), the Customs and Excise Department purchased his former Saigon headquarters building on the Saïgon riverfront – the “Maison Wang Tai” – to use as their main office. However, it proved insufficient for their needs, so in 1885-1887 it was rebuilt to a design by Foulhoux as the Hôtel des douanes or Customs Department building. Writer, journalist and Indochina specialist Jules Boissière (1863-1897) pointed out that the badges separating its windows featured opium poppies, then one of the most important sources of revenue for the colonial government. In fact, the same floral motifs may be seen on several other former French government buildings in the city.

Arguably, Foulhoux’s best-known work is the Lieutenant Governor’s Palace, completed in 1890 and currently home to the Hồ Chí Minh City Museum. Having initially been instructed to design an exhibition hall for the display of trade products, Foulhoux was obliged to repurpose the building half way through construction, when it was announced in October 1887 that Hà Nội would be the new seat of the Governors General of Indochina. No longer deemed senior enough to occupy the stately 1873 Norodom Palace (see Saigon’s Palais Norodom – A Palace Without Purpose), the newly-downgraded Lieutenant Governors of Cochinchina were hastily found humbler accommodation in the exhibition hall, which was refurbished at considerable cost to serve as their official residence.

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The Lieutenant Governor’s Palace (1890)

From 1890-1911 the Lieutenant Governor’s Palace was home to 13 Lieutenant Governors and from 1911-1945 to another 16 Governors of Cochinchina. It later variously accommodated the Japanese governor, the special envoy of former King Bảo Đại, the Việt Minh and the Head of the British Military Mission charged with overseeing the return of the French colonial authorities after World War II. Its last famous resident was South Vietnamese President Ngô Đình Diệm, who relocated here in February 1962 while his new Independence Palace was under construction and had a network of secret tunnels built beneath its floor so that he could take shelter and if necessary escape in the event of a further coup attempt. When a coup did take place in early November 1963, Diệm used that tunnel network to escape onto Lê Thánh Tôn street and flee to Chợ Lớn, but on the following day he and his brother were captured and assassinated.

Foulhoux’s final work, the Hôtel des postes or Central Post Office, is widely regarded as his greatest, though unfortunately many local tour guides quote the Wikipedia article which erroneously credits the building to Gustave Eiffel. Built between 1886 and 1891 on the site of the former headquarters of the Commandant des troupes, it was constructed around a prefabricated cast iron frame, permitting the creation of a unique vaulted ceiling with wrought iron beams and columns reminiscent of industrial architecture.

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The Hôtel des postes (1891)

It was later reported that Foulhoux’s intention was to capture the essence of human scientific and technical advancement, a theme which is continued on the Neo-Baroque façade with its window plaques bearing the names of leading scientists and philosophers like Descartes, Morse, Ampere, Volta, Ohm and Faraday. Particularly noteworthy is the fact that, a full 30 years before the inception of Hebrard’s Indochinois fusion-style architecture, the design also incorporates roof ridge decoration inspired by Khmer art.  A statue of the Greek messenger goddess Iris once stood in the centre of the main lobby, but this was removed in the 1950s to create more space.

On 15 September 1891, the journal Architecte constructeur: Revue du monde architectural et artistique of 15 September 1891 commented: “The inauguration the new Saigon Post Office, which was held on July 14, had been postponed until the return of the Governor General. This monument, adorned with a most artistic façade, is particularly well laid out and well equipped for the different services to which it is intended; it does the greatest honour to the skill and talent of the distinguished Chief Architect of the Colony, M. Foulhoux.”

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A statue of the Greek messenger goddess Iris once stood in the main lobby of the Hôtel de postes

While his contribution to city planning in Saigon received little coverage back home in France, Foulhoux was briefly fêted in Paris in 1889 for the beautiful red teak Palais Annamite which he created on the esplanade des Invalides for the Universal Exposition of that year.

In November 1890, Foulhoux stood unsuccessfully for the elected post of Mayor of Saigon, losing to Eugène Cuniac. In the following month he was made an Officier de la Légion d’honneur and Officier d’Académie.

Marie-Alfred Foulhoux died in Saïgon after a brief illness on 20 January 1892, aged just 52. He was buried in the Cimetière de la rue Massiges, Saigon’s main European cemetery during the colonial era. The entire cemetery was cleared in 1983 to make way for the Lê Văn Tám Park – see Le Van Tam Park – Former Massiges Cemetery, 1859.

Foulhoux’s obituary, also published in the journal L’Architecte constructeur, described him as “a benevolent official with a gentle and conciliatory character, esteemed by all who knew him” ….adding that he was a passionate hunter.

Foulhoux

Alfred Foulhoux was buried in the Cimetière de la rue Massiges in Saigon. I am grateful to Frederick P. Fellers of Indianapolis, USA for making available this photograph of Foulhoux’s tombstone, which he took in 1970.

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.