Saigon on the Silver Screen – The Quiet American, 1958 and 2002

The Quiet American posters

Posters for the two film versions of The Quiet American

Graham Greene’s acclaimed anti-war novel The Quiet American has been filmed twice, on both occasions using Saigon locations. While Phillip Noyce’s 2002 remake is a far more faithful adaptation of the novel, Joseph L Mankiewicz’s forgotten 1958 film nonetheless offers a fascinating historical snapshot of Saigon-Chợ Lớn in a turbulent era.

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Titles from the two film versions of The Quiet American

Joseph L Mankiewicz’s 1958 movie was dedicated to South Vietnamese president Ngô Đình Diệm and starred Michael Redgrave as Fowler, Audie Murphy as Pyle and – in a rather unusual piece of casting – Italian actress Giorgia Moll as Phương. With United States Saigon Military Mission (SMM) chief Edward Lansdale acting as the film’s adviser, the story was given a decidedly patriotic twist.

By transforming the character of Pyle from American agent to aid worker, blaming the Communists for the Saigon bombings and shifting the focus from global geopolitics to the love triangle between the three main characters, Mankiewicz diluted the message of the novel, leading Greene himself to condemn the movie as nothing more than “a propaganda film for America.”

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The Continental Hotel as depicted in the 1958  film of The Quiet American (© Figaro/United Artists)

The 2002 remake by Phillip Noyce, starring Michael Caine as Fowler, Brendan Fraser as Pyle and Đỗ Thị Hải Yến as Phương, was more faithful to the spirit of Greene’s novel, as a consequence of which its US release was initially delayed due to concerns that it might give offence in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

Although the interiors in both films were studio-based – those in the 1958 version shot at Rome’s Cinecittà Studios and those in the 2002 version shot at Fox Studios in Sydney –both movies are noteworthy for their Saigon locations.

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The digital version of the Continental Hotel as depicted in the 2002 film of  The Quiet American (© Miramax Films)

The 1958 film delights by capturing the Continental Hotel and Terrace in all its 1950s glory, but the makers of the 2002 movie were unable to use the Continental for filming, obliging them to create a none-too-convincing digital version of the hotel – on the wrong side of Lam Sơn square!

Both films made extensive use of that square (the former place Francis Garnier), site of the “milk bar” where Fowler’s Vietnamese girlfriend Phương meets her friends every morning and later the place where a car bomb is detonated, wreaking havoc and killing many civilians.

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Givral pictured before demolition in 2009 (photo credit: http://saigon.virtualcities.fr/)

The 1958 film refers to the “milk bar” only in passing, but the real-life Givral restaurant which inspired it was renovated in period style especially for the 2002 remake. Sadly, this grand old Saigon institution disappeared along with the Eden Centre in 2009, when the entire block was demolished to make way for the Union Square shopping mall.

The 2002 film omits the scene outside the “big store at the corner of the boulevard Charner” (today’s Sài Gòn Tax Trade Centre) in which Fowler witnesses one of the citywide detonations of bicycle pump bombs, dubbed by its perpetrators “Operation Bicyclette”.

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Michael Redgrave’s Fowler checks his text messages at the “Bùng Binh Sài Gòn” traffic circle in the 1958 film of  The Quiet American (© Figaro/United Artists)

However, the 1958 movie treats us to several views of Michael Redgrave’s Fowler standing at the “Bùng Binh Sài Gòn” traffic circle (today’s Lê Lợi/Nguyễn Huệ intersection), as well as affording what must be one of the last views of the old 1927 établissements Bainier automobile showroom before it was rebuilt as the Rex Hotel, Commercial Centre and Cinema complex.

The 1958 film also provides us with several interesting shots of Lê Lợi street, in particular the narrow alleyway at 36 Lê Lợi where Mr Heng explains to Fowler the workings of the bicycle pump bomb.

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22 rue des Artisans in Chợ Lớn represented Fowler’s Saigon apartment in the 1958 film of The Quiet American (© Figaro/United Artists)

In Graham Greene’s book, Thomas Fowler rents a “room over the rue Catinat” (modern Đồng Khởi street), which is said to have been based on the Saigon Palace Hotel (today the Grand Hotel) following its 1940s conversion into rented apartments. However, neither the original Mankiewicz film nor the Noyce remake used the real Catinat/Tự Do/Đồng Khởi street as a location.

In the 1958 movie, the exterior shots of Fowler’s Saigon apartment were filmed at 22 rue des Artisans in Chợ Lớn, now the Tản Đà Hotel at 22 Phạm Đôn, District 5. Many of the movie’s Tết crowd scenes were also filmed nearby in the two blocks between Phạm Đôn and Phan Phú Tiên streets, where a great deal of the colonial architecture captured in the film may still be seen today.

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Hà Nội’s old quarter was chosen as the location for Fowler’s Saigon apartment in the 2002 film of  The Quiet American (© Miramax Films)

In contrast, the makers of the 2002 film preferred to use Hà Nội’s old quarter for depictions of Fowler’s Saigon apartment, resulting in some rather unlikely sequences in which the protagonists exit Saigon’s Lam Sơn square, turn the corner and miraculously find themselves walking along Hà Nội’s famous Hàng Vải amidst photogenic stacks of bamboo.

In the book, Fowler agrees to meet Pyle at the fictional Vieux Moulin restaurant in “Dakow” (Đa Kao), thereby setting him up for assassination. Once again, neither film made use of the real Đa Kao for the scene in question.

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The former Pont des Trois arches (Three-arch bridge) in Chợ Lón was selected as the location for the murder sequence in the 1958 version of The Quiet American

To depict the muddy waters of the Thị Nghè creek in which Pyle’s corpse is eventually found, the makers of the 1958 film opted for the westernmost end of the canal Bonard (Bãi Sậy canal) in Chợ Lớn, at that time spanned by the famous Pont des Trois arches (Three-arch bridge). The film includes a great deal of rare footage of this unusual Chợ Lớn landmark, which was built in 1920 by the établissements Brossard et Mopin with funding from Minh Hương businessman Trương Văn Bền (1883-1956), owner of the highly successful Xà bông (Savon) Việt Nam soap company. The bridge was demolished in 1990 but is still recalled fondly by many older Chợ Lớn residents.

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Hội An was chosen as the location for the murder sequence in the 2002 version of The Quiet American (© Miramax Films)

Meanwhile, the 2002 film unexpectedly transports us to Hội An for the murder sequence, substituting the Cẩm Nam bridge over the Thu Bồn river as the location for Pyle’s demise.

Since Phillip Noyce shot his Tây Ninh sequences entirely on location in Ninh Bình province, the Cao Đài Cathedral – described vividly by Greene as “a Walt Disney fantasia of the East, dragons and snakes in technicolour” – is conspicuous by its absence from the 2002 movie.

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Michael Redgrave’s Fowler tours the Cao Đài Cathedral in the 1958 version of The Quiet American (© Figaro/United Artists)

In contrast, the 1958 film includes an extensive sequence of archive footage shot in Tây Ninh, which depicts Cao Đài pope Phạm Công Tắc (1890-1959) presiding over the annual grand ritual dedicated to the Đức Chí Tôn (Supreme Being) and reviewing what Fowler describes as his “vigorous young Caodist army of 25,000 men.”

In recent years, the 1958 Joseph L Mankiewicz version of The Quiet American has been largely forgotten, while Phillip Noyce’s excellent 2002 remake has rightly become required viewing for Hồ Chí Minh City visitors who are seeking to brush up on local history.

Yet despite its many shortcomings as an adaptation of the original novel, the fact that all of its location shots were concentrated in and around Saigon makes the much-maligned 1958 movie a unique and fascinating visual record of this city during the turbulent period in which it was made.

You may also be interested to read these articles:
Graham Greene’s Saigon
Saigon on the Silver Screen – The Lover, 1992

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The Continental Hotel Terrace pictured in the 1958 film (© Figaro/United Artists) – and the same location today

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In the 1958 movie (© Figaro/United Artists), the exterior shots of Fowler’s Saigon apartment were filmed at 22 rue des Artisans in Chợ Lớn, now the Tản Đà Hotel at 22 Phạm Đôn, District 5

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The 1958 movie (© Figaro/United Artists) affords what must be one of the last views of the old 1927 établissements Bainier automobile showroom before it was rebuilt as the Rex Hotel, Commercial Centre and Cinema complex – today the 5-star Rex Hotel

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Mr Heng explains to Fowler the workings of the bicycle pump bomb at 36 Lê Lợi in the 1958 film (© Figaro/United Artists) – and the same location today

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The famous Pont des Trois arches (Three-arch bridge) in Chợ Lớn was chosen for the murder sequence in the 1958 film (© Figaro/United Artists)

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The spot where Pyle’s corpse is found floating as depicted in the 1958 film (© Figaro/United Artists) – and the same location 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.

Old Saigon Building of the Week – 14 Cach Mang Thang Tam, 1937

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14 Cách mạng Tháng 8 today

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

The art deco style building at 14 Cách mạng Tháng 8 was inaugurated in 1937 as the headquarters of the Cercle Indochinois at 14 rue Verdun.

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The Cercle Indochinois HQ pictured in the 1940s

In October of that year, the Annales Coloniales described it as a “professional networking organisation with a membership of more than 100 French and Annamese doctors, lawyers, traders, industry officials, journalists” which served “to assist with the delicate tasks of the heads of the government” and enjoyed “a spirit of good fellowship which is worth maintaining.”

Between 1955 and 1975, the building served as the headquarters of Trần Quốc Bửu’s Việt Nam General Confederation of Labour Unions (Tổng liên đoàn Lao công Việt Nam), the largest labour organisation in South Việt Nam. During this period its address was 14 Lê Văn Duyệt.

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The Việt Nam General Confederation of Labour Unions HQ pictured in the 1960s

Since 1975, the old Cercle Indochinois building has housed the Hồ Chí Minh City Labour Federation (Liên đoàn Lao động thành phố Hồ Chí Minh), southern branch of the Việt Nam General Confederation of Labour (Tổng Liên đoàn Lao động Việt Nam).

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 – 19-21 Tran Hung Dao, Late 1920s

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The flatiron building at 19-21 Trần Hưng Đạo

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

One of the real architectural gems in Hồ Chí Minh City’s District 1, the flatiron building at the junction of Trần Hưng Đạo, Ký Con and Yersin streets (original address 19-21 boulevard Galliéni) was constructed in the 1920s to provide both offices and residential accommodation for the family of Nguyễn Văn Hảo, patriarch of the Comptoir Nguyễn Văn Hảo Saïgonnais, one of the city’s leading automotive spares companies which sold vehicle accessories from the shop spaces on the ground floor.

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The Nguyễn Văn Hảo Theatre pictured in the 1930s

Nguyễn Văn Hảo clearly made a lot of money from this business, because in the 1930s it was he who paid for the construction of the nearby Nguyễn Văn Hảo Theatre, one of Saigon’s earliest cinemas, which in 1945 was the venue for the public meeting which resolved to launch the August Revolution in the south.

After 1975 the old cinema was rebuilt as the Công nhân theatre and today that venue – located near the Trần Hưng Đạo/De Tham street junction – serves as the main venue of the Hồ Chí Minh City Drama Theatre.

But back to the Nguyễn Văn Hảo flatiron building. Although it’s now in poor condition, it is still fully occupied by tenants – including, on the top floor, descendants of Nguyễn Văn Hảo.

The flatiron building at 19-21 Trần Hưng Đạo

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 – Former USIS Headquarters

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During the early period of American involvement in Việt Nam, United States policies concentrated heavily on culture and information programmes aimed at winning support for the Ngô Đình Diệm regime. And the focus of that effort was the large grey building on the Hai Bà Trưng/Lý Tự Trọng street intersection.

Originally numbered 82 Hai Bà Trưng, this attractive modernist building was constructed in the early 1950s to house the Saigon offices of the United States Information Service (USIS).

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Another view of the former USIS building

According to an American report of 1956, “The USIS occupies excellent, roomy quarters in three floors of a street corner building at a prime location in downtown Saigon, about a mile from the Embassy. It is completely air-conditioned. The facilities include a library (ground floor), a 150-seat auditorium, radio studios and film editing and recording rooms. The square footage totals 33,454.” On 22 October 1957, 82 Hai Bà Trưng was one of three US installations in Sài Gòn to be targeted by the National Liberation Front.

In 1962, the USIS moved to what is now the Rex Hotel, where a new Abraham Lincoln Library opened its doors to the public. The building at 82 Hai Bà Trưng then became an annex. However, in subsequent years, as the insurgency gathered momentum, the United States gradually began to switch to a primarily military strategy. In 1964 the Abraham Lincoln Library was relocated to Lê Quý Đôn street (District 3) and in 1965, following the arrival of the first US combat troops, the USIS operation at the Rex was subsumed into the Joint US Public Affairs Office (JUSPAO), becoming an arm of the military. From that time onwards, the old annex at 82 Hai Bà Trưng became known as “JUSPAO 2.”

Soon after the Paris Peace Accords of 1973, 82 Hai Bà Trưng reverted to civilian usage. Today the building is mainly occupied by private apartments, but is perhaps best known as the home of the popular Quán Loan restaurant at 37 Lý Tự Trọng.

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 – 606 Tran Hung Dao
American War Vestiges in Saigon – 137 Pasteur
American War Vestiges in Saigon – Former “Free World” HQ

USIS Library Richard C. Harris Jr. Collection Vietnam Center and Archive

The USIS building in the 1960s (Richard C. Harris Jr. Collection, Vietnam Center and Archive)

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Another image of the USIS building in the 1960s

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The “JUSPAO 2″ Annex may be seen in this late 1960s photo of traffic on Hai Bà Trưng street

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.

Derailing Saigon’s 1966 Monorail Dream

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A suspended monorail car on SAFEGE’s test track at Châteauneuf-sur-Loire in the early 1960s

As plans to build an ambitious US$154 billion urban railway and monorail network in Hồ Chí Minh City slowly take shape, it’s worth remembering a scheme advanced nearly 50 years ago to build a monorail system in Saigon.

By the mid 1960s, attacks by the National Liberation Front (NLF) had devastated South Việt Nam’s railway infrastructure, leaving it with just 357km of operational rail track in three isolated sections south of the 17th parallel. As the US Army set to work building logistics bases and support facilities for its troops, the refurbishment of the railway network was prioritised, along with the improvement of airfields and expansion of port facilities. In June 1966, the US Military Assistance Command Việt Nam (MACV), USAID, the Saigon government and its Joint General Staff jointly devised the US$25 million “Railroad Sabotage Replacement Program” to restore the southern railway network to operational condition.

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The Saigon elevated railway station scheme

Encouraged by this massive US investment in its rail infrastructure, the Ministry of Transport decided to chance its hand by submitting to its American sponsors a number of other related – but perhaps not quite so essential – transport infrastructure projects.

These included an extraordinary plan to raise the railway line as it entered Saigon Station (then located alongside Phạm Ngũ Lão street in District 1), channelling it into a brand new elevated terminus, complete with a 15-storey office, hotel and apartment block which would have towered over Bến Thành Market.

However, perhaps the most intriguing plan of all was that put forward in 1966 to build a state-of-the-art two-line monorail system connecting Phú Lâm, Chợ Lón, Saigon and Gia Định (Bình Thạnh).

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Interior of a suspended monorail car designed by SAFEGE, 1960 (photo credit: University of Washington Libraries)

With traffic congestion in the city increasing by the day, it would appear as if the authorities already regretted their 1956 decision that trams would be “abolished permanently and replaced by buses” (see my earlier post on the Saigon Tramway Network). For documents unearthed in the National Archives show that in 1966 the South Vietnamese Ministry of Transport commissioned a proposal from French “suspended metro” specialists SAFEGE-Transport (Société Anonyme Française d’ Etude de Gestion et d’ Entreprises) for the construction of two monorail lines – with routes not greatly dissimilar to the electric tramway lines abolished so eagerly just a decade earlier!

Monorail Line 1 would have travelled 9.4km from Phú Lâm via Chợ Lớn to the Bến Thành Market on Diên Hồng (modern Quách Thị Trang) square. There, it would have connected with the 6.6km Monorail Line 2, which would have run along Hàm Nghi to the Sài Gòn waterfront, then northwest along Đại lộ Cường Để (đường Tôn Đức Thắng) to Hồng Thập Tự (đường Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai) and finally northeast to Đa Kao and Gia Định.

The whole scheme would have cost at least US$48 million to build and its implementation was entirely dependent on foreign financial assistance. However, it seems not to have impressed the Americans. Like the elevated station project, the 1966 Saigon Monorail scheme was eventually derailed due to lack of funding.

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
By Tram to Hoi An
Date with the Wrecking Ball – Vietnam Railways Building
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

Old Saigon Building of the Week – Former Cercle des Officiers, 1876

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The old Cercle des Officiers building, today home to the District 1 People’s Committee.

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

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The Cercle des Officiers building pictured in the late 1870s – note the Cathedral under construction in the background.

The grand colonial old pile at 47 Lê Duẩn, right opposite the Diamond Plaza, is one of the oldest surviving buildings in the city.

It was constructed in 1876 as the Cercle des Officiers or Officers’ mess, to provide social and recreational facilities for high-ranking members of the French armed forces. The no-nonsense design by the Cochinchina Department of Civic Buildings features a surrounding veranda and high ceilings to enhance ventilation.

One visitor of 1877 described it as “a large two-storey building which owes its existence to the munificence of the Governor, who had it built as a meeting place for officers of all the armed forces.”

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The Cercle des Officiers building pictured in the 1890s.

He went on: “The ground floor houses the Marine Infantry Officers’ Mess, while on the upper floor there is a library, a lecture room, a billiards room and a bar. The subscription is one piastre per month.”

Between 1955 and 1975, the old Cercle des Officiers building was repurposed to house the South Vietnamese Ministry of Justice (Bộ Tư pháp).

Today it serves as the headquarters of the District 1 People’s Committee (Ủy ban Nhân dân Quận 1).

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 Railway which Became an Aerial Tramway

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A Société Ernest Heckel “metallic cabin” aerial tramway system operating in Europe, 1934

With the construction of cable car systems currently all the rage in Việt Nam, perhaps this is an opportune time to tell the story of Việt Nam’s first public aerial tramway system.

In recent years the cable car has become increasingly synonymous with tourism in Việt Nam. From Vũng Tàu to Đà Lạt, from Nha Trang to Ba Na, it seems that no mountain landscape is complete without their omnipresent gantries and cables. Love them or hate them, by 2015 it will even be possible for tourists to take a cable car through the pristine mountain landscapes of Sapa.

The earliest forms of aerial tramway used in Việt Nam were téléphérique systems installed by the colonial French authorities at coal mining installations in Tonkin (Quảng Ninh) and Annam (Quảng Nam). However, before the 1930s there is no record of aerial tramways being used in Indochina as a means of public transportation.

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Map of the Tân Ấp–Xóm Cục-Ban Na Phao rail/cable car line (Tim Doling)

All this changed in 1933, when funding for a new Việt Nam-Laos rail link through the Mụ Giạ border pass (modern Quảng Bình province) dried up and an aerial tramway built to carry construction materials to the chantiers was pressed into passenger service.

Back in 1898, the French had shelved the idea of building an “inland” rail link from Saigon to Hà Nội in favour of a coastal route, but as the Transindochinois railway line neared completion in the 1920s, a group of ministers in the administration of Governor General Martial Henri Merlin (August 1922–April 1925) began to lobby for the construction of a second rail route through the interior, with the aim of connecting Saigon and Hà Nội with Cambodia (Stung Treng and Kratie) and Laos (Thakhek). The idea was given added impetus in 1922 when tin deposits were discovered along the projected route in the Nam Pathene valley.

In 1927, plans were drawn up to build a preliminary 187km section of the new line from Tân Ấp junction (a main line station south of Vinh in rural Quảng Bình province) to Thakhek in Laos. The Saigon-Lộc Ninh “rubber line,” then under construction in Cochinchina, was envisaged as the future southernmost component of the same line.

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A rare shot of the aerial tramway (photo credit: http://fer-air.over-blog.com/)

With the Siamese eventually expected to extend their rail network as far as Nakhon Phanom and Thakhek, proponents of the new line began to wax lyrical about a future “great international line” connecting Singapore with Paris. So enthusiastic were they that in 1927 they even delayed work on the final section of the Transindochinois, in order that preliminary planning of the new inland line could get under way.

Construction began simultaneously in 1929 on two separate stretches — from Tân Ấp to Xóm Cục (18km) in Annam, and from Thakhek to Pha Vang (16km) in Laos.

In parallel with these works, in order to increase the capacity of the service road in the mountainous border area, a 39km aerial tramway was built to link Xóm Cục with the Ban Na Phao frontier post in Laos. Funded by Germany as part of its war reparations programme, the construction of the aerial tramway was entrusted to the Ernest Heckel Company of Sarrebruck (founded 1781), which had recently made a name for itself by installing its famous “metallic cabin” systems in several up-market European ski resorts. When it was inaugurated in 1931, it was said to be the world’s longest aerial tramway line, with seven stops—Xóm Cục (Khe Ve), Cha Mác (Y Leng), Xóm Man (Bản Man), Bãi Dinh, Pou Toc Vou, Mụ Giạ and Ban Na Phao.

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Xóm Cục Station with the connecting aerial tramway in the background (photo credit: http://fer-air.over-blog.com/)

Construction of the railway line proceded slowly, and the first 18km section from Tân Ấp to Xóm Cục did not open to traffic until 13 September 1933. There were only four stations – Tân Ấp (km 0), Xóm Danh (Thanh Thạch, km 5.51), Thanh Lạng (km 9.273) and Xóm Cục (Khe Ve, km 18). The railway line incorporated two tunnels at Thanh Lạng (334.32m) and Xóm Gi (70.38m), two iron river bridges and three brick viaducts of 39.72m, 56.72m and 65.76m respectively.

The 16km stretch of railway line built on Lao territory incorporated two viaducts and four stations—Thakhek (km 0), Ban Tham (km 7.44), Ban Nam Don (km 10.3) and Pha Vang (km 15.59). However, although construction of the Lao section is known to have reached an advanced stage, there is no evidence that it was completed or that trains ever ran on it.

By this time, critics of the “inland” railway scheme had gained the upper hand within the colonial administration, and against a background of financial crisis and growing political insurgency, funds to build the remainder of the line were diverted for use in other areas.

This mystery locomotive being unloaded from a ship on the Long Đại river (Quảng Ninh district, Quảng Bình province) onto the main North-South line in 1930 is believed to have been destined for the ill-fated Tân Ấp–Thakhek branch line

With no more money available to complete the railway line, the authorities stopped work on it and instead opened the aerial tramway to public service with effect from 18 December 1933.

Thereafter, the 18km railway line from Tân Ấp to Xóm Cục and the connecting 39km aerial tramway from Xóm Cục to Ban Na Phao became an important cross-border route for both passengers and freight, administered as an integral part of the colonial railway network Chemins de fer de l’Indochine. In the period from 1 November 1936 to 30 March 1937, it is said to have conveyed 1,197 tons of goods from Việt Nam to the Lao border and 348 tons in the other direction.

In October 1937, plans to build the remainder of the railway line were definitively abandoned by the French authorities. Although revived in 1942–1945 during the Japanese occupation and again briefly in 1948 by the French, they would ultimately come to nothing.

Passengers changing from train to the Thakhek bus at Xóm Cục Station in 1934 (photo credit: http://fer-air.over-blog.com/)

The extraordinary combined railway/aerial tramway service from Tân Ấp to Ban Na Phao continued in operation until 1947, when both railway and cableway were destroyed by the Việt Minh. Today, little remains of the original infrastructure other than the overgrown bases of old aerial tramway gantries, ruined railway viaducts, collapsed tunnels, and at Khe Ve (formerly Xóm Cục) the sole surviving metal railway bridge built by the Société Levallois-Perret.

Almost 70 years after the Tân Ấp–Thakhek railway line project was abandoned by the French, there are signs that the “great international line” from Singapore to Paris envisaged by Merlin’s ministers may one day become a reality as part of the Trans-Asia Railway (TAR) and Singapore-Kunming Rail Link (SKRL) schemes. In 2003 the governments of Việt Nam and Laos signed an agreement on Economy, Culture, Science and Technology in which the two sides pledged to build a rail link from the Lao capital of Vientiane to the coast of Hà Tĩnh Province in Việt Nam – via the Mụ Giạ Pass. Travelling via Thakhek and then following the route of the abandoned Tân Ấp–Thakhek branch, it will meet the North-South (and future SKRL/TAR Singapore-China) line at Tân Ấp junction and then continue eastward to Vũng Áng deep water port. The project is expected to bring considerable economic benefits to both countries.

Tim Doling is the author of The Railways and Tramways of Việt Nam (White Lotus Press, Bangkok, 2012) and also conducts 16-day and 13-day Việt Nam Rail Tours.

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

Join the Facebook group Rail Thing – Railways and Tramways of Việt Nam for more information about Việt Nam’s railway and tramway history and all the latest news from Vietnam Railways.

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

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

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The Trans-Asia Railway (TAR) and Singapore-Kunming Rail Link (SKRL) schemes

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Tân Ấp junction today.

The old Société Levallois-Perret railway bridge at Khe Ve (formerly Xóm Cục)

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The view up river at Khe Ve (formerly Xóm Cục)

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Ruins of an old brick railway viaduct

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The overgrown bases of old aerial tramway gantries

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Another old aerial tramway gantry

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A late afternoon freight train speeds northwards past Tân Ấp

American War Vestiges in Saigon – 137 Pasteur

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137 Pasteur today

The large pink building at 137 Pasteur in Hồ Chí Minh City has a colourful history.

From 1955-1962, this building was home to the Michigan State University Group (MSUG), which was controversially engaged under US sponsorship to advise and assist agencies of the Ngô Đình Diệm regime in a range of areas, including economics, public administration and training of police and security services. It was later alleged that the MSUG “helped to arm and train Diệm’s secret police, to formulate methods of repression and population control, to provide cover for the CIA, and to Americanize various educational, political,and social institutions.”

65 137 Pasteur in 1962

137 Pasteur in 1962

Soon after the departure of the MSUG in 1962, the building became the second headquarters of the US Military Assistance Command Việt Nam (MACV). When it was first set up in February 1962, MACV had shared the villa at 606 Trần Hưng Đạo (see earlier post) with the Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG), but in May 1962 it acquired these larger premises, where it went on to become the unified command structure for all US military forces in Việt Nam.

By the mid 1960s, MACV had outgrown both 606 Trần Hưng Đạo and 137 Pasteur, so in 1966 it began moving its various branch offices into the massive purpose-built  “Pentagon East” complex, adjacent to Tân Sơn Nhất Air Base.

The building at 137 Pasteur was vacated by MACV on 2 July 1966. From that date onward, it served as the US Defence Attaché’s Office (DAO) until 1973 when, following the departure of US troops, the DAO moved into the former MACV headquarters at Tân Sơn Nhất Air Base. The building at 137 Pasteur then reverted to civilian usage.

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 – 606 Tran Hung Dao
American War Vestiges in Saigon – Former “Free World” HQ
American War Vestiges in Saigon – Former USIS Headquarters

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 – Lien Thanh Fish Sauce Company Headquarters, 1922

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The 1922 Liên Thành company headquarters in Hồ Chí Minh City’s District 4

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

Now one of the few surviving heritage buildings in District 4, the ornate colonial edifice at 243 Bến Vân Đồn was constructed in 1922 as the second Saigon office of the famous Phan Thiết-based fish sauce manufacturer, Société de Lien-Thanh (Liên Thành Thương Quán or Công ty Liên Thành).

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The founders of the Liên Thành Thương Quán: Hồ Tá Bang, Nguyễn Trọng Lợi, Nguyễn Quý Anh, Nguyễn Hiệt Chi, Trần Lệ Chất, Ngô Văn Nhượng

The company was founded in 1906 by Hồ Tá Bang, Nguyễn Trọng Lợi, Nguyễn Quý Anh, Nguyễn Hiệt Chi, Trần Lệ Chất and Văn Nhượng, all prominent activists in the patriotic Duy Tân reform movement led by Phan Châu Trinh, Trần Quý Cáp and Huỳnh Thúc Kháng. In 1907 they also founded the famous Dục Thanh School in Phan Thiết, modelled on the pioneering Đông Kinh Nghĩa Thục in Hà Nội, to “educate young people about their nation.”

In 1909, the Liên Thành company opened a southern branch office in Chợ Lớn, renting a building at 1-3 quai Testard on the Phố Xếp Canal, now Châu Văn Liêm street.

In August 1910, Nguyễn Tất Thành – later known to the world as Hồ Chí Minh – arrived in Phan Thiết on his journey south to Saigon. After making the acquaintance of the Liên Thành company directors, he was invited to stay and teach at the Dục Thanh School. When he finally left Phan Thiết for Saigon seven months later, Nguyễn Tất Thành carried with him the offer of accommodation when he reached his destination.

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An exhibition room now stands on the site of the first Liên Thành company headquarters at 1-3 quai Testard (now 5 Châu Văn Liêm) in Chợ Lớn, commemorating its association with Nguyễn Tất Thành (Hồ Chí Minh)

Nguyễn Tất Thành lived at 1-3 quai Testard in Chợ Lớn from February to June 1911, before famously leaving for France on board the Chargeurs Réunis vessel, l’Amiral Latouche-Tréville. Today a commemorative exhibition room stands on the site of the original Liên Thành company headquarters, now 5 Châu Văn Liêm.

The Liên Thành fish sauce company continued to rent office space at 1-3 quai Testard until 1922, when the colonial administration announced its intention to fill the remaining creeks and canals which then ran right through the centre of Chợ Lớn. Heavily reliant on waterborne transportation, the company immediately commissioned the construction of an ornate new headquarters building, on the south bank of the arroyo Chinois (Bến Nghé Creek) in Khánh Hội.

Despite the pressures of development, that second headquarters building still stands 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.

Dien Hai – Da Nang’s Forgotten Vauban Citadel

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Điện Hải Citadel as it appears on Google maps – with the walls outlined

Visitors often tour Đà Nẵng City Museum without realising that it’s located in the grounds of one of Việt Nam’s few intact Vauban citadels.

The origins of Điện Hải Citadel may be traced back to 1813, when King Gia Long constructed a network of fortresses on either side of the Hàn River to protect the naval port at Tiên Sa. Originally built north of the current site, Điện Hải and its twin An Hải on the east side of the Hàn river were the largest fortifications in this network, which also included an elaborate system of city walls.

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A pre-colonial map showing the location of the original Điện Hải fortress

In 1823, Gia Long’s son and successor Minh Mạng saw the need for stronger defensive works, so the original Điện Hải fortress was rebuilt “on a high mound” at the current location. It was upgraded from a fortress (đồn) to a citadel (thành) in 1835.

The current citadel dates from the reconstruction of 1847 by King Thiệu Trị. Like the second Gia Định Citadel of 1837 (see previous post, The Citadels of Gia Dinh), it was built according to the Vauban principles of military architecture as a square fortification with four corner bastions. Its 5m high walls had a circumference of over 550m and were surrounded by a 3m deep moat.

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The citadel had just two gates – the south (main) gate and the east gate – and housed an out-of-town royal palace, an army barracks and storage facilities for food, ammunition and gunpowder. Around the walls were 30 cannon emplacements.

Điện Hải Citadel suffered extensive damage during the Franco-Spanish invasion of 1858, although since that first French campaign ended in failure, it was subsequently repaired and returned to use.

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The Caserne de l’Infanterie on boulevard Jules Ferry, today still an army barracks at 38B Trần Phú

Following the establishment of the French concession of Tourane in 1888, the colonial authorities found the citadel too small to accommodate their own armed forces and instead established new infantry and artillery barracks nearby on what later became boulevard Jules Ferry, now Trần Phú street.

After 1888, they built a military hospital in the grounds of Điện Hải Citadel. During the early French period this doubled as the main city hospital.

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The French military hospital and first Roman Catholic church in the citadel grounds

Then in 1900, General Gustave Borgnis-Desbordes, commandant-in-chief of French troops in Indochina and Grand officier de la Légion d’honneur, sponsored the construction of Tourane’s first Roman Catholic church in the grounds of the hospital.

It remained the principal place of Catholic worship in the city until the inauguration of the larger parish church, now Đà Nẵng Cathedral, in 1924.

Following the departure of the French, the École Française de Tourane (founded in 1894) was relocated into the old military hospital compound in the Điện Hải Citadel and renamed the Collège Français de Tourane in 1955, Lycée Blaise Pascal de Đà Nẵng in 1964 and Nguyễn Hiền Education Centre (Trung Tâm Giáo Dục Nguyễn Hiền) in 1967 before finally closing its doors in 1975.

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The statue of General Nguyễn Tri Phương

Since Reunification the Citadel has housed various civic buildings, most recently the Đà Nẵng City Museum, which was rebuilt here in 2008. Although increasingly dwarfed by new high-rise buildings and threatened by the construction of housing against its west wall, the old citadel remains intact, thanks to its recognition as a national historic site in 1998.

A statue of General Nguyễn Tri Phương has been installed in front of the museum to remember his success in repelling the first French attack of 1858-1860.

Getting there
Thành Điện Hải, 1A Lý Tự Trọng, Phường Thạch Thang, Quận Hải Châu, Đà Nẵng

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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.