Saigon on the Silver Screen – The Lover, 1992

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The Lover (© Fox Pathé Europa, France)

When filming Marguerite Duras’ 1984 autobiographical novel The Lover, French director Jean-Jacques Annaud made extensive use of Saigon locations. Here’s a run-down of the local landmarks to watch out for when you view the movie.

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The Lover film poster (© Fox Pathé Europa, France)

Jean-Jacques Annaud’s 1992 film of Marguerite Duras’ Prix Goncourt-winning novel l’Amant (The Lover) was one of the first western films to be shot in Việt Nam after Reunification.

Based on Duras’ own experiences as a teenager in French Cochinchina, it depicted a forbidden inter-racial romance between a 15-year-old French girl (played by British actress Jane March) and a 32-year-old Chinese businessman (played by Hong Kong actor Tony Leung). The film featured narration by Jeanne Moreau and a haunting César Award-winning score by Gabriel Yared, but despite its impressive performance at the box office, it garnered mixed reviews from the critics.

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The École de Sa Đéc as featured in The Lover (© Fox Pathé Europa, France)

Unlike Régis Wargnier’s 1992 film Indochine, which used Butterworth in Malaysia as a substitute for Saigon, The Lover made extensive use of historic locations in and around Hồ Chí Minh City, Sa Đéc and Vĩnh Long. A Paris studio was used to film most of the interior shots.

The Mekong Delta sequences – the opening scene in which the girl meets the “Chinaman” on a ferry, the École de Sa Đéc and “the horror of the Sa Đéc house” where she lives with her dysfunctional family – all used locations which, at the time of filming, had changed little since the colonial era.

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The former Xóm Chỉ bridge as featured in The Lover (© Fox Pathé Europa, France)

Those sequences filmed in Hồ Chí Minh City also made extensive use of its then still relatively abundant colonial heritage, affording fascinating glimpses of parts of the city which have since been completely redeveloped.

One early sequence follows the Chinaman’s car as it makes its way towards Saigon, passing rows of old colonial shophouses near the Xóm Chỉ bridge over the arroyo Chinois (Tàu Hủ-Bến Nghé creek) in Chợ Lớn. The bridge and most of the shophouses in this area have long since disappeared.

The bandstand installed at the Tôn Đức Thắng-Nguyễn Huệ junction (© Fox Pathé Europa, France)

As the car enters Saigon, we’re treated to several views of the river port, where the filmmakers even went to the trouble of installing a bandstand in the middle of the junction where Nguyễn Huệ boulevard meets the waterfront.

To represent the exterior of the “Pensionnat Lyautey,” the boarding house where the girl stays while studying in Saigon, Annaud chose the former St Paul’s Convent building on the corner of Tôn Đức Thắng and Nguyễn Hữu Cảnh streets.

The former St Paul’s Convent building on the corner of Tôn Đức Thắng and Nguyễn Hữu Cảnh streets was used as the “Pensionnat Lyautey” (© Fox Pathé Europa, France)

This particular building was taken over by the government after 1975 and has functioned ever since as the Nursery School Teacher Training Faculty of Sài Gòn University. The film also treats us to several shots of a leafy and peaceful Tôn Đức Thắng street outside the Pensionnat, then still lined with colonial buildings and a world away from the busy traffic artery of today.

Marguerite Duras herself studied at the Lycée Chasseloup-Laubat (now the Lê Quý Đôn Secondary School at 110 Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai in District 1), and on several occasions the film shows the girl entering and leaving a colonial school compound marked “Lycée Chasseloup-Laubat.”

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The former Lycée Pétrus Ký was used instead of the former Lycée Chasseloup-Laubat (© Fox Pathé Europa, France)

However, if you look closely you’ll see that the compound filmed by Annaud was not the Lê Quý Đôn Secondary School, but rather the former Lycée Pétrus Ký, the only work in the city by urbanist Ernest Hébrard and now the Lê Hồng Phong Specialist Secondary School at 235 Nguyễn Văn Cừ in District 5.

For a subsequent shot in which the car heads out to Chợ Lớn, Annaud set up a café next to the great banyan tree in Lý Tự Trọng Park, opposite the former Lieutenant Governor’s Palace (now the Hồ Chí Minh City Museum).

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A café was set up in Lý Tự Trọng Park, opposite the former Lieutenant Governor’s Palace (© Fox Pathé Europa, France)

This sets the scene as the car passes – travelling the wrong way along a one-way street!

On the way to Chợ Lớn, the car takes something of a detour, crossing one of the six bridges which once spanned the former Canal Bonard before depositing the couple at the Chinaman’s garçonnière (bachelor pad).

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The exterior of the Chinaman’s bachelor pad was represented in the film by 7 Phú Định in District 5 (© Fox Pathé Europa, France)

The exterior of the garçonnière itself was represented in the film by 7 Phú Định in District 5, while (needless to say) the X-rated interior shots were all filmed in France.

Annaud also filmed his restaurant exteriors in Chợ Lớn, selecting the two blocks between Phạm Đôn and Phan Phú Tiên streets which Joseph L Mankiewicz had used 34 years earlier for crowd sequences in his much-maligned 1958 version of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American.

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The Dương family residence in Cần Thơ stood in for the real family home of Duras’ “North China Lover” in Sa Đéc

The Chinaman later goes to see his father in an unsuccessful attempt to be released from his arranged marriage to a Chinese heiress, so that he can be with the girl.

At the time of filming, the former family house of Duras’ real “North China Lover” Léo Huỳnh Thủy Lê, located at 255A Nguyễn Huệ in Sa Đéc, had been transformed into a government office and could not be used for filming. After scouring the area for a suitable location, Annaud chose instead the old Dương family house at 26/1A Bùi Hữu Nghĩa in Cần Thơ city.

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The Cyprus-based ocean liner Alexandre Dumas (1920) was featured in two key scenes (© Fox Pathé Europa, France)

Towards the end of the film, we see the departure by ship of the girl’s troubled elder brother and subsequently of the girl herself. Annaud arranged for a 1920 ocean liner called the Alexandre Dumas to be brought from Cyprus to film these two key sequences, which both feature panoramic views of the old Messageries Maritimes port area.

Like the 1958 version of The Quiet American, Jean-Jacques Annaud’s 1992 film of The Lover affords us a fascinating glimpse of Saigon-Hồ Chí Minh City before its transformation in the 1990s.

You may also be interested to read these articles:
Saigon on the Silver Screen – The Quiet American, 1958 and 2002
Graham Greene’s Saigon

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The “Pensionnat Lyautey” building pictured today on the corner of Tôn Đức Thắng and Nguyễn Hữu Cảnh streets

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The former Lycée Pétrus Ký, now the Lê Hồng Phong Specialist Secondary School, which stood in for the Lycée Chasseloup-Laubat in The Lover

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Phú Định street in District 5, which Jean-Jacques Annaud used for the exterior shots of the Chinaman’s bachelor pad

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 Clinique Saint-Paul, 1938

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Hồ Chí Minh City Eye Hospital, the former Clinique Saint-Paul

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

For those condemned to a long daily commute along that busiest of city arteries, Điện Biên Phủ street, the clean, elegant lines of the Hồ Chí Minh City Eye Hospital (Bệnh viện Mắt, Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh) – the former Clinique Saint-Paul – offer a refreshing contrast to the surrounding urban clutter.

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The Clinique Saint-Paul pictured in the early 1950s

Funded and operated by the Sisters of Saint-Paul de Chartres, the Clinique Saint-Paul was built in 1936-1937 near the junction of rue Legrand de la Liraye and rue Pierre Flandin (modern Điện Biên Phủ and Bà Huyện Thanh Quan streets) to replace their earlier Clinique du Docteur Angier (1908), which had stood at 1 rue Docteur Angier (now Nguyễn Bỉnh Khiêm street), immediately behind the St Paul’s Convent.

The new Clinique was built by the Société Indochinoise d’Études et de Constructions (SIDEC), one of the leading construction companies in the colony, which was also responsible for the Tân Định Market as well as numerous other civic works in Cambodia.

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Architect Louis Chauchon also designed Phnom Penh’s Psah Thmey Central Market

The Clinique was designed by distinguished Saigon-based architect Louis Chauchon (1878-1945), whose other major works include the Public Library (now the National Library of Cambodia, 1924), the Psah Thmey Central Market (1937) and the Palais du Commissariat de France (1938) in Phnom Penh and the Pavillon de la Cité Universitaire in Hà Nội (1942).

According to the Echo Annamite newspaper, the Clinique was inaugurated on 19 December 1938 in the presence of Cochinchina Governor André Georges Rivoal and several other local dignitaries.

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The Clinique’s original art deco sign remains in place today

Its Director, Dr Roton, treated them to a tour of the state-of-the art facilities which “made a great impression on the visitors.”

Functional yet elegant, the Clinique is noteworthy for its stylish fusion of art deco curves and traditional four-panel roofs. Truly a sight for sore eyes.

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The north wing of the former Clinique Saint-Paul

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The south and central wings of the former Clinique Saint-Paul

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 – 60 Vo Van Tan

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The colonial villa at 60 Võ Văn Tần

The early history of the colonial villa at 60 Võ Văn Tần – originally 60 rue Testard – is shrouded with mystery, though it has been claimed that it was originally built for a wealthy French wine importer.

It later became the home of royal family member Nguyễn Phúc Ưng Thi (1913-2001) and his wife, founders of the Rex Hotel. In the late 1950s, they made the house available to the United States of America as a residence for their military commanders in chief.

It subsequently became the residence of two consecutive Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) Chiefs – Lieutenant General Samuel T Williams (November 1955-September 1960) and Lieutenant General Lionel C McGarr (September 1960-July 1962).

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General William C Westmoreland, one of the villa’s former residents

In 1962, when MAAG was integrated into the Military Assistance Command Việt Nam (MACV), the head of MAAG was found new lodgings at 121 Trương Định (today a kindergarten), while 60 Trần Quý Cáp became home to successive MACV Chiefs, including General Paul D Harkins (February 1962-June 1964), General William C Westmoreland (June 1964-July 1968), General Creighton Abrams (July 1968-June 1972) and latterly General Frederick C Weyand (June 1972-March 1973).

Today 60 Võ Văn Tần is home to a tourist company.

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A side view of 60 Võ Văn Tần

You may also be interested to read these articles:

In Search of Saigon’s American War Vestiges
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
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.

The Long Bien Bridge – “A Misshapen but Essential Component of Ha Noi’s Heritage”

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An aerial view of the Long Biên Bridge in 1985

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

Described by one writer as “a misshapen but essential component of Hà Nội’s heritage,” the Long Biên Bridge has clearly seen better days, but still commands such affection that recent government proposals to relocate or rebuild it have now been abandoned. What better time to revisit the long and turbulent history of this Hà Nội icon.

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Steam locomotives at Hà Nội Station in the early 1900s

The Long Biên Bridge was conceived primarily as part of the government-run (Chemins de fer de l’Indochine, CFI) railway line from Hà Nội to Đồng Đăng (built 1899-1902), but from the outset it was also intended as a means of connecting the capital with a second railway line then under construction. The line from Hải Phòng to Lào Cai and Yunnan (built 1901-1910), operated as a franchise by the Compagnie française des Chemins de fer de l’Indochine et du Yunnan (CIY), did not enter the capital, so a connecting service had to be provided across the river from Hà Nội to Gia Lâm. Because of its dual function, the bridge became part of a “communal” railway line administered jointly by both CFI and CIY.

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Paul Doumer, Governor General of Indochina from 13 February 1897 to October 1902

The bridge was originally named after Paul Doumer, the French Governor General who championed the cause of railway construction and whose ambitious “1898 Programme” laid the groundwork for the construction of over 1,300km of railway line in Việt Nam between 1898 and 1914, followed by over 1,100km more during the period 1918–1936.

Costing just over 6 million Francs, it was built between 1899 and 1902 to an in-house design by Daydé et Pillé, following a competition which involved all of the major construction houses. The bridge was inaugurated on 2 February 1902 in the presence of Doumer himself, his successor Paul Beau and the young King Thành Thái, and the first train crossed the bridge on 28 February 1902.

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The Doumer Bridge soon after completion

The bridge’s complex 19-span, 20-column cantilever design was immediately fêted as a technological masterpiece. Arriving in Hà Nội soon after it opened, awestruck British travel writer Alfred Cunningham noted:

“It is one of the longest bridges in the world, its total length being 1,680 metres (5,505 feet). According to Doumer’s memoirs, the engineers who constructed it were Messrs Daydé et Pillé, Creil (Oise) and the superintendent engineer in charge of its erection informed us that his task had been very difficult owing to the subsidence of the soil and the bed of the river. The earthwork leading up to the bridge had sunk three times, to a total depth of three metres, but he thought that was final. The stone columns, 14 metres high, are built up on metal cylindrical piles, 30 metres deep, which are filled with cement. There are 20 stone columns and some idea of its dimensions may be gathered from the fact that it absorbed 80 tons of paint, and the total weight of the steel is 5,000 tons. It is a magnificent work of which the French colonial government may well be proud, as a feat of modern engineering skill, and as a colossal monument to their desire to improve the communications between the provinces and the capital.”

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The original builders’ plate of the Doumer Bridge (photo: Tim Doling)

In fact, at the outset this massive structure carried just a single-track railway line bordered by pedestrian walkways, obliging those wishing to cross the Red River by motor vehicle or rickshaw to take a ferry. This has prompted some historians to suggest that the bridge, like many other French colonial structures, was conceived more for its symbolic value than as a key transport hub.

Ironically, the bridge is remembered today not as a symbol of colonial power and prestige, but rather as an icon of defiance against the Americans during the second Indochina War.

The bridge’s links with revolutionary history began in the period immediately after the First Indochina War, when the French used the Hà Nội-Hải Phòng line to evacuate their civilians and troops. It was across the Doumer Bridge that the final contingent of French soldiers walked on the afternoon of 9 October 1954, after withdrawing from the Hà Nội Citadel. The Việt Minh then took possession of the bridge, officially renaming it Cầu Long Biên. On the morning of 10 October 1954, Việt Minh troops entered the city, declaring the capital liberated.

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US bomb damage in August 1967

Its strategic function later made the bridge a key target for US bombers. In March 1965, as the Americans unleashed their sustained aerial bombardment known as “Operation Rolling Thunder,” anti-aircraft guns were installed on the central bridge towers. However, in 1966-1967 the bridge was hit on no fewer than 10 occasions. At first, running repairs succeeded in keeping it open to rail traffic, but in August 1967 the central span was destroyed, severing the vital rail link across the Red River.

During the ensuing eight-month reconstruction period, an extraordinary floating bridge known as SH1 (Sông Hồng 1) was installed to maintain rail transport between Hà Nội and Gia Lâm – barges were used to move the pontoons into place at night and then float them away again before first light.

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Temporary pontoon bridge “SH2”

Nixon’s “Operation Linebacker” of May–October 1972 inflicted further damage on the Long Biên Bridge by hitting it on four occasions, demolishing three more spans and once more severing the vital rail link between the capital and the north. As before, a pontoon bridge system – this time known as SH2 – was hastily installed across the Red River to reconnect Hà Nội with Gia Lâm.

Altogether, seven spans and four support columns were destroyed during the American War. After the Paris Peace Accords, work began to rebuild the bridge using steel supplied by the USSR, and by March 1973 trains were once more running through from Hà Nội to Gia Lâm junction. Since the need to ensure architectural integrity was not high on the agenda, those wartime reconstructions left only half of the bridge with its original shape.

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Rebuilding the Long Biên Bridge in 1973

The current debate over the bridge’s future stems from proposals elaborated nearly a decade ago to establish a fully integrated public transport system in Hà Nội, incorporating outer and central suburban railway lines run by ĐSVN, citywide bus services and a five-line Metro network. This ambitious scheme demands the provision of a multi-track railway bridge to carry the main line, Metro Line 1 and the proposed central suburban line across the Red River.

Now that the scheme to relocate or rebuild the Long Biên Bridge has been abandoned, it is likely that a new railway bridge will be built further upstream, as originally proposed. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Transport has reportedly agreed to keep the structure of the Long Biên Bridge intact, renovating parts of it “to improve its transport capability.”

Back in 2007, the French government pledged financial support to “restore the bridge to its original appearance.” But perhaps the last word should go to William Logan who, in his 2000 book Hanoi: Biography of a City, argues that while the Long Biên Bridge was a remarkable French engineering and architectural achievement, it is the bridge’s misshapen, unrestored spans which make it such a special symbol of the indomitable Hà Nội wartime spirit.

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 Lost Railway Works of Truong Thi
The Mysterious Khon Island Portage Railway
The Railway which Became an Aerial Tramway
The Saigon-My Tho Railway Line

Saigon’s Rubber Line

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J F Cail 4-6-0 “Ten Wheel” No 230-215 pictured at Lộc Ninh Station in the early 1940s.

Many people have heard of the former Mỹ Tho railway line, but relatively few are aware that a second branch line once ran out of Saigon. This so-called “rubber line” was opened in 1933 to convey bales of rubber and treated latex from the plantations of Thủ Dầu Một province to Saigon port. 

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The tramway line north of Thủ Dầu Một

In early 1927, the planters of Thủ Dầu Một province proposed the construction of a new railway line to transport bales of rubber and treated latex from Lộc Ninh and Hơn Quản to the river port of Bến Cát, where it would be transferred by boat to Saigon docks for export. The colonial administration gave the scheme its full support, believing that this new “line of colonisation” might one day form part of a second, inland North-South rail route, linked to the Tân Ấp-Thakhek line (see my earlier post The Railway Which Became an Aerial Tramway), which at that time was already under construction in the north.

The planters set up the Compagnie des voies ferrées de Lộc Ninh et du centre Indochinois (CVFLNCI) to build the line, but later that year the Sài Gòn tramway operator, the Compagnie française des tramways de l’Indochine (CFTI), put forward its own rival plans to link its tramway network with Lộc Ninh and Bù Đốp on the Cambodian border.

The Bến Đồng Sổ-Lộc Ninh line and its connection to Saigon via the CFTI tramway network

By throwing its hat into the ring, CFTI was able to negotiate a lucrative compromise settlement with CVFLNCI. Instead of linking its new line to Sài Gòn by river at Bến Cát, the CVFLNCI agreed to reroute it to Bến Đồng Sổ, while the CFTI undertook to extend its tramway network northward from Thủ Dầu Một to Bến Đồng Sổ to connect with it. In this way, the new branch line became wholly dependent upon the tramway network to connect it (at Gò Vấp) with the main North-South line run by Chemins de fer de l’Indochine (CFI).

This, of course, left CVFLNCI in a very weak bargaining position. When the Lộc Ninh line opened in 1933, the company was obliged to pay CFTI a substantial access fee equivalent to 50 percent of receipts from all CVFLNCI freight services using CFTI tramway lines, and also to grant CFTI the concession to run all passenger services between Sài Gòn and Lộc Ninh on CVFLNCI’s behalf.

To work the line, the CVFLNCI acquired three 2-8-0 “Consolidation” locomotives (numbered 300-302) built in 1930–1931 by Borsig of Berlin.  However, when it was discovered that at 90 tons they were too heavy for the CFTI tramway lines south of Thủ Dầu Một, lighter locomotives had to be shipped in from the réseaux non concédés to haul freight trains onwards from Bến Đồng Sổ to Sài Gòn docks.  A repairs and maintenance depot was built at Lộc Ninh.

The completion of the line coincided with the opening of several new plantations, and the encouraging passenger numbers of 1935 (80,905) and 1936 (109,557) reflected the subsequent influx of workers recruited by the rubber companies during that period. However, for most of those workers it was a one-way trip, and in subsequent years this sparsely populated region saw few train passengers other than French plantation personnel.

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One of the three Borsig 2-8-0 “Consolidation” locomotives (numbered 300-302) purchased by CVFLNCI to work the line

In contrast, the amount of rubber transported on the line rose dramatically from 25,459 tons in 1935 to 42,337 tons in 1936. However, during the three years it ran the line, its disadvantageous line access agreement with CFTI left the CVFLNCI continuously in the red. In 1936 the colonial authorities ran out of patience and terminated the CVFLNCI franchise, placing the line under the direct control of CFI. The line access agreement with CFTI was immediately renegotiated in favour of CFI, but with no funds then available to link the branch directly with the rest of the CFI network, the tramway operator continued to run passenger services from Sài Gòn to Lộc Ninh via Thủ Dầu Một until 1948.

After the CFI took over the running of the branch in 1936, the 2-8-0 Borsig “Consolidations” were transferred to other parts of the CFI network and lighter locomotives were deployed on the line, obviating the need for time-consuming locomotive changes at Bến Đồng Sổ. By the 1940s, daily CFTI passenger services on this line were being handled by Corpet Louvet & Compagnie 2-6-0T locomotives reportedly acquired from the Ardennes, while freight services were hauled by J F Cail 4-6-0 “Ten wheels” and Franco-Belge 2-6-2 “Prairies.”

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A French armoured train of the type deployed on the line

As the First Indochina War got under way in earnest, Việt Minh attacks on the tramway line north of Gò Vấp increased, “making it impossible for CFTI to continue running trains or repairing the damage” and leading to the closure of the tramway line for security reasons. However, at this time Cochinchina was still exporting well over 60,000 tons of rubber each year and the need to ensure its continued conveyance to the docks overrode all other considerations.

The French authorities therefore responded by taking over the Gò Vấp-Bến Đồng Sổ tramway line, placing it under CFI control and building armoured trains to guarantee the safe passage of rubber from the plantations to Saigon docks.

This situation continued until 6 November 1949, when Việt Minh guerillas blew up the Lái Thiêu bridge, severing the tramway link completely. Realising that even if they repaired the bridge it would always be vulnerable to attack, the French authorities voted special funds to build a new 5.5km railway line connecting An Mỹ (north of Thủ Dầu Một) directly with Dĩ An on the North-South line. This opened on 7 August 1950, restoring the vital freight connection between Lộc Ninh and Sài Gòn docks.

163. Société Franco-Belge 2-6-2 “Prairie”

Société Franco-Belge 2-6-2 “Prairie” locomotives were commonly used on the line in the late 1950s. No 131-112 is pictured here at Sài Gòn’s Chi Hoa Depot.

The Dĩ An–Lộc Ninh line suffered considerable damage during the period 1950-1953, but was repaired and reopened in 1954. However, by this time rubber production had been seriously retarded by warfare and in the interim those plantations which remained open had entrusted much of their rubber freight to the road haulage sector.

With its income diminishing year on year, the Dĩ An–Lộc Ninh line was pointedly excluded from the HXVN’s Railway Reconstruction Program of 1957–1959. Denied military protection, the line subsequently became a prime target for sabotage by National Liberation Front (NLF) operatives.

In 1961, train services to and from Lộc Ninh were “provisionally suspended” by the HXVN, bringing to an end all passenger services on the branch. Thereafter, the southernmost section from Dĩ An to Thủ Dầu Một remained in intermittent use by freight traffic until the late 1960s, when the line 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:

The Saigon-Mỹ Tho Railway line
The changing faces of Saigon railway station
The Việt Nam Railways Building in Saigon
Saigon tramway network
Derailing Saigon’s 1966 monorail dream
Đồng Nai Forestry Tramway
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The Spectacular Rise and Fall of Madame de la Souchere

Mme de la Souchiere 1922 Le Petit Parisien

Madame de la Souchère pictured in Le Petit Parisien of 18 August 1922,when she received the Chevalier de la legion d’honneur

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

There can be few more fascinating figures in the history of colonial Saigon than Madame Janie-Marie Marguerite Bertin Rivière de la Souchère (1881-1963), the widow who defied the social conventions of her time to become an immensely rich yet caring rubber plantation owner – only to lose everything in the Great Depression.

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The Messageries maritimes where Charles Rivière de la Souchère worked as a river pilot

In 1901, following a conventional upbringing in Pays de Caux (Haute Normandie), Janie-Marie Marguerite Bertin married a young merchant marine officer named Charles Rivière de la Souchère. Five years her senior, Charles was keen to pursue a career overseas, and in 1904 the 23-year-old Madame de la Souchère followed him to Cochinchina, where he had been offered employment with the Service du pilotage on the Saigon river. By November 1905, Charles was a fully qualified pilot based at the Messageries maritimes. The couple immersed themselves in the Saigon social scene, becoming regulars at the popular Cercle des Officiers.

Rubber tapping - extraction of latex from rubber trees - in colonial Indochina

Rubber tapping – extraction of latex from rubber trees – in colonial Indochina

However, Janie-Marie quickly became bored with the suffocating routine of colonial life in the city and in 1909 she persuaded her husband to purchase 300 hectares of land at Long Thành, 55km northeast of Saigon. In the following year, supported by a small army of workers, she personally set to work carving a rubber plantation out of the virgin forest.

These early efforts were not without problems – at the outset, wild tigers decimated her workforce and in 1913 a massive fire destroyed her entire crop of 50,000 rubber saplings. Undaunted, Janie-Marie simply started over. By 1914 she had turned the “Plantations du Tan-Loc” into a going concern.

Tragedy struck in 1916, when Charles died suddenly after a short illness. Despite her heartbreak, Janie-Marie became more determined than ever to make the plantation a success. She first appears later that year in the official records in place of her husband as the proprietor and director of the Société des plantations des Hévéas de la Souchère. By 1917 Janie-Marie had also succeeded Charles to become the first female member of the Syndicat des planteurs de Caoutchouc (Rubber Planters’ Syndicate) and of the Chambre d’Agriculture de la Cochinchine.

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Madame de la Souchère pictured on her plantation (source: http://belleindochine.free.fr)

Over the next decade, Janie-Marie’s business prospered and by the early 1920s the “domaine de la Souchère” embraced more than 3,000 hectares of land in Long Thành and Xuân Lộc. With a European manager and a local workforce of more than 800, the plantation was “divided by wide avenues” and contained more than 170,000 rubber trees, 25,000 coconut trees and 10,000 coffee plants.

A proficient Vietnamese speaker, Madame de la Souchère was said to have enjoyed the respect and loyalty of all her workers, whom she treated like an extended family. She built a health centre, a nursery, a primary school, a pagoda and a church on the plantation for their use, and also had a villa constructed in Cap Saint-Jacques (Vũng Tàu) where sick workers could be sent for rest and recuperation. She set up a savings scheme for her employees and is said to have taken such a personal interest in their welfare that “the name of the Souchère was revered by hundreds of Annamite families.” She even gave 12,000 piastres to the local provincial chief to build a maternity clinic and dispensary on the plantation which could be used by the wider community. In the 1920s, she adopted several local orphans who eventually went to live with her in France.

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A portrait of Madame Rivière de la Souchère (source: http://belleindochine.free.fr)

In 1922 she became Vice President of the Rubber Planters Association and in that same year she was awarded the Chevalier de la legion d’honneur for her contribution to the economy and her philanthropic work towards the community in Long Thành and Xuân Lộc.

Madame de la Souchère also found time to campaign actively for women’s rights, lobbying the Colonial Council in 1923 for “French women and indigenous women who could write” to be permitted to vote in elections.

A noted beauty who loved to dress in men’s tropical whites, Madame de la Souchère has often been cited as the model for the character of Éliane Devries, proprietor of the 6,000 hectare Lang-Sai plantation, who was played by Cathérine Deneuve in Régis Wargnier’s 1992 film Indochine.

In 1926, after years of living in basic accommodation, Madame de la Souchère decided to build herself a comfortable villa on the plantation. Then in 1927, perhaps wanting to spend more time in the city, she also commissioned the construction of a grand mansion at 169 rue Mac-Mahon (now 169 Nam Kỳ Khởi Nghĩa) in Saigon. However, she was given little time to enjoy these properties – in 1930, the economic crisis hit Indochina, and as the price of rubber crashed, Madame de la Souchère became mired in debt.

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Madame de la Souchère pictured on her plantation (source: http://belleindochine.free.fr)

In an interview she gave for Henriette Célariè’s 1937 book Promenade en Indochine, Madame de la Souchère admitted that in addition to being a victim of the economic downturn, she considered herself partly to blame for her predicament: “During the period of prosperity I experienced the thrill which comes with the influx of money and distributed a great deal of it in welfare. Nothing was too good, nothing was too expensive.”

Many advised her to sell up and leave, but she decided to stay, convinced that she could weather the storm. And in so doing she lost everything.

During this difficult period, the Bank of Indochina showed no leniency towards debtors and wasted no time seizing real estate and other forms of collateral upon defaulted debt. On 28 September 1933 the entire Souchère plantation, valued in 1929 at around 2 million piastres, was sold to the bank for just 100,000 piastres.

In October 1933, Chantecler magazine reported a strongly worded complaint from the Syndicat des planteurs de Caoutchouc to the Governor General about the scandalous sale of Madame de la Souchère’s “magnificent estate,” expressing outrage that “so many years of hard work and courageous tenacity which won the admiration of everyone towards this wonderful French woman… ends up with this.”

Madame de la Souchère’s former mansion at 169 Nam Kỳ Khởi Nghĩa, now the Hồ Chí Minh City Children’s House (Tim Doling)

It went on: “Will there be left at least the field in which her husband is buried and on which stands the chapel of the plantation?” Indeed, such was the level of support for Madame de la Souchère and criticism of the Bank of Indochina’s conduct over the affair that in the following month a packed public meeting in Saigon concluded with calls for the resignation of Governor General Pierre Pasquier! But it was all in vain.

With her plantation gone and the mansion at 169 rue Mac-Mahon also repossessed by the bank, Madame de la Souchère rented a modest apartment at 213 rue Catinat and set to work finding gainful employment. Over the next few years she worked variously as a representative of the Agence Immobilière de l’Indochine, as administrator at the 100-hectare Société des Plantations de Thai-Binh, and from 1934 as Inspector of Women’s Labour for the Cochinchina government. Remarkably, by 1936 she had cleared her debts and later in that year she even had enough money to purchase a modest 200-hectare coffee and rubber plantation in Biên Hòa.

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Madame de la Souchère’s last residence in Saigon, 213 Đồng Khởi (Tim Doling)

In 1937 the Syndicat des planteurs made Madame de la Souchère their Honorary President at a special ceremony in which the speaker noted her past misfortunes and said: “It is painful to note that the state bank could set such an example of disregard for the law and misappropriation of its debtors’ funds for its own benefit and to the detriment of the community.”

Madame de la Souchère returned to France in early 1938, spending her later years at Seyne sur Mer in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region. In 1952 she was promoted to the rank of Officier de la Légion d’honneur. After 1954 she arranged for the repatriation of her husband’s remains. She never returned to Indochina.

Janie-Marie Bertin Rivière de la Souchère died in Grasse on 31 October 1963 and was buried in the Seyne sur Mer cemetary.

Today most of the former Souchère plantation is still producing rubber, although few of the original colonial buildings have survived.

However, the Saigon mansion she built in 1927 still stands today at 169 Nam Kỳ Khởi Nghĩa. After 1933 it was rented out to various individuals and organisations until 1936, when it became the new residence of the director of the Bank of Indochina.

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Madame de la Souchère’s last residence in Saigon, 213 Đồng Khởi (Tim Doling)

From 1945 to 1954 it was taken over by the French military, initially becoming the residence of General Philippe Leclerc (1945-1946), commander of French forces in Indochina after World War II. In the 1960s it was repurposed again, initially as the Medical and Pharmaceutical Faculty of Sài Gòn University and later as the residence of the Deputy President of the Republic of Việt Nam. After Reunification, the mansion and its grounds became the Hồ Chí Minh City Children’s House, a function it retains to this day. It recently underwent a sympathetic renovation.

Sadly, Madame de la Souchère’s last residence in Saigon – the art deco apartment block at 213 Đồng Khởi – was not afforded heritage status and was recently demolished.

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 “Free World” HQ

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The Kỳ Hoà Hotel at 238 Ba Tháng Hai in Hồ Chí Minh City’s District 10

From 1965 until 1973, the building currently occupied by the three-star Kỳ Hoà Hotel at 238 Ba Tháng Hai (formerly 12 Trần Quốc Toản) in District 10 served as the headquarters of the Free World Military Assistance Organization (FWMAO), which housed the various country liaison offices for allied operations during the Việt Nam War.

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The FWMAO headquarters building in the late 1960s

In addition to co-ordinating the activities of military personnel sent to Việt Nam by Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, the Philippines and Thailand, FWMAO also managed the flow of non-military (medical, transportation, construction, agriculture) support by a variety of other nations.

All of the “Free World Forces” received logistical support and operational guidance from the United States Military Assistance Command Việt Nam (MACV).

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A 1969 view of the FWMAO headquarters building

After Reunification, the old FWMAO headquarters building was occupied by a variety of government agencies until 1992, when it was rebuilt in its present form as a hotel.

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 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.