Old Saigon Building of the Week – The Signal Mast, 1865

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The Signal Mast today

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

A time-honoured landmark on the Saigon riverfront, the Signal Mast (mât des signaux in French, Cột cờ thủ ngữ in Vietnamese) was recently refurbished as the centrepiece of the Saigon riverside park.

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A “colorised” image of the mât des signaux in the late 19th century

In his 1869 book Cochinchine française et royaume de Cambodge, Charles Lemire tells us that the headland where the Saigon river met the Arroyo Chinois (Bến Nghé creek) was originally known as pointe Lejeune, after Captain (later Rear Admiral) Laurent-Joseph Lejeune (1817-1895), Commander in chief of the French Navy in Cochinchina during the 1860s. Lejeune built many of Saigon’s port facilities and is credited with the construction of the original Signal Mast, which opened in October 1865.

Originally a simple flagpole, its main function was to communicate with vessels on the river using signal flags, but according to Lemire, it was also avidly watched by the city’s colonial population, to whom it “signalled the impending arrival of war, commerce and mail ships, which had been announced by telegraph from cap Saint-Jacques [Vũng Tàu].”

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This 1896 city map shows the route of the “Low Road” steam tramway past the mât des signaux

However, from an early date the Signal Mast also became a popular recreational spot for colonial settlers. Lemire remarked that at 5pm every Monday and Friday, the entire beau monde of Saigon would come here to listen to music performances by military bands.

In 1891, the Signal Mast became the first stop on the new “Low Road” steam tramway, which ran from place Rigault de Genouilly [Mê Linh square] in Saigon to the confluence of the Saigon river and the arroyo Chinois, before taking the north bank of the arroyo all the way to Chợ Lớn. The tramway line ran past the Signal Mast until the mid 1920s, when it was electrified and rerouted through the city centre.

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A bar was opened at the mât des signaux during the 1920s

By 1894, the flagpole needed replacement and in that year authorisation was given to proceed with the construction of a new one, complete with an office/storage facility and a floating dock. However, for budgetary and administrative reasons, this work was not completed until 1900.

By that time, the headland next to the Signal Mast had acquired the popular name Pointe des blagueurs (“Jokers’ Point”) and in the evenings many French expatriates would come here after dinner to watch the boats go by. From the 1920s onwards, the building at the foot of the flagpole was rented out to local entrepreneurs, who ran it as a bar.

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Another view of the bar which opened at the mât des signaux during the 1920s

By the 1940s the Signal Mast had become home to the famous “Restaurant de la Pointe des Blagueurs,” run by Madame Durand.

However, according to the plaque on the wall outside, the Signal Mast is best remembered locally for a fierce battle which took place here on 23 September 1945 between resistance forces armed with makeshift weapons and British Indian troops, who at that time were facilitating the return of the French.

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The Signal Mast today viewed from above

In 2010, as part of the landscaping of the quayside, the Signal Mast was refurbished and signs appeared outside announcing that it was to open as an exhibition centre. This plan seems to have since been shelved and the building has been closed ever since.

However, since its regeneration, the headland park has become one of the most pleasant outdoor spaces in the city, enjoyed by an ever-increasing number of visitors and locals. Perhaps we should expect a 20th century version of the former Restaurant de la Pointe des Blagueurs to be opened in the old Signal Mast in the near future….

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After 1891, “Low Road” tramway services from Saigon to Chợ Lớn stopped at the mât des signaux

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The Signal Mast in the 1950s

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.

Lang Cha Ca – From Mausoleum…. To Roundabout!

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A “colorised” photograph of the Pigneau de Béhaine mausoleum in the late 19th century and a shot of the same location today

If you’re just off the plane and heading west into the city, it’s hard to avoid the busy six-way Lăng Cha Cả intersection south of Hồ Chí Minh City’s Tân Sơn Nhất International Airport. But it’s even harder to believe that this was once the site of a national monument – the grand mausoleum of Bishop Pigneau de Béhaine.

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Pigneau de Béhaine, painted by Maupérin during his 1787 trip to Paris with Crown Prince Cảnh, on display at the Paris Foreign Missions Society

Monsignor Pierre Joseph Georges Pigneau de Béhaine (1741-1799) first came to Việt Nam as a missionary with the Paris Foreign Missions Society in the late 1760s. In around 1775 he set up a seminary on the island of Phú Quốc, off the coast of Hà Tiên in the Mekong Delta. It was there that he mastered both Chinese and Vietnamese and worked with Vietnamese colleagues to compile the Dictionarium Anamitico-Latinum (Vietnamese-Latin dictionary, 1772) before his elevation to the post of Bishop of Adran and Apostolic Vicar of Cochinchina in 1774.

In 1777, Lord Nguyễn Phúc Ánh (later King Gia Long) arrived on the island and sought protection at Pigneau’s seminary. The sole survivor of the Đàng Trong (Huế) royal family which had been massacred by the Tây Sơn, he was offered shelter by Pigneau and the two men quickly became close friends.

Pigneau subsequently pledged his support for the Nguyễn cause and over the next 15 years he became Ánh’s close confidant and indefatigable champion in the war against the Tây Sơn, procuring munitions and other military supplies for his armed forces.

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Seven-year-old Crown Prince Nguyễn Phúc Cảnh, painted by Maupérin during the prince’s 1787 trip to Paris with Pigneau, on display at the Paris Foreign Missions Society

In February 1787, Pigneau left for France, taking with him Nguyễn Phúc Ánh’s young son and heir, Prince Nguyễn Phúc Cảnh. By the terms of the subsequent Treaty of Versailles, signed on 21 November 1787, the court of Louis XVI promised military support for Nguyễn Phúc Ánh in exchange for economic and territorial concessions in Việt Nam. However, due to the subsequent political situation in France, the Treaty was never implemented and Pigneau was obliged instead to use funds he had raised in France to recruit a force of mercenaries.

By the time Pigneau arrived back in Việt Nam in 1789, Nguyễn Phúc Ánh had retaken his old base at Gia Định. The team of French officers Pigneau had enlisted brought with them state-of-the-art weaponry and helped to train Ánh’s troops in modern infantry tactics and the use of heavy artillery. A naval workshop was set up in Bến Nghé (Saigon) to assemble a fleet of modern warships and a series of major fortifications was built, including the massive 1790 Gia Định Citadel, which became the temporary Nguyễn royal capital. In the 1790s, these military reforms enabled Ánh to launch a series of successful campaigns against Tây Sơn bases in the south-central region, paving the way for his final victory in 1801.

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Pigneau’s 1772 Dictionarium Anamitico-Latinum, on display at the Paris Foreign Missions Society.

During the 1790s, as Nguyễn Phúc Ánh took the fight back to the Tây Sơn, Pigneau de Béhaine served as adviser at his court in Gia Định and tutor to his son Prince Cảnh.

Writing in the 1880s, Pétrus Ký gave a fascinating account of the life and death of Pigneau de Béhaine: “Following his return from France, the bishop of Adran lived in Saigon, in a house called the Dinh Tân Xá which Nguyễn Phúc Ánh had built for him at the outer corner of the citadel, at the spot where the gunpowder magazine is now situated [now the site of the Hồ Chí Minh City History Museum]. The Christians of Thị Nghè also had their church close by, on the edge of the arroyo de l’Avalanche [Thị Nghè creek], in the parish of Tân Sơn, now the location of the bishop’s tomb.”

During this period, in addition to tutoring the young Crown Prince Cảnh, Pigneau also accompanied him on several military campaigns against the Tây Sơn, including the defence of Diên Khánh in 1794.

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The main gate of Diên Khánh citadel in Khánh Hòa Province where Pigneau died

And it was on one of these campaigns, the seige of Quy Nhơn of 1799, that “after thirty-three years of a very rough and laborious life,” the bishop succumbed to acute dysentery.

“Lord Nguyễn Phúc Ánh, driven by a genuine affection for the prelate who had rendered to him ​​such eminent services, sent his best doctors and employed every possible means to conserve his life. Prince Cảnh came every day to visit his master, and Ánh himself came several times to see his benefactor, despite his concerns about the ongoing siege of Quy Nhơn, from which he tore himself away out of a sense of gratitude.”

Pierre Pigneau de Béhaine died on 9 October 1799, “in the arms of M Lelabousse, a missionary who had accompanied him.” Having received the sad news, Nguyễn Phúc Ánh sent “a beautiful coffin, together with silk for wrapping the body.”

In 1925, one scholar cited an inscription at the Lăng Ngọc Hội, 8km from Nha Trang, which suggested that Pigneau was actually laid to rest there rather than in Gia Định. However, other French sources make no mention of this. According to Pétrus Ký, on 10 October 1799, Crown Prince Cảnh accompanied the corpse as it was placed on one of the Nguyễn ships and returned to Gia Định for burial.

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The interior of Pigneau’s Dinh Tân Xá in the grounds of the Archbishop’s Palace at 180 Nguyễn Đình Chiểu

Arriving in Gia Định on 16 October, Pigneau’s body was placed in the Dinh Tân Xá, where it lay in state for a month. Crown Prince Cảnh “considered himself as a disciple and eldest son of his master the prelate, for whom he was in deep mourning.” Cảnh had a special temporary palace built opposite the bishop’s house and stayed there day and night, receiving many mandarins who came from all parts of the kingdom “to render illustrious funeral honours to the deceased.”

A French architect named Barthélemy was commissioned to build a Nguyễn dynasty style mausoleum in Tân Sơn village, while Crown Prince Cảnh was entrusted with the detailed arrangements for the funeral ceremony. Despite the ongoing campaign in Quy Nhơn, Lord Nguyễn Phúc Ánh himself made time to sail south to Gia Định to attend Pigneau’s funeral on 16 December 1799.

Pétrus Ký describes how the procession from the Dinh Tân Xá to the newly-built mausoleum set off at around 2am on 16 December 1799, led by Prince Cảnh.

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The decorative screen in front of the Pigneau de Béhaine mausoleum

“A large cross, formed from artfully-arranged lanterns, was carried at the head of the procession, followed by a series of elaborately carved red and gold portable shrines, each held aloft on an ornate dais and carried by four men.” The first housed a stele bearing the characters 皇天主宰 (Huáng tiān zhǔ zǎi or Hoàng thiên chúa tể, meaning “Sovereign Lord of Heaven”) in gold lettering. The second contained an image of St Paul and the third an image of St Peter, patron of the bishop of Adran. The fourth contained an image of the guardian angel and the fifth an image of the Blessed Virgin.

Then came a great standard measuring some 15 feet in length and made from damask, on which were embroidered in gold letters the titles conferred on the bishop of Adran by the King of France and the Lord of Đàng Trong [Nguyễn Phúc Ánh], as well as those of his episcopal office.

After this came a litter housing the insignia of the prelate, his cross and his mitre, which was carried directly in front of the hearse.

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Another colonial-era image of the Pigneau de Béhaine mausoleum

On either side of these shrines and litters walked “a large number of Christian young people and clergy from every church in Cochinchina.”

The hearse carrying the body of the bishop was “a beautiful litter of about 20 feet in length, carried by 80 picked men, and covered by an embroidered gold canopy.” On it was placed “the magnificent coffin….. covered with beautiful damask, set in a frame and surrounded by 25 large lit candles.”

Nguyễn Phúc Ánh’s royal guard, comprising more than 12,000 men, was arranged in two lines, with field guns at the head of each line. “One hundred and twenty war elephants with their escorts and mahouts walked on both sides. Drums, trumpets and both Annamite and Cambodian military music accompanied the mournful march, which was lit by a prodigious number of candles and torches and more than 2,000 lanterns of different shapes. At least 40,000 men, both Christians and pagans, followed the convoy.”

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An image of the mausoleum from Charles Lemire’s 1884 book L’Indo-Chine, Cochinchine française, royaume de Cambodge, royaume d’Annam et Tonkin

Lord Nguyễn Phúc Ánh was present, along with his ​​mother, his sister, his queen, his children, all the ladies of the court and the mandarins of different government departments. “All wanted to express their regret at the eminent and distinguished prelate who was no more, following his remains to the grave which had been prepared to receive him.”

Arriving at the grave, a missionary named Father Liot performed the ceremonies of the Catholic liturgy. Once the Christian burial ceremony was finished, Lord Nguyễn Phúc Ánh stepped forward and gave a tearful funeral elegy which he is said to have composed himself. This elegy had been transcribed onto embroidered silk and was “presented to the late bishop in the form of a posthumous diploma.”

Lord Nguyễn Phúc Ánh’s elegy recounted Pigneau’s efforts to obtain official French military assistance from Louis XVI and explained how, despite being “met with adverse conditions midway through his endeavours,” he had gone on to “marvelously save the situation with his extraordinary plans.”

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Nguyễn Phúc Ánh’s funeral elegy was transcribed onto embroidered silk

It described Pigneau as “a precious friend, whose character fitted so well with mine… the intimate confidant of my most secret thoughts… who came to my kingdom and never left me, even when fortune eluded me”… “We were such friends and so familiar together that when my business called me out of my palace, our two horses walked abreast. We never had anything but the same heart.”

“After the funeral oration, the clergy and the Christians withdrew, Lord Nguyễn Phúc Ánh, alone with his mandarins, offered the sacrifices they were accustomed to make for souls of the deceased. Then Prince Cảnh and royal ministers each read out their own eulogies.”

Writing in 1884, Charles Lemire also mentioned the “curious details” of Pigneau’s funeral as recounted by an eye witness named Father Bouillevaux, who gives us a detailed description of the mausoleum constructed over the tomb.

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A 1960s photograph of the mausoleum shrine with its embossed coat of arms of the bishop

Known locally as Lăng Cha Cả, the mausoleum in which Pigneau de Béhaine was buried was located in a large rural clearing near Tân Sơn village. Designed in the Nguyễn dynasty style, it was supported by a frame of precious wood and topped by a traditional yin-yang tiled roof. In front of the building stood a large screen (bình phong).

Inside the mausoleum, behind a kowtowing hall (bái đường), was the tomb of Pigneau de Béhaine, positioned in the centre of the building and featuring a stele inscribed with Chinese characters describing the prelate’s life and work. At the rear of the building was a shrine decorated with “the embossed double coat of arms of the bishop, on whom King Louis XVI had conferred the title of count.”

At the time of the funeral, Nguyễn Phúc Ánh ordered “a guard of honour of 50 men to be posted outside the mausoleum in perpetuity.” While that order may not have been carried out for long, it is said that the mausoleum remained an important place of pilgrimage throughout the pre-colonial era.

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The Pigneau de Béhaine statue which stood in front of the Notre Dame Cathedral from 1902 to 1945

After the arrival of the French, Pigneau continued to be honoured as a great statesman, thanks to the pivotal role he had played in Franco-Vietnamese relations and the fact that the terms of the abortive Treaty of Versailles had been used in the 1850s as a basis for French claims on Vietnamese territory.

As early as 1861, Admiral-Governor Léonard Charner declared the Lăng Cha Cả a national heritage site and in 1902 a statue of Pigneau de Béhaine was installed in front of the Notre Dame Cathedral. The statue depicted Pigneau holding in his right hand the 1787 Treaty of Versailles and with the other hand guiding his student, Crown Prince Cảnh. At that time, the square, previously known simply as place de la Cathédrale, was renamed place Pigneau de Béhaine.

The Pigneau de Béhaine statue was removed during the August Revolution of 1945. The present statue of the Virgin Mary, made of Italian granite and created by sculptor G Ciocchetti, was installed in February 1959.

During the colonial period, a cemetery for French Roman Catholic priests was established immediately behind the Lăng Cha Cả.

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This 1968 photograph shows the mausoleum and next to it the main gate of Tân Sơn Nhất Airbase

Towards the end of the French era, urban development began to encroach upon the land surrounding the mausoleum. By the 1960s, as the first American troops arrived, the Lăng Cha Cả was a small compound in the middle of a busy traffic roundabout, right next to the main gate of Tân Sơn Nhất Airbase. However, the South Vietnamese authorities continued to maintain the mausoleum as a national monument right down to 1975.

After reunification, discussions began regarding the repatriation of foreign graves, and in 1983 the mausoleum was earmarked for clearance, along with the old rue de Massiges cemetery (now Lê Văn Tám Park) and several other French military graveyards.

Pigneau’s remains were exhumed, cremated and then delivered to the French Consul General for repatriation, along with the remains of several other priests who had been buried in the adjacent cemetery. Other graves at the site were cleared away. The mausoleum was then demolished to create a large roundabout. Today this roundabout – still known as Lăng Cha Cả – is one of the city’s busiest intersections. A flyover was installed in 2013.

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The Dinh Tân Xá at the Archbishop’s Palace

While the Lăng Cha Cả and the statue of Pigneau de Béhaine have long been consigned to history, the Dinh Tân Xá house which Nguyễn Phúc Ánh built for his friend still stands today in the grounds of the Archbishop’s Palace at 180 Nguyễn Đình Chiểu in Hồ Chí Minh City’s District 3. It was dismantled and rebuilt twice, firstly in 1870 in the grounds of the previous bishop’s palace at 6 rue de l’Évêché [6 Alexandre de Rhodes] and 30 years later at its current location. Still used regularly as a private chapel by the Archbishop and his staff, this historic building was dismantled again in 2013-2014 and reassembled on a raised platform to provide further protection against damp and insects.

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The Pigneau de Béhaine mausoleum pictured in 1867

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This image shows some of the French-era tombs in the cemetery behind the mausoleum

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A 1950s shot of the area around the Pigneau de Béhaine mausoleum

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A 1960s image of the Pigneau de Béhaine mausoleum

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Another 1960s image of the Pigneau de Béhaine mausoleum (William Price)

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A 1966 aerial shot of the Pigneau de Béhaine mausoleum and behind it the French cemetery; the pre-1975 Tân Sơn Nhất Airbase main gate may be seen on the lower right of the picture

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The urn containing the ashes of Pigneau de Béhaine after they were returned to the Paris Foreign Missions Society in 1983

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The busy roundabout which occupies the site 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.

Forgotten Nguyen Dynasty Tombs of Phu Nhuan

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Surviving documents from the French colonial era suggest that there were once numerous Nguyễn dynasty mandarin mausoleums in Phú Nhuận

Now a bustling urban district of Hồ Chí Minh City, Phú Nhuận is said to have once been the preferred place of residence for court mandarins working at the 1790 Gia Định Citadel. Today the adventurous traveller can still find relics of that royal past hidden amidst the urban sprawl.

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A page from Trịnh Hoài Đức’s Gia Định Chronicle

Phú Nhuận is one of several ancient villages listed in Trịnh Hoài Đức’s Gia Định Chronicle (Gia Định thành thông chí, 嘉定城通志), which was written some time before 1820. It acquired greater significance after the construction of the first Gia Định citadel in 1790, when it seems to have become home to many royal mandarins.

Many visitors and residents are familiar with the grand mausoleum of Marshal Lê Văn Duyệt (1763-1832) in Bình Thạnh district. One of the leading military strategists and commanders of Lord Nguyễn Phúc Ánh (the future King Gia Long) in the war against the Tây Sơn, Duyệt later famously served as Viceroy of Gia Định, ruling with full power on behalf of the king over southern Việt Nam. But few people ever visit the mausoleums and tombs of other leading mandarins of that period, which may still be found scattered around the streets and back-alleys of Phú Nhuận district.

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The Lê Văn Duyệt Mausoleum in Bình Thạnh district

In his long war (1774-1801) against the Tây Sơn brothers, Nguyễn Phúc Ánh turned first to Siam and later to France for military aid. Funds raised by his French ally Bishop Pigneau de Béhaine in the 1780s enabled him to purchase modern weaponry and enlist the services of French military advisers to train his troops in modern infantry tactics and the use of heavy artillery. A naval workshop was also set up in Bến Nghé (Saigon) to assemble a fleet of modern warships. In the 1790s, these military reforms enabled Ánh to launch a series of successful campaigns against Tây Sơn bases in the south-central region, paving the way for his final victory in 1801.

Yet it wasn’t all about the military hardware. A great deal of credit for the military successes of the 1790s was down to Nguyễn Phúc Ánh’s military commanders, men of courage whose leadership qualities and selfless service had marked them out from an early date as trusted lieutenants. After their deaths, these men were honoured by the construction of mausoleums in Phú Nhuận district

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A tiger stele guards the tomb at the Võ Tánh Mausoleum

A native of Biên Hòa who was later celebrated as one of the “Three Gia Dinh Heroes,” Võ Tánh (?-1801) – whose mausoleum is at 19 Hồ Văn Huê – was rewarded in 1788 for his staunch military support with the post of Royal Envoy (Khâm sai chưởng cơ) and the hand in marriage of Nguyễn Phúc Ánh’s sister, Princess Ngọc Du. In 1790, Võ Tánh led an attack on Diên Khánh in central Khánh Hòa, defeating the Tây Sơn general Đào Văn Hồ and capturing the citadel. In 1793 he was promoted to Envoy of the Palace Rear Guard, “Victory over the Tây Sơn” General and Royal Escort (Khâm sai Quán suất Hậu quân Dinh Bình Tây Tham thắng Tướng quân Hộ giá) and in 1794 he was elevated to Duke and Great General (Quận công Kiêm lãnh chức Đại Tướng quân).

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The main hall of the temple at the Võ Tánh Mausoleum

In subsequent years, Võ Tánh’s military leadership contributed to a series of Nguyễn victories over the Tây Sơn, culminating in 1799 with the capture of the old Chàm citadel of Đồ Bàn near Quy Nhơn, which the Tây Sơn had occupied in 1778 and renamed the Hoàng Đế citadel. Nguyễn Phúc Ánh changed its name again, calling it the Bình Định citadel. Võ Tánh and his fellow general Ngô Tùng Châu were then placed in charge of it, while the Nguyễn army returned south to Gia Định. However, shortly afterwards a large Tây Sơn army led by generals Trần Quang Diệu and Võ Văn Dũng laid seige to the citadel for 14 months. In 1801 Nguyễn Phúc Ánh, along with commanders Lê Văn Duyệt and Võ Di Nguy, came north with a large army and won a decisive victory over the Tây Sơn fleet in the nearby Thị Nại estuary, but they failed to raise the seige of Bình Định.

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An exterior shot of the temple building at the Võ Tánh Mausoleum

With the garrison facing starvation, one of Tánh’s deputies suggested that it might be a good idea to surrender or escape. “We have our orders and we’ve sworn to live or die together here,” Tánh is said to have replied defiantly. “If we abandon the citadel and flee like cowards, how can we ever face our [Nguyễn] Lord again?” After securing a promise from Tây Sơn general Trần Quang Diệu that his soldiers would be safely released, Tánh packed straw, firewood and gunpowder beneath a wooden platform, strapped himself on top and ignited it, committing suicide. Ngô Tùng Châu also killed himself by taking poison. When Trần Quang Diệu finally entered Bình Định citadel, he was said to have been so touched by the courage of the two Nguyễn generals that he spared the lives of the remaining members of the Nguyễn garrison, just as Võ Tánh had requested. Less than a year later, the Tây Sơn armies were routed and Trần Quang Diệu and Võ Văn Dũng in turn were forced to abandon the citadel.

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A model ship in the temple at the Võ Di Nguy Mausoleum references the important role he played in the development of the Vietnamese navy

Some historians believe that it was the superior firepower of Nguyễn Phúc Ánh’s navy which played the most decisive role in the war, and Võ Di Nguy (1745-1801) – whose mausoleum is at 19 Cô Giang – was the man who presided over its development.

In September 1788, after Nguyễn Phúc Ánh had recaptured Gia Định, Võ Di Nguy was placed in charge of the Chu Sư (now Ba Son) naval workshop, where he oversaw the construction of a fleet of modern warships. He went on to become one of Nguyễn Phúc Ánh’s greatest admirals – in 1793, along with Nguyễn Văn Trương and Võ Tánh, Võ Di Nguy led a successful attack on Quy Nhơn and recaptured Bình Khang (now Ninh Hoà district in northern Khanh Hoa). Two years later, he and Phạm Văn Nhơn co-led a naval attack along the Cái River to Diên Khánh Citadel in central Khánh Hòa.

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A decorative screen in the tomb area of the Võ Di Nguy Mausoleum

However, like his British contemporary Horatio Nelson, Nguy’s most famous naval battle – the 1801 victory over the Tây Sơn fleet in the Thị Nại Estuary – was also his last. He was killed by cannon fire on 27 February 1801.

One of Nguyễn Phúc Ánh’s first acts after reunifying the country as King Gia Long was to honour both Võ Tánh and Võ Di Nguy.

Võ Tánh was initially laid to rest in a joint mausoleum with his fellow commander Ngô Tùng Châu within the grounds of the citadel they had defended so valiantly. However, they were later reburied, Ngô Tùng Châu in Phù Cát and Võ Tánh in Phú Nhuận.

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The tomb at the Võ Tánh Mausoleum

According to historian Vương Hồng Sển, King Gia Long had to commission a wax effigy of Võ Tánh for the reburial ceremony, because his body had been so badly burned. Võ Tánh was posthumously honoured as a Meritorious High-Ranking Duke (Dực vận công Thần thái úy Quốc công) and in 1832 King Minh Mạng conferred on him the posthumous title Perpetual Duke (Hoài Quốc công). Together with Đỗ Thanh Nhơn and Châu Văn Tiếp, Võ Tánh is ranked as one of the Gia Định Tam Hùng (“Three Heroes of Gia Định”).

Võ Di Nguy’s body was also brought ceremoniously south to Gia Định, where he was posthumously named Hầu tước (“Marquis”) and treated to a grand state funeral before his burial in Phú Nhuận. In 1824, King Minh Mạng had a temple established in Võ Di Nguy’s honour and upgraded his posthumous title to Bình Giang Quận công (Duke of Bình Giang).

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The temple viewed from the tomb area at the Trương Tấn Bửu Mausoleum

Trương Tấn Bửu (1752-1827) is another of the Nguyễn dynasty military commanders honoured in Phú Nhuận, whose mausoleum is at 41 Nguyễn Thị Huỳnh. A native of Vĩnh Long (now Bến Tre) province, he became Lieutenant General of the Vanguard (Tiền quân Phó tướng) in 1797 and played an important role in the final military campaigns of the 1790s. However, unlike Võ Di Nguy and Võ Tánh, he survived the Tây Sơn war to serve the new Nguyễn king.

In 1802 Bửu was appointed Lieutenant General and Head of the Palace Vanguard responsible for the Northern Citadel Army (Chưởng dinh, Quản lĩnh đạo quân Bắc Thành), in effect commander of all Nguyễn forces in northern Việt Nam. In his later years, he twice occupied the post of Deputy Governor of Gia Định Citadel as second-in-command to Marshal Lê Văn Duyệt, in 1812-1816 and again from 1821-1822.

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The facade of the temple at the Trương Tấn Bửu Mausoleum

When Trương Tấn Bửu died in 1827, King Minh Mạng contributed 2,000 coins towards the cost of his funeral. Marshal Lê Văn Duyệt himself purchased the land for Bửu’s tomb and temple and personally took charge of the funeral ceremony. In 1852, King Tự Đức also installed a shrine to Trương Tấn Bửu in the Hiền Lương Temple, which had been set up in the Huế Citadel to honour heroic and meritorious royal officials. Today, Trương Tấn Bửu is still remembered as one of the “Five Tiger Generals” (Ngũ hổ tướng), along with Nguyễn Văn Trường, Nguyễn Văn Nhơn, Nguyễn Huỳnh Đức and Lê Văn Duyệt.

The mausoleums of Võ Di Nguy, Võ Tánh and Trương Tấn Bửu were built in the architectural style of the Nguyễn dynasty, with a temple in front and the tomb at the rear. All three have survived, in differing states of preservation.

The Võ Tánh Mausoleum (Lăng Võ Tánh) may be found at the end of Hẻm 19, Hồ Văn Huê street in Phú Nhuận district and comprises a temple and a tomb area set amidst well-kept gardens. In 2010-2011 the complex was extensively rebuilt using a mixture of traditional and modern construction materials, but following the original design. The front hall of the temple currently functions as a recreation space and club room for the local martial arts club. Although not yet recognised as a historic monument, it is open daily from 7am-8pm.

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The use of otters in the decoration at the Võ Di Nguy Mausoleum references the legend that once, while on the run from the Tây Sơn, Nguyễn Phúc Ánh got lost in the forest and found his way back by following the footprints of an otter

The Võ Di Nguy Mausoleum (Lăng Võ Di Nguy) is located at 19 Cô Giang in Phú Nhuận district. The temple has been restored many times over the years, most recently in 1990, when it was unsympathetically rebuilt using modern construction materials. Nonetheless it still preserves its original architectural composition. The tomb section at the rear of the compound retains its original form, but is now seriously degraded and in urgent need of conservation work. Recognised as a national architectural and artistic monument in January 1993, the mausoleum is looked after by a resident family who open the doors on request from 7am-11.30am and 1.30pm-4.30pm daily.

The Trương Tấn Bửu Mausoleum (Lăng Trương Tấn Bửu) is situated at 41 Nguyễn Thị Huỳnh street in Phú Nhuận district and also functions as the home of the caretaker. During the First Indochina War, the temple became a district headquarters for anti-colonial forces and is said to have suffered serious damage during an attack by French soldiers. It was rebuilt in 1959 along with a new assembly hall which nowadays serves as the caretaker’s residence. Like that of Võ Di Nguy, the tomb area is in a very poor state of preservation, although the mausoleum was recognised as a national architectural and artistic monument in December 2004.

Surviving documents from the French colonial era suggest that there were once several other Nguyễn dynasty mandarin mausoleums in Phú Nhuận, though sadly they have long been lost to urban development. However, one other tomb has survived.

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The rear face of the stele which guards the Phan Tấn Huỳnh Tomb

Though never honoured by the construction of a temple or mausoleum, Phan Tấn Huỳnh (1752-1824) distinguished himself in the service of Nguyễn Phúc Ánh during the Tây Sơn war and became a high-ranking mandarin at Gia Định Citadel after Ánh took the throne in 1802.

During the Tây Sơn war, Huỳnh is said to have fought courageously in the armies of Nguyễn Phúc Ánh under leading generals such as Lê Văn Duyệt, Ngô Tùng Châu, Võ Tánh and Trương Tấn Bửu. In 1807 he himself became a General and High-ranking Special Envoy and was charged with assisting Marshal Lê Văn Duyệt in his duties as Governor of Gia Định. According to the text written in Chinese on his tombstone, he was responsible for writing all of Lê Văn Duyệt’s official reports to the king.

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This small stele is inscribed with Phan Tấn Huỳnh’s names and titles

Phan Tấn Huỳnh distinguished himself in battle again between 1809 and 1816, when he was sent north to Quảng Ngãi province to put down a major ethnic minority uprising. In 1820 he became Deputy Divisional Commander and in 1822 Divisional Commander of Phiên An (Bến Nghé). During this period he is said to have promoted the colonisation of much new land, gainng a reputation for kindness by providing free food and clothing for settlers. After 1822 Phan Tấn Huỳnh’s health began to deteriorate due to old age. By 1824 he was very infirm, so in order to avoid becoming an encumbrance to his family, he took his own life.

The Phan Tấn Huỳnh Tomb (Mộ Phan Tấn Huỳnh) may be found in Hẻm 120, Huỳnh Văn Bánh street in Phú Nhuận district, and is accessible at all hours. The small tomb compound comprises an altar in front of the tomb, backed by a small stele inscribed with Phan Tấn Huỳnh’s names and titles. Behind the tomb is a large screen inscribed with Chinese characters which tell of his distinguished career. Not yet recognised as a historic monument, the tomb is in poor condition.

You may also be interested to read these articles:

Ancient Tombs of Saigon – Phan Tan Huynh Tomb, 1824
Ancient Tombs of Saigon – Lam Tam Lang Tomb, 1841
Ta Duong Minh – Thu Duc’s Founding Father 1860s

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.

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The tomb at the Võ Tánh Mausoleum

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The tomb at the Võ Di Nguy Mausoleum

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The tomb at the Trương Tấn Bửu Mausoleum

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The Phan Tấn Huỳnh Tomb

“Cu Chi Lite” – The Secret Tunnels of Phu Tho Hoa

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

Very few foreign tourists ever set foot there and it seems that only those living in the area know of their existence. But the pioneering Phú Thọ Hòa Tunnels in Hồ Chí Minh City’s Tân Phú District played an important role during the First Indochina War and served as the prototype for their more more famous counterpart at Củ Chi.

IMAGE 1.jpgConstructed by the Việt Minh in 1947 in an area which embraced Phú Thọ and Lộc Hòa hamlets, the Phú Thọ Hòa Tunnels (Địa đạo Phú Thọ Hòa) are said to have been Việt Nam’s very first revolutionary tunnel network, created to serve as a guerilla base and storage facility for attacks on French bases in Saigon. Packed with weapons, food and medical supplies, the tunnels played a crucial role in the First Indochina War.

In mid 1947, special teams were set up to dig the tunnels in conditions of utmost secrecy. The work was carried out at night time and excavated soil was carefully removed and spread onto nearby fields, where it was used to cultivate cassava plants. Each tunnel in the network was originally 0.8m wide x 0.8m high and was accessed by a concealed 0.4m x 0.2m entrance, covered by a lid.

IMAGE 2.jpgAlong each tunnel, the teams built breathing holes to improve air circulation and drains to prevent flooding. Over 1 linear kilometre of tunnels was dug, each tunnel connected to the next one by a short corridor. The complex also incorporated three large underground caverns which could be used either as meeting rooms accommodating four to five people or as provisions and weapon stores.

The Phú Thọ Hòa tunnels were completed in just a few months and at the height of the First Indochina War over 1,000 revolutionary soldiers and many leading party members are said to have operated from them. They were used as a base from which several major offensives were launched against French forces, including a 1947 attack on Tân Sơn Nhì, and a 1948 attack which destroyed a Cao Đài army post at Vĩnh Lộc junction.

IMAGE 4.jpgIt is said that, after the Vĩnh Lộc junction attack, a group of Việt Minh soldiers disguised as “puppet troops” followed a French detachment back to Phú Thọ Hòa Police Station and destroyed it, killing all of its occupants. Several other missions were also launched from the tunnels, including a 1949 attack on Gò Đậu (Ấp Bình Long) and a 1952 ambush at Tân Sơn Nhất Air Base.

Soon after the completion of the Phú Thọ Hòa Tunnels, work began on the tunnel complex at Củ Chi. Both sets of tunnels played an important role in the First Indochina War, but the close proximity of Phú Thọ Hòa to the French high command in Saigon proved something of a mixed blessing and revolutionary activity soon switched to the more remote Củ Chi underground base.

IMAGE 9.jpgThe development of the Củ Chi tunnels after 1962 and of residential tunnel networks at Vịnh Mốc, Vĩnh Linh, Mụ Giai and Kỳ Anh in the heavily-bombed “DMZ” after 1965 is, of course, the stuff of legend. It is said that the ingenious construction techniques applied in the creation of these later tunnel networks owed much to the pioneering work of the Phú Thọ Hòa tunnel builders.

Most of the original tunnels at Phú Thọ Hòa have long disappeared into the surrounding urban sprawl, but one “L”-shaped section measuring around 100m (30m plus 70m) has been restored and opened to the public. As at Củ Chi, visitors are invited to descend into the specially-enlarged tunnels to get some idea of how the revolutionary fighters would have lived.

IMAGE 5.jpgAfterwards, they can view the small exhibition room (Nhà Trưng bày Di tích Lịch sử Địa đạo Phú Thọ Hòa), which displays photographs of locations in the area where key battles of the First Indochina War took place, artefacts used by revolutionary fighters in the tunnels (tools for constructing them, utensils and medical equipment used by those living in them) and an illuminated model of the tunnels themselves.

The exhibition room also introduces a devastating attack on the nearby Phú Thọ Military Arsenal on 2 June 1954, which is said to have destroyed more than 10,000 tons of bombs, 10 million litres of petrol and other equipment. Signage is currently in Vietnamese only.

What’s left of the Phú Thọ Hòa Tunnels are located in a small compound at 139 Phú Thọ Hoà in Phú Thọ Hoà ward, Tân Phú district of Hồ Chí Minh City. They were recognised by the Ministry of Culture and Information as a national historic monument in 1996 and are open to the public from 7.30am-11.30am and 2pm-5pm daily, admission free.

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.

Phu Ninh Giang-Cam Giang Tramway

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One of the four Decauville 0-4-4-0 “Mallet” patent compound jointed locomotives which were promised to the Tramway de Phu-Ninh-Giang à Késat et Camgiang, pictured while it was still being used on the Phủ Lạng Thương–Lạng Sơn railway line

One of French Indochina’s numerous short-lived steam tramways, the 42km line from Phủ Ninh Giang to Cẩm Giàng in the Red River Delta operated for just 12 years before it was decommissioned.

Phủ Ninh Giang Market

In early 1899, a Hà Nội-based French entrepreneur named Balliste submitted a request to the Tonkin authorities to establish a 35km, 0.6m-gauge steam tramway linking Phủ Ninh Giang (now Ninh Giang) with Kẻ Sặt in Hải Dương Province, the primary aim being to transport rice and tobacco from one of the north’s most fertile agricultural areas to the processing mills at Phủ Ninh Giang.

The project was subsequently taken over by Đáp Cầu–based businessman Eugène Le Roy, who was authorised by a convention of 7 July 1899 and subsequent decision of 10 August 1899 to proceed with the construction and exploitation of the line. On 18 November 1900, the concession was retroceded to Le Roy’s Compagnie Tonkinoise de tramways à vapeur sur routes (Tonkinese Steam Tramway Company, CTTVR).

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The quai du Canal des Bamboos at Phủ Ninh Giang

Work got under way in October 1900 and continued for more than two years. However, by this time, construction of the Hải Phòng-Hà Nội section of the Yunnan Railway by the Compagnie française des chemins de fer de l’Indochine et du Yunnan (CIY) was also in progress. In 1902, as the tramway project neared completion, the CTTVR was authorised to extend its line a further 7km from Kẻ Sặt to connect with the CIY main line at Cẩm Giàng junction.

Unwilling to grant the company a direct subsidy, the Tonkin authorities undertook instead to supply it free of charge with redundant rolling stock, track, signalling and other equipment from the original 0.6m-gauge Phủ Lạng Thương–Lạng Sơn railway line. A convention of 3 April 1903 promised the CTTVR four 9.5-ton Decauville 0-4-4-0 “Mallet” patent compound jointed locomotives—Nos. 85, 86, 126 and 188—plus three tenders, two mixed first-class and second-class carriages, three third-class carriages, four fourth-class carriages, eight flat bogie wagons, forty-four open wagons and four parcels vans. Transportation costs were to be met by the concessionaire.

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Another view of the quai du Canal des Bamboos at Phủ Ninh Giang

Due to unrest in the far north, delivery of the second-hand equipment promised by the government was delayed. When it finally arrived, the CTTVR found that some of the promised rolling stock had now been earmarked for the Tramway de l’Îlot de l’Observatoire from Tourane to Faifo (Hội An) and that the rest was in such a state of disrepair that it was unusable. Furthermore, it was reported that the majority of the second-hand rails were supplied in curved sections, which were unsuitable for the new tramway with its largely straight alignment. In order to make the tramway operational, the company had to incur significant additional expense purchasing rolling stock and equipment that it had not budgeted for.

After the “soft opening” of an initial 19km on 1 November 1902, the 35km Phủ Ninh Giang–Kẻ Sặt section opened to traffic on 3 May 1903, and the final 7km extension from Kẻ Sặt to Cẩm Giàng junction was put into operation on 25 January 1905. The total cost of construction was more than 860,000 francs.

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Open wagons from the Phủ Lạng Thương–Lạng Sơn railway line were used on the tramway

When it first opened, the 43km Tramway de Phu-Ninh-Giang à Késat et Camgiang had relatively few stops, but by 1910 there were 26 — Quai du Canal des Bamboos (Luộc River, km 0), Phủ Ninh Giang (km 0.446), Chợ Vẽ (km 3.326), Phố Chuối (km 4.320), Bói Giàng (km 6.172), Làng Bao (km 8.346), Phụng Xá/Bình Hoàng (km 9.972), Tệ Cầu (km 11.8), An Cư (km 12.972), Họ Bóng (km 17.488), Chợ Bóng (km 17.326), Cầu Duệ (km 18.722), Thanh Viên (km 21.297), Phạm Lâm (km 23.355), Binh Đê La Xá (km 25.149), Làng Nòn (km 26.450), Lồi Dượng (km 28.197), Bình Giang (km 29.460), Mý Trạch (km 30.408), Ba Đông (km 31.713), Tráng Liệt (km 35.379), Kẻ Sặt (km 35.844), Thi Văn (km 37.620), Đông Giao (km 38.860), Cẩm Giàng (km 42.802) and what was known as the “Buttoir terminus” in Cẩm Giàng (interchange with CIY trains, km 42.900). In order to save money, 32.5km (75 percent) of the tramway line was built alongside existing public roads.

According to the CTTVR, between 1906 and 1911 the tramway moved more than 300,000 passengers and 20,000 tons of merchandise, but revenue always fell short of expectations, largely because many local traders continued to ship their rice by river. As a result, the company ran at an annual loss, with occasional natural disasters such as broken dykes only adding to its woes.

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Cẩm Giàng station pictured in 2011

As early as 1908, the company requested the government either to buy back the franchise or to provide it with an annual grant plus additional funds for the purchase of two new locomotives. The government opted for the latter, and in 1909 the company was offered an annual subvention of 50,000 francs plus a one-off grant of 50,000 francs to purchase new motive power.

Despite this, the company’s financial problems persisted. In the spring of 1910, the Governor General agreed in principle to buy back the franchise, but in the years that followed, the annual subvention continued to be paid and no action was taken to wind up the concession.

After 1912, the condition of track and rolling stock went into sharp decline due to lack of maintenance, and services on the line became increasingly sporadic. In September 1913, the authorities offered the CTTVR a 12,000-piastre grant to carry out essential repairs and maintenance, but this proved insufficient to keep the company afloat. Despite the best efforts of the Hải Phòng Chamber of Commerce to save it, the tramway ceased operations on 31 October 1914.

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A Hải Phòng-bound train waits to depart from Cẩm Giàng in 2011

Following its closure, the Indochina authorities briefly studied the possibility of upgrading the tramway into a 1m-gauge railway line and offering it as a concession to the CIY, operator of the Yunnan Railway, with which it was already linked at Cẩm Giàng Junction. As an interim measure while this plan was under consideration, an agreement was reached with the CTTVR whereby the Department of Public Works kept the entire tramway in “cold storage” on behalf of the company, leaving the track in place and building additional depot facilities to protect the rolling stock from the elements.

The tramway finally passed into government ownership on 19 January 1922, but by that time the plan to upgrade the tramway line had been abandoned, and later the same year the track and rolling stock were removed. On 30 October 1925, 11 years after it had closed to traffic, the Tramway de Phu-Ninh-Giang à Késat et Camgiang was formally decommissioned.

Tramway de Phu-Ninh-Giang à Késat et Camgiang

The Tramway de Phu-Ninh-Giang à Késat et Camgiang

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
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
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

Saigon’s Lost Protestant Chapel

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The roof of the former Temple protestant may be seen from Lê Duẩn boulevard

Directly opposite the British Consulate in Hồ Chí Minh City, amidst the clutter of buildings on the Lê Duẩn-Mạc Đỉnh Chi street intersection, you may be able to make out the roof of what was once the city’s only French protestant chapel

The Temple protestant and Presbytère pictured in the early 20th century

The Paris-based Église Réformée de France (Reformed Church of France) was active in Cochinchina from the late 1870s, and in 1882 its spiritual leader in Saigon, Pastor Métever, applied to the Colonial Council for land on which to build a permanent chapel.

However, this was not forthcoming until April 1904, when, for the nominal price of 1 Franc, the Société was given a plot of land measuring 82 ares 45 centiares [1 are = 100 square metres] in the grounds of the 1837 citadel – on the express condition that if, for whatever reason, the temple had to be decommissioned, the land granted would be returned to the authorities in its original state.

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Another early 20th century view of the Temple protestant

Construction of the chapel got under way in 1904 and it was inaugurated in the following year. During the same period, a large house was built next door to the chapel, to serve as the presbytery, or residence of the pastor.

Being the only protestant chapel in the city, the “Temple protestant” was relatively well attended for much of the colonial era and also hosted the funeral services of several leading protestant colons.

After the departure of the French in 1954, the chapel continued to function for several years under the name Église réformée de langue française.

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From the early 1960s, the Église réformée de langue française was used mainly by the Anglican Episcopal Church

During the 1950s, large numbers of American advisers arrived in Saigon, and in 1959-1960 the chapel’s owner, the Église Réformée de France, made the premises available for use by the US-based Anglican Episcopal Church, which renamed it “St Christopher’s.”

Thereafter until 1965, the American Community in Saigon held a regular service here at 11am every Sunday, preceded by Sunday School lessons for children attending the American Community School at the Norodom Compound (later the site of the US Embassy). During the same period, the British Embassy held Sunday evening services at St Christopher’s.

US Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge Jr and his wife leaving St. Christopher's Anglican

US Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge Jr and his wife leaving St Christopher’s Anglican Episcopal Church in 1964 (Life Magazine)

When the first US combat troops arrived in February 1965 and all dependents of US diplomatic, aid mission and military personnel were ordered to leave South Việt Nam, the chapel became much quieter.

However, it continued to be used by both US and British Embassy personnel right down to 1975.

After Reunification, the chapel was closed and the building was divided up into smaller rooms. These are now leased to a range of different companies by its current owner, the District 1 Cultural Centre.

The old presbytery next door currently houses the Office of National Assembly Representatives (Văn Phòng Đại Biểu Quốc Hội).

Thanks to Pascal Bourdeaux of EFEO for providing additional information on the Protestant Chapel

Le Temple protestant et la Maison du pasteur

Another early 20th century view of the Temple protestant and Presbytère

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The former presbytery currently houses the Office of National Assembly Representatives

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A rear view of the old Temple protestant today

The old Temple protestant today, viewed from above

You may also be interested to read these articles:

Saigon’s Favourite Churches – Huyen Sy Church
Saigon’s Favourite Churches – Hanh Thong Tay Church
Saigon’s Favourite Churches – Tan Dinh Church

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.

Full Steam Ahead on Cambodia’s Toll Royal Railway

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231-501 waits to depart from Phnom Penh station

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

A brief digression from the usual Việt Nam-focused articles – joining a group of British steam enthusiasts visiting Phnom Penh as part of a PTG rail tour, travelling behind Toll Royal Railway’s preserved “Pacific” steam locomotive and catching up with developments on the Cambodian rail scene…..

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A “photo run-past” at Pochentong

While Vietnam Railways currently has little to offer the steam train enthusiast, its Cambodian counterpart, Toll Royal Railway, has been offering special steam-hauled charter trains to foreign enthusiast groups for several years, as a sideline to its burgeoning freight business.

The involvement of Australian company Toll Holdings in the Cambodia railway sector dates from 2009, when the Royal Government of Cambodia outsourced its railway operations to that company under a 30-year exclusive concession. Since that time, operating under the name Toll Royal Railway and with funding from ADB and AusAID, Toll has embarked on an ambitious US$143 million project to rehabilitate the entire Cambodian rail network.

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Refurbished Alsthom diesel locomotive BB-1053 shunting at Phnom Penh (photo courtesy Toll Royal Railways)

The 254km South Line from Phnom Penh to Kampong Som (Sihanoukville) was reopened in 2012 and work is currently under way to rehabilitate the 388km North Line from Phnom Penh to Poipet, as well as the 48km link from Poipet to Sisophon, which it is envisaged will eventually serve cross-border traffic to and from Thailand.

The railway in Cambodia was one of the last to be built in French Indochina. Paid for by German war reparations and originally operated as a franchise, the North Line opened in 1933 as a 330km route from Phnom Penh to Monkolborey. It was returned three years later to the colonial government and operated for the remainder of the colonial era as a branch of Chemins de fer de l’Indochine (CFI), managed from CFI’s Saigon headquarters – controversially permitting CFI to filch all of the Cambodian railway’s powerful German locomotives for use on Việt Nam’s newly-opened Transindochinois!

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Powerful Hannoversche Maschinenbau AG (Hanomag) 2-10-0 “Decapods,” supplied through war reparations, ran the line until they were filched by CFI for the opening of Việt Nam’s Transindochinois (North-South line) in 1936

Plans to link the line with the Vietnamese rail network via Saigon were definitively abandoned in 1938, but in that same year, work began to connect Battambang with the Thai border town of Aranyaprathet, via Poipet. This was achieved by the Thai authorities in 1941, but in subsequent decades, due to the ever-volatile political and military situation, the cross-border link was exploited only intermittently. In the 1970s, the Khmer Rouge removed the track west of Sisophon.

Following independence in 1954, the port of Sihanoukville (Kampong Som) was developed to reduce reliance on Saigon and Khlong Toei (Bangkok), and in 1960 work began with French, West German and Chinese assistance to build the new South Line to connect Sihanoukville with the capital. This opened in November-December 1969, but ceased operations just a few years later as the country descended into war.

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The “bamboo railway” (photo courtesy Toll Royal Railways)

Rail services on the North Line resumed in the early 1980s, but warfare and neglect had left the network in a delapidated state. With train services so few and far between, the line became known internationally as the “bamboo railway,” because local people used it to travel on makeshift motorised trollies topped with bamboo platforms.

At present, the Toll Royal Railway is an exclusively freight-focused operation, with a daily quota of two container trains, one coal train and one fuel train travelling the newly-rehabilitated South Line, which reopened in December 2012.

The North Line is currently operational as far as Bat Doeung (km 31) and freight services will be inaugurated later this year.

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Refurbished Waggonfabrik 2-car DEMU (photo courtesy Toll Royal Railways)

However, only 48km of the Bat Doeung-Sisophon (km 337) section has so far been rebuilt. Beyond Sisophon, the line to the Thai border has already been relaid and the State Railway of Thailand (SRT) is said to be reinstating the derelict/missing 6km of track from Aranyaprathet to the border.

With its two new 1,300hp Chinese Qishuyan diesels and expanding fleet of refurbished locomotives, Toll has plans to develop its existing freight services and in the longer term also to reintroduce passenger trains on both lines. These plans will undoubtedly take on increased significance in the context of the proposed Trans-Asia Railway (TAR) and Singapore-Kunming Rail Link (SKRL) schemes to create continuous rail links between Singapore and China, reducing passenger and freight transit times and costs between countries in the region and opening up the possibility of a direct rail route from Asia to Europe and Africa.

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An entire section of Phnom Penh Depot is still occupied by rusting ex-CFI “Mikado,” “Pacific” and “Mogul” steam locomotives (photo courtesy Toll Royal Railways)

One interesting consequence of the decades of neglect is that, unlike their counterparts here in Việt Nam, the Cambodian rail authorities never got round to scrapping their old French steam locomotives.

Today, an entire section of Phnom Penh Depot is occupied by rusting ex-CFI “Mikados,”  “Pacifics” and “Moguls” and the management at Toll has had the foresight to restore one of these – SACM Graffenstaden 4-6-2 “Super Pacific” No 231-501 – to full working order for steam charters. Sadly, the economics of running live steam means that these charters are currently available only to large pre-booked groups, but with heritage railways growing increasingly popular around the world (there are 108 privately-run steam railways in the UK alone), there can be little doubt that demand for the old engine’s services will continue to grow.

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A “photo run-past” at Phlov Bambaek junction near Samrong, where the North and South Lines bifurcate

The seven-hour trip out of Phnom Penh Station behind 231-501 covers just 44km along the Kompong Som (Sihanoukville) port line and back, with accommodation provided in the 1932-built former royal coach of King Sisowath Monivong. The train runs at what can only be described as a stately pace, stopping obligingly for “photo run-pasts” at Phnom Penh Depot, Pochentong, Psah C-7, Oedom “Dry Port” container terminal, and Phlov Bambaek junction near Samrong, where the North and South Lines bifurcate. Reaching a loop line at Komar Reachea, the locomotive is transferred to the other end of the train for its return journey, tender first, to Phnom Penh.

As planners everywhere strive for faster and more modern forms of transportation, it seems that nothing can diminish the global appeal of the steam locomotive, that slow, old, yet gloriously nostalgic reminder of our industrial heritage.

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231-501 waits to depart from Phnom Penh

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Accommodation on steam charters is provided in the 1932-built former royal coach of King Sisowath Monivong

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A “photo run-past” at Pochentong

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Container wagons at Phnom Penh Station (photo courtesy Toll Royal Railways)

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A “photo run-past” at Phlov Bambaek junction near Samrong, where the North and South Lines bifurcate

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One of Toll Royal Railway’s new Qishuyan BB-1061 locomotives (photo courtesy Toll Royal Railways)

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
Derailing Saigon’s 1966 Monorail Dream
Dong Nai Forestry Tramway
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 – 48 Nguyen Dinh Chieu, 1920

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The former Établissements Brossard et Mopin headquarters at 48 Nguyễn Đình Chiểu in Đa Kao, Hồ Chí Minh City

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

To coincide with the sad demise of 213 Đồng Khởi, demolition of which is now well under way, here’s a short piece on the Đa Kao headquarters of the company which built it.

The dilapidated colonial mansion at 48 Nguyễn Đình Chiểu was once the Saigon headquarters of the engineering and construction company Établissements Brossard et Mopin, which was responsible for designing and constructing a number of Saigon’s most iconic civic buildings.

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Brossard’s company built the Société de charbonnages de Hon-gay mining tramway from Port-Courbet to Hà Tu

Company founder Jules Brossard arrived in Indochina in the late 1880s, building a profitable mining business in Hòn Gai and later setting up the Hải Phòng-based engineering company Brossard et Cie. In the 1890s it was this company which built two 1m-gauge industrial tram lines in Hạ Long Bay for the Société de charbonnages de Hon-gay, one of 12km linking Port-Courbet (Hòn Gai) with the Hà Tu mine and another of 6km (the first 3km shared with the Hà Tu line) linking Port-Courbet with the Nagotna mine.

In the early 1900s, Brossard’s company was also responsible for much of the infrastructure (station buildings, track bed, ballasting) on the Compagnie française des chemins de fer de l’Indochine et du Yunnan (French Indochina and Yunnan Railway Company, CIY) railway line.

IMAGE 81 The Halles centrales (Bến Thành Market)

The Halles centrales de Saigon (Bến Thành Market) of 1914, arguably Brossard et Mopin’s most iconic work

Brossard’s business partnership with former Department of Civic Buildings inspector Eugène Mopin began in 1906, and over the next two decades the Société d’Exploitation des Établissements Brossard et Mopin developed into one of East Asia’s most successful engineering and construction companies, with a head office in Paris and branches in Saigon, Phnom Penh, Singapore and Tianjin.

During this period it built banks, hospitals, factories, port infrastructure, reservoirs and swimming pools in many Asian cities, becoming recognised as the leading East Asian specialist in reinforced concrete buildings and competing regularly with Gustav Eiffel’s old company Société Levallois-Perret for contracts to build railway bridges and other infrastructure for the Chemins de fer de l’Indochine (CFI).

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The Saigon Trésor général building of 1925

Here in Saigon, the work which really cemented the company’s reputation was the Halles Centrales of 1914, now the Bến Thành Market. This iconic building paved the way for numerous other high-profile commissions, including the famous Grand Hotel Beijing (1917).

Prior to 1920, Établissements Brossard et Mopin rented an office at 18 rue Lagrandière (Lý Tự Trọng) in Saigon, but in that year it relocated its East Asian managerial operations to a new purpose-built Saigon headquarters at 48 rue Richaud, now 48 Nguyễn Đình Chiểu.

In the same year, founder and senior partner Jules Brossard received the Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur for his contribution to the development of Indochina.

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The second Bank of Indochina building of 1928

Établissements Brossard et Mopin was forced into receivership in 1922 following the bankruptcy of the Shanghai-based Banque Industrielle de Chine (Industrial Bank of China), but in 1924 the company was reconstituted and subsequently made a name for itself with further major works, including the Trésor général in Saigon (1925), the second Bank of Indochina (1928), the Chartered Bank (1928) and 213 rue Catinat (1930), as well as many other lower-profile office and apartment blocks.

The company’s former Saigon headquarters at 48 Nguyễn Đình Chiểu currently provides office space for several culture, sports and tourism agencies, though like so many other historic buildings in Hồ Chí Minh City, its future is far from secure.

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.

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