Saigon’s Oil Buildings – 15 and 7 Le Duan

4.15.1 Shell Building 1955

Operating in Saigon from 1911, the Paris-based Compagnie Franco-Asiatique des Pétroles was based initially at 4 rue d’Adran (Hồ Tùng Mậu), moving in 1923 to 100 boulevard de la Somme (Hàm Nghi). During this period, branch offices were also established in Hải Phòng and Tourane (Đà Nẵng).

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The Shell Vietnam headquarters pictured in 1955

However, in the early 1930s the company commissioned the construction of a more grandiose headquarters at 15 boulevard Norodom – the building which still stands today at the junction of Lê Duẩn and Tôn Đức Thắng in Hồ Chí Minh City.

In 1952, the Compagnie Franco-Asiatique des Pétroles withdrew from Indochina and its former headquarters building became the main office of Shell Vietnam, the local operating company of the Shell Group.

Described in 1960s publicity material as the “doyenne of petrol companies in Việt Nam, providing for 60% of the country’s consumption,” Shell Vietnam was later revealed by its former president Louis Wesseling to have failed to control its oil shipments, permitting 7% of the fuel refined by the company to find its way to Hà Nội.

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The Shell Vietnam company apartments pictured in 1955

Shell had a long history of association with the British film industry – in the UK it sponsored many films in the 1920s and in 1934 it set up its own in-house documentary film unit which produced a wide range of films on subjects often unrelated to the company’s products and services. During the late 1950s, Shell Vietnam opened a tiny 48-seat cinema known as the “Shell Theatre” at its Saigon headquarters building, where these and other British films were screened to the Saigon public.

After 1975 Shell’s assets in Việt Nam were transferred to the Vietnam National Petroleum Corporation (Petrolimex), the current occupant of 15 Lê Duẩn.

12A RVN Prime Minister's Palace on Thong Nhut Blvd

The former Shell Vietnam apartments later became the South Vietnamese Prime Minister’s Office

In 1952-1953, Shell also took over the former Bâtiment de la Marine nationale building at nearby 7 Thống Nhất (the name by which boulevard Norodom was known in the period 1955-1975).

Designed in the 1930s by Paul Veysseyre (who also designed the Brasseries et Glacières d’Indochine buildings in Saigon and Chợ Lớn), this centrally-located building accommodated many of Shell’s employees until 1955, when it was acquired by the government and converted it into the office of the Prime Minister of the Republic of Việt Nam.

From that time onwards, the easternmost section of Nguyễn Du street immediately behind it, which originally connected Nguyễn Bỉnh Khiêm with Cường Để (now Tôn Đức Thắng) boulevard, was closed off for security reasons. It has remained closed ever since.

The old Shell employees’ apartment block at 7 Lê Duẩn still stands today and currently functions as the Office of the Government.

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15 Lê Duẩn today

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Thanks to Alex Slingeland for providing this image of the 1963 electricity station at the rear of 15 Lê Duẩn and its sign which reads “Shell Norodom”

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.

Mapping the French “Line of Pagodas”

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This map shows the location of the line of pagodas in the years 1859-1861

At the start of the French conquest in 1859-1860, colonial forces converted four ancient temples into fortresses with the aim of protecting Saigon and Chợ Lớn from attack by Vietnamese royal troops. All equipped with heavy artillery, these temples became crucial front line fortifications during the seige of Gia Định (1859-1861), but today traces of just one survive.

After capturing Gia Định Citadel and securing control of Chợ Lớn in February 1859, the French and their Spanish allies found themselves under seige by a 32,000-strong Vietnamese army under the command of General Nguyễn Tri Phương (1800-1873), Governor of Gia Định Military District. To guard against attack from Vietnamese troops to the north, they established a 7km east-west defensive line from Sài Gòn to Chợ Lớn.

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The capture of Saigon by Frenco-Spanish expeditionary forces, by Antoine Léon Morel-Fatio

Four large fortresses were established along its length, but instead of constructing these fortresses from scratch, the French occupied four ancient temples and rebuilt them as military installations. As a result, the defensive line became known as the ligne des pagodes (line of pagodas).

At the easternmost end of the ligne des pagodes was the Khải Tường Pagoda, known to the French as the pagode de l’Aurore des presages and later as the pagode Barbé, which stood on the site of today’s War Remnants Museum at the junction of modern Võ Văn Tần and Lê Quý Đôn streets (district 1).

Gia Định changed hands several times during the Tây Sơn War, and Lord Nguyễn Phúc Ánh (the future Emperor Gia Long) is known to have taken refuge in this pagoda with his family on several occasions. It was here on 25 May 1791 that his second wife Trần Thị Đang, later Queen Thuận Thiên (1769-1846), gave birth to Nguyễn Phúc Đảm, later Emperor Minh Mạng. In 1804, the Emperor Gia Long presented to the pagoda a Buddha statue – described by historian Vương Hồng Sển as a “gigantic, gold plated masterpiece” – and also installed a stone stele more than two metres high, commemorating his family’s links with the pagoda.

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An 1861 image of the pagode Barbé, which once stood on the site of the War Remnants Museum

In 1833, Gia Long’s son and successor Minh Mạng funded a major restoration and granted the pagoda in which he had been born the honorific name Quốc Ân Khải Tường tự (Khải Tường Pagoda, Benefactor of the Nation). Although the giant Buddha image has not survived, a smaller Amitabha Buddha (Phật A Di Đà) presented to the pagoda by the Emperor Gia Long may still be seen today in the Việt Nam History Museum.

On 25 May 1860, French forces occupied the Khải Tường Pagoda and transformed it into a military post under the charge of Captain Nicolas Barbé. However, on 7 December 1860, Barbé was ambushed and beheaded during a devastating attack by General Phương’s Vietnamese troops. Angry French soldiers subsequently destroyed many of the remaining pagoda buildings and buried Captain Barbé in the grounds, erasing the inscription on Gia Long’s royal stele and using it as Barbé’s tombstone. Henceforth, the site became known to the French as the “pagode Barbé” and the street next to it (now Lê Quý Đôn street) as rue Barbé (sometimes spelled Barbet).

For a while after the conquest, the surviving pagode Barbé buildings functioned as the first campus of the École normale, but by the 1870s that institution had been found a permanent home near the Naval Arsenal.

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A colonial building which originally housed part of the War Remnants Museum

In the 1880s the old pagode Barbé was demolished, permitting the site to be redeveloped. By the mid 20th century it belonged to nationalist politician Bùi Quang Chiêu, who had a colonial-style villa built here.

Chiêu’s daughter, Dr Henriette Bùi, later established an obstetrics and gynaecology clinic on the site, and in 1947 this became the Medical and Pharmaceutical Faculty of Saigon University. When the Faculty relocated elsewhere in the mid 1960s, the compound found its way into American hands and eventually became the US-ARV Office of Civilian Personnel and USAID Mission Warden’s Office (though it never served as a USIS Office as commonly suggested by tourist literature). A war museum was established here on 4 September 1975 and this has since been rebuilt on several occasions.

The second fortress in the ligne des pagodes was located in the area bounded by modern Phạm Viết Chánh, Cống Quỳnh, Nguyễn Trãi and Nguyễn Văn Cừ streets (district 1). According to Trịnh Hoài Đức’s Gia Định thành thông chí (early 19th century), it was originally known as the Hiển Trung tự (Temple of Brilliant Loyalty) or the Miếu Công thần (Temple of Meritorious Officials) and was constructed in 1795 on the site of an earlier Khmer sanctuary by Lord Nguyễn Phúc Ánh to honour the cult of 1,015 heroic royal mandarins. After being taken over by the French, the complex was turned into a military installation known as the pagode des Mares (Pagoda of the ponds), apparently because it incorporated two large ponds.

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“Annamese riflemen” training at the camp des Mares

In 1875, part of the pagode des Mares compound became an experimental farm (the Ferme expérimentale des Mares) belonging to the Jardin botanique et zoologique de Saïgon, and was used to grow new varieties of coffee, mango, pandanus, jute, indigo and sugar cane (see Jean-Baptiste Louis-Pierre, father of Saigon’s greenbelt).

By the turn of the century, the fortress-temple itself had been rebuilt as the Camp des mares, a large military barracks occupied by “troupes indigènes” (local troops) of the “Régiment Annamite.”

After the departure of the French in 1954, part of the compound was completely redeveloped, while the Camp des Mares barracks was transformed into the RVN’s Directorate General of National Police, today the southern branch headquarters of the Ministry of Police.

Little is known about the early history of the third ligne des pagodes fortress, the Kiểng Phước Pagoda, which was known to the French as the Pagode des Clochetons. Believed to have stood on the site of today’s Hùng Vương Hospital, at the junction of modern Hồng Bàng and Lý Thường Kiệt streets in Chợ Lớn (district 5), it was occupied in early 1860 and became the site of several fierce battles as the French sought to extend their control over the northern perimeter of that city.

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The pagode des Clochetons in 1861

Like the pagode Barbé, the Pagode des Clochetons was abandoned soon after the conquest and the site was then completely redeveloped. However, modern Phù Đổng Thiên Vương street, which once led south from the pagoda, was known right down until 1955 as rue des Clochetons.

Perhaps the most famous fortification in the ligne des pagodes was the Mai Sơn tự or Cây Mai Pagoda (Plum Tree Pagoda), known to the French as the pagode Cai-Mai or the pagode des Pruniers. It was originally a Khmer pagoda, and it got its name from the fine white-blossomed plum trees which grew in its grounds. Restored in 1816, the Cây Mai Pagoda was known in the pre-colonial era as a centre of artistic creativity frequented by leading southern poets such as Phan Văn Trị, Bùi Hữu Nghĩa, Nguyễn Thông, Trần Thiện Chánh, Tôn Thọ Tường, Hồ Huân Nghiệp and Trương Hảo Hiệp. By this period too, the name Cây Mai was also being used to describe the fine blue-glazed ceramics produced by several nearby Minh Hương kilns.

Occupied by the French on 23 April 1859, the Cây Mai Pagoda was perhaps the most important of all of the fortresses in the lignes des pagodes because of its strategic location on the northwest outskirts of Chợ Lớn, centre of the rice trade and chief source of supplies for the Franco-Spanish expeditionary force. Uniquely amongst the four tenple-fortresses, it was located on a waterway, which made it possible to supply its garrison by boat via the Bến Nghé and Lò Gốm creeks. In the mid 1860s, the Chợ Lớn street known today as Tản Đà was christened avenue Jaccaréo, after the gunboat Jaccaréo which was tasked with keeping the Cây Mai Pagoda garrison supplied in the period 1859-1861.

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A small shrine is still maintained on the site of the original Cây Mai Pagoda sanctuary

In 1872 the remaining Cây Mai Pagoda buildings were destroyed and the compound was rebuilt as a military barracks, a function which it has retained ever since. However, in 1909 a Buddhist monk took cuttings from the ancient plum trees in the barracks compound and transplanted them in the grounds of the nearby Phụng Sơn Pagoda, where they thrive to this day.

In 1940 the Cây Mai barracks complex was used briefly as a detention centre and in the 1960s it became a training school for intelligence officers. Today it is a People’s Army barracks and is thus off limits to visitors. However, a small shrine is still maintained on the site of the original sanctuary.

The lignes des pagodes played an important role in the French war of conquest, enabling the French to retain control of the two ports of Saigon and Chợ Lớn, despite the threat from overwhelmingly superior royal forces to the north. The military stalemate continued until October 1860, when the arrival of massive reinforcements from the French expeditionary corps in China made it possible for the French to break the seige of Gia Định by capturing the Lignes de Ky-Hoa (Chí Hòa). Within months of that key battle, the French were able to extend their control over most of the six provinces of Cochinchina.

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The Cây Mai Pagoda barracks in 1895 (above) and a google map (below) showing the same location today

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

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

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

Jean-Baptiste Louis-Pierre – Father of Saigon’s Greenbelt

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

As traffic congestion and air pollution intensifies, Hồ Chí Minh City’s urban greenbelt has assumed increased significance as the “green lung” which helps to disperse pollutants, check the flow of dust and reduce noise levels. What better time to pay tribute to Jean-Baptiste Louis-Pierre, the Frenchman who was responsible not only for the city’s famous Botanical and Zoological Gardens, but also for many of its parks and tree-lined boulevards.

Jean-Baptiste Louis-Pierre

Jean-Baptiste Louis-Pierre (1833-1905)

Born on 23 October 1833 into a rich sugar planter family in Saint André on the island of La Réunion, Pierre went on to study medicine in Paris and then specialised in botany in Strasbourg. But when his family lost everything in the early 1850s “from the combined effects of a devastating hurricane and losses incurred as a result of the enfranchisement of their slaves,” Pierre cut short his research to take up a post with the British Imperial Forestry Service in Calcutta under Sir Dietrich Brandis, the “father of tropical forestry.” Rising quickly through the ranks of the British colonial service, he subsequently became Head of the Calcutta Botanical Gardens.

It was Pierre’s reputation as a skilled botanist which in 1865 brought him to the attention of French Naval Ministry officers in Saigon. In the previous year, Rear Admiral Pierre-Paul de La Grandière, Governor of Cochinchina, had commissioned a French army veterinarian named Rodolphe Alphonse Germain to set up the Jardin botanique et zoologique de Saïgon, on 12 hectares of land close to the arroyo de l’Avalanche (Thị Nghè Creek).

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The Jardin botanique et zoologique de Saïgon pictured on an 1864 map of Saigon

The function of the new institution was primarily to research and develop plant and animal species for economic purposes, and to this end the Jardin incorporated several animal breeding pens, as well as greenhouses to cultivate seedlings for research. However, the Colonial Council quickly realised that its further development would be contingent on professional input, so on 28 March 1865 they appointed Pierre as its first Director. Later that year, he was also named as a member of the Cochinchina Agricultural and Industrial Committee.

A botanist who dedicated his life to the cause of science, Pierre held the post of Director of the Jardin botanique et zoologique until 1877, developing its infrastructure and shipping in many rare animal, plant and tree species from India and nearby Laos, Cambodia and Siam.

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A corner of the Jardin botanique et zoologique de Saïgon

Many of these he sourced personally – during his 12 years in the post, Pierre is said to have spent much of his time combing the region’s forests and savannahs, gathering what became one of the largest and richest tropical plant collections ever amassed by a single individual.

Today, Pierre is probably best remembered for the major contribution he made to the beautification of Saigon’s public spaces. In his large nurseries at the Jardin botanique and in the gardens of the Norodom Palace, he cultivated many of the trees and shrubs which were later transplanted to provide shade along Saigon’s major boulevards and in newly established public squares and parks. Pierre devoted particular attention to the Jardin de la ville, now Tao Đàn Park, where he planted several rare and unusual species, gaining for it the reputation as the “bois de Boulogne of Saigon.”

Ferme expérimentale des Mares in 1895

The Ferme expérimentale des Mares pictured on an 1895 map of Saigon

Under Pierre, the Jardin botanique et zoologique also made an important contribution to the development of agriculture in Cochinchina, by supplying colonial settlers with large quantities of fruit trees and industrial crops.

Within just a decade, Pierre transformed the Saigon Botanical and Zoological Gardens into one of the leading institutions of its kind in East Asia. However, by 1875 it had outgrown its facilities and Pierre was therefore instructed to set up an experimental farm on a 120ha site within the compound of the former Pagode des Mares, which then stood near the junction of modern Phạm Viết Chánh and Cống Quỳnh streets in District 1. In subsequent years, this Ferme expérimentale des Mares carried out important research work and succeeded in developing more efficient varieties of coffee, mango, pandanus, jute, indigo and sugar cane.

During his 12 years in Saigon, Pierre also taught botany at the Collège des Stagiaires, where he is said to have acquired the nickname “Pétrus Botanico.”

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An illustration by E Delpy from volume 4 of Pierre’s Flore forestière de la Cochinchine

Pierre returned to Paris in 1877 to devote more time to his research, and it was during this period that he worked on his magnum opus Flore forestière de la Cochinchine, which was published in multiple volumes from 1881 to 1894. Said to be one of the most important books on tropical forest flora ever written, it was described by Pierre’s contemporaries as “a veritable monument of science and erudition” and a “bible for all botanists who are curious about the secrets of colonial flora.” In his later years, Pierre also wrote many scientific articles for various learned journals, including the Bulletin du Jardin colonial, the Bulletin de la Société Linéenne de Paris and the Bulletin du Muséum de Paris.

Several plant genera were named after Pierre, including the pierreodendron of the sapotaceae family and the pierrea of the flacourtiaceae family.

Jean-Baptiste Louis-Pierre died on 30 October 1905 at Saint-Mandé in the eastern suburbs of Paris, where he was buried. In February 1933, to commemorate his work and academic research, the French Scientific Council installed a marble bust of Pierre in the Jardin botanique et zoologique de Saïgon. This was renovated during the Zoo’s 130th anniversary celebrations of 1994.

SAIGON - Perspective du boulevard Norodom

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.

Dinner with “Tong Doc” Do Huu Phuong

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Đỗ Hữu Phương (1841-1914) pictured in the late 1890s after his retirement

One of the most famous mandarins of the early French period, Đỗ Hữu Phương (1841-1914) became the second richest man in Cochinchina…. and dinner at his palatial residence in Chợ Lớn was once one of the most sought-after invites of the day.

Đỗ Hữu Phương (1841-1914) pictured in the early 1880s (from Charles Lemire, l’Indochine, Paris, 1884)

Born in 1841 at Chợ Đũi (Saigon), Đỗ Hữu Phương was the eldest son of a regional government mandarin from the mixed-race (Vietnamese-Chinese) Minh Hương community and grew up speaking fluent Vietnamese and Chinese. His early education at a French mission school also gave him a grounding in French which served him well in his later career.

When French forces attacked Saigon in 1859, Phương initially participated in the resistance, but following the decisive 1861 French victory at the “Lignes de Khi-Hoa” (Chí Hòa), he “rallied to the French cause” and became a colonial militia leader.

In subsequent years, Phương took part in a number of key engagements as the French extended their control over the six provinces of the south, including the retaking of Rạch Giá from Nguyễn Trung Trực in June 1868.

Phương’s career as a colonial mandarin began in earnest in 1865, when he was rewarded for his loyalty with the post of Hộ trưởng and made responsible for law and order in Chợ Lớn. In 1872 he became a member of the Chợ Lớn Municipal Council and later that year he was appointed Đốc phủ (governor). Promotion to Đốc phủ sử (provincial governor) followed.

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The palatial residence of “Tổng đốc” Đỗ Hữu Phương, pictured at the turn of the century

It was during this period, according to the popular late 19th-century saying Nhất Sỹ, nhì Phương, tam Xường, tứ Hỏa – “First Sỹ, second Phương; third Xường and fourth Hỏa” – that Phương became the second richest man in the south. His wealth was accumulated, not from trade and commerce, but by skilfully exploiting his close links with senior colonial administrators to function as an intermediary between Chợ Lớn’s leading Chinese merchant houses and the French civil service.

During this period he is said to have amassed large tracts of land in what is now District 8 – the Ông (Mr) in the names rạch Ông Lớn, cầu Rạch Ông and chợ Rạch Ông is believed to refer deferentially to Đỗ Hữu Phương, the former landlord of that area.

In subsequent years, Phương eagerly adopted a quasi-French lifestyle, assiduously cultivating the image of a man who “moved at ease and confidence through a life that was half Vietnamese and half French.”

4784910463_1bfa1f1189_oWhen the colonial authorities issued a decree in 1881 permitting the naturalisation of Vietnamese citizens, Phương was one of the first to apply. In 1883, following the establishment of the Société des études indochinoises in Saigon, Phương was elected as its first president and for several years acted as the editor of its French-language journal.

Phương made extended visits to France on no less than four occasions (1878, 1884, 1889 and 1894), prompting the scholar Trương Minh Ký (1855-1900) to write a satirical poem in Vietnamese which described Phương sitting in the Café de la paix in Paris, chatting with leading colonial personages such as Bonnet, Blanchy and Morin.

Today, Đỗ Hữu Phương is remembered above all as the genial host who invited many high-ranking French colonial settlers into his home and introduced them to the joys of Vietnamese cuisine.

In the late 1870s or early 1880s, Phương built himself a palatial home on quai Testard (the former Phố Xếp canal, now Châu Văn Liêm street). Comprising buildings of both colonial and traditional design surrounding a central courtyard, this subsequently became a must-see destination for many French visitors and expatriates.

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The family temple of “Tổng đốc” Đỗ Hữu Phương’s residence

Several French writers of the period wax lyrical about the beauty of Phương’s “princely residence,” in particular the family temple, an “incomparable work” which “surpasses the imagination” with its intricately carved and inlaid wooden panels and “beautifully decorated roof supported by columns of hard black wood, each formed from a single tree trunk and carved with scenes featuring characters of the greatest fineness.” Apart from the family shrine, the temple building is said to have housed “a real museum of antiques,” including large quantities of “old and very beautiful inlaid furniture.”

By the 1890s, however, the real attraction here was not the residence itself, but the lavish Vietnamese banquets hosted in it. After 1893, an invitation to dine with Phương seems to have become one of the hottest tickets in colonial Saigon-Chợ Lớn – his dinner guests included all the great and the good of colonial society, including Governor General Paul Doumer (1897-1902), who became a close family friend. Phương’s banquets became the stuff of legend and were described in numerous French travel books and journals of the period, including the review Tour du Monde (1893), Alfred Coussot’s Douze mois chez les sauvages du Laos (1898) and George Dürrwell’s Ma chère Cochinchine, trente années d’impressions et de souvenirs, 1881-1910.

In her Appetites and Aspirations in Vietnam: Food and Drink in the Long Nineteenth Century (2012), Erica Peters argues that by introducing his high-ranking guests to Vietnamese cuisine, Đỗ Hữu Phương “shook up colonial assumptions, pushing his French guests to reconsider their obsession with eating French food in the colony.”

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Đỗ Hữu Phương (1841-1914) pictured in the late 1890s after his retirement

Writing in 1897, Alfred Coussot describes in slightly shocked tones how he and his fellow diners were encouraged to eat their “first ever exclusively Annamite [Vietnamese] meal” with “ no cutlery and no bread,” but with “traditional chopsticks and rice bowls” – something hitherto regarded as unthinkable for most colonial settlers. Contemporary French accounts of the cuisine offered at Phương’s table not surprisingly focus on the more exotic dishes offered, such as “grilled palm tree grubs” and “still-born pig,” noting, nonetheless, that Phương would take pity on those with a less adventurous palate by serving them huge steaks cooked in the western style, thereby ensuring that everyone left his home satisfied.

Đỗ Hữu Phương was made a Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur in 1872, an Officier de la Légion d’honneur in 1881 and a Commandeur de la Légion d’honneur in 1890. However, perhaps the apotheosis of his career as a colonial mandarin was the honorific post of Tổng đốc (general governor), bestowed on him by the French authorities to mark his retirement in 1897. At this time, the boulevard on which his residence was located was named rue Tong-Doc-Phuong, a name it retained right down to 1955.

Throughout his life, “Tổng đốc” Phương spent much of his time engaged in charitable work. One of his particular interests was the establishment of a school for Vietnamese girls in Saigon, and it was largely thanks to Phương’s influence and philanthropy that the Collège de jeunes filles indigènes (later the Lycée Gia Long, now the Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai Secondary School on Điện Biên Phủ street) was founded in 1915.

Đỗ Hữu Phương also funded the 1879 construction work which transformed an old communal house into the Nghĩa Nhuận Assembly Hall, one of Chợ Lớn’s most elegant Minh Hương temples at 27 quai de la Distillerie (now 27 Phan Văn Khỏe). His sons would later continue to make regular donations towards its upkeep throughout the colonial period.

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Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai Secondary School owes its existence to Đỗ Hữu Phương

Đỗ Hữu Phương died of pleurisy on 3 April 1914. His grand public funeral on 19 April was attended by “almost the entire European settlement and a huge Asian crowd”…. “all Annamite dignitaries and notables were present” and an address was given by Joost van Vollenhoven, Secretary general of the Cochinchina government.

Đỗ Hữu Phương and his wife Trần Thị Điều (1842-1921) had four sons and two daughters.

Two of his sons remained in Cochinchina – Đỗ Hữu Trí became a magistrate, while Đỗ Hữu Tỉnh worked in the colonial Treasury. Meanwhile, Phương’s two daughters, who were both well educated and spoke fluent French, are said to have mixed widely in colonial society. One, Đỗ Thị Nhàn, later married the Hà Đông governor Hoàng Trọng Phu (1872-1946).

However, his other two sons, Đỗ Hữu Chẩn (1872-1955) and Đỗ Hữu Vị (1883-1916), are best remembered today. Both were educated at private schools in France and both graduated from the famous Saint-Cyr military academy.

Đỗ Hữu Chẩn became a colonel in the French colonial infantry, serving in Tonkin and Algeria before being sent to the front in World War I. A Commandeur de la Légion d’honneur who received the Croix de guerre for bravery, Chẩn served after the war as a military chief of staff in Rouen.

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Đỗ Hữu Phương’s famous aviator son Đỗ Hữu Vị (right), pictured in France in early 1915

Đỗ Hữu Phương’s most famous offspring was Đỗ Hữu Vị, still celebrated today as Việt Nam’s first pilot. After an early military career with the French Foreign Legion in Morocco, he retrained as an aviator in 1910 and became one of the pioneers of military aviation in Morocco – to this day, a street in Casablanca still bears his name. On the outbreak of World War I, Vị was posted to France, where he flew several missions before a crash in 1915 left him severely crippled and no longer able to fly. Rejoining the French Foreign Legion, he served briefly in the trenches of the Somme as commander of the 7th Company, but was killed on 9 July 1916 while leading his troops into battle. Initially buried in France, his remains were returned to Cochinchina in 1921 and reburied with great ceremony in the family plot on the Plaine des tombeaux (Plain of tombs), modern District 10.

After the death of Đỗ Hữu Phương’s wife in 1921, the family decided to sell the palatial mansion on rue Tong-Doc-Phuong in Chợ Lớn and in subsequent years it was demolished so that the whole block could be redeveloped. Today there is little to suggest that this extraordinary complex ever existed, apart from one of the former out-houses which may still be seen in an alley off Trần Hưng Đạo B street.

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A map (left) showing the location of Đỗ Hữu Phương’s residence on quai Testard in the 1890s and a Google map (right) showing the same location today

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

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

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

The Curious Case of the Vanishing Revolutionary Monuments

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The former hotel at 1 Nguyễn Trung Trực (rue Filippini) where the Annam Communist Party was set up in October 1929

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

It’s often assumed that it’s only Hồ Chí Minh City’s colonial-era heritage buildings which are under threat. But in recent years, several important revolutionary monuments have also been lost.

According to the 1998 book Historic and Cultural Vestiges of Hồ Chí Minh City (Di Tích Lịch Sử-Văn Hóa Thành Phố Hồ Chí Minh, Nhà Xuất Bản Trẻ), in June 1928, members of the Việt Nam Revolutionary Youth League (Việt Nam Thanh niên Cách mạng Đồng chí hội) met in room 5 on the second floor of the Tân Hòa Hotel at 88 boulevard Bonard (Lê Lợi), Saigon, to establish the League’s Cochinchina regional committee.

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The entrance to the second floor room at 88 Lê Lợi (boulevard Bonard), now a private apartment, where the Việt Nam Revolutionary Youth League’s Cochinchina regional committee was set up in June 1928

Founded in Guangzhou by Hồ Chí Minh in 1925, the League subsequently embarked on a vigorous propaganda drive, recruiting many new members throughout the country. The establishment of three regional committees (Cochinchina, Annam, Tonkin) enabled it to further expand its activities. Phan Trọng Bình served as secretary of the Cochinchina regional committee until March 1929, when he was succeeded by Phạm Văn Đồng, who in the 1960s would become Prime Minister of Việt Nam.

Because of its historical significance, the former hotel room at 88 Lê Lợi was declared a historic monument by the Ministry of Culture and Information on 16 November 1988 (decision 1288-VH/QĐ). However, the second floor of 88 Lê Lợi is currently rented out as private apartments and there is nothing to suggest that any historic events took place here.

The same book also lists another revolutionary monument, situated less than 100m from 88 Lê Lợi. Following the May 1929 congress in Hong Kong, Việt Nam Revolutionary Youth League delegates from Tonkin (northern Việt Nam) returned to Hà Nội to found the Indochina Communist Party (Đông Dương Cộng sản Đảng). Delegates from Cochinchina subsequently followed suit – in late July or early August 1929, Châu Văn Liêm, Hồ Tùng Mậu, Lê Hồng Sơn, Lê Duy Điếm and several other members of the League met at Liêm’s house on rue Hamelin (Lê Thị Hồng Gấm) in Saigon and resolved to set up the Annam Communist Party (An Nam Cộng Sản Ðảng). This organisation was formally established in October 1929 at a meeting in room 1 on the second floor of a hotel (believed to have been known in French as the Hôtel de l’Ouest) at 1 rue Filippini (Nguyễn Trung Trực). Attended by around 30 delegates, the meeting set up a provisional party executive committee and appointed Châu Văn Liêm as secretary.

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Room 1 at 1 Nguyễn Trung Trực (rue Filippini), where the Annam Communist Party was founded in October 1929, is now also a private apartment

While the Annam Communist Party was a short-lived organisation – in February 1930 it was merged with the Indochina Communist Party to form the Communist Party of Việt Nam – it is said to have played an important role in the Vietnamese revolution and for that reason, the place where it was founded – room 1 at 1 Nguyễn Trung Trực – was also declared a historic monument by the Ministry of Culture and Information on 16 November 1988. However, as with 88 Lê Lợi, the site is now an unmarked private apartment.

Where 88 Lê Lợi and 1 Nguyễn Trung Trực are concerned, it can at least be said that the original buildings still exist. But another registered historic site in Hồ Chí Minh City’s District 1, the former headquarters of the Dân Chúng newspaper at 43 rue Hamelin (Lê Thị Hồng Gấm), has been completely lost to redevelopment.

The 1998 book explains how the Vietnamese-language revolutionary newspaper Dân Chúng and its French-language counterpart Le Peuple were founded on 22 July 1938 and 7 September 1939 respectively, during the brief period of relatively liberal colonial policy which followed the accession to power of Léon Blum’s left-wing Popular Front party in France.

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A modern six-storey building now stands on the site of the former Dân Chúng newspaper office at 43 Lê Thị Hồng Gấm (rue Hamelin)

The office at 43 rue Hamelin (Lê Thị Hồng Gấm) where these newspapers were produced is described in Historic and Cultural Vestiges of Hồ Chí Minh City as “a single-storey brick building, 8m wide by 23.6m deep, with a traditional yin-yang tiled roof and a tiled floor.” It, too, was registered as a historic monument by the Ministry of Culture and Information on 16 November 1988. However, soon after the book was published, the building found its way into private hands. Despite its heritage status, it was demolished in 2010 to make way for a new six-storey structure.

The demise of these revolutionary monuments has not gone unnoticed in the local press. In 2011, the Sài Gòn Giải Phóng newspaper ran an article entitled “City relics of historical importance in dismal conditions,” which highlighted the plight of these and several other registered historic monuments in Hồ Chí Minh City.

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 – Trinh Khanh Tan Mausoleum, 1914

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The facade of the Trịnh Khánh Tấn Mausoleum

Visitors to the Pétrus Ký Mausoleum and Memorial House in Chợ Quán may notice another ornate mausoleum located just 100m east along Trần Hưng Đạo boulevard in Hẻm (Alley) 472.

This was built in 1914 to house the tomb of Dominique-Thomas Trịnh Khánh Tấn (died 1913), Honorary District Chief (Tri huyện Honoraire) of Chợ Quán.

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The Trịnh Khánh Tấn Mausoleum

Little is known of Tấn, other than the fact that he was a trusted official of the colonial administration who lived on the nearby avenue de l’église de Choquan (modern Trần Bình Trọng street). Today he is remembered principally for his book Học Tập Qui Chánh (SLND, Chợ Quán, 1906), which he wrote to help Vietnamese Roman Catholic children live an upright and useful life.

Buried either side of Tấn are his wife Lê Thị Gương (died 1922) and their daughter Trịnh Thị Thiết (died 1948). An altar is located behind the three tombs. Outside, above the entrance, is a Latin inscription from the Vulgate Bible, which reads: Beati mortui qui in Domino moriuntur, meaning “Blessed are the dead who die in [the grace of] the Lord.”

If the gate is locked, those wishing to enter the mausoleum should make their way round to the left of the mausoleum until they reach the Quỳnh Café at 474/9 and ask the owner, who is a descendant of Trịnh Khánh Tấn.

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.