Saigon Through the Eyes of Early Travellers – Louise Bourbonnaud in 1888, Part 2


The Messageries maritimes quayside.

In mid 1888, wealthy French widow Louise Bourbonnaud set off alone on an extended voyage of discovery which took in India, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Singapore, Cochinchina, China and Japan. She spent over a week in Saigon and her 1892 book Les Indes et l’Extrême Orient, impressions de voyage d’une parisienne provides us with a fascinating,  if somewhat condescending, account of late 19th century colonial life. This is the second of a series of instalments from her book, translated into English.

To read part 1 of this serialisation click here.

Sunday 26 August 1888

Today is Sunday. At 7am it’s not yet daytime, but already my neighbours are facing their tasks: tailors, shoemakers and bleachers stitch, sew, wash and iron as if nothing had happened. It seems that these people have no respect for the Sabbath.

It’s only just sunrise. In the tropics, the sun rises late and the night comes early, almost without dawn and dusk: the days and nights are equal, and this remains surprising to Europeans who are accustomed to the days lengthening or decreasing, according to the season.


Rue Catinat, Saigon’s “boulevard des Italiens.”

The weather is gloomy, it ‘s still raining. It always rains!

But I didn’t come so far from France just to watch the rain falling from my hotel window. At 9am, I wrap myself in my waterproof, arm myself with a huge umbrella and walk bravely out onto rue Catinat.

This beautiful road is the “boulevard des Italiens” of Saïgon; it begins at the quayside and ends at the Cathedral. It’s here that you will find all the beautiful shops and the beau monde, the City Hall, the Post Office, the Auction House, etc, etc.

In front of the Auction House, an Annamite man taps with a vengeance on a tom-tom. At least that’s a bit of local colour! I approach and I learn that this “tambourineux” of the Far East is announcing a sale being held this morning. I enter. Items of all kinds are being offered to the public, but most of them are European: mirrors, furniture, bedding, household utensils, various tools… alas, it seems that there is nothing worth bidding for.

I notice some pretty little model carriages drawn by cute little horses; but as I have a long way to go before returning to Paris, I have no intention of buying too many things. But wait! Here’s a pile of sheet music that would be right up my street! Just think, music purchased in Saigon! But this lot is to be auctioned later, says a police officer I ask for information. If I have time, I ‘ll come back.


The first Saigon Post Office on rue Catinat.

The Post Office [at this time still located on the site of the later Bót Catinat police station, now the Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism] is on my way. Time to see if my friends in France have not completely forgotten the poor exile.

No! they haven’t forgotten me. There are two letters addressed to me; in one of them, Miss B asks me jokingly if I’ve eaten swallows’ nests yet, a great delicacy, it seems.

No, miss, I haven’t tried it yet; I haven’t even heard it mentioned here, perhaps this dish is a less well known here than it is on the boulevard Montmartre. But I do not give up hope of tasting it one day or another, because when travelling you should never say never.

My kind correspondent writes that she envies me my lot and is somewhat jealous of me travelling the world. She wants to congratulate me on my courage and shudders at the thought that I have to endure the fatigues and dangers to which I am exposed.

Outside, I hear the Cathedral bells ringing; an elegant crowd throngs towards the holy place and I quickly join them to attend mass.

Cathedral no spires

The Saigon Cathedral, inaugurated in 1880.

The Saigon Cathedral, which we can see from afar when first arriving in the capital of French Cochinchina, is built of pink brick which creates a curious effect. The building stands at the end of rue Catinat.

There are many ladies in full dress and many officers in uniform. The uniforms and the brightly coloured costumes cast a cheerful note on the proceedings – we are reminded that we are in the land of the sun. The bishop officiates, mitre and crosier; the ceremony is most impressive. Once mass is ended, I see in the crowd the English solicitor, former passenger on the Ava; but as I don’t much want his company right now, I hasten to join the congregation exiting the building before he notices me.

In any case, I must go to the sacristy to order a mass for the repose of my beloved late husband’s soul. The priest to whom I address this request asks me for a piastre and a half and gives me change in local sous. These are small round bronze coins, a bit larger than our two centimes pieces, and, like the Chinese sous, they are pierced in the middle with a square hole. They carry the words “Indo-Chine française,” and are, I believe, struck at the Paris Mint. They are called sapeks and it takes five to make a sou. He also gives me other, larger coins, weighing 10gm, called cents.

Leaving the cathedral, I decide to go back to the Auction House; but when I arrive, the sheet music that I noticed has already been sold. Too bad! At that moment, they are selling the miniature horses and carriages and I see a nice harness for the sum of 110 piastres.

1895 rue Catinat

A malabar negotiates one of Saigon’s tree-lined boulevards.

What a pretty city Saïgon is! How graceful to see the houses hidden in the greenery and the wide boulevards lined with trees which cover the roads with beneficent shadow. The width of the streets is huge, the trees are so big, so tall and so thick that they cover everything. You must have visited this place to realise that there really is so much vegetation, because the traveller is always suspected of exaggeration.

The rain has stopped and the sun shines resplendently. Under the double shade of my umbrella and the thick foliage of the trees, with a prevailing wind, I feel a real sense of well-being; At every step I am amazed that there are so many people outdoors; many officers, some on foot, others driving themselves in carriages, and women dressed in the newest fashions brought by the last ship from France. I stand there, in the midst of the crowd, nailed to the spot in admiration, so amazing is the show. Ah! What a beautiful jewel of a colony France has here!

There are many reading rooms here, with signs indicating volumes for rent. But unfortunately, these French books are not read widely by the local people, as they seem to have no taste for the study of our language; it is rather our compatriots who assimilate the language of the country. However, there are honorable exceptions to this rule – like all rules – and many Annamite, Chinese and Malabar may be heard jabbering in the language of Voltaire and Victor Hugo.

I return to the hotel for lunch. The sun has gained strength and begins to create a stifling heat in the tree-lined avenues. In the dining room the punka fans have their work cut out for them.

Hotel de l'Univers

The Hôtel de l’Univers, where Louise Bourbonnaud stayed during her visit to Saigon.

I’m at the dining room table for barely a quarter of an hour when a gentleman presents himself to me on behalf of Mrs de X. I am invited to spend the rest of day and have dinner tonight with my amiable companions. This attention from people so highly placed in the official world of the colony touches me deeply, but I still want to keep my freedom today, so I tell the messenger that I cannot accept the gracious invitation that has been made until tomorrow.

From that moment, I realise that the invitation has improved my standing at the hotel; everyone redoubles their kindness towards me when they know I have such beautiful acquaintances among the authorities of the country. Mr de X. enjoys a magnificent position in the government: a high salary, a princely house furnished with all the refinements of comfort; senior officials, moreover, are allowed two servants; others below them must pay out of their own pocket.

I wait for the great heat to pass and at 4pm I take a drive in a carriage. A random trip, because I have no guide and the driver does not understand a word of French and cannot give me any explanation. He looks at me, rolling his large white eyes with a dazed expression and utters exclamations which naturally I do not understand either. I decide to let him drive me at will; after all, there are interesting things to be seen everywhere for a newcomer like me.

We first do a tour into the countryside, which is charming and animated. I pass through a village where I notice a beautiful peacock.


An elephant at the Saigon Botanical and Zoological Gardens.

Then my driver takes me to the Jardin des Plantes [the Saigon Botanical and Zoological Gardens]. A good hour, at least! Here is a place that really deserves to be seen!

Firstly, it has elephants, and this is the first time I have seen any since my departure. I am pleased finally to contemplate these good creatures, which are as intelligent as strange and seem like vestiges of a bygone age. There are also tigers here, and beasts of every kind, as well as beautiful tropical plant collections. The animals and plants are all in their country of origin, in a climate that suits them, so they have an appearance of strength, health and vigour which we never see in the zoos back home amidst the cold, snow and fog.

The Annamites are, it seems, very fond of the flesh of the crocodile, an animal which abounds in some arroyos around these parts; but instead of hunting the animals, they prefer to raise and fatten them in specially-constructed pits, where, by using a noose, they can catch the overweight game easily and bring it straight to the pot.

Here I am back on the quayside, where several warships are moored, amongst others the Loire. What a beautiful ship! I pass the Marine Arsenal, travelling along the rue de la Citadelle, a huge avenue which stretches far out of sight. This area has artillery barracks, supply stores, the Cercle des officiers – it seems that I’m in military terrain!

Caserne de la marine

The French naval barracks on the Saigon riverfront.

In Saigon, like everywhere else of the same latitude, the shops are closed from 11am to 2pm, and only reopen after the owners have had their midday nap. It is very dangerous to walk in the hot sun at those hours of the day and the slightest carelessness can cost you dearly. But don’t believe that all local artisans, tailors or shoemakers stop working at this time. On several occasions when I found shops closed, I could still hear the noise of the sewing machine continuing inside.

At about 4pm, everyone comes out onto their doorstep and begins to eat. I observe them and am surprised by the frugality of the menu: nothing but rice! These people, of course, eat to live and not live to eat. They don’t use plates, but rather a bowl which they bring towards their mouth with every bite, while, in the right hand, they manipulate their chopsticks with extraordinary dexterity.

Rice is the staple food of the Annamite and the condition of the crop is the subject of many conversations. Everyone rejoices when the rain falls in torrents, because it’s a sign that the harvest will be plentiful; because the rice is grown literally in the water, drought years are years of famine. Since the French occupation, those horrible famines that once devastated entire countries have become rarer and much less deadly. Thanks to the speed of modern communications, if there is a shortage of rice in one place, we can, without too much expense, go and buy elsewhere, where the harvest has yielded good results.

Compagnie des messageries maritimes building i

Carriages await the arrival of a ship in colonial Saigon.

In the streets, I meet many brave sailors who are enjoying their Sunday leave by coming ashore to stretch their legs a bit. They go here and there, legs apart, looking amazed to find their feet on ground that does not rock from side to side, seeking drinking dens where they can spend their pay. They are spoiled for choice, as drinking places are certainly not lacking in Saigon! And when the sailor reboards his ship after a day’s leave, you can be sure that he will no longer be as neat and tidy as he was when he landed in the morning; so he had better beware the coxswain!

Music hour has arrived and no-one in Saigon’s belle société fails to attend “la musique.” It is mandatory!

The military concert takes place on the magnificent square opposite the Jardin des Plantes. As it only begins at 6pm, I first take a walk along the tree-lined avenues, where who should I bump into but… the rude Prussian who blew pipe smoke in my face on the Ava! I turn away in disgust from this character, who pretends not to recognise me.

Gradually, the world makes its way to the square, some people on foot, some on horseback, and others by carriage. Fashionable dresses, shiny uniforms, splendid carriages, coachmen and footmen, it’s like being at the lake in the Bois de Boulogne! The carriages fall into two files. Their occupants get out, greet each other. The gentlemen, wearing black or light cloth suits decorated with flower buttonholes and polished shoes, carry a cane or a whip in their hands. Some stylishly-dressed military officers arrive leading their own poney-chaise, carelessly throwing the reins to their servants as they begin to meet and greet.


French colons dressed in the latest fashions.

The ladies are dressed in the latest fashions; some outfits are quite garish, but here the world is naturally a bit confused. Blue, pink, green, purple and cream silk dresses abound, all light shades shining in the sunlight. It’s quite hard to believe that we are 2,000 leagues from the place de l’Opéra, even if the beautiful tropical greenery that frames this tableau is a constant reminder to the viewer of reality.

Two Annamite woman arrive in an open carriage. They are dressed in pink silk skirts and green silk blouses and their hair is kept in place by enormous tortoiseshell combs and brooches garnished with large pearls. Their hairstyles look a bit like those of the Japanese. On their feet they coquettishly wear small, lightweight shoes with pointed toes and open heels in green, pink and purple velvet, decorated with gold or silver embroidery. They are very pretty and, it seems, very rich.

The senior local mandarins are also here, listening seriously to the music of Auber, Rossini or Herold, which I’m afraid they may not understand much, because their ideas of musical harmony are different from ours.

The Annamite men here wear their hair in a little bun in the manner of the Spanish bullfighter. They are dressed in similar outfits to the Annamite women, so it is very difficult, at first, to distinguish one from the other.


Étienne Richaud, who, after being appointed Résident général in Annam and Tonkin, succeeded Ernest Constans in April 1888 to become the second Governor General of Indochina.

All of a sudden, the crowd gathers respectfully around a large landau, on the high platform of which stand a coachman and a footman dressed all in white, with large gold buttons on their chests and enormous white helmets decorated with a tricolor cockade and a ribbon in the French national colours.

In the landau are two people: Mr Richaud, currently Résident-Général of the colony, and Mrs Richaud. The Résident-Général is a very handsome man, tall, well-cut, a colossus! His charming wife distributes left and right gracious greetings and waves of her hat. As this officer is the highest incarnation of French authority, all of the French and Annamite administrators bow respectfully to “captain six-gallons!”

I must explain here that the Annamite regards every European dressed for an official civilian or military function as a “captain” and grades his importance by the number of “gallons.” In this way, the simple sub-lieutenant is promoted, in the familiar language of the local people, to “captain one-gallon.” The lieutenant, who is entitled to a more respectful salute, is “captain-two-gallons.” As for a true captain, he is naturally “three-gallons.” The colonel and lieutenant-colonel lose out, but although they are designated by a title below that which is rightfully theirs, they nevertheless retain their respective rank in this improvised and exotic hierarchy, as “captain four-gallons” and captain “five-gallons.”

So much for the military, and so far nothing difficult in the designation of grades, since each of them corresponds with the number of gallons. But for civilians? Well, the Annamite also classifies a European civilian official who has under him a number of staff according to his importance, as two, three, four or five gallons!


French military colons in the late 19th century.

And over the army of officers and officials, which includes most French colons including traders and industrialists, above all that world soars the Governor, the Résident Général, this unique “captain six-gallons” to whom we now bow low!

I meet the two youngest sons of Mr de X in a Victoria carriage drawn by two horses; driven by two coachmen dressed in blue cloth jackets and white helmets. This is the little outfit of army coachmen; an officer of a certain rank is entitled to this crew.

Ah! It seems that these people lead life to the full! But just because they have a lot of money, it doesn’t mean to say that they benefit from it, because in reality they are obliged to spend vast sums. Here in the colonies, they must give a lot of parties, dinners and balls; it’s all about who can eclipse his or her neighbour – especially a female neighbour! Fashions are dictated by the Louvre, Bon-Marché and Printemps; if you are rich, you employ some great couturier from the avenue de l’Opéra or the rue de la Paix, and every mail brings large quantities of dresses, lace, hats, etc. These ladies wear their dresses perhaps just three times and then give them to their maids, because they don’t want – for anything in the world – to look like they are saving money!

Then there’s the carriages – in the daytime they use a covered carriage, but if they are out in the evening it’s also necessary to have an open carriage. And of course, they never, ever walk – someone would notice!


A malabar waits for passengers

At that rate, we can see how the biggest salary packages are hardly enough and that it does not take long to be unable to make ends meet.

I haven’t been in Saigon very long and yet you’d easily believe that I’m already well known, because I’m greeted at every moment: they are passengers from the Ava, former companions, who came, like me, to the select rendezvous of “la musique.” I see, amongst all the others, the Agent des postes, lounging in a carriage alongside an army commander.

I return to the hotel to find a messenger from Mrs X, who has come to find me for the second time. The friendly lady, it seems, is furious with me; she waited for me all day. I apologise as best I can. Today is Sunday, I was afraid to disturb my new friends; in brief, I promise to visit them tomorrow, after the midday nap. Not that I intend to take a nap, oh no! I won’t waste my time sleeping during the daytime, but I cannot decently make a visit at the hour when everyone retires to the coolest room of their house to rest until the heat of the day has passed.

I dine quietly and take ice-cream after my dessert, I ask the manager of the hotel to come and keep me company for a moment.

Afterwards, I go back to my room, put my notes in order and record my impressions of the day. As I never stop, I keep going and coming, I have seen a great many things, and if I don’t note them down as I go along, I run great risk of forgetting them.

That done, I take a well earned rest.

To read part 3 of this serialisation click here

To read part 4 of this serialisation click here

To read part 5 of this serialisation click here

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 – Second Chambre de Commerce Building, 1928


The Hồ Chí Minh City Stock Exchange building today

This article was published previously in Saigoneer


The Chambre de commerce de Saïgon building, pictured soon after it opened in 1928

Originally founded on 3 November 1867 in temporary accommodation in the compound of the Direction de l’Intérieur, the Chambre de commerce de Saïgon (Saigon Chamber of Commerce) moved into 11 place Rigault de Genouilly (now 11 Mê Linh) on 30 September 1868, where it remained for 60 years – for details, see First Chambre de commerce building.

However, in 1927 it was decided to build a larger and more imposing seat for the Chambre de commerce, next to the Bến Nghé creek, in the heart of the city’s wealthy financial district.

The building was inaugurated on 24 March 1928 at a grand reception attended by the Governor of Cochinchina. Its eclectic design incorporated both neo-classical and art deco features and also featured several Chàm and Khmer references.

Dien Hong Hall 1969

The Diên Hồng Hall in 1969

During the Japanese occupation, the building was occupied by the Japanese military and was used briefly as an interrogation centre. It subsequently became a French military headquarters.

In 1955, the old Chambre de commerce building was transformed into a conference facility known as the Diên Hồng Hall (Hội trường Diên Hồng), after the Diên Hồng conference (Hội nghị Diên Hồng) of 1284 – described by some historians as the first democratic gathering held in Việt Nam – which was convened by King Trần Thánh Tông to discuss military strategy in the face of the second Mongol invasion.

At this time, a statue of King An Dương Vương, ruler of the early Việt kingdom of Âu Lạc, was installed in the gardens in front of the building. From 21-24 October 1957, the Diên Hồng Hall was the venue for the 9th annual session of the Consultative Committee of the Colombo Plan for Co-operative Economic Development in South and Southeast Asia.


In recent years, the gardens in front of the building and the statue of King An Dương Vương have disappeared to make way for the underpass leading into the Thủ Thiêm Tunnel

In the wake of constitutional changes in 1967, the Diên Hồng Hall was transformed into the seat of the newly-established upper house or Senate of the South Vietnamese National Assembly. The sentry posts installed at that time on the rear walls of the Diên Hồng Hall compound survived until 2012, when construction began on a new tower block behind the original building.

Used as a meeting room by a succession of local government agencies after 1975, the Diên Hồng Hall was taken over by the State Securities Commission of Việt Nam (Ủy ban Chứng khoán Nhà nước) in 1996.

In 2000 it was refurbished to become the Hồ Chí Minh City Securities Trading Centre (HoSTC), Việt Nam’s first fully operating stock exchange. Its name was changed to Hồ Chí Minh City Stock Exchange (Sở Giao dịch Chứng khoán Thành Phố Hồ Chí Minh) in 2007.


The Hồ Chí Minh City Stock Exchange building viewed from District 4


The wrought iron work on the front doors of the Hồ Chí Minh City Stock Exchange building still carries the initials “DH” (Diên Hồng)

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.

Saigon Through the Eyes of Early Travellers – Louise Bourbonnaud in 1888, Part 1

480px-Louise_Bourbonnaud copy

Louise Bourbonnaud

In mid 1888, wealthy French widow Louise Bourbonnaud set off alone on an extended voyage of discovery which took in India, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Singapore, Cochinchina, China and Japan. She spent over a week in Saigon and her 1892 book, Les Indes et l’Extrême Orient, impressions de voyage d’une parisienne, provides us with a fascinating, if somewhat condescending, account of life in late 19th century colonial Cochinchina. This is the first of a series of instalments from her book, translated into English.

Friday 24 August 1888 – Arrival in Saigon

Cap-Saint-Jacques [Vũng Tàu] marks the entrance to the Saigon river. A beautiful lighthouse, built at the end of a rocky and wooded promontary, sends its light up to 30 miles out to sea; opened on 15 August 1862, this lighthouse stands 139m above sea level; the tower itself is 8m high.

Phare de Cap Saint Jacques

The Cap-Saint-Jacques (Vũng Tàu) lighthouse

The mouth of the river is wide and there is enough water to allow larger ships to continue as far as Saigon; the trip takes about six hours, during which we continue to navigate through the countryside. Rice fields and clumps of trees follow one another in quick succession and delight the eye; the river is covered with local craft, among which the [Compagnie des Messageries maritimes vessel] Ava stands out majestically, like a giant among pygmies.

How beautiful it is here! I never tire of admiring it! And more than being a beautiful country to us, it is also a corner of my beloved France, where I’ll stop for a while amongst my compatriots. Most of the passengers are up on deck, watching and admiring the scenery, like me. And amongst them is a Prussian, who is smoking a large pipe. I take this opportunity to make the observation:

“It is clear that we’ve arrived in French territory, where we can breathe an air of cleanliness that is not encountered in the colonies of other nations.”

The Prussian pretends not to hear and – appearing to do so deliberately – rudely sends a puff of smoke from his good porcelain pipe in my direction.

I sneeze two or three times, while the rude person goes away without saying a word!


The Compagnie des Messageries maritimes steamship Ava, pictured in Marseille

The Ava continues its journey. From time to time, we pass small “boat garages” formed by rows of stakes driven into the river, where house boats are sheltered. These Annamite [Vietnamese] boats have a characteristic appearance: the middle sections have a canvas cover and at each end is a platform where the person responsible for manoeuvring the boat stands – and it is noteworthy that it is very often a woman who carries out the task of pilot.

Lower Cochinchina is an alluvial country, a flat region, all the southern part of which is formed by the tributaries of the Mekong, lands driven by the current of the great river, then pushed by the tides and definitively fixed by the vegetation, which is rich here, as in all the inter-tropical countries, thanks to the constant humidity and the heat of the sun. Lowlands and swamplands are often impassable on foot and the villages would remain isolated from each other if the country was not criss-crossed everywhere by canals – known here as arroyos –which serve all communications. Travellers, food products and goods of all kinds circulate almost exclusively along the network of waterways which bifurcate to infinity, serving smaller population centres. It follows from this fact that the inhabitants of Lower Cochinchina live on the water, or rather, half if not more of their existence takes place on the water. There are even families of boatmen whose members are born and die on the water, setting foot only rarely on the mainland.

Cathedral no spires

The Saigon Cathedral before its spires were added in 1897

Among the trees along the shore, bands of monkeys play. By now they are probably very familiar with the sight of steamboats, and they grimace at us as we pass.

A full hour before we reach Saigon, we can see, over the greenery the two towers of the Saigon Cathedral in pink brick; and it is not a little curious spectacle, the appearance of this European monument in an ultra-Asiatic milieu.

We’ve arrived. The Ava docks, Annamite boats surround us and their boatmen rush to offer us roast chicken, bananas, oranges and mangoes; I say “offer,” but it’s a euphemism as you have already without doubt understood. However, there’s not too much reason to complain, because the prices they charge do not seem to me to be exaggerated.

However, there is a category of indigenous trader of which it is necessary to be slightly wary: the type which offers to change your French money against the piastre, which is used exclusively in Cochinchina. On the arrival of each vessel, as the rate of the piastre is very variable, this results in a small trade of speculation where the game is to maximize the benefit of the newcomers’ ignorance regarding the current exchange rate.


A steamer docks at the Messageries maritimes quayside

Among those who come to us offering their services are shoemakers and tailors; the latter are the most skilful of all, and, as long as one provides them with a model, they can run off an article of European clothing as well as any of their colleagues back in Paris.

The family of my travelling companion Mr X comes to bid me farewell; now is the time to disembark. On the quayside, a carriage of the Messageries is parked; it is loaded with bags of letters; how many brave troopers will find therein news of their dear France!

Four other carriages driven by soldiers wait for the family of Mr X, passengers and luggage. Finally my turn comes: the porters grab my bags and transport them ashore. By car to the Hôtel de l’Univers, one of the best known hostelries in Saigon!

The hotel is some distance from the quay where we disembark from the ship; I cross a river on a beautiful bridge [the Pont des Messageries maritimes], but before we get to our destination, the road passes through the middle of a marshland where Annamite huts stand on stilts.

Hotel de l'Univers

The Hotel de l’Univers on rue Turc (now Hồ Huấn Nghiệp)

At the Hotel de l’Univers [on rue Turc, now Hồ Huấn Nghiệp], I check into a suite comprising two rooms on the first floor. I have at my disposal a beautiful bedroom with a large veranda, or rather a large covered balcony which overlooks the courtyard, in the middle of which stands a small garden.

The other room has two windows which overlook the street; it is furnished with a dressing table, a writing desk, a sofa and three side tables. We are here in a civilised country, and the place is not lacking in any way, particularly when it comes to hotel staff, because I have at least half a dozen attached to my person. Some sweep, some dust, others do nothing and the remainder seem to be there to help the latter! This is the division of labour (?) In all its beauty! But as I’ve said, these brave employees are cheap: a handful of rice and a few sous are quite enough for them, so we can afford to pay little for the luxury of a large staff.

Taught by experience, I begin by installing the mosquito net. We must be on guard against these little enemies of the night, and as I have to spend the next few days here, I hope that my rest will be disturbed to the least possible extent by them.

By 10.30am, everything is pretty much in order in my room, so I decide to go for a tour of the city, pedibusse cum jambisse, to speak the language of the illustrious Tartarin [Alphonse Daudet, Tartarin sur les Alpes]. But I don’t go far this time, because I immediately stop in front of an antiques shop and decide to do some shopping.


Chinese shopkeepers on rue Catinat

And my goodness! Encouraged by the range of goods and the cheap price, I buy successively: a pair of 1m high Chinese vases, a Japanese junk made from ivory, a Japanese table, some photographs, a sword in a carved sheath, watercolour landscapes on rice paper, an ivory bust, and finally a small box containing Chinese eating utensils; in it there is a knife, a toothpick and two small implements with which the “Heavenly ones” transfer the rice from the bowl into their mouths with a dexterity that has never been possible for me to imitate, despite numerous attempts.

The bill does not exceed 80 francs, that’s nothing! I am sure that in Paris I would not pay less than 600 francs for these objects! It is true, however, that there will be customs duty to pay and that, on getting back to France, I will be asked for a sum greater than that of the purchase itself.

“Send these objects to me at the Hôtel de l’Univers,” I say to the dealer as I leave the store.

And immediately four Chinese pick up the vases and trinkets and set off in single file in the direction indicated.

I follow them and arrive almost at the same time. My purchases are deposited in my room and I tip the porters: one franc between them, five cents each, this is a fantastic tip which they can hardly be used to, judging by the warmth of their gratitude! These 25 centimes must be equivalent to a countless number of sapeks!

Cafe de la Musique A i

The Hôtel and Café de la Musique

While waiting for lunch, I stop to talk to the manager of the hotel and tell him, among other things, that a passenger on the Ava strongly suggested to me that I should stay at the Hôtel de la Musique, located in front of the square, and not the Hôtel de l’Univers.

When I describe to him the gentleman who gave me this advice, the manager laughs:

“I know who that is, Madame,” he says, “I recognise him perfectly; that’s one of my old customers who caused me all the trouble in the world when I tried to make him pay back a small sum he had owed me for a long time. And even now I’ve still only recovered a part of my money! Ah! I fully understand why this gentleman did not recommend that you stay in my hotel! I do not want to speak ill of my colleagues, but when you leave Saigon, I hope to hear you say that nowhere else in this city is better than the Hôtel de l’Univers!”

A bell rings. To lunch! The dining room is large, the punka fans work, the fare is good, the service excellent. There are at least 30 waiters who are constantly coming and going, each of them carries in his pocket the lunch menu and, before each dish, they pass it in front of every guest’s eyes. The drinking glasses are enormous, never before did I drink from glasses as large; this is probably because of the chunks of ice that we hasten to replace as soon as they are melted.

1890 rue Catinat

A scene on rue Catinat in the late 19th century

Veal stew, macaroni au gratin: this is the menu for my first meal in Cochinchina. No local colour, as we see. But be patient! It will come.

The dessert is varied and includes mangosteens, for which I have a decided weakness. Coffee is served with cognac; then they present me with a bottle of rum and some sugar. So much strong liquor at lunch time!

Silently, thanks to their thick felt soles, the waiters circulate around the table, some bringing clean plates and full dishes, others removing dirty plates and empty dishes, without the former ever encroaching on the functions of the latter. There is never any confusion of responsibilities here and everyone knows the limits of his duties.

And what a serious look on the faces of these brave people!

Saturday 25 August 1888

My principle, while travelling, is that I don’t waste time. I’ve come thousands of miles to see and I can’t wait to see. Also, I do not stay long in each place and so, immediately after landing, I like to run here and there, notebook in hand, noting in passing my impressions. I have already seen many things in my long travels, but the new always attracts and seduces me, and I can’t resist the pleasure of seeing it again and again.

I saw North America, I travelled from east to west, from north to south; I saw the lush Antilles, land of pineapples and languorous people; I visited South America and I recorded, in a previous volume, the story of these trips. I should therefore be rather blasé about the various spectacles offered to Europeans by countries that are totally different from ours in manners, customs, habits and ways of life.

4762592219_a70bca068f_o (1)

Merchants vessels on the arroyo Chinois (Bến Nghé creek) in the colonial period

Well, no! I never tire of looking around me; of observing all aspects of this world which are strange to my eyes, people who move and think in a different way, live differently than we do and to whom our customs must also be a matter of astonishment. It is true that if the Oriental is surprised about something, he usually betrays nothing and maintains an air of apparent indifference.

This desire to see and to see immediately, this impatient curiosity, so natural in a traveller, is such that just half an hour after lunch, I decide to go by carriage to Cholon, the important suburb of Saigon. What am I saying? To the great and commercial Chinese city on which the capital of our beautiful French Cochinchina depends!

Even before visiting Saigon, I wanted to make a small excursion to this place, which I had heard was an entirely Chinese city and very curious to see.

Thanks to the kindness of the manager of the Hôtel de l’Univers, the guide for my walk is a Pondicherry Indian, whom I credit with experience and local knowledge.

Cholon is four or five miles southwest of Saigon, on the banks of the arroyo Chinois [Bến Nghé Creek].

The road I take – slowly, while looking at everything along the way – gets me there in about an hour. Half way along, we pass the Gendarmerie nationale and Caserne des tirailleurs Annamite [Vietnamese riflemen’s barracks].

Tirailleurs Annamites à l'exercice Camp des Mares

Vietnamese riflemen at the Camp des Mares barracks

Here are the brave soldiers who have rendered services to us in Tonkin! I doubt that they would compete with our handsome cavalrymen, our dapper hussars, our sprightly infantrymen or our brave zouaves [French North African light infantrymen]. But, such as they are, they are still very useful to us, and we need to know how to appreciate their true value.

These little soldiers look very odd. Their costume consists of trousers and a navy blue jacket with a red ribbon garnish at the back. Their hair is wound in a chignon and above it they wear a tiny hat-shaped plate with a small pointed tip in the middle: the salacco.

What disfigures them is their messy habit of chewing betel. All have black teeth and bloody lips, and they keep spitting out long streams of reddish saliva. It seems that here, the idea of supreme beauty is to have black teeth! It’s the case to say: Each to his taste. Because, know it well, these brave Annamites mock Europeans whose white teeth, they say, look like dogs’ teeth, and they would not for the world enter into relations with the toothbrush, tooth powder or Eau de Botot [mouthwash]!

In the field, I see a lot of mounds, some of which are topped with stones, but most of which are covered with grass: these are the local people’s tombs. We know that in China it is the custom to bury the dead alongside the roads; in fact, that is how we proceeded in ancient times in Europe. Here in Cholon, the Chinese population dominates. In fact, whatever the country they are located in, the Chinese do not like to change anything in their habits and especially their traditions, the origins of which are lost in the mists of time.

Canal 6

The Chợ Lớn creek

I was struck, when I entered the Saigon river, by the animation that reigned there, due to the large number of boats. But all that is nothing compared to the scene on the arroyo de Cholon; here the junks are countless, the eye can’t distinguish one from the other, so they all seem entangled together along the banks…. and those banks themselves are lined with huts on stilts which plunge into the river; the mat roofs covering the junks and the mat roofs of the huts seem to merge together so that it’s impossible to see where the river ends and the riverbank begins.

And what a teeming population may be found there! Men, women, children, dogs, pigs and chickens, come and go, jumping from one boat to another, shouting, barking, growling, snorting and clucking with extraordinary enthusiasm.

Some cook their food in the open air. The installation is very primitive, but they cook all kinds of things in blackened pots – rice, fresh or smoked fish, iguanas –simmering either separately or together, and I assure you that this food is not always appetizing. In any case, there is nothing to praise or pleasant to smell.

5188225635_b71087e859 Un coin du March de CHOLON_O

A corner of the old Chợ Lờn Market

In France, we certainly have on our canals, rivers, and navigable waterways, a large interesting population whose entire existence takes place on their houseboat, barge, barge, tug or other vessel; but that special world is very different from the world of these Annamite fishermen or conveyors, whose housing consists of a mat between the sleeper and the board of the boat and another mat between the sky and the sleeper. The charming cabins inhabited by our riverine populations – smiling habitations with nasturtium and morning glory framing their miniscule doors and windows – have nothing whatsoever in common with the tiny space which the poor Far Eastern boatman shares with a whole barnyard.

What I am saying is the result of an impression; because in fact, this misery hides a true opulence. Cholon city contains a population of 60,000 souls, this is where all the important transactions take place – rice from the fertile plains of the Delta, precious woods from the forest and other goods all flock here, thanks to the admirable network of canals, rivers and arroyos which spread in all directions.

This place is like Canton, a city of sizeable proportions, with banks, shops and boutiques, while the business monopoly belongs to the Chinese. They are well at home here, basking on their doorsteps with long pipes on their lips, in which they smoke tobacco mixed with opium; they go through the streets, their umbrellas under their arms and glasses on their noses – huge glasses with big round lenses that give the wearers the appearance of a toad.

67 Thiên Hậu Temple

The Tuệ Thành (Suìchéng) or Guangzhou Assembly Hall

In front of each house is erected a small table which supports an urn surrounded by little candles, or rather scraps of wood garnished with red animal fat that are painted in various colors. These modest “candles” are destined to burn before the altars of the Buddha. I visit a pagoda where I see an earthenware horse and earthenware dogs, before which many of these candles burn: the ashes are carefully preserved, perhaps they are sold to the faithful?

In another Chinese temple, I take a small piece of wood shaped like an arrow on which are inscribed prayers. Quantities of these sticks are placed into a holder and the faithful shake them with all their might in front of the Buddha. The resulting noise brings wishes and prayers to the feet of the deity.

All this is in the same vein as the prayer wheels encountered at every moment on the waterways of the Middle Kingdom, or the strips of paper with printed invocations, which, when burned, send forth fragrant smoke to tickle the nostrils of the gods.

In front of the shops hang long vertical banners on which the merchant’s name and a description of the goods offered for sale is painted in Chinese characters, which are pretty much the most terrible headache that has ever been invented. We know, moreover, that it takes many years of study to learn to read and write the language of the Celestial empire.

18 Merchants

Chinese shopfronts in Chợ Lớn

I enter another pagoda and I notice a Chinese book, which I flip through. This is an illustrated book with several engravings; in one of them, a woman is whipping a little boy who begs on his knees for mercy, hands clasped. Above this scene soars a fantastic bird, holding in its beak a pearl necklace, adorned with a ribbon. What can this mean? Probably some allusion to Chinese mythology. In any case, the drawing is rather crude.

After spending some time walking in the middle of this active population, I take the road back to the city.

En route back to Saigon, I see some buffalo driven by a child. These animals seem to hold Europeans in horror and it is very dangerous to approach them. Throughout the Indochina peninsula, the buffalo is for its inhabitants a valuable aid for field work or for transportation. In some districts, it is forbidden, under penalty of a fine, to kill them.

Of course, wild buffalo hunters are always free to pursue and kill these animals; but they are tough opponents, with whom it is dangerous to enter into conflict. Some local people hunt, it seems, with a special kind of weapon. Into their poor gun, over the powder charge – and God knows, the buffalo hunter does not economise on the powder! – they place a hard wood arrow with an iron tip. This projectile represents a considerable weight – up to 1,500gm – and can cause horrifying injuries. But it is necessary that there is a lot of game to shoot at, otherwise the result may be zero. The arrowhead is sometimes coated with curare, and in this case, any beast is sure to succumb, even if the injury sustained is light.


A scene at the old Bến Thành Market in Saigon

As wild buffalo generally move in herds, it is very dangerous to attack them, because if one is injured, its roar calls the herd around him and woe betide the hunter who lets himself be surprised! He would soon be gored by the terrible horns and crushed under the hooves of his furious opponents.

On my return to the hotel, I relax by taking a bath. The bathtub is made of stone and the installation does not lack comfort; in any case, it is much better, in all respects, to that in Pondicherry, where I still remember laughing at the half-full tub. The baths of the Hôtel de l’Univers are located in an annex across the street; there are showers and hydrotherapy facilities.

Once well rested, I leave for another trip into town. I visit a few bazaars stacked with the most disparate goods of European or Oriental provenance. But suddenly, the rain begins to fall; one of those heavy showers that falls in warm countries and which we are not used in our temperate climates.

Fortunately, the chance of my walk has brought me back in the environs of the hotel and a few quick strides permit me to find shelter; it was just in time!

I go back to my room and watch the rain fall. What bodies of water! It really looks like all the windows of heaven have opened. It is by seeing the deluge that I understand why the Chinese never go anywhere without their umbrella.


Chinese shops in Saigon

On the other side of the street may be found a tailor, a shoemaker and a Chinese laundry. These people work with a surprising relentlessness. The tailor has a sewing machine and it bites from morning until midnight without stopping. I am not surprised to hear that the small European worker, artisan or merchant can never compete against Chinese engaged in the same occupations.

We know that in a large city in the United States of America, it is the Chinese who have the monopoly of laundry. It is the same here.

To read part 2 of this serialisation click here

To read part 3 of this serialisation click here

To read part 4 of this serialisation click here

To read part 5 of this serialisation click here

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.

Saigon Through the Eyes of Early Travellers – Gerrit Verschuur in 1899

Compagnie des messageries maritimes building i

Dutch writer Gerrit Verschuur (1840-1906) travelled extensively through Asia and Australasia. During an 1899 tour which also took in India, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Singapore, Cambodia, China and Japan, Verschuur visited all three regions of Việt Nam. Below is a translated extract from his book Aux colonies d’Asie et dans l’Océan Indien (Hachette, Paris, 1900) describing his experiences in colonial Saigon.

First Continental i

The Grand Hotel Continental before its remodelling of 1903

Apart from a few hostels that aren’t really worth mentioning, Saïgon has three rather mediocre hotels. Although some of their rooms are fairly well appointed, they are rarely available, being occupied on a monthly basis by government officials. So we were forced to content ourselves with what we could find.

From the point of view of comfort and cleanliness, the room I stayed in at the Grand Hotel [Continental] was very poor and the food was bad. Fortunately, the seasoned globetrotter eventually acquires a considerable dose of philosophy and patience, and in some respects, the lack of material well-being is more than offset by the emotions of his wanderings.


The City Post Office

The capital of Cochinchine is unquestionably one of the most beautiful cities in the Far East. The streets are wide, the roads are beautiful and well maintained; there is air and space throughout. While Singapore has larger, more imposing and more “European” buildings, Saïgon, with its smaller houses surrounded by gardens, presents a much more tropical feel, and reminds us in some ways of Java.

An hour after my arrival, I made the acquaintance of one of its finest monuments: the magnificent City Post Office, located next to the Cathedral. However, I would have traded this for a less imposing building with more employees working in it, for – just as in Paris – three of its five counters were marked “closed” and I was obliged to queue for 10 minutes to buy a stamp!

Norodom Palace i

The Norodom Palace

The Palace of the Governor General [the Norodom Palace], located at the end of boulevard Norodom, is a beautiful building, and that of the Lieutenant Governor may be one of the most beautiful homes found in the colonies.

In front of the Governor General’s palace there is a statue of Gambetta, depicted wearing a fur coat. What that great orator ever did for Saïgon, nobody knows.

The city has two other statues which do at least have a raison d’être: one represents Francis Garnier and the other Admiral Rigault de Genouilly. There is also a pyramid, rather modest perhaps, devoted to the memory of Doudart de Lagrée.

Chateau d'eau A i

The Water Tower, located on what is today the Turtle Lake intersection

Other landmarks which deserve to be seen include the Palais de justice [Law Courts], the large Château d’eau [Water tower] which supplies the city, the Caserne de l’Infanterie [Infantry barracks] and several other well appointed buildings.

The Saïgon Hospital [the Military Hospital, later known as the Grall Hospital] is a marvel; I had the opportunity to visit it at some length under the guidance of an obliging doctor, and in return to pay a small service by acting as interpreter to a foreign sailor who wanted to be admitted but could not make himself understood. The laboratory, organised in accordance with the Pasteur system, is an admirable facility; I attended curious experiments on snake venom.

Theatre i

The current Municipal Theatre was still under construction at the time of Verschuur’s visit

The heavily subsidised Theatre [built on the site of today’s Caravelle Hotel in 1872 and rebuilt after a fire in 1881] stands across the square from my hotel and seems quite sufficient for local needs. However, it seems that the colony is of a contrary opinion, since a new Municipal Theatre, much larger and more luxurious, is already under construction and should be completed soon. The considerable amount of money spent on it could surely have been used for something more useful and urgent.

This is a city of great traffic, but steamers hardly dock here and department stores are completely missing. The store of the Customs Department is all that is available. As for wharfs, apart from the ones belonging to the French Navy, I saw only those of the Messageries maritimes and Messageries fluviales. Just five years ago, one still had to disembark from ships in the mud, while the mail boat from Europe has only recently begun to call here.

Catinat view i

Rue Catinat

Avid strollers will find something to suit their taste by walking along the beautiful rue Catinat, which is reminiscent of the avenue de la Gare in Nice.

This is the main street of the city, lined not only with novelty shops, bookshops and antique shops run by Frenchmen, but also with smaller outlets such as tailors, launderers, shoemakers and carpenters, run by industrious Chinese. By 6pm each evening, the European stores are all closed, but the Chinese continue to work until midnight if necessary, and their shops are still the first to open the next morning.

Saïgon has two parks which are beautifully manicured and offer lovely walks. One is called the Jardin botanique [Botanic gardens] and the other the Jardin de la ville [City park]. You can get there on foot or by carriage, each according to his means; you can listen to music in the evenings and admire beautiful birds, snakes, tigers, bears and other animals, while the olefactory organ is pleasantly flattered by the abundant flora which borders the trails.


Promenade au pousse-pousse

Saïgon’s classic promenade at sunset is known as the “tour de l’Inspection.” It takes an hour, or perhaps a little more, and extends in a circuit around the city. After the heat of the day, it offers a fresh and delicious excursion along beautifully maintained roads. All of Saïgon can be met on the “tour de l’Inspection,” travelling either in private or hired carriages or on bicycles.

Cholon, located 6km from the capital, offers another excursion of great interest. Two roads lead to it, one following the Chinese arroyo while the other travels inland. The former offers an especially animated scene – hundreds of boats pressed against the banks of the waterway, making you believe it is a floating city.

IMAGE 29 Merchant ships

Boats along the banks of the Arroyo Chinois

The small town of Cholon, which was formed as an annex or suburb of Saïgon, was built in 1778 by Chinese immigrants, and has been expanded considerably since that time.

Today it is inhabited in part by Annamites [Vietnamese] and in part by Chinese, almost all traders and shopkeepers. Commercial life extends along the quays, where goods imported and exported in the many river boats and junks are loaded and unloaded. In the interior of the city may be found shops from different merchants, both Chinese and Annamites.

Cholon is a centre of activity that begins at sunrise and lasts until late at night; in the evening, the shops are illuminated by lanterns of many varied shapes and colours. It would be inexcusable if, visiting Cochinchina, we did not spend a night at the Annamite Theatre in Cholon, where the sets and costumes, and especially the somewhat out-of-the-ordinary play, offer a very original experience.

59 Tổng Đốc Phương

Đốc phủ (governor), later Tổng đốc (general governor) Đỗ Hữu Phương

The Annamite prefect of Cholon – the “Doc-phu” – is an important figure in view of his position, beside being the kindest and most welcoming host to the visitor. His house is a veritable museum of art masterpieces from Tonkin and Annam. Even a stranger with no letter of introduction who expresses the wish to cross the threshold of this hospitable house and admire its beautiful collections is received immediately. I was the subject of an ever warmer welcome when I handed the prefect a letter of recommendation from a Parisian who is responsible for the education of two of his sons in France.

The Doc-phu speaks a little French; his three daughters, to whom I was presented, talk with more ease; his eldest son, who recently returned from Europe after having completed his education, speaks French fluently. His mother speaks only Annamite; she and the girls wear the costume of the country, but the father and son are dressed in the European style.

He invited me to lunch the next day along with some other guests. I accepted with alacrity.

10 CFTI St Leonard

The CFTI “Low Road” steam tramway

To get to Cholon this time, instead of a carriage, I took the steam tramway, which starts not far from the centre of Saïgon. I was accompanied by another of the Doc-phu’s guests.

The cuisine was half French, half Annamite; both excellent. The base of the Annamite cuisine is rice, served with condiments and accessories, like the famous “rice table” of Java. Accompanied by delicious wines – Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne – this was a veritable Lucullan feast and a very welcome change from the bad ratatouille at the Hotel.

I have tasted bear in Sweden, tiger and snake in India, lizard in South America, and many other exotic dishes. Here, I was introduced to two dishes that were completely new to me. First, as an appetizer, a great delicacy of Cochinchina – the palm worm!


The luxurious residence of “Tổng Đốc” Đỗ Hữu Phương

At the risk of offending gourmets who speak highly of this delicacy, I cannot help but admit that the mere thought of eating a worm – even if we had to pay 50 centimes for it, the price at which it is commonly sold – would normally have put me off the idea.

But this time I had to resign myself, since my kind host slid six of the creatures onto my plate with the tip of his knife.

The taste was not bad; one could describe it as being like a cream, a fondant, wrapped in a light crispy skin. But that’s not important. I ate a worm, and it will be my last!

The Doc-phu offered us another dish that lacked nothing in originality: elephant’s trunk. The flesh of the pachyderm, hard as leather, is barely edible, but the trunk is a delicacy. It is soft and looks like a slice from a pot-au-feu of the highest quality. However I heard that it took 48 hours to cook the piece we were savouring; I think that our European chefs would protest if the elephant’s trunk featured often on their menu!

See also Dinner with the Tong-Doc

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

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

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

Old Saigon Building of the Week – Former Cercle Sportif Saigonnais, 1925

Cercle Sportif 2014 iii

The Labour Culture Palace at 55B Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai

This article was published previously in Saigoneer

Once a fashionable rendezvous for the elite of colonial society, the Labour Culture Palace at 55B Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai is today one of Hồ Chí Minh City’s most popular sports and recreation facilities.

Early colonial newspapers frequently encouraged French settlers to take regular exercise, and by the 1870s, in the absence of formal sports facilities, the northern corner of the Jardin de la ville (now Tao Đàn Park) had become an unofficial sports ground for athletics, horse racing, shooting and other sporting pursuits. In the 1880s, the Cercle cycliste Cochinchinois opened a vélodrome here, but by the end of the century this had fallen into disuse.

Saigon 1890

This 1890 map shows the location of the vélodrome which occupied the northern corner of the jardin de ville from the 1880s

The Cercle Sportif Saïgonnais was set up by a group of amateur fencers on 10 May 1902, “to encourage and develop the taste for and the practice of sports.” However, at the outset it was based not in the Jardin de la ville, but in a modest villa on the corner of rue Catinat and rue de La Grandière – the site currently occupied by the Catinat Building at 26 Lý Tự Trọng.

Described in a 1904 account as “a school which gives lessons in fencing, shooting, riding and a number of other sports,” this early Cercle Sportif enrolled its members by subscription, and its rather basic facilities included a fencing room, a shooting gallery and a gymnasium. Because of its educational status (its sports coaches included teachers from the nearby Collège Chasseloup-Laubat), it qualified for an annual subvention of 500 piastres from the Colonial Council.

In 1905, because “the original location could no longer meet its needs,” the Cercle Sportif was relocated to the Jardin de ville, where the municipality of Saigon placed it in charge of sports activities there.


The Cercle Sportif building pictured before its reconstruction of 1925

However, the facilities inherited by the Cercle in the city park “amounted to little more than a 30-metre square pavilion and an abandoned cycling track.” This was a difficult time for the Cercle; its membership dropped to under 40 and its finances were in a poor state.

Luckily, in 1906 the municipality stepped in, funding the construction of an athletics track on the site of the old vélodrome. Two tennis courts and a football pitch followed, along with a set of roller skates which could be rented on an hourly basis by Cercle members!

In 1910, a sailing section was opened at the Sài Gòn Botanical and Zoological Gardens, next to the arroyo de l’Avalanche (now the Thị Nghè Creek).


The Cercle Sportif building pictured after its reconstruction of 1925

In subsequent years, the Cercle’s membership grew rapidly, providing it with the funds to enlarge its facilities in 1909, 1913 and again in 1920.

Most of the current buildings date from a major reconstruction carried out in 1925. The rebuilt Cercle Sportif Saïgonnais at 55 rue Chasseloup-Laubat was inaugurated on 5 December 1925 at “a brilliant reception attended by the Governor of Cochinchina and key notables of the colony.”

According to a press release issued on 31 January 1926 by the Agence économique de l’Indochine, the Cercle’s upgraded facilities included “10 tennis courts, a football field with spectator stands (which may rarely be found in France) and comfortable buildings with rooms for fencing, billiards, games and reading, a dance hall, and vast changing rooms.” It concluded: “Saigon now has a club worthy of the colony, which can easily be compared with those in Shanghai, Hong Kong or Singapore.”


The Cercle’s “splendid outdoor swimming pool” pictured soon after its opening in September 1933

From that date onwards, in reflection of the Cercle’s ambition to be a “gathering point for the elite of Saigon society,” its Board of Directors selected their Honorary Presidents exclusively “from the ranks of notables, politicians, scholars and industrialists who want to give their moral support to the Cercle.”

However, what really cemented the Cercle’s reputation as the retreat of the city’s rich and famous was the opening in September 1933 of its “splendid outdoor swimming pool.”

According to the 1934 edition of Le Génie civil: revue générale des industries françaises et étrangères (Civil engineering: general review of French and foreign industries), the construction of an open-air pool had been planned as part of the 1926 reconstruction, but at that time “its realisation was impossible due to the lack of clean water.”

The pool proved so popular that by 1934, “a poolside apertif at the famous Cercle Sportif” had become an integral component of the itinerary for Vergoz travel agency tour groups arriving on the cruise ship Compiègne!

1953 Rose Ball

The annual Cercle Sportif Spring Ball was one of the highlights of the Saigon social calendar

In the late 1930s, a new vélodrome was opened a few blocks to the west near the Collège de jeunes filles indigènes (now the Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai Secondary School), on the site currently occupied by the Xá Lợi Pagoda.

To cater for more athletically-challenged colons who nonetheless wanted to spend time here mixing with high society, the Cercle reading room always held the latest newspapers and magazines sent from France, along with an impressive collection of over 5,000 books and journals. The Cercle also issued the bi-monthly bulletin Revue du Cercle, which was circulated widely around the city to promote its ongoing programme of activities.

Aside from the lavish receptions organised to mark the visit of foreign athletic teams, the Cercle Sportif also became famous for its annual Spring Ball, one of the highlights of the Saigon social calendar. By the late 1930s, tickets were in such demand that Le Nouvelliste d’Indochine commented sarcastically in 1938 that the ball, held that year in the Continental Hotel, had become “more of a spectacle than the manifestation of elegance it once was.”

Cabot Lodge 1963

US Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge using the Cercle Sportif swimming pool in 1963

After the departure of the French in 1954, additional administrative buildings were added. During the period 1955-1975, the Cercle Sportif continued to function as an upmarket sports club where the elite, local and foreign, gathered to drink, dine, swim or play tennis. Famous visitors of the 1960s included US Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge and South Vietnamese politicians Nguyễn Cao Kỳ and Dương Văn Minh, the latter fêted as a skilful tennis player.

After Reunification in 1975, the Cercle Sportif was transferred to the management of the Hồ Chí Minh United Trades Union. In 1985 it was renamed Hồ Chí Minh City Labour Culture House (Nhà Văn hóa Lao động Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh) and in 1998 Hồ Chí Minh City Labour Culture Palace (Cung Văn hoá Lao động Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh), the name by which it is known today.


A 1948 image of the Cercle Sportif by Jack Bern


Another 1948 image of the Cercle Sportif by Jack Bern

Cercle Sportif 2014 1

The main entrance of the Labour Culture Palace at 55B Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai

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 Lost Railway Works of Truong Thi

Truong Thi

The Grand Ateliers des chemins de fer de Truong-Thi on a 1925 map

Built in 1905 by the Chemins de fer de l’Indochine (CFI), the Grand Ateliers des chemins de fer de Truong-Thi was one of Việt Nam’s three great colonial railway ateliers, but it did not survive the First Indochina War.

During the construction of the first section of the Transindochinois (North-South line) from Hà Nội to Vinh in 1903-1905, a 5km extension was built from Vinh to the port of Bến Thủy. This extension ran through Trường Thi, an area of land which had once been reserved for royal mandarin examinations.

Trường Thi Works under construction in 1905 ii

The Grand Ateliers des chemins de fer de Truong-Thi under construction in 1905

By this time there were two railway networks in Tonkin (northern Việt Nam): The “non-conceded” lines (réseaux non concédés) of Hà Nội–Vinh and Hà Nội–Đồng Đăng, run directly by the government rail operator CFI, and the Hải Phòng–Gia Lâm–Yên Viên–Lào Cai line, part of the future Yunnan-fu (Kunming) line which was franchised to the Compagnie française des chemins de fer de l’Indochine et du Yunnan (French Indochina and Yunnan Railway Company, CIY).

At the outset, all repairs and maintenance work on rolling stock from the CFI lines in the north was carried out under a reciprocal arrangement with the CIY at its Grand Ateliers des chemins de fer de Gia Lâm (Gia Lâm Works), which opened in 1903. However, just two years later, CFI built its own dedicated railway workshop. And the place they chose to build it was Trường Thi, near Vinh.

Trường Thi Works in 1927

A 1927 image of the interior of the Grand Ateliers des chemins de fer de Truong-Thi

Initially focused on lifting and heavy repairs, the atelier at Trường Thi was expanded in 1925, enabling it to assemble new rolling stock parts shipped to Indochina via Hải Phòng port.

In 1934, it assembled and tested two rubber-tyred Michelin ZZAB-1 “Micheline” petrol railcars on behalf of CIY before they were set to work the Lào Cai and Yunnan-fu line.

Reporting on the grand opening of the penultimate section of the Transindochinois in January 1936, La Croix newspaper praised the “modern wagons couchettes (sleeping cars) and restaurant cars, constructed entirely in the railway ateliers at Truong-Thi near Vinh, the comfort and sober elegance of which rivals that of the best rolling stock of its kind elsewhere in the world.”

Ben Thuy les quais

A colonial-era postcard of Bến Thủy showing the railway line next to the wharf

By this time, Trường Thi – incorporated along with Bến Thủy in 1927 into the city of Vinh – had developed into a sizeable railway town, and in the 1930s, many employees of the Grand Ateliers des chemins de fer de Truong-Thi turned to mass political organisation as a means of campaigning against low wages, unsafe working conditions and other social injustices inflicted by the colonial authorities. During the brief period of relatively liberal colonial policy which followed the May 1936 accession to power of Léon Blum’s left-wing Popular Front party in France, industrial action at Trường Thi reached a peak, causing considerable disruption to the northern network.

In the wake of the Japanese occupation of 1940, Trường Thi railway works returned to normal operation, but as key pieces of transport infrastructure, both the works and the Bến Thủy branch line on which it stood were targeted in 1943-1945 by Allied bombers and sustained serious damage in a raid of 13 February 1944. A further raid of 20 July 1945 reduced the works to rubble.

A bust scene at Vinh Station in the late colonial period

A busy scene at Vinh station in the late colonial era

After 1945, Trường Thi was not rebuilt. During the First Indochina War, Vinh became the heart of the Việt Minh’s Military Zone IV (the “Thanh-Nghệ-Tĩnh” resistance zone) and following the departure of the French, the priority was simply to restore the North-South line above the seventeenth parallel – a task which was barely completed by the time the United States Air Force began its bombing campaigns of 1965-1972, which left the railway in north-central Việt Nam in ruins.


A 1925 map showing the Vinh-Bến Thủy branch line

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

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

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

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

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

Saint-Saens in Saigon


Camille Saint-Saëns

This article was published previously in Saigoneer

One of the great figures of western classical music, French composer, conductor, organist and pianist Camille Saint-Saëns is remembered for a range of works, including The Carnival of the Animals, Danse Macabre, Symphony No 3 (The Organ Symphony) and the opera Samson et Dalila. But few people know that he was also one of the earliest “celebrities” to visit colonial Saigon.

All too often remembered as the arch-conservative who in his later years bitterly criticised the music of Debussy and Stravinsky, Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) was once at the forefront of French musical life, eager to take on board new creative influences from the Middle East and Asia, which inspired several major works including the opera La princesse jaune (1872) and the orchestral pieces Suite Algérienne (1879) and Melodies persanes (1870).

The Saghalien in Marseille

Saint-Saëns travelled to Saigon on the Messageries maritimes vessel Saghalien, seen here in Marseille

He created over 300 works, including 13 operas, five symphonies, five piano concertos, three violin concertos and two cello concertos, but in his later years, as his musical output diminished, Saint-Saëns’ lifelong passion for all things oriental led him to embark on numerous international voyages. These included regular visits to the Canary Islands and Algeria and, in 1891, an expedition to Colombo, where it is said that he developed a deep interest in ethnic culture.

However, it was his epic 1894-1895 voyage to Saigon which excited the curiosity of his contemporaries. Telling his Parisian friends: “I’ll be leaving after the swallows, but I’ll return with them,” he set out from Marseille in late December 1894 on the Messageries maritimes vessel Saghalien, carrying with him the late Ernest Guiraud’s unfinished opera Brunhilde, which he had agreed to finish during his trip.

His voyage to the Far East via the Suez Canal, Colombo and Singapore included a stopover in Alexandria, permitting Saint-Saëns to visit both the pyramids of Giza in Cairo and the Valley of the Kings in Luxor.

Camille Saint-Saëns - George Grantham Bain Collection

Camille Saint-Saëns on board ship – George Grantham Bain Collection

One of his fellow travellers was old acquaintance Louis Jacquet, governor of Poulo-Condor (the Côn Đảo archipelago), where in 1861 on the largest island of Côn Sơn, the French colonial authorities had established a jail for political prisoners. Saint-Saëns shared Jacquet’s passion for nature and on the voyage they are said to have spent hours discussing trees, plants and astronomy.

Arriving in Saigon in early February 1895, Saint-Saëns checked into his hotel under his nom-de-plume Sannois, but a reporter had been tipped off about his arrival. An article published on 11 February in Le Courrier de Saigon reported that the maestro had brought with him “huge quantities of paper, brushes and a box of water colours” and spent much of his time indoors, working. However, it also said that Saint-Saëns loved the city and enjoyed walking around its streets, adding that he objected to fans pursuing him during his gentle strolls and would playfully threaten that if he was not left in peace he would escape to Cap Saint-Jacques (modern Vũng Tàu).

During his six-week stay in Saigon, Saint-Saëns made several visits to Chợ Lớn, where he attended the Théâtre Chinois and is said to have been impressed by the sounds of the Chinese orchestra, which he attempted to reproduce in some of his later music.

In mid March 1895, Louis Jacquet invited Saint-Saëns to come and stay on Poulo-Condor. Coincidentally, the composer’s former next-door-neighbour, Armand Rousseau, had just been appointed Governor General of Indochina and was more than pleased to expedite his travel arrangements.

The former Maison des passagers Quang Bảo, 2008

The former Maison des passagers on Côn Sơn island, where Saint-Saëns stayed – Quang Bảo, 2008

Once more using his nom-de-plume, Saint-Saëns stayed anonymously in the former Maison des passagers on Côn Sơn island from 20 March to 19 April 1895. It is said that he took great delight in the “exotic plantlife and huge lizards and birds with plumage of all colours” and made several journeys to the other islands to study their wildlife. “I was made to live in the tropics,” he observed. “I have missed my vocation!”

It was while he was on Côn Sơn that Saint-Saëns managed to complete the bulk of the work on Brunhilde, apparently inspired by the mournful sounds of a two-stringed bowed instrument known as the đàn nhị played by one of the prisoners in the nearby cells.

Before 1975, there was a plaque on the wall of the former Maison des passagers which read:

In this house lived the great composer Camille Saint-Saëns. Here, from 20 March to 19 April 1895 he completed the opera Brunhilda.

However, it may be that Saint-Saëns still had a little more work to do on the opera during his two-day stopover in Saigon while waiting for his passage home, since the completed score of Brunhilde, better known today as Frédégonde, bears the inscription “Saigon, 1895, Avril.”

Theatre i

The Théâtre Municipal de Saigon, where Saint-Saëns’ opera Samson et Dalila topped the bill in the 1900-1901 opening season

Today, the name Côn Sơn is usually associated with the horrors of penal servitude under the French regime, and visitors are often surprised to find a bust of Camille Saint-Saëns lying amongst the revolutionary relics in the former Maison des Hôtes officiels.

Saint-Saëns’ epic journey journey to Saigon was his last major overseas trip. Five years later, his much-loved opera Samson et Dalila topped the bill in the 1900-1901 opening season of the new Théâtre Municipal de Saigon, along with Puccini’s La Bohème and Massenet’s La Navarraise.

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.

Truong Van Ben and the Story of Co Ba Soap


A late colonial xà bông Việt Nam advertisement

 Once one of Saigon-Chợ Lớn’s most recognisable local brand names, Cô Ba soap was the crowning achievement of Trương Văn Bền’s long and successful business career.

Born into Chợ Lớn’s mixed-race Minh Hương community, Trương Văn Bền (1883-1956) was the grandson of a Rạch Gia district chief of Fujianese descent. Being from a wealthy family, he was tutored privately in Vietnamese and Chinese, while receiving a solid French education at the École Municipale française de Cholon and later at the prestigious Collège Chasseloup-Laubat in Saigon.

11 Rue de Canton

Chợ Lớn in the colonial era

Bền’s business career is said to have got under way in 1901, when he opened a small grocery store next to the canal at 40 quai du Cambodge (Kim Biên) in Chợ Lớn. He soon began to focus on buying products wholesale from Chinese traders and then selling them at a profit to other retailers, enabling him to amass a small fortune.

In 1905, he reinvested the money he had made by constructing an industrial oil refinery in Thủ Đức, and in the following year he also set up rice processing factories in Chợ Lớn and Rạch Các. However, he soon discovered that the real money was in oil production, and in subsequent years the Usine Truong-Van-Ben “Huilerie de Cholon,” with its factory in Thủ Đức and its magasin de depot at 40-49 quai du Cambodge, became one of the most successful businesses in the city.

In 1917, Trương Văn Bền opened a larger manufacturing plant on the Route basse de Cholon (now đường Võ Văn Kiệt) in Chợ Quán, with the aim of increasing production and diversifying his products to include castor, coconut, peanut, sesame, cotton and kapok oils. No expense was spared equipping this factory with state-of-the-art machinery from France and the USA, including the very latest cleaning, husking, grinding, pressing and filtration machines, all powered by steam engine.

40-49 Kim Bien

The Xà bông Việt Nam headquarters at 40-49 quai (later rue) de Cambodge in Chợ Lớn

By 1920, the factory was producing 10 tons of oil each day, with a focus on the sale of castor oil to pharmacies and hospitals throughout Cochinchina and of coconut oil for export to France and the United States of America. In the mid 1920s, a large percentage of the raw materials processed here came from Bền’s own farms in Mỹ Tho and Đồng Tháp Mười.

During this period, Bền also became involved in rubber production, founding the 70-hectare Plantation de Truong-van-Ben in the villages of Linh Chiểu Trung and Phong Phú, 15km from Saigon in Gia Định province (now part of District 9 and Thủ Đức).

As Trương Văn Bền’s business reputation grew, he began to take an active role in the political life of the colony. In 1920 he was elected to the Colonial Council, and after being made a member of the Chambre de Commerce in 1924, he became its first Vietnamese Vice President in 1932, holding this position until 1941.

This was a period in which long-running resentment against the methods and monopolies of both French industrialists and Chinese traders in Cochinchina fuelled a more general movement of Vietnamese economic nationalism, and Trương Văn Bền quickly emerged as one of its champions.

TruongVanBen (1)

Trương Văn Bền pictured before his departure for France

In the early 1920s, he took an active role in the successful campaign against the so-called “Candalier project,” a plan by the colonial authorities to lease the commercial port of Saigon-Chợ Lớn to a consortium of French businesses for 15 years, which would have seriously undermined local commercial interests.

In 1926, he was also involved in setting up the Parti travailliste Indochinois (Indochina Workers Party), which sought “to bring together industrialists, employees, owners, traders and workers with the aim of defending their occupational interests” and issued the biweekly newspaper L’Ère nouvelle.

While serving on an economics working group of the Grand Conseil des intérêts économiques et financiers de l’Indochine in 1929, Bền is said to have argued strongly for the economic rights of indigenous peoples. Ten years later, he could be found lobbying vociferously against a colonial decision restricting the use of traditional medicines, arguing that insufficient consultation had taken place before its enactment and that the decision should be suspended pending the establishment of a traditional medicine review committee.

What made Trương Văn Bền a household name in the south was his decision in 1932 to diversify into the manufacture of domestic soap. According to his son Trương Khắc Cẩn, who served as director of the company from 1970 to 1975, this decision was inspired by a desire to manufacture a product which really served ordinary people. “There are two types of products that almost everyone has to use – paper and soap,” he said. “And my father chose soap.”


Savon de Marseille was imported in large quantities in the early colonial period

At that time, locally-made soap was of poor quality and most of the soap used in Cochinchina was imported from France, notably the popular Savon de Marseille brand.

Manufactured under the new company name Xà bông Việt Nam (Savon Việt Nam), Bền’s Cô Ba (Miss Ba) soap quickly struck a chord with local people, partly because of its high quality and affordable price, but also due to the strong appeal to economic nationalism of its advertising slogan “Les gens devraient utiliser du savon de Việt Nam” (People should use Vietnamese soap).

While the use of “Việt Nam” in the name of the company was clearly designed to resonate with local consumers, it is possible that the product name “Cô Ba” (Miss Ba) was also inspired by Vietnamese national pride. For while some hold that the real Miss Ba was Trương Văn Bền’s own wife, it has also been claimed that she was the daughter of a Trà Vinh man executed by the colonial authorities in 1893 for killing a French attorney after the latter had made inappropriate sexual overtures to his wife.

The appeal to consumers to “buy Vietnamese” clearly worked, for during the late colonial era, Xà bông Việt Nam effectively cornered the market in Cochinchina.


The famous “Cô Ba” soap

Cô Ba soap was also exported to Laos, Cambodia, Hong Kong, New Caledonia and even several African countries. During the 1940s, Trương Văn Bền emerged as the largest and most successful oil and soap producer in Indochina.

Like other wealthy entrepreneurs of his age, Trương Văn Bền was known for his philanthropic works. As early as 1920, he paid for the construction of the Pont des Trois arches (Three-arch bridge) by the Société d’exploitation des établissements Brossard et Mopin, after the collapse of the original bridge over the canal two years earlier.

And along with the family of “Tổng Đốc” Đỗ Hữu Phương, Bền contributed regularly and generously towards the restoration and upkeep of 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).

A naturalised French citizen, Trương Văn Bền left Việt Nam in 1948 to live in Paris, where he died in 1956 at the age of 73.


Trương Văn Bền pictured in later years

Left in the care of his sons, the company he had founded went from strength to strength in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1971 it was said to have up to US$90 million in investment capital, with an annual production of 4,000 tons of laundry soap and 1,800 tons of perfumed soap bars.

Today, Cô Ba soap is still manufactured by the Công ty Phương Đông or Orient Manufacture & Trading Joint Stock Company (ORDESCO), which is based in the old Xa Bông Việt Nam factory building at 40 Kim Biên, Chợ Lớn. It is available in many supermarkets and is also on sale close to the factory gates at Cửa Hàng Ngọc Loan, 36 Kim Biên, which charges Đ40,000 for a pack of 10, or Đ4,000 for one bar if you talk to the shopkeeper nicely! A great “souvenir” for visitors to Chợ Lớn!

43 Pont des 3 arches 1

Construction of the Pont des Trois arches (Three-arch bridge) in 1920 was funded by Trương Văn Bền

12.2 Nghia Nhuan Communal House

A false door, one of the exquisite artworks in the Nghĩa Nhuận Assembly Hall, which received generous sponsorship from Trương Văn Bền

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 – Tan Dinh Market, 1927


Tân Định Market today

This article was published previously in Saigoneer

Originally known as the marché de Phu-Hoa, Tân Định Market at 1 Nguyễn Hữu Cầu in District 1 is one of the city’s most historic markets, but it was the opening of the stylish French market building of 1927 which brought it to worldwide attention.

Saigon map 1903

This 1903 Saigon map shows the location of the market in Phú Hòa village and just across the road the adjacent village of Tân Định

Colonial  records from the 1870s and 1880s indicate that the Phú Hòa Market (marché de Phu-Hoa, chợ Phú Hòa) was one of the most important markets in the north of Saigon, although no images of the market building during that period have survived.

By the turn of the century, perhaps because of its proximity to the Tân Định Church, a prominent landmark located just across the road in the adjacent Tân Định village, it was increasingly referred to in government records by the name Marché de Tan-Dinh.

However, as it was situated in Phú Hòa village, references to the “Marché de Phu-Hoa (Tan-Dinh)” and even “Marché de Phu-Hoa, rues Paul Blanchy, Vassaigne, Lê-Van-Duyêt et Nguyên-Van-Duong” continue to appear in the colonial record right down to the 1930s.

Tan Dinh Market

Tân Định Market in the 1940s

Early in 1926, the colonial authorities voted 110,000 piastres for the reconstruction of the market building, partly in order to improve standards of hygiene, but also to generate additional revenue from the issue of licences to traders using the new premises.

Designed and constructed by the Société Indochinoise d’Études et de Constructions (SIDEC), the new building differed from other city markets in that it comprised a large open plan space without compartments, supported by reinforced concrete pillars.

According to the Annales coloniales of 3 September 1927, the new marché de Tan-Dinh was inaugurated on 26 July 1927 in the presence of the Governor of Cochinchine, the President of the Colonial Council, the Mayor of Saigon and numerous unnamed “Saigon personalities.”

tan dinh market 2

Tân Định Market in the 1960s

In the years after its completion, its stylish design was deemed so noteworthy that the French authorities even commissioned a 20,000 Franc diorama of the market building for display at the Paris Colonial Exposition of 1931.

Unfortunately the original roof has not survived, but the building has retained its unusual and attractive façade right down to the present day.

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.