The Tour de l’Inspection


A pousse-pousse travelling on the route stratégique or “High Road” (modern Trần Phú and Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai streets)

This article was published previously in Saigoneer

An essential feature of life in early colonial Saigon, the Tour de l’Inspection was not so much a sunset promenade as an event designed to showcase wealth and power.

The origins of Saigon’s famous Tour de l’Inspection may be traced back to “La musique,” a Sunday afternoon military band concert held from the 1870s, either in the grounds of Botanical and Zoological Gardens or in front of the Cercle des Officiers [now the District 1 People’s Committee building at 47 Lê Duẩn].


A late 19th century image of Europeans leaving Saigon Cathedral after Mass

Usually attended by the Governor of Cochinchina and other high functionaries, “La musique” is described by several contemporaneous commentators as an event where members of colonial high society came to see and be seen, where the rich and powerful sought to outdo one another in lavishness and pomp, and where their wives could show off their latest fashions.

After the concert was finished, many of those attending “La musique” would set off in their carriages for a sunset promenade across the arroyo de l’Avalanche (Thị Nghè Creek) towards the north of the city. By the 1880s, this post-musique excursion had taken on a life of its own, becoming a daily after-work event which no self-respecting Saigonnais could miss.

The excursion became known as the Tour de l’Inspection, because the final destination of the earliest tours was the Inspection de Gia-Dinh, the French local government office which once stood on the site of today’s Bình Thạnh District People’s Committee.


A private horse-drawn carriage waits outside the villa of a European family in Saigon

Many writers of the period compare the Tour de l’Inspection to the contemporaneous “Tour du bois,” one of the most popular social phenomena in the French capital, which drew Parisians of all classes to promenade and meet with their peers in the Bois de Boulogne.

At around 5pm every evening, after the close of business, all the great and good of Saigon would gather outside the Botanical and Zoological Gardens. The entourage would then head out through Đa Kao, crossing the 3rd Bridge over the arroyo de l’Avalanche (Thị Nghè Creek) and continuing north along the “superbly straight and very well-maintained road” towards Gia Định.

During the early colonial period, the area north of the creek was still open countryside, intersected by a network of waterways, and the road to Gia Định, then known as the avenue de l’Inspection (today upper Đinh Tiên Hoàng street), was described as being “lined with trees and surrounded by flooded paddy fields.” Just before reaching Gia Định, it became a tradition for the promenaders to stop by the side of the road and “take the air,” while meeting and greeting their fellow travellers.


A pousse-pousse on a Saigon street

By the 1890s, the number of people taking the daily Tour de l’Inspection had increased significantly, and after the opening of the CFTI Saigon-Gò Vấp steam tramway in 1895, an alternative outward route across the 2nd Avalanche (road-tramway) bridge and north along rue Martin-des-Pallières (now Bùi Hữu Nghĩa street) was devised, making it possible to split the promenaders into two groups with a view to avoiding traffic jams.

After reaching the Inspection de Gia-Dinh and the nearby Lê Văn Duyệt Mausoleum, the original “classic” Tour de l’inspection took its participants east towards the Saigon river before circling back through Phú Mỹ. It then re-entered Saigon via the 1st Avalanche bridge (the Thị Nghe Bridge), returning to its starting point, the Botanical and Zooloigical Gardens.

However, during the same period, a longer Tour de l’inspection also became popular. After passing the Lê Văn Duyệt Mausoleum and Inspection de Gia-Dinh, this “grand promenade” took participants west along the route provincial (modern Phan Đăng Lưu and Hoàng Văn Thụ streets) to the Pigneau de Béhaine Mausoleum in Tan Sơn Nhất, and then headed southwest through the Plain of Tombs towards Chợ Lớn, finally returning to Saigon either along the route stratégique or “High Road” (modern Trần Phú and Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai streets) or via the “Low Road” which bordered the arroyo Chinois (Bến Nghé Creek).


During the early colonial period, the area north of the Thị Nghè creek was still open countryside

Many writers of the period describe the beauty of the countryside enjoyed by those taking the Tour de l’Inspection. In 1894, Henri Gallais commented: “Taking this sunset promenade outside the city in an open carriage, travelling through lush green forest on a beautiful starry and relatively cool night, it is truly reminiscent of a promenade in the Bois de Boulogne in the summertime.”

However, for many early colonial settlers, the Tour de l’Inspection was much more about flaunting wealth and power than about getting exercise or taking the air.

In 1896, Paul Troubat (L’Ile de Khong. Lettres laotiennes d’un engagé volontaire) described the Tour de l’Inspection as simply an excuse for the wealthy to impress others with their fine horses and carriages and for their spouses to show off their latest outfits, newly-delivered from Paris. “Everyone feels obliged to maintain a stiff, stilted attitude,” he remarked cynically. “Everyone is posing, but many of these people are trying to forget their origins, their more or less corrupt past, through arrogance and pride. Saigon society spends its time in jealousy and disparagement…. it is a very nice town from the physical point of view, but the character of the population can be ugly…”

Malabar 2

Europeans being conveyed in a Malabar

In 1901, Jules Gervais-Courtellemont (Empire colonial de la France. L’Indo-Chine: Cochinchine, Cambodge, Laos, Annam, Tonkin) also criticised the laziness of colonial settlers who had “not yet learned to appreciate the charms of tennis and other sports so dear to English colonists,” preferring “to live the all too captivating life of coffee drinking, siestas and card games.” He pointed out that most colons’ idea of exercise was to do the traditional Tour de l’Inspection while “lounging lazily on cushions in their Victoria carriages, dressed in the latest fashionable Paris outfits.”

With the arrival of the motor vehicle and the steady urbanisation of Saigon’s northern and western suburbs in the early 20th century, members of Saigon’s colonial high society gradually abandoned the Tour de l’Inspection as a vehicle for impressing their peers.

In his 1932 book Christiane de Saïgon, B Grasset wrote that, while the older generation of colonial settlers might regret passing of the traditional Tour d’Inspection with its horse-drawn carriages and malabars, the colonial social scene in Saigon was now firmly focused on rue Catinat [Đồng Khởi street], where the rich and powerful “could show off their motor cars and fashionable costumes as many as 20 times between one end of the street and the other… before holding court at the trendy Continental Hotel Terrace, the heart of the city and of Indochinese life.” He continued: “Only here does one now gather to gossip and do business, to talk of love and money, and to learn the news from Europe and Asia from passengers making a three-day stopover on the major courier ships.”

SAÏGON - Le pont du Tour de l'Inspection Cầu Bình Lợi Saigon - Gia Định - Chợ Lớn

The Bình Lợi bridge, westernmost point of the Tour de l’Inspection, at the beginning of the age of the automobile

Yet despite this shift, the Tour de l’Inspection did not disappear immediately. As horse-drawn carriages gave way to the first mass-produced motor vehicles, the “grand promenade” began to appear in Madrolle and other guidebooks as a tourist attraction.

The last known reference to the Tour de l’Inspection appears in the 1933 Guide pratique. Saïgon, which describes it as follows:

“The Tour de l’Inspection is a circular route which borders territories of Saigon, Gia-Dinh and Cholon (20 km approximately), which leaves the city by the Phu-My Bridge on the arroyo d’Avalanche, or by the Dakao Bridge. It crosses through Gia-Dinh and, via a beautiful shaded road lined with quaint buildings, arrives at the tomb of Le Van Duyet, famous general of King Gia Long, before continuing to the tomb of the Bishop of Adran, which is very interesting for the visitor. Close by is the aerodrome of Tan-Son-Nhut and the buildings of the Service des Haras (Government Stud Farm). A little further on, it passes the battlefield of Chi-Hoa, the Plain of Tombs and the TSF (Telephonie sans fil) station at Phu-Tho. Finally, it reaches Cholon, an industrial and commercial city crowded with Chinese, which is very picturesque at night, and interesting to visit in detail. The tour returns to Saigon, either by the boulevard Frédéric-Drouhet [now Hùng Vương street], which is the Cholon extension of rue Chasseloup-Laubat[now Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai street].”

While some of the colonial-era attractions no longer exist, parts of the famous Tour de l’Inspection still feature in several Hồ Chí Minh City tourist itineraries today.

Saigon - Promenade du Tour de l'Inspection

Saigon – Promenade du Tour de l’Inspection

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.

Le Van Tam Park – Former Massiges Cemetery, 1859


A 1970 photograph of a French military memorial in the Mạc Đĩnh Chi Cemetery, now Lê Văn Tám Park, by Frederick P Fellers (Indianapolis, USA)

This article was published previously in Saigoneer

Cleared in 1983 to create the Lê Văn Tám Park, the former Massiges or European Cemetery (Cimetière Européen) was the most famous French cemetery in Saigon. To coincide with the release of hitherto unseen pictures of the cemetery taken in 1970 by Frederick P Fellers (Indianapolis, USA), we take a look at the history of this old Saigon institution.

Saigon 1871

The European Cemetery (1859) and its later neighbour the Annamite [Vietnamese] Cemetery (c 1870) are both visible at the top of this 1871 map of Saigon

Saigon’s European Cemetery, later known as the Massiges Cemetery, was established in 1859 on the east side of rue Nationale (modern Hai Bà Trưng street), north of the city centre, initially to provide a final resting place for the French soldiers and sailors who had died during the conquest of Saigon.

At the outset, it was administered by the French Navy as a military cemetery. Some of its earliest occupants included French marine infantry soldiers Captain Nicolas Barbé (beheaded at the Khải Tường Temple on 7 December 1860), Lieutenant-Colonel Jean-Ernest Marchaisse (killed at Tay-Ninh on 14 June 1866) and Captain Savin de Larclauze (also killed at Tây Ninh on 7 June 1868); and Mekong River explorers Captain L Doudart de Lagree (died 12 March 1868 while leading a geographic survey and exploration of the Mekong River into Laos and China) and Lieutenant Francis Garnier (killed 21 December 1873 in Hà Nội). By 1895, the cemetery contained 239 military graves.

During the 1870s, the European Cemetery acquired the popular name “jardin du père d’Ormoy” (Father d’Ormoy’s Garden), apparently because of the practice of the Navy’s Chief Medical Officer Dr Lachuzeaux d’Ormoy (1863-1874) of sending his most unruly patients to tend its lawns and flowerbeds.

Cimitiere de Massiges

A view of rue Legrand de la Liraye (now Điện Biên Phủ street) with the main gate of the European Cemetery on the right

However, by the late 1860s, civilians were also being buried in the European Cemetery, a trend undoubtedly reinforced during the early years of the colony by the high mortality rate from serious endemic diseases such as cholera, malaria, intestinal parasites and dysentery. A report of 1889 noted that “although there exist in our colony none of the terrible epidemics that all too often afflict our possessions across the seas, a visit to the European Cemetery in Saigon may painfully reveal the truth about the victims of the climate.”

Intriguingly, the European Cemetery contained a relatively large number of tombstones with Germanic names, reflecting the preponderance of German merchant trading houses in Saigon, particularly before 1870. In one corner of the compound there was also a group of tombs belonging to a band of injured Russian seamen who had fled to Cam Ranh Bay in 1894 following their defeat at the Battle of Tsushima and later died in the military hospital in Saigon.


The main entrance to the European Cemetery

In around 1870, a smaller Vietnamese Cemetery (Cimetière Annamite or Cimetière Indigène) was opened immediately north of the European Cemetery. The street dividing the two compounds – modern Võ Thị Sáu street – was briefly named rue des Deux cimetières (Two cemeteries street) before it became rue Mayer in the late 1880s.

From the end of the 19th century, as standards of hygiene improved and the colony prospered, the European Cemetery became the last resting place of choice for Saigon’s colonial politicians and administrators, among whose number were architect Marie-Alfred Foulhoux (1840-1892) and city mayor Paul Blanchy (1837-1901).

On 14 December 1912, this transformation of the European Cemetery into a burial place for the colonial elite prompted a critical report by the Courrier Saigonnais newspaper.

763_001 (2)

A military memorial in the European Cemetery

It pointed out that while the cemetery contained an ever-increasing number of grandiose and well-maintained tombs belonging to high functionaries, many of the original soldiers’ and sailors’ tombs had been left abandoned and overgrown with vegetation. It also singled out for criticism the “sacrilegious” practice of exhuming poor people’s graves within seven or eight years and relocating them elsewhere, presumably to make way for those of the rich and famous.

By the early 20th century, the interior of the cemetery was criss-crossed by pathways and planted with trees and shrubs by the staff of the Saigon Botanical and Zoological Gardens. It was surrounded by 2.5m high whitewashed walls, with its main gate in the southern wall of the compound on rue Legrand de la Liraye. This main gate was located directly opposite the northern end of rue de Bangkok, and after 1920, when rue de Bangkok was renamed rue de Massiges, the cemetery became known by the new name of Cimetière de la rue de Massiges.


A corner of the European Cemetery

Transferred by the French Navy to the care of the municipal authorities in the 1880s, the cemetery was administered thereafter by the Bureau du Conservateur des Cimetière, part of the Bureau du Service Régional d’Hygiène de Saigon, which had an office at 67 rue de Massiges (modern Mạc Đĩnh Chi street).

Many well-known figures of the later colonial era were buried here, including French naval officer Alain Penfentenyo de Kervéréguin (died 12 February 1946), missionary Grace Cadman (died 24 April 1946) and journalist and politician Henri Chavigny de Lachevrotière (died 12 January 1951). By all accounts, however, the most impressive tomb of that period was the grand mausoleum of Nguyễn Văn Thinh (died 10 November 1946), first President of the short-lived Autonomous Republic of Cochinchina (République Autonome de Cochinchine, 1 June 1946- 8 October 1947).

Tombeau Doudart de Lagrée et de Francis Garnier à Saigon 1928

A 1928 photograph of the combined tomb of Mekong River explorers Doudart de Lagree and Francis Garnier

In March 1955, rue de Massiges was renamed Mạc Đĩnh Chi street, after the renowned Vietnamese scholar and diplomat Mạc Đĩnh Chi (1280-1350), and henceforward the cemetery also became known as the Mạc Đĩnh Chi Cemetery.

Over the subsequent two decades, a further generation of high-ranking politicians, military leaders and other prominent members of South Vietnamese society were buried within its walls, along with a small number of foreigners such as Time and Newsweek correspondent François Sully (died in February 1971).

However, perhaps its most famous occupants of this period were South Vietnamese President Ngô Đình Diệm and his brother and chief political adviser Ngô Đình Nhu, who were assassinated on 2 November 1963.

72A Mac Dinh Chi Cemetary 1

A Life magazine photograph taken in Mạc Đĩnh Chi Cemetery in 1961

In 1971, according to Arthur J Dommen (The Indochinese Experience of the French and the Americans: Nationalism and Communism in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, 2001), President Nguyễn Văn Thiệu had a section of the cemetery’s west wall demolished, apparently because a Cao Đài clairvoyant had relayed to him a message from Diệm’s ghost that since Thiệu was responsible for his death, the least he could do was to release his spirit from the cemetery!

However, ghost stories about the cemetery only really began to circulate widely after 1983, when the Vietnamese government decommissioned the Mạc Đĩnh Chi cemetery and transformed it into the Lê Văn Tám Park.

The destruction of the old Mạc Đĩnh Chi Cemetery was part of a wider project which also included the clearance of the French military cemetery at Bẩy Hiền intersection and the Pigneau de Béhaine Mausoleum near Tân Sơn Nhất Airport, as well as the old French cemetery in Vũng Tàu. Those with family members buried in these cemeteries were instructed to make arrangements for their reburial within two months. Unclaimed remains were cremated and relocated elsewhere. French military remains were repatriated to France for final burial in Fréjus, where a memorial was raised in their honour.

Mạc Đĩnh Chi Cemetery 1967 - Phoot by Jennifer

A 1967 photograph of a Vietnamese tomb in the cemetery

While the Lê Văn Tám Park which replaced the Mạc Đĩnh Chi Cemetery has since become a popular place for recreational activities, there are still many superstitious locals who prefer not to go there because of its previous history.

Today, the park is dominated by a Socialist Realist sculpture of the eponymous Lê Văn Tám, a young Vietnamese revolutionary martyr of the First Indochina War who is said to have destroyed a French fuel store at Thị Nghè in January 1946 by deliberately soaking himself with petrol and then turning himself into a “human torch” before jumping into the nearest petrol storage container. After 1975, many schools, parks, cinemas and streets were named after Lê Văn Tám, but in 2005, leading historian Professor Phan Huy Lê of the Hà Nội National University showed that while revolutionary forces did destroy the Thị Nghè fuel store in January 1946, the story about Lê Văn Tám was a fictional one, written by then Propaganda Minister Trần Huy Liệu.


An artist’s impression of Lê Văn Tám Park after completion of the planned underground car par project

In August 2010, ground was broken on a new project to build an underground car park beneath Lê Văn Tám Park, with space for 2,000 motorbikes, 1,250 cars and 28 buses and trucks. However, it was recently reported ( that due to formalities relating to the issuance of a land-use certificate and exemption of land use fee as well as a change to the project’s technical planning, no progress on this project has yet been made.

The following images of the Massiges Cemetery, taken in 1970, were kindly provided by Frederick P Fellers (Indianapolis, USA):













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 – C Vray in 1904


The arrival of a courrier vessel in Saigon

C Vray is the pseudonym of an anonymous Frenchwoman, wife of an unknown French marine infantry captain, whose first book, Mes Campagnes, par une femme. Autour de Madagascar, became an unlikely best-seller in 1894. Her equally popular second book, Mes Campagnes, par une femme. Cochinchine et Chine (J Girieud, Rouen, 1904), includes another fascinating, if in parts condescending, account of early 20th century life in colonial Saïgon, here translated into English.

Arrival in Saïgon

Many on our “floating city” rejoice when they signal that we’ve arrived off cap Saint-Jacques and on the horizon we can make out the low range of little mountains which border the coast, garlanded in green, with their reddish peaks gilded by the sun.

Many, I tell you, who with pleasure have travelled by these China Seas, rejoice at the prospect of a two-day stopover in this, the most attractive of cities in the Far East.

Phare de Cap Saint Jacques

The cap Saint Jacques lighthouse

For the rest of us – captive birds whose wing feathers have been cut and who will only be released in two years time – we are in no hurry to land.

With that passage ends the attractive part of the trip, and there now commences the part which, despite everything, I call “exile.”

It takes us five hours to travel up the river and reach Saïgon.

This river is as wide as the most beautiful rivers in the world and divides into many other waterways that spread their arms throughout the surrounding lands, taking with them to their natural limits countless mangroves.

The mangrove, perhaps the most widespread plant in the world, but unknown to the people of Europe, reigns supreme throughout the lower region of this country.

This was the first “agent of conquest” of firm land over ocean; it was this which, pushing into the shallows, began to stem the rivers, striking its roots all around into the alluvium, gradually piling up and creating the beginnings of the continents.

1904 Saigon River

The Saigon River in 1904

It was onto land of sufficient height, uncovered at low tide, that the Annamite [Vietnamese] arrived and raised his dykes, successfully protecting this new ground from the flow of water and installing his rice fields on it.

One has, in continuing up the Donai river by one of its many mouths, immediate and eloquent demonstration of this slow process, the work of many centuries, and one sees here the full progression of the conquest of the land, the conquest of man over the oceans.

Throughout the first part of the journey up river, we glide between two banks of greenery.

At first, the mangroves are completely in water, but then bit by bit, eddies produced by our ship begin to break onto mudflats.

There is still no-one living next to the river here, just groups of monkeys swinging from branch to branch through the trees.

Then we see the first, imperfect rice fields; the soil is so soft that it is hard for the native to raise his modest crops, even on one of the drier corners which he has secured with who knows how much toil! His house appears to be resting on the water.

Une Vue Sur La Riviere De Saigon, Saigon, Vietnam, Asia, 1900-1910s

A view of the Saigon River taken between 1900 and 1910

And yet, passing his time in the silt, he has found a way to cheat the ground, and also to find its complement of food from fishing.

The mangroves do not stop, and we see fishermen all along the river, penetrating, in their sampans, the innumerable small channels created by the currents in the midst of this sea of vegetation.

Our ship rises high above this scene; by now we are almost shaving the banks of the river, and if it had been a sailing ship, the masts would have caught in the trees, but as we speed along we have only our chimneys, the smoke from which loses itself in the canopies of the coconut trees.

We pass the “four arms,” this gigantic confluence that forms like a sea, and almost immediately, some old Cochinchinois gentlemen on board points out to us the twin towers of the Saïgon Cathedral, which stand out like two tiny points on the horizon.

But since much else on the river is attracting the attention of the passengers, there is a continual back and forth from one side of the ship to the other to show those who have not yet noticed the famous towers, now the focus of everyone’s opera glasses.

La Triomphante, Galissonnière-class ironclad part of the Far East Squadron

The Galissonnière-class ironclad steam frigate La Triomphante, which ended her days in Saigon

Finally we have nearly arrived. We leave the Donai to enter the Saïgon River.

Sampans gather around us and the city begins to take shape; we can see the buildings of the Sainte-Enfance and the masts of the Triomphante, an old French steam frigate which now serves as a pontoon.

We are surprised by a sudden cannon shot; it is our post ship signalling its arrival, as we pass the Fort du Sud, an old Annamite fortification.

Saïgon, paralysed with the heavy sleep of the siesta, seems insensitive to the arrival of the French boat which carries us and the news from home, which is always so eagerly expected. Only a few carriages are waiting at the dock: malabars, rickshaws and victorias.

One of the latter is in charge of us and our many packages, and after we have bade farewell to the ship, we take the road into the city.

At the outset, the ride is not particularly enchanting; we travel first through a poor indigenous village comprising huts built over the swamp, which has almost a savage aspect, so we breathe a sigh of relief as soon as we see the huge bridge [the Pont des Messageries maritimes] constructed over the arroyo Chinois, which separates this suburb from the city.


Eiffel’s pont des Messageries maritimes (1882)

Those who have already stayed in Saïgon – and there are many, since the organisation of the colony will always return the same officials – feel their heart beating as they see again the familiar corners of this beautiful colony: the pointe des Blagueurs, the café de la Rotonde, and of course, the famous rue Catinat [Đồng Khởi street]. This latter street leads from the quayside into the heart of the city.

Despite the oppressive heat, I am suddenly gripped by the urge to take a short trip around our new garrison and I am amazed at all that I see there.

Saïgon, in short, is a very beautiful city which seems to have been created within an immense park.

The way she was designed – the grace of her lines, her curves, if one may explain a city in this way – is one of her best qualities.

Yet it is as the crow flies that the city ought to be seen, high above its monuments, its beautiful avenues with trees planted so prettily. We need to hover high above this city to understand it better.

Cercle des Officiers

The Officers’ Club (Cercle des Officiers), built in 1878

All of its streets are wide, spacious and lined with beautiful trees and squares. Its remarkable monuments include a Post Office, the like of which cannot be seen in many cities in Europe; the Cathedral, charming in its simplicity with its two bell towers; the Governor’s Palace; the Courthouse; the Military Hospital, its buildings located amidst lush gardens; the Officers’ Club, situated on one of the finest boulevards; the Infantry Barracks on the same road; the immense and beautiful public gardens; and the Municipal Theatre. All of this ensemble denotes a plan skilfully designed from the outset and executed with a rare consistency, and at the same time gives us a complete impression of French good taste.

Life in Saïgon

There is one particular hour of the day when we can experience something which would never be seen during the hot hours of the siesta.

At around 5pm, the offices empty and the avenues begin to fill with people. Carriages drawn by strong little horses and driven by horsemen in smart white suits gather for the traditional promenade, the tour of Saïgon, which is known as the Tour de l’Inspection, because it takes a circular route which passes the Inspection de Gia-Dinh, situated in the nearest village.

Jardin botanique les Volières

The Aviary of the Botanical and Zoological Gardens

We travel first through the Botanical and Zoological Gardens, one of prettiest places in Saïgon, where wild beasts are graciously presented – in cages, don’t worry! – hidden behind clumps of bamboo or flower beds.

The aviary, which contains a comprehensive selection of the country’s birds, is a small house with a circular verandah, paved with mosaics and covered with creeping vines.

The monkeys, as always, bring joy to every child.

The elephant is an animal of spirit who appreciates what you give him. He is trained to take money from visitors, with which he then “buys” bananas from his keeper, but he will only accept sous, not sapeks, which he considers unworthy of him!

Leaving the Botanical and Zoological Gardens, we cross the beautiful arroyo de l’Avalanche [Thị Nghè Creek] and the Tour de l’Inspection brings us suddenly into the open countryside of Cochinchina, with its rivers and indigenous farmers.


In the early 20th century, much of the area north of the Thị Nghè Creek was open countryside

On one section of the road, beautifully kept as are all of Cochinchina’s roads, the carriage crews stop, the cyclists and horse riders slow their pace, and everyone takes the opportunity to breathe a little fresh air. With great politeness, everyone greets those passing in the opposite direction.

Both male civilians and soldiers are in the habit of wearing suits of white cloth, of which only the buttons and braids permit a distinction between the two. Meanwhile, for the French women here, maintaining their elegance takes precedence over everything (who can blame them) and they are true slaves to fashion.

At this hour of worldliness, each one dresses and adorns herself as elaborately as she would in Paris: wavy hairstyles, small hats, high collars, leather shoes; it’s all about who is the most attractive and most charming woman in the pretty capital that is Saïgon.


Colons arriving in Chợ Lớn

And yet it is so hot, the air is so heavy and oppressive, that I can’t help but admire, without ever hoping to match, the way in which the women of my country have adapted to this setting.That which chills your heart, however, is the pale complexion and anemic appearance of large and small alike who spend any length of time in the colony. It is a far cry from the rosy cheeks of the newcomers.

After the Tour d’Inspection, we almost always stop at one of the city’s most popular cafés, the Hôtel Continental, where the spacious terrace grants asylum to many consumers. Many bring their families here, to meet friends, to greet the new arrivals and those who have just returned from Tonkin, and we choose to do that too, in order to get to know our new military and civilian companions better.

From one end of the terrace to the other, the tables are set and a swarm of Chinese waiters, properly dressed in white, freshly shaven, pigtails at their back, run silently back and forward for syrups and ice.

Annamite flower sellers arrive with Bengal roses and jasmine bursting out of their large baskets. Chinese curio dealers try to tempt us, wantonly spreading their silks, porcelains and ivories.

21 Continental Hotel 1905

The Hôtel Continental, pictured in 1905

At this hour, rue Catinat is fully animated; this street by itself represents all the trades of Saïgon: attractive boutiques with the latest Paris fashions, jewellers, stationery and book shops, novelty shops, etc.

Further along, Chinese traders, grouped together as a corporation, are involved in a variety of trades for the delight of the Europeans. Their entire world – silversmiths, shoemakers, tailors, basket weavers, carpenters – may be found at the lower end of rue Catinat, where their small shops form a series of arches without doors, placed under a long gallery and spreading out onto the sidewalk.

When you walk past their stalls, all you can hear is the noise of machines, the hammers tapping against leather, it’s a real hive of activity; in front of each door swings a huge lantern-shaped balloon, decorated with Chinese characters representing the name of the owner.

And at night, after the Europeans have closed their shops and gone home, the Chinese shops remain open and brightly lit and we can still see their industrious workers toiling away until a very late hour.

The ship has docked and orders are not lacking; the old tailors can run off white suits and white shoes within as little as 48 hours, sometimes less.


The Théâtre de Saigon, inaugurated in 1900

Night comes quickly here without twilight, and Saïgon, thanks to electricity, lights up as if by magic.

Nothing is lacking in this extra-civilised city, not even a theatre. Every year, a group is sent out from France to bring to the colony the very latest in music and literature. A new Municipal Theatre, a true artistic monument, was inaugurated in 1900.

Foreign colonies and neighbours blame us enough, but after all, the French people have literate, cultivated minds, and the French businessman of Saïgon who sells haberdashery or runs a grocery store all day long, feels the need for cultural enrichment in the evening, such as a little music, perhaps a new piece.

It can take three or four days to settle into a new house, install the furniture and recruit the necessary servants, in short to make a home where one’s brood can feel comfortable, because it is essential in this unhealthy country to have, if not luxury, then at the very least, comfort.

The civilian component of the colonial population, generously paid thanks to the wealth of the colony, and staying here for many years, albeit with leave every three years, can be settled in great comfort: house, pets, carriages, electric light and ventilation, indeed all the great conveniences of the times. However, for us wanderers, always under the threat of deplacement, we live as travellers, not daring ever to pitch our tents in a stable manner. With a colony still in its infancy, nothing other than the bear necessities seems appropriate for those of us living the military life.


A group of French military servicemen in Saigon

The matter of domestic staff is, as everywhere, an important matter, and here we have the choice between Annamite or Chinese; The two compete with ardour to be the most deceitful towards us, and it is fair to say that both succeed well. Well trained, they are both likely to become good domestic servants; the Chinese, however, must be paid double, and if, for reasons of luxury, you choose him, you can be sure that while being a little better served, despite everything you will also be doubly robbed.

As for the children of the colony, one finds in Saïgon, to their great regret, but to the delight of parents, all desirable educational resources – colleges, religious institutions run by the Christian Brothers, a Sainte-Enfance for girls.

Once everyone goes about their business, we see a well-ordered everyday existence; the rhythm of life is established, controlled, precise, almost monotone, a real garrison life, to the delight of some and annoyance of others.

In the morning, one usually takes a healthy ride on a horse or a bicycle, according to taste, and this is followed, especially for women, by a tour of the shops in the city, the sun forcing you, from 9am, to return to the house.


The rue Catinat in the early 1900s

The heat, heavy and humid, leaves you no rest, day or night. Only the punkah fans that are wafted over the table during meals give you the courage to eat, and when, by chance, if it is not providential, the rope breaks in the hands of the native in charge of this high office, one feels like one is falling into a fiery furnace; this impression has no equal, other than the experience of waking at night under a mosquito net with a sense of suffocation, sometimes despite having a fan in one’s hand.

Yet here, one tries to fight against this temperature, against the unhealthy, debilitating and often fatal climate, by seeking pleasure in a high dosage; one gives soirées, balls, parties, big dinners; one laughs, one tries to forget the evil that lurks here, and this artificial joy becomes, sometimes, a real need.

Saïgon is the Paris of Cochinchina, it’s the city of luxury and temptation, and how many, failing to resist, have foundered miserably in a whirlwind of pleasure? One spends too much money, one spreads one’s wealth here. It’s all about who spends the most and the best in this high society life where everything can be procured at a price.


The congregation exits the Cathedral after Sunday morning mass

Every Sunday, at the 8am mass, where the bishop officiates in style, all of Saïgon’s faithful crowd into the beautiful and spacious cathedral. There, side by side, kneeling devoutly, we see the elegant Frenchwoman; the Indian dressed in silk and jewels under her discreet veil; the Annamite, graceful in her long-sleeve black silk tunic, quiffs of hair smooth like crows’ wings and retained by small silver pins; and the happy Chinese woman, who benefits from the blessings of Christian civilisation which enable her to walk freely, and who is also decked out in a silky jacket with wide sleeves and jade jewelry.

French and indigenous babies alike gurgle in front of the Lord, and throughout the gathered congregation, the sound of the wafting of fans may be heard, like the light beating of birds’ wings.

The Governor’s palace well deserves the name “Palais Norodom” which is currently given to it.

Admirably located at one end of boulevard Norodom, which opens out in front of it giving it a grandiose perspective, this princely residence, surrounded by immense gardens, offers the arriving Governor of Indo-China all the luxuries of installation that this rich colony has accumulated; on his arrival, he finds a large and well-trained staff and sumptuous carriages awaiting him at the dock, even before he lands.

SAIGON - Le Palais du Gouvernement général illuminé

The Norodom Palace illuminated at night time

But it is especially on the great festival days that one can judge this beautiful building and its happy situation, because it becomes the central point of all the festivities, and that’s where all the combined efforts to achieve success are concentrated.

On the evening of 14 July, for example, both sides of the boulevard are lined with white chandeliers and the trees in the palace garden are enflamed in multicoloured lights, while in the background, the palace itself is lit up in luminous silhouette.

It’s on this same boulevard that, for three days and three nights, one finds market stalls and Annamite theatres, a real fair which is the joy of the people; it’s also here that the great military parades take place, where one can see the Annamite riflemen marching alongside our brave marsouins.

Cholon, the Chinese city

Although the Chinese have almost a small town of their own in the vicinity of the main Saïgon market, it’s to Cholon, that great Chinese city located 4km from Saïgon, that we go shopping for silk, porcelain, tea, etc.

Travelling through countryside, we cross the entire width of the vast Plaine des tombeaux (Plain of tombs), arriving in Cholon in the evening to walk through its illuminated streets.

18 Merchants

Shops in Chợ Lớn

Cholon, a Europeanised Chinese city with multi-storey houses properly aligned along wide, airy streets, has nothing in common with the cities of China.

Only a few pagodas with their multi-layered roofs decorated with dragons and curved corners, the commodities of the country, the people and the stale smell of opium, remind you that you are thousands of miles away from your country.

In Cholon there is a huge trade in rice and wood, and the arroyo which runs through the city, leading to Saïgon, is continuously cluttered with big junks and smaller wooden boats coming from the interior of the country via the countless canals that criss-cross it.

The Phu (mayor) of Cholon [Đỗ Hữu Phương] is the most important character in this place. His house, very Annamite in design, contains many treasures which he takes great pleasure in showing to his visitors.

He is a very nice man who speaks French well enough and has raised his son so completely that he was able to become a military officer and to marry a Frenchwoman. I saw her there with her babies, on holiday with her in-laws.

IMAGE 31 Governor Đỗ Hữu Phương

Governor Đỗ Hữu Phương

The Phu’s daughters are lovely Annamite women, always neat and elegant in their native dress, their small delicate hands adorned with rings; they wear pretty gold-trimmed necklaces around their necks and do the honours of their homes with as much tact and grace as the most correct young girls elsewhere in the world.

At around 10pm, the city is in full swing, with theatres, gambling houses and opium dens teeming with people. Outside, the vendors prepare the open-air restaurants, installing on the streets tables garlanded with many small and shiny lights that transform them into a veritable illumination and permit hardly any carriages, rickshaws and pedestrians to circulate.

If you want to visit an Annamite theatre, it’s best to choose that of the Phu. That amiable mandarin will receive you in a special box and offer you champagne and other refreshments. Then you can admire at leisure the actors with their fantastic colourful warrior costumes, who shout and gesticulate, declaiming before you a series of pieces which you will not understand.

But if you prefer to see the true Chinese Theatre, also embued with local colour, join the crowd which, at about 11pm, makes its way to the Chinese Theatre in the main street of Cholon. Arriving there, you will be equipped with a small lantern, which is sold to you at the door of the theatre and permits you to move at ease in its dark corridors.

Annamite Theatre Cholon

The Annamite Theatre in Chợ Lớn

The entrance fee is very modest, and if you are not satisfied, simply go out and try a second or third facility; there are several in Cholon.

Whoever had the honour of receiving our merry band fails to warn us that, unlike our theatres, it is more like a huge hangar, dimly lit by the lights of the stage.

After stumbling down the shaky stairs, we place our lanterns in a corner and instal ourselves in the midst of the Chinese rabble, who seem quite at home there, well at ease, half-lying on the seats and nonchalantly smoking their long pipes of opium and tobacco; the more well-to-do rent special boxes where pure opium is smoked.

The simplicity of the staging and the lack of restraint of the actors are a joy to see.

A small orchestra consisting of a flute, a two-string violin and tom-toms, take their place below the stage, following only approximately the action of the play and pausing occasionally to attend to their own affairs.

IMAGE 250 The Théâtre Chinois

The main Chinese Theatre in Chợ Lớn

Nothing is too difficult for the actors to perform; if they have to cross a river, they make mock rowing gestures with a stick and pretend to hoist the sail of an imaginary boat; if they want to kill someone, they make the sign of death and the doomed character falls to the ground.

The greatest quality of the players is their amazing voice, and it is on the strangeness of intonation that we judge their merit.

The play, it seems, is successful, because everyone shows his contentment with cries and great disorder. Some spectators are even moved to get up onto the stage themselves during the performance.

Eager to share with us this joy, one of our Chinese neighbours offers to explain the play in French, and nothing is funnier than the intrigues and the good or bad feelings portrayed by this good man.

That night, we see a group of sailors in the company of marine infantrymen; Chinese mothers breastfeeding their babies; many children; and above all, a very happy people.

40 Chinese theatre in Cholon

An actress from the Chinese Theatre in Chợ Lớn

A little later, we enter another theatre. This time, an actor in colourful costume swallows swords, eats fire, juggles, and makes sparks appear from the noses and mouths of his surprised peers; he is a magician working within all the rules of the art.

At the exit, all the spectators, delighted with their evening, gather before small tables, where foodstuffs of all kinds are waiting: green, yellow and pink jellies, soup with seaweed, croquettes, macaroons, and various fruits, including oranges, bananas, watermelon and other unknown varieties appreciated only by the natives; then pale and colourless tea served in tiny cups and accompanied, for lovers of rice wine, by the traditional choum-choum.

Leaving the Chinese city to its noisy merriment, we return to Saïgon, this time along the riverfront, where some heavy sampans loaded with rice glide silently, drawing onto the sky the outline of their dark veil.

It is with joy that we experience the quiet of the night, this mysterious beauty of the tropics where the stars may be seen with an unbelievable clarity, where the starry night sky illuminates the sleeping earth.

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 – Ho Chi Minh City General Sciences Library, 1970

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The Hồ Chí Minh City General Sciences Library

This article was published previously in Saigoneer

Housed in one of the city’s most outstanding modernist buildings, the former South Vietnamese National Library was the culmination of over 100 years of library development in the southern metropolis.

Secretariat A i

The Government Secretariat compound at 27 rue de Lagrandière (now 159-161 Lý Tự Trọng) where the library was once housed

The origins of the Hồ Chí Minh City General Sciences Library may be traced back to the Documentation Library of the Government of Cochinchina (Bibliothèque de Documentation du Gouvernement de la Cochinchine Française), which was set up by Admiral-Governor Marie Gustave Hector Ohier in 1868.

In 1882 it was transformed into a public library named the Library of Saigon (Bibliotheque de Saigon). Following the construction of the Government Secretariat compound at 27 rue de Lagrandière (now 159-161 Lý Tự Trọng) in 1888, the library was found a new home on the upper floor of that building.

In 1902, the library was renamed the Library of Cochinchina (Bibliotheque de la Cochinchine), and by 1909 it is said to have amassed a sizeable collection of over 10,000 volumes on law, sciences, history and literature, along with newspapers and journals.

In 1917, the Directorate of Archives and Libraries (Directorate des archives et bibliothèques) was set up by the colonial government in Hà Nội under the management of Paul Boudet (1888-1948), to oversee the development of archives and libraries in Indochina, and the Library of Cochinchina became a branch of the Directorate, under the management of Saigon librarian, Saint-Marty.

Bibliotheque i

34 rue de Lagrandière/Gia Long (now Lý Tự Trọng) street, where the library was based from the 1920s until 1971

Soon after 1920, the Library of Cochinchina moved to larger premises just across the road at 34 rue de Lagrandière, right next door to the Gendarmerie. Nonetheless, as it still had to share accommodation with the Archives, space remained extremely limited. On 2 November 1924, the newspaper L’Eveil économique de l’Indochine commented: “The current building, despite the significant changes that have been made, does not meet the developmental needs of the library; it is too small for a real, modern library, and therefore, consideration is being given to moving the library into a larger and more appropriate building, while the Archives, already quite conveniently placed in front of the government offices, will remain in the current location.”

In fact, it would be another 50 years before this move to a larger building could take place, although a temporary solution was found in 1926 by opening a separate lending library at 160 rue Catinat (Đồng Khởi street). In 1927, a small children’s library was also set up within the main library building. By 1931, the Library of Cochinchina had a total stock of over 30,000 volumes.


34 Lý Tự Trọng street today

In 1949, the Library of Cochinchina was transferred to the Service of Education of the newly-established State of Việt Nam and renamed the Library of the South (Thư viện Nam phần). At this time, a separate Children’s Reading and Lending Library (Thư viện cho Mượn và phòng Ðọc thiếu nhi) was opened at 194D Pasteur. A 1950 report to UNESCO described the Library of the South as “a general library of nearly 70,000 volumes and a copyright deposit library for all materials published in the South.”

The collection was augmented further in 1956, when the General Library of the Lycée Pétrus Ký – at that time run by the University of Saigon – received over 25,000 items which had been transferred in the previous year from Hà Nội, and was placed under the control of the Library of the South.

In January 1957, the Library of the South’s three campuses – the former Library of Cochinchina, the Lycée Pétrus Ký General Library and the Children’s Reading and Lending Library – were joined with the Ðà Lạt Library to become the National Library of the Republic of Việt Nam, under the direct administration of the RVN Ministry of National Education. Two years later, a Directorate of Archives and Libraries was set up within the Ministry. By this time, the holdings of the National Library comprised in excess of 85,000 volumes, most of them French.

Maison centrale i

The National Library was built on the site of the former Maison centrale

In 1953, a new prison was opened in Chí Hòa (now District 10) to replace the overcrowded Maison Centrale de Saigon, which then occupied most of the block encircled by Gia Long (Lý Tự Trọng), Công Lý (Nam Kỳ Khởi Nghĩa), Lê Thánh Tôn and Nguyễn Trung Trực streets. Two years later, President Ngô Đình Diệm drew up plans to build a grand new National Library building on the old prison site. However, because of the prevailing political and economic situation, the project quickly ground to a halt. Consequently, the existing three-campus library continued in operation and the old Maison centrale building survived as a temporary detention facility for a further decade.

During the 1960s and early 1970s, the National Library received significant funding and assistance from USAID’s Library Development Activity (LDA) programme, which enabled it to expand its collection and develop its human resources.

In 1968, the Maison centrale was demolished and construction of the new National Library finally got under way, funded by a special national lottery. Built to a striking and innovative design by local architect Bùi Quang Hanh, the new building is said to have cost more than 130 million piastres. It was inaugurated on 23 December 1971 at a ceremony presided over by South Vietnamese President Nguyễn Văn Thiệu.

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Another view of the Hồ Chí Minh City General Sciences Library

After Reunification, the former South Vietnamese National Library was integrated into the national library system of the Socialist Republic of Việt Nam. In 1976 it was renamed the National Library II (Thư viện Quốc gia II, Thành Phố Hồ Chí Minh), but two years later it became the Hồ Chí Minh City General Sciences Library (Thư viện Khoa học Tổng hợp, Thành Phố Hồ Chí Minh), the name by which it is known today.

After the opening of the new National Library in 1971, the old Library of Cochinchina building at 34 Gia Long (Lý Tự Trọng) became the Library of the Saigon Archaeology Institute (Viện Khảo cổ Sài Gòn). The building was extensively remodelled after 1975 and has since served as the Library of the Institute of Social Sciences, Southern Region.

During the latter years of colonial rule, many Vietnamese revolutionaries had been detained in the former Maison centrale and several were tortured and executed there. After 1975, the road in front of the Hồ Chí Minh City General Sciences Library was renamed Lý Tự Trọng street, in honour of one of the Maison centrale’s most famous victims, whose bust also stands in the garden at the front of the library. Here visitors will also find, prominently displayed, a plaque which recalls in Vietnamese some of the momentous events in the revolutionary struggle which took place in the prison.

First Day Cover

A First Day Cover of 1974 featuring the National Library building

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The main entrance of the Hồ Chí Minh City General Sciences Library

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 – US Navy Lieutenant John White in 1819, Part 2

Saigon map 1793

A late 18th century map of Saigon

On 7 October 1819, Lieutenant John White (1782-1840), a member of the East India Marine Society of Salem, Massachusetts, arrived in Saigon in the US Navy brig Franklin. His account of his visit, published in A Voyage to Cochinchina by John White, Lieutenant in the United States Navy (Boston, 1823), has been described by Robert Hopkins Miller (The United States and Vietnam, 1787-1941. National Defense University Press, 1990) as “a vivid example of an early American reaction to the Vietnamese and their ways.” This is the second excerpt from the book describing his experiences in the Saigon of King Gia Long’s reign.

To read part 1 of this serialisation click here

The city of Saigon contains 180,000 inhabitants; of which about 10,000 are Chinese, according to the authentic and official statements which I received from Father Joseph (of whom I shall have cause to speak hereafter) and from the military governor, or Viceroy, who returned from the city of Hue a short time after our arrival.

Environs de Saigon – Habitations de pêcheurs

It is situated on a point formed by the confluence of two branches of the Don-nai River, and occupies about 6 miles of the north bank. The population is dense near the river, but scattered farther remote from it. The houses are built principally of wood, thatched with palm leaves or rice straw, and are of one storey. Some few are of brick, and covered with tiles. Those of the higher classes have hanging chambers, built under the roof-tree, about 10 feet wide, extending the whole length of the building, with wooden gratings on each side for air, to which they ascend by ladders; those of the latter description are surrounded by a court, with a gate towards the street; but the dwellings of the poor are situated on the streets, and generally present a miserable appearance. In vain does the traveller look for the glazed windows, so indispensable for the comfort of an European. The clumsy wooden shutters must be thrown open for light; and when the weather is so bad as to oblige the inhabitants to close them, these wretched abodes are cheerless in the extreme. Misery and filth here hold their undisputed reign.

The streets are regularly laid out, generally intersecting each other at right angles, and some of them are quite spacious.


A Fujianese pagoda in Chợ Lớn

In the western part of the city are two Chinese pagodas, and the Annamites have a great number of these temples in various parts of the city. In a central situation is a Christian church, where two Italian missionaries preside, who have several disciples and many converts. The number of Christians in Cochin China is 70,000, of which number the division of Don-nai contains 16,000 (according to the Viceroy and the missionaries). They are all Roman Catholics. The Annamites have no towers to their pagodas; the bells, of which there are generally from two to four of different sizes to each place of worship, are hung on wooden frames before the entrance, and are never swung, but struck by hand. They differ in shape from those of European construction, for they bear a nearer resemblance to a truncated cone.

Equidistant from the extremities of the city, near the bank of the river, is a long range of buildings of handsome construction; these are the magazines of rice, which is a regal monopoly, and the exportation of it prohibited on pain of decapitation; each vessel departing from the country being allowed a certain quantity for provisions, in proportion to the number of her crew, and the anticipated length of the passage. A large Siamese junk was lying hauled up in a creek on the Banga [Bến Nghé] side of the river, the captain and officers of which had been executed a short time previous to our arrival, and the crew was then in prison for violation of this edict.


The Plain of Tombs

The ground in the northern part of this city is occupied, for a space of two miles by about three-fifths of a mile square, as a repository for the dead; and this immense cemetery is filled with tombs, built like those of the Chinese, in the form of a horseshoe. Its borders are planted, as are many of the streets in the suburbs, with the palmaria tree, resembling, if the comparison be not too daring, the boulevards at Paris.

In the north-eastern part of the city, on the banks of a deep creek, is the navy yard and naval arsenal, where, in the time of rebellion, some large war junks were built; and two frigates of European construction, under the superintendance of French officers. This establishment does more honour to the Annamites than any other object in their country; indeed, it may vie with many of the naval establishments in Europe. There were no large vessels built, or building; but there were ample materials of the most excellent kind, for several frigates. The ship-timber and planks excelled anything I had ever seen. I measured one plank whose dimensions were 109 feet long, more than 4 inches thick, and perfectly square to the top, where it was 2 feet wide. It was sawn out of the trunk of a teak tree, and I believe that there is no part of the world where these gigantic sires of the forest arrive in such magnitude as in Cochinchina. I have seen in the country a tree that would make a natural main-mast for a line of battleship, clear of knots; and this, I learned, is not unusual.

Một chiến thuyền nhỏ của thủy quân nhà Nguyễn - Ảnh tư liệu

An early 19th century drawing of a small Nguyễn dynasty warship

There were about 150 galleys of most beautiful construction, hauled up under sheds; they were from 40 to 100 feet long, some of them mounting 16 guns of three pounds calibre. Others mounted four or six guns each, of from four to 12 pounds calibre, all of brass, and most beautiful pieces. There were, besides these, about 40 other galleys afloat, preparing for an excursion that the Viceroy was to make up river on his return from Hue. Most of these were decorated with gilding and carved work, “pennons and streamers gay,” and presented a very animated and pleasing spectacle.

The Annamites are certainly most skilful naval architects, and finish their work with great neatness. I was so much pleased with this portion of their political economy that I made frequent visits to the naval arsenal.

The iron used in the southern provinces is generally brought from Siam in pigs, and is highly malleable and ductile. A harder and more brittle kind is produced in the northern section of the country bordering on Tonkin, and is in more general use there. There was formerly a cannon foundry in Saigon, under the direction of the Bishop of Adran; and the ruins of another are still standing in the city of Don-nai. As at Hue, there is one in full operation, where artillery of all calibres is cast in brass; copper being produced on the confines of Tonkin, and lapis calaminaris found in abundance.

Saigon right bank of river

The right bank of the Saigon river

The city of Saigon was formerly confined to the western extremity of its present site, now called old Saigon, and which part bears much greater marks of antiquity, and a superior style of architecture. Some of the streets are paved with flags; and the quays of stone and brick work extend nearly a mile along the river. The citadel and naval arsenal, with the exception of a few huts for the artificers, were the only occupants of the grounds in the eastern quarter; but since the civil wars have ended, the tide of population has flowed rapidly to the eastward, till it has produced one continued city, which has spread itself to the opposite bank of the streams on which it is situated, and surrounds the citadel and naval arsenal.

From the western part of the city, a river or canal has been recently cut (indeed, it was scarcely finished by the time we arrived there), 23 English miles connecting with a branch of the Cambodia river, by which a free water-communication is opened with Cambodia, which is called by the Annamese “Con-maigne.” This canal is 12 foot deep throughout; about 80 feet wide, and was cut through immense forests and morasses, in the short space of six weeks. Twenty six thousand men were employed, night and day, by turns, in this stupendous undertaking, and 7,000 lives sacrificed by fatigue and consequent disease. The banks of this canal are already planted with the palmaria tree, which is a great favourite with the Annamites.

Saigon 1795

A 1795 map of Saigon

The site of the citadel of Saigon is the first elevated land which occurs in the river, after leaving Cap St Jacques, and this is but about 60 feet above the level of the river: it was formerly a natural conical mound, covered with wood. The grandfather of the present monarch caused the top to be taken off and levelled, and a deep moat to be sunk, which was supplied with water from the river by means of a canal. It is most admirably suited for defence, and would be capable, when placed in a proper posture, of standing a long siege, against even a European army. The walls were destroyed in the civil wars, but were subsequently rebuilt in better style than formerly. The surrounding country is irriguous, and the city is intersected, in various parts, by creeks, over which are thrown bridges, each being a single plank of immense magnitude.

Saigon is within a few miles of the head of the ship-navigation of that branch of the Don-nai river on which it is situated. It is there interrupted with shoals and sand banks, but is navigable for the country craft for a great distance inland, which, in fact, is the case with the stream washing the southern borders of the city, which, with the new river, connects the Cambodia and Don-nai rivers, that branch south of the city having, in many places, not more than 12 feet high of water.

A merchant ship in the East Sea by John White

On our return on board, we found some officers who had been dispatched by the governor to acquaint us that the following day was proposed for the “ceremony of measuring the ships;” for a ceremony, we were told, it invariably had been, and could not be dispensed with, and it was expected that a feast would be prepared for the throng of officers who would visit us on this occasion.

In this emergency, we consulted Joachim and Pasqual, and learned that it never had been dispensed with on former occasions, and it would be for our interest to comply with the best grace we could. Preparations were accordingly made to receive them, under the superintendence of Pasqual’s wife, who, on the occasion, produced an abundance of dishes of various kinds, principally of oriental origin; such as pilaw, curry, mulligatawny, kedgeree, etc, and great varieties of confectionary and fruits. Our fears were not a little excited that these hot and pungent dishes would require no small quantities of diluents to assist their powers of deglutition, and they were confirmed by the linguists, who told us that it would be expected, and refusal would give offence. To eke out our own stock, we purchased some of the whiskey of the country, made of rice, to administer to them, mixed with European liquors; and this we found, on trial, took so well that on subsequent occasions we constantly practiced it, but we were obliged to be cautious not to administer it till they began to be pretty tipsy, for fear of detection. In fact, towards the catastrophe, rice-whiskey answered every purpose.


Soldiers and cavalry in Saigon, from the journal “Tour du Monde” by French naturalist Dr Morice (1872)

In the pursuance of arrangements made the day previous, at about nine o’clock on the morning of Sunday 10 October, our boats were sent to escort this gang of spongers on board; and in about half an hour, we descried a fleet of the country boats, preceded by those of the ships, and tilled with persons of various ranks, putting off from the shore near the great bazaar, and in a few minutes they were alongside the Franklin.

The commissary, whom we have before mentioned and to whom we became subsequently attached, in consequence of his being less of a rogue than the generality of these people, was the first who presented himself. He was followed by the collector of the customs, a covetous looking old hunk whose nose and chin were in close intimacy, and whose subsequent conduct did not belie our skill in physiognomy. In his suite were many others of various ranks who, with their long trains of servants, filled the decks with their bodies, and the air with the perfumes from them.


An Annamite notable, from the journal “Tour du Monde” by French naturalist Dr Morice (1872)

Immediately after the first introduction, which was conducted with some ceremony, though with little civility (the latter of which, in the common occurrences of social intercourse with strangers is but little known and less practiced in Annam), demands were made for liquors, and as we were anxious to get rid of them as speedily as possible, we hastened to gratify them, and then urged them to proceed to business. It was not, however, till after a long consultation in which they were frequently very loud and vociferous, that they commenced their operations, the manner of which was as follows:

A line, perpendicular to each end of the keel, is marked on deck; one third of the distance from the mark nearest the stern to that forward is set off for the place of admeasurement, where a straight pole, or strip of wood, is placed horizontally across the ship, over the rail or gunwale, from which plummets are suspended, in order to find a line perpendicular to the wales, or extreme diameter of the ship in that part which is marked on the pole. On this measurement, the tonnage-duty is payable by the touick or covid, a measure of sixteen and six-tenth inches, which is divided into decimal fractions which are called by the natives tăt and by the linguists puntas, from the Portuguese, thus: 10 tăt makes a touick, or covid. The exaction on this measurement is made at the rate of 160 quans, or eighty Spanish dollars per covid. On the amount so found, there is an imposition of three per cent, to pay the officers for the “trouble and expense” of measuring. Another exaction of one per cent is made in favour of the soldiers or attendants, for the “trouble and expense” of looking on; and, to crown this climax of extortion, the government allows but 18 mace, called by the Annamites tien (each equal to 5 cents) for a Spanish dollar, when paid them for anchorage, etc; whereas, in the bazaars and in all other commercial operations, the dollar is always worth 2 quans, of 10 mace each. The mace is divided into 60 parts, called dong by the natives, and sapeks by the Portuguese. Sixty dong or sapeks make 1 tien or mace = 5 cents, and 10 tien or mace make 1 quan = 50 cents.

USS Franklin rounding Portovenere near La Spezia in about 1819

White’s vessel the USS Franklin, pictured rounding Portovenere near La Spezia in about 1819

The Franklin measured 17 covids and six puntas, or tenths, at 160 quans per covid this made 2,816 quans. The amount of three per cent for the officers’ fees amounted to 85 quan, 3 mace, 24 sepeks, and the amount of one per cent for the soldiers amounted to 28 quan 1 mace, 37 sepeks. In total, this was 2,929 quan 5 mace 1 sepek, which sum, at 18 mace to the dollar, makes nearly 1,627 Spanish dollars 45 cents per ton, the Franklin being 252 tons burden.

After having settled the measurement, which was not done without some quarrelling between the commissary and the collector, on whom their potations seemed to have contrary effects, the former strongly inclining to favour us, and the latter to cheat us by extending the measure, they proceeded to gorge themselves with what had been prepared for them.

It would afford but little, if any, amusement to recapitulate the scene of debauchery which ensued. Suffice it to say that at about 12 o’clock, they proceeded on board the Marmion, where the same shameless conduct was repeated; the quarrel about measurement, however, being carried on with rather more asperity than before, the old collector’s rapacity increasing in a ratio with his ebriety.

6 Marshal Le Van Duyet

Marshal Lê Văn Duyệt, Royal Viceroy in Gia Định at the time of John White’s visit

At about 4 o’clock, much to our satisfaction, they departed pêle-mêle and left us in possession of quiet, but by no means clean ships. Among the other impurities, not the least disgusting was the saliva impregnated with their masticatory, which had been liberally ejected in every part, as chance might direct, leaving crimson spots which required no little labour to efface.

On the following day, we paid another visit to the governor, for the purpose of regulating the amount of sagouètes, etc. On this occasion, after being detained a few minutes in the guard house in front, we were introduced to the interior of the house where we found him in a large apartment, which contained a small library, a couch, and near this a small raised platform on which he was seated on some furniture of Chinese manufacture. He had on this occasion no retinue, but two boys in attendance, one of whom was fanning him. He received us graciously, requesting us to sit down, when we were presented, as usual, with tea, areca and sweetmeats.

After gratifying his curiosity with regard to several questions he asked about Europe, associating America with it (calling them indiscriminately Olan), we introduced the subject of sagouètes. He informed us that there was a fixed and immutable law of the kingdom, regulating these matters, which he dared not pretend to abrogate or evade; and even if he wished to do it, there were so many other officers who were to participate with him that the attempt must necessarily prove entirely futile. After an interview of about three quarters of an hour, we arose to depart, when he said something to the linguists, who desired us to be reseated. They told us that the governor was about dispatching a courier to the king, with the official papers relative to our arrival, etc, and desired to know if we wished to send him any present. We answered in the affirmative, and knowing there was a French naval officer in the service of this monarch, we requested permission to write to him, which he readily granted. We then took our leave, after promising to have our present and letter ready early on the ensuing morning.

King Gia Long was very partial to Mrs Clements' Best Durham Mustard

King Gia Long was very partial to Mrs Clements’ Best Durham Mustard

On our return on board, we were met by the commissary in company with another officer; the latter invited us into his house, which was near. After tea, betel etc, our host brought us an empty mustard bottle, with the arms of the King of England upon a label attached to it, and “Best Durham Mustard” in large letters underneath, and upon a piece of paper, which was produced, something had been spread. It resembled an apothecary’s plaster, but dried, black, and without smell or taste. This, they observed, was a sample of what the bottle had formerly contained, and inquired if we had any of that article on board. We answered in the affirmative and that we had brought some expressly for the king. At this they were highly gratified, and told us that his majesty was extravagantly fond of that article and had sent the bottle and paper carefully packed from Hue some months previous, as a specimen to exhibit to strangers, of what he wanted to procure. The same exhibition had been made to us at Turon [Tourane, Đà Nẵng] in the preceding June, which induced us to procure a good supply of that article at the Philippines, previous to returning from thence to Cochin China.

We prepared, upon our return on board, a letter in French to Monsieur Vannier, the king’s admiral in Hue, requesting his good offices on our behalf, and that he would endeavour to procure a reduction of the sagouètes; and he was requested to present to his majesty an elegant sabre, which accompanied the letter. On the following morning, the linguists and several officers appeared and demanded the present for the king, which was delivered to them. They were very much delighted with the beautiful polish and decorations of the blade and its splendid mountings, and the interjection, Kaa! Kaa! expressive of wonder, or surprise, was repeated with great emphasis. The letter was then given to them for Monsieur Vannier, to which a dozen bottles of mustard for the king was added when they departed; not, however, till they had each begged and received a copious dram.


Annamite women, from the journal “Tour du Monde” by French naturalist Dr Morice (1872)

Scarcely had the party taken leave, before we were visited by a bevy of women, whom we found were merchants, or rather merchandise-brokers: they, after asking and receiving a glass of brandy each, began to open their business, offering sugar, silk, cotton, and other articles for sale, but produced no samples. We were astonished to find that the price of sugar, which they knew was the primary article with us, or at least, what had most inquired for, had risen from 80 to 100 per cent since our arrival, but that other articles had not advanced in the same ratio, by any means. Finding this to be the case, we were more particular in our inquiries for silk, cotton, gamboodge and other articles, the reputed productions of the country, of which we ordered them to bring samples after being told their respective prices. After a long interview, during which we were fully satisfied of the shuffling, chicanery and rapacity of the merchants, they departed, promising to see us the next day.

They were punctual to their appointment, but did not bring any specimens of their goods. Our astonishment may, however, be conceived, when they informed us that the commodities of which we had inquired yesterday had advanced about 50 per cent in price. It would be tedious to the reader, and painful to myself, to recapitulate the constant villainy and turpitude which we experienced from these people during our residence in the country.


A Nguyễn dynasty mandarin

Their total want of faith, constant eagerness to deceive and over-reach us, and their pertinacity in trying to gain by shuffling and manœuvring, what might have been better and easier gained by openness and fair dealing; the tedious forms and ceremonies in transacting all kinds of business, carried into the most trifling transactions; the uncertainty of the eventual ratification of any bargain (the least hope of wearing the patience of the purchaser out, and inducing him to offer a little more, being sufficient to annul any verbal stipulation) and there being no appeal, unless there is a written contract, which is never made, till every art has been used, and every engine of extortion put in motion and exhausted to gain more; all of these vexations, combined with the rapacious, faithless, despotic and anti-commercial character of the government, will, as long as these causes exist, render Cochin China the least desirable country for mercantile adventurers.

These causes have made the Japanese relinquish the trade: they have driven the Portuguese of Macau from the country, and turned their commerce into other channels; and are yearly and rapidly lessening their intercourse with China and Siam. The philanthropist, the man of enterprise, and the civilised world generally, can see in the present miserable state of this naturally fine country no other than a source of deep regret and commiseration.

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 Lycee Chasseloup-Laubat, 1877


The main entrance of the Lê Quý Đôn Secondary School today

This article was published previously in Saigoneer

The Lê Quý Đôn High School (Trường Trung học Phổ thông Lê Quý Đôn) at 110 Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai street is the city’s oldest surviving educational establishment.

The origins of the Lê Quý Đôn High School may be traced back to the École normale indigène, established by a decree of 10 July 1871, but the first school to be established on the current site was the Collège indigène de Saïgon, founded in place of the École normale by a decree of 14 November 1874.


The Collège Chasseloup-Laubat in the early 20th century

Work began immediately on the construction of the school campus near the junction of rue Chasseloup-Laubat (Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai) and rue de l’Impératrice (Nam Kỳ Khởi Nghĩa), and during the two-year construction period, the school was accommodated temporarily “in the Pagode Barbé and its dependencies,” which once stood on the site of the War Remnants Museum – see my previous article Mapping the French “Line of Pagodas.”

Led by its founder Director Honoré Wattebled and a staff of European and Vietnamese teachers, the school initially offered a three-year programme for “young Annamites from good families,” the aim being “to provide interpreters and clerks for government offices, machinists for the Roads and Bridges Department, and employees for the Cadastre and Telegraph Office.”

Those students who graduated with distinction could be eligible for a generous overseas study scholarship, and accordingly, “every year, a number of the smartest young Annamites were sent to Marseille at the expense of the colony, in order to complete their studies.”


Another early 20th century view of the Collège Chasseloup-Laubat

In 1877, the Collège Indigène was named, like the street on which it stood, after the French general and military engineer François, Marquis de Chasseloup-Laubat (1754-1833). By 1879 the Collège Chasseloup-Laubat had 83 students.

Following the closure of the La Salle Christian Brothers’ Collège d’Adran in 1879, the Collège Chasseloup-Laubat was transformed into a secondary school of similar status to the Collège de Mytho. The first French children were admitted in 1880. Soon after this, the buildings were upgraded so that European and local pupils could be segregated in two distinct areas – a “Quartier Européen” for French children and a “Quartier Indigène” for local children, separated by “kitchens, courtyards, covered walkways, washrooms and pools.”

The current school buildings date from this period and feature a design typical of late 19th century French lycée architecture, with little attempt at adaptation to the tropical climate other than the peripheric gallery on the ground floor and the overhanging roofs.

In subsequent years, the number of pupils grew steadily in size, increasing from 180 in 1884 to 200 in 1903 and 290 by 1924. However, by the early 1920s there were still less than 50 European students at the Collège, since “the secondary syllabus it offered was incomplete and young French and Annamites had to travel to Tonkin to complete their secondary studies and take the baccalauréat.”

Lycée Chasseloup Laubat à Saigon

Children gather outside the Lycée Chasseloup Laubat in the 1940s

The absence of a “proper education for European children” in Cochinchina was remarked upon as early as 1903 by Governor General Paul Beau (October 1902-February 1908). “This question deserves our solicitude,” he said, “because it concerns the future of our colonisation.” However, not until 1924 was the teaching syllabus of the Collège Chasseloup-Laubat upgraded to permit the baccalauréat exams to be taken in Saigon.

In that year, the school also began admitting gifted 9-12 year-old French and Vietnamese children by entrance examination to a course of pre-secondary studies at the Collège.

Young educated Vietnamese took an active role in the anti-colonial protests of 1926 and the Collège Chasseloup-Laubat in particular became something of a hotbed of activity. Things came to a head on 4 April 1926, the day of patriot Phan Châu Trinh’s funeral, when students of the Collège wrote ABLF (À Bas Les Français– down with the French) on blackboards and participated in what subsequently became a nationwide school boycott.

“It is unfortunate that our brilliant Franco-indigenous educational secondary institutions have suffered a serious blow,” commented the newspaper L’Eveil économique de l’Indochine solemnly later that year. “School indiscipline, a basic form of social indiscipline, is completely intolerable.”

Saïgon. Lycée Chasseloup-Laubat. Deux jeunes professeurs annamites 1947

Two Vietnamese teachers pictured outside the Lycée Chasseloup Laubat in 1947

In 1927, the Collège Chasseloup-Laubat was formally upgraded to become a full secondary school named the Lycée Chasseloup-Laubat. In November of that year, over 200 local pupils were relocated to the new Collège de Cho-Quan, which was initially established as an annex of the Lycée Chasseloup-Laubat. However, in August 1928 the Collège de Cho-Quan became a secondary school in its own right, named the Lycée Petrus Ký. The first intake of new students at Saigon’s two new Lycées took place in September 1928.

During the later colonial period, the Lycée Chasseloup-Laubat became known as one of the most prestigious in the region and trained many famous individuals, including Vietnamese revolutionary leader Trần Văn Giàu (1911-2010), French novelist Marguerite Duras (1914-1996), last South Vietnamese president General Dương Văn Minh (1916-2001), King Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia (1922-2012) and historian Vương Hồng Sển (1926-1996).

During the Japanese occupation, the school served briefly as a centre for refugees.

After the departure of the French, the school continued to operate under French management, but in 1958 its name was changed to Lycée Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Thereafter, the student intake was overwhelmingly Vietnamese.

In 1970, the school was transferred to the South Vietnamese Education Ministry and became the Lê Quý Đôn Education Centre (Trung tâm giáo dục Lê Quý Đôn), named in honour of 18th-century Vietnamese mandarin, philosopher and poet Lê Quý Đôn (1726-1784).

The Lover 3.1

The former Lycée Pétrus Ký (now the Lê Hồng Phong Specialist Secondary School) at 235 Nguyễn Văn Cừ in District 5 stood in for the former Lycée Chasseloup-Laubat in French filmmaker Jean-Jacques Annaud’s 1992 film version of Marguerite Duras’ The Lover

Known since 1975 as the Lê Quý Đôn High School, the school remains today one of the city’s principal scholarly establishments.

The former Lycée Chasseloup-Laubat was featured in French filmmaker Jean-Jacques Annaud’s 1992 film version of Marguerite Duras’ The Lover. However, if you watch the film closely, you will see that the school used as a location is in fact not the Lycée Chasseloup-Laubat at all, but the former Lycée Pétrus Ký (now the Lê Hồng Phong Specialist High School) at 235 Nguyễn Văn Cừ in District 5!

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 – US Navy Lieutenant John White in 1819, Part 1

USS Franklin rounding Portovenere near La Spezia in about 1819

White’s vessel the USS Franklin, pictured rounding Portovenere near La Spezia in about 1819

On 7 October 1819, Lieutenant John White (1782-1840), a member of the East India Marine Society of Salem, Massachusetts, arrived in Saigon in the US Navy brig Franklin. His account of his visit, published in A Voyage to Cochinchina by John White, Lieutenant in the United States Navy (Boston, 1823), has been described by Robert Hopkins Miller (The United States and Vietnam, 1787-1941. National Defense University Press, 1990) as “a vivid example of an early American reaction to the Vietnamese and their ways.” This is the first of two excerpts from the book describing his experiences in the Saigon of King Gia Long’s reign.

To read part 2 of this serialisation click here

On 9 October at 9am, we embarked in our boats and proceeded across the river through a fleet of several hundred of the country craft which were lying before the city; during which time, our noses were saluted with the perfumes of fish-pickle and other agréeables proceeding from them. Our eyes were amused by the crowds of natives in different vessels lining the bank of the river, who flocked to see the don-ong-olan or olan-ben-tai, strangers from the west or white strangers; while our ears were greatly annoyed by the constant and vociferous bursts of admiration which our appearance excited.

Saigon right bank of river

The right bank of the Saigon river

Our party consisted of the commanders of both vessels, with the two young gentlemen, Messrs Putnam and Bessel, a sailor of the Marmion, who spoke the Portuguese language well, old Joachim, the Portuguese pilot, a commissary of the marine, and four other mandarins; the whole proceeded by three of the government linguists, bearing the presents.

We landed at a great bazaar or market place, well supplied with fruits and various other commodities, exposed for sale by women scattered about without order or regularity, each one the focus of her own little domain. Some of these locations were covered with screens of matting, erected on bamboos, to protect the occupants and their wares from the burning sun.

From thence, our route lay through a spacious and regular street, lined with houses of various descriptions, some of which were of wood, covered with tiles, and tolerably decent; others were of the most humble description, and none of them exceeded the height of one storey. A few had enclosed courts in front, but they were generally placed close to the street.

Toiling under a scorching sun, through a street strewn with every species of filth; beset by thousands of yelping mangy curs; stunned alike by them and the vociferations of an immense concourse of wandering natives, whose rude curiosity in touching and feeling every part of our dress, and feeling our hands and faces, we were frequently obliged to chastise with our canes (which, however, made no impression of fear on the survivors); and the various indefinable odours, which were in constant circulation; these were among the amenities which were presented to us on this, our first excursion into the city.

Market scene

A Saigon market scene, from the journal “Tour du Monde” by French naturalist Dr Morice (1872)

At the end of the first street, however, the scene changed into one of a more pleasing nature. Our route lay through a serpentine covered way, walled with brick and cut nearly a quarter of a mile through a gentle acclivity, covered with verdure, on our arrival at which, the native canaille, biped and quadruped, left us, and we soon arrived, by a handsome bridge of stone and earth, thrown over a deep and broad moat, to the great south gate of the [1790 Gia Định] Citadel [the Càn Nguyên Gate, located in the vicinity of the modern Đồng Khởi-Lý Tụ Trọng street junction], or more properly, perhaps, the military city; for its walls, which are of brick and earth, about 20 feet high and of immense thickness, enclose a level quadrilateral area of nearly three quarters of a mile in extent on each side.

Here, the Viceroy and all military officers reside, and there are spacious and commodious barracks, sufficient to quarter 50,000 troops. The regal palace stands in the centre of the city, on a beautiful green, and is, with its grounds of about 8 acres, enclosed by a high paling. It is an oblong building of about 100 feet by 60 feet, constructed principally of brick, with verandas enclosed with screens of matting; it stands about 6 feet from the ground, on a foundation of brick, and is accessible by a flight of massy wooden steps.

On each side, in front of the palace, and about 100 feet from it, is a square watch tower of about 30 feet high, containing a large bell. To the rear of the palace, at a distance of about 150 feet, is another erection of nearly the same magnitude, containing the apartments of the women, and domestic offices of various kinds; the roofs covered with glazed tiles and ornamented with dragons and other monsters, as in China. This establishment is devoted to the use of the king and royal family, who have never visited Saigon since the civil wars; it has, consequently, during that period, not been occupied. It is, however, used as a place of deposit for the provincial archives and the royal seal; and all important business requiring this appendage is here consummated. On passing these buildings, we were directed by the attendant mandarins, who set the example, to lower our umbrellas by way of salute to the vacant habitation of the “Son of Heaven.”


A map of the 1790 Gia Định Citadel, drawn in the early 19th century, collected by Petrus Ky and annotated by Nguyễn Đình Đầu

We shortly arrived before the palace of the governor and were shown into a guard-house opposite, where we were told we must remain till our arrival should be announced; for which purpose, a mandarin and a linguist were dispatched. We had not been long waiting when we were informed that the great personage within was ready to receive us.

We entered the enclosure by a gateway in the high paling surrounding the governor’s residence; in front of which, at a distance of 10 feet, was a small oblong building parallel with the gateway, and apparently placed there as a mark. After we had passed this erection, we found ourselves in a spacious court, and directly in front of us, at about 150 feet from the entrance, was the governor’s house, a large quadrilateral building, 80 feet square and covered with tiles. From the eaves in front continued a gently sloping roof of tiles, to the distance of 60 feet, supported by round pillars of rosewood, beautifully polished. The sides of this area were hung with screens of bamboo. At right angles with the main building were placed (three on each side of the centre) platforms, raised about 1 foot from the floor, which was of hard, smooth earth. These platforms were each about 45 feet long and 4 feet wide, constructed of two planks, 5 inches thick, nicely joined together and highly polished. Between these two ranges of platforms, at the farther end of the area, was another platform, raised 3 feet from the floor, composed of a single plank, 6 feet by 10 feet square, and about 10 inches thick, resembling boxwood in colour and texture, and from almost constant attrition, reflecting adjacent objects with nearly the fidelity of a mirror.

On this elevation was seated, in the Asiatic style, cross-legged, and stroking his thin white beard, the acting governor; a meagre, wrinkled, cautious-looking old man, whose countenance, though relenting into a dubious smile, indicated anything but fair dealing and sincerity. On the platforms on each side of the throne were seated mandarins and officials, their different degrees of rank indicated by their proximity to the august representative of the sovereign, We doffed our beavers and made three respectful bows in the European style, which salutation was returned by the governor by a slow and profound inclination of the head. After which, he directed the linguists to escort us to a bamboo settee on his right hand, in a range with which were also some chairs of apparently Chinese fabric, which the linguists told us had been placed there expressly for our accommodation.

796px-Quan_phuc_nha_Nguyen ii

A Nguyễn dynasty mandarin

A motion of the governor’s hand indicated a desire that we should be seated, with which we complied. The linguists then proceeded to the foot of the throne with the presents, which they held over their heads, in a kneeling posture, while the different articles were passed to him by several attendants in waiting. After attentively viewing each article separately, with marks of evident pleasure, he expressed great satisfaction and welcomed us in a very gracious manner, making many enquiries about our health, the length of our voyage, the distance of our country from Annam, the object of our visit, etc. After we had satisfied him in these particulars, he promised us every facility in the prosecution of our views. Tea, sweetmeats, areca and betel were passed to us, and we vainly attempted to introduce the subject of sagouètes (presents) and port charges for anchorage, tonnage, etc (the rate of which we wished to have established), all recurrence to these subjects being artfully waived by him for the present; and he promising to satisfy us at the next interview, we took our leave and, as it was still early in the day, we proceeded to gratify our curiosity by taking a walk through the city.

On our return towards the great southern gate by which we had entered, we passed a large bungalow (a light airy building constructed generally of bamboo and roofed with thatch), under which were arranged about 250 pieces of cannon, of various calibres and fashions, many of them brass, and principally of European manufacture, generally mounted on ship-carriages in different stages of decay. Among them, we noticed a train of about a dozen pieces of field artillery, each marked with three fleurs de lys and bearing an inscription importing that they had been cast in the reign of Louis XIV, in tolerable preservation. Near this place was a sham battery of wooden guns for exercise; and at the main guard, near the gate, were several soldiers undergoing the punishment of the cangue, [a kind of pillory used for public humiliation and corporal punishment] and on this occasion we understood that the cangues of the military were made of bamboo, while those used for other offenders were of a species of heavy black wood.

On the north side of the eastern gate was a bastion with a flagstaff, where the Annamese colours are displayed on the first day of the new moon and on other occasions.


A mandarin’s tomb

The main gates, of which there are four, are very strong and studded with iron in the European style; and the bridges thrown across the moat are decorated with various military and religious bas reliefs on panels of masons’ work. Over the gates are square buildings with tiled roofs and a stairway leading to the top of the ramparts, on each side of the gate, inside the wall.

In the western quarter of the area within the walls is a cemetery containing several barbarously splendid mausoleums of mandarins in the Chinese style. Some of them bear inscriptions and effigies on stone, of very tolerable sculpture.

In the north-eastern section are six immense buildings, enclosed with palings, separate from each other. They are each about 120 feet long by 80 feet wide. The roofs, composed of rafters of great strength and covered with glazed tiles, are supported by abutting columns of brick, the intervals being filled with massy woodwork. The walls are about 18 feet high. These are the magazines of naval and military stores, provisions, arms etc.

Many small groups of soldiers’ huts were scattered about within the walls, situated in a picturesque manner among the foliage of various tropical plants. Among others, we noticed several clumps of the castor bean.

Many pleasant walks are laid out in various directions, planned on each side, with the palmaria, a beautiful plant resembling a pear tree, bearing a profusion of white odiferous flowers, which in October and November impregnate the air to a great distance with their perfume. From these flowers, the natives extract an oil which is considered by them a panacea for all kinds of wounds.


Drivers with their elephants in the river

On the declivity outside the gate, through which the tortuous covered way is cut, several of the royal elephants were grazing, attended by their drivers, who were sitting on their necks. Some of these beasts were of immense size, indeed, much larger than any I had ever seen in any part of India. The drivers, or rather attendants, of these huge animals, are provided with a small tube of wood, closed at each end, equidistant from which is a round lateral aperture, into which they blow, producing a noise similar to blowing into the bung-hole of an empty cask, for the purpose of warning passengers, or others, of their approach, for they seldom give themselves the trouble to turn aside for any small impediment in their path; and it was amusing to see the old women and others in the bazaars, on hearing the approach of an elephant horn, gather up their wares, and retreat, muttering, to a respectful distance, while the animal was passing to and from the riverside where they resorted to drink. On passing us they would slacken their pace and view, with apparent interest, objects so unusual as our white faces and European garb presented; nor were we totally divested of some degree of apprehension at first, from the intense gaze and marked attention of these enormous beasts. Indeed, the Annamese appeared to fear that some accident might accrue to us from our novel appearance, and advised us to assume the costume of the country, to prevent any accident; which advice we generally hereafter complied with, at which they were always highly gratified, viewing it as a compliment. Nor was this unattended with other advantages, for our dresses were those of civil mandarins of the second order, which gained us greater respect from the populace. The dress worn by me is now in the museum of the “East India Marine Society” of Salem.


Another Saigon market scene

We passed through several bazaars, well stocked with fresh pork, poultry, fresh and salt water fish, and a great variety of fine tropical fruits. Vegetables, some of which had never before been esteemed as edible, were exposed for sale. The Annamese, like the French, eat many legumes and herbs which we generally reject.

Our attention was excited by the vociferations of an old woman, who filled the bazaar with her complaints. A soldier was standing near her, loaded with fruits, vegetables and poultry, listening to her with great nonchalance. She finally ceased from exhaustion, when the soldier, laughing heartily, left the stall and proceeded to another, where he began to select what best suited him, adding to his former store. We observed that in the direction he was moving, the proprietors of the stalls were engaged in secreting their best commodities.

On enquiry, we found that the depredator was authorised, without fear of appeal, to cater for his master, a mandarin of high rank, and his exactions were levied at his own discretion, and without any remuneration being given. This, we afterwards found, was a common and universal practice. There was, however, great partiality observed in the exactions; for we had frequent opportunity to notice that poor old women were the victims of their extortion, while young girls were passed by with a smile or salutation.

As a proof of the abundance which reigns in the bazaars, and the extreme cheapness of living in Saigon, I shall quote the prices of several articles: viz, pork: 3 cents per pound; beef: 4 cents per pound; fowls: 50 cents per dozen; ducks: 10 cents each; eggs: 50 cents per hundred; pigeons: 30 cents per dozen; varieties of shell and scale fish, sufficient for the ship’s company: 50 cents; a fine deer: 1 dollar 25 cents; 100 large yams: 30 cents; rice: 1 dollar per picul of 150 pounds English; sweet potatoes: 45 cents per picul; oranges: from 30 cents to 1 dollar per hundred; plantains: 2 cents per bunch; pamplemousses or shaddocks: 50 cents per hundred; coconuts: 1 dollar per hundred; lemons: 50 cents per hundred.

717_001 ii

The Saigon river

During our walk, we were constantly annoyed by hundreds of yelping curs, whose din was intolerable. In the bazaars, we were beset with beggars, many of them the most miserable, disgusting objects, some of whom were disfigured with leprosy and others with their toes, feet and even legs eaten off by vermin and disease. Nor were these the only subjects of annoyance; for notwithstanding the efforts and expostulations of the officers who accompanied us, and our frequently chastising them with our canes, the populace would crowd round us, almost suffocate us with the fetor of their bodies, and feel every article of our dress with their paws. They even proceeded to take off our hats and thrust their hands into our bosoms; so that we were glad to escape to our boats and return on board, looking like chimney sweeps, in consequence of the rough handling we had received.

Citadelle de Saigon - Emplacement_Ancienne_Citadelle

This late 19th century map shows the location of the 1790 and 1835 citadels in relation to the colonial street plan of Saigon

To read part 2 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.

The First American Consul in Saigon, 1907

Denis Freres 1985 by Imre Villányi i

Opened in 1907, the first American Consulate in Saigon rented offices in the former Denis Frères building at 4 rue Catinat

Only Two Americans in Indochina: Our Consul and a Standard Oil man the only ones out of 29 million people
from The New York Times, 22 August 1909
Jacob E Conner, American Consul at Saigon, French Indochina, was a passenger on the American liner St Louis, which arrived last night. He is the first man to occupy the post of Consul at that post and has held it for two years. He stated that he and Miller Joblin, agent for the Standard Oil Company at that port, are the only Americans in French Indochina, although the country has twenty millions of people, of whom 6,000 are whites. Most of the whites are French.
“The country is one and a half times the size of France,” said Mr Conner, “and yet, when I went there, the only American in the place was the Standard Oil representative. During my stay, three vessels flying the American flag came into port. Each of them was one of the Filipino vessels, steamers of less than a thousand tons, which do a large business in carrying rice from Saigon to the Philippines.”
“Necessarily, there was little for me to do in looking after the American interests at the port, but one thing I was supposed particularly to do was to find out what opportunities there are in the country for American trade. There aren’t so very many, it is true, but I found some. For instance, there is the possibility of large purchases of machinery for use on the rice products which the country ships to the Philippines.”


The SS St Louis

Denis Freres 1985 by Imre Villányi ii

In 1985 the Denis Frères building at 4 Đồng Khởi was demolished and replaced by the Seaprodex building

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.