Saigon Through the Eyes of Early Travellers – Arthur Delteil in 1882, Part 2


The “ville basse” or lower town viewed from the arroyo Chinois (Bến Nghé creek)

In March 1882, Arthur Delteil, retired Chief Pharmacist of the Navy, left Marseille on the Messageries maritimes vessel Oxus and travelled to Saigon, where he stayed for a year. This is the second of three translated excerpts from his book Un an de séjour en Cochinchine: guide du voyageur à Saïgon, published in 1887.

To read part 1 of this serialisation click here.


Cochinchina Governor Charles Le Myre de Villers (1879-1882)

The day after my arrival, I went to visit the Governor of the colony, M. Charles Le Myre de Villers [Governor of Cochinchina 1879-1882), who is now the Résident général in Madagascar. He received me and my fellow travellers with the utmost cordiality and invited us to join him for dinner the next day.

That first interview and the very frequent ones which followed have stayed with me, as M. Le Myre de Villers was one of the most welcoming governors I have ever known. I would therefore like to share my personal impressions of the man.

M. Le Myre de Villers carried out the high functions with which he was invested with great energy and dignity. Industrious, well-educated, familiar with all administrative and colonial questions, skilled in business, seeing and studying everything himself, and never resting unless strictly necessary, he devoted all of his strength and intelligence to the service of colony, which he sought to administer in a wise and progressive manner. Approachable and friendly to hard-working people, yet hard on the lazy and disorganised, this is how the man has been variously judged in the colony.

One may say that this civil governor was greatly loved by European officials of the Navy, by important traders and by the Annamites, criticised by some senior civil servants whose pretentions and jurisdictions he sought to diminish, and cordially hated by a small coterie of ambitious yet talentless people who raised their voice in quarrelsome opposition.


Charles Le Myre de Villers visiting a provincial centre in 1881

Physically, M. Le Myre de Villers was then a man of 50, tall, dark haired and lean, though of robust constitution. His stern demeanour, with strongly accentuated features and pale complexion, brought to mind that of Otto von Bismarck, with whom he shared a square face, broad forehead, black sunken eyes in a very pronounced brow, and strong black moustache covering the upper lip.

What dominated his whole person was an air of authority and decision-making which made one believe from the outset that this former sailor knew exactly what he wanted and was able to enforce his will with indomitable energy. His courage was up to all situations. When it involved stifling an insurrection fomented by the Chinese and Annamese in a distant province, he went there accompanied by just a single aide-de-camp. Finding himself suddenly in the midst of the rebels, he bravely arrested the instigators of revolt, and very soon everything returned to normal. His presence and moral lead sufficed to achieve this result.

On the occasion of the last cholera epidemic, which raged so cruelly amongst the Annamite class, how many times did I see the Governor himself enter the villages which had been infected by this scourge to visit the sick who had been abandoned by everyone else, reviving them with good words and distributing to these poor people all the relief and medicines that they needed! In instances such as this, nothing could stop him, neither the fear of sunstroke in a country where the sun can kill you as surely and sometimes as quickly as a gunshot, nor the prospect of a forced march through a filthy swamp.

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A village on the arroyo

He once said proudly that a colonial governor should be the first to place himself in danger, in order to set a good example to his officials and to the population; for only in this way would the Annamite people learn to love or at least to respect the nation that had conquered them.

M. Le Myre de Villers has often been described as a hardened authoritarian, yet this description of him is not quite accurate. He was a superior man of fixed opinions, who, for the successful completion of the work he had been commissioned to do, did not let himself be impressed by the clamour of a small clan of malcontents, nor by those who sought to impede improvements which were detrimental to their personal interests. In any case, isn’t every great man necessarily a little authoritarian? History tells us that. And in the last analysis, this Governor of Cochinchina was as good a diplomat and politician as he was a good administrator.

Only once did he fail to measure up to the task and was led to commit an act which in part caused his recall to France. Even in these circumstances, the metropolitan government supported him, because the initial damage did not come from his side, and it was felt that we should look twice before depriving such a large colony as Cochinchina, for such a trivial reason, of a Governor who had rendered such great services and was so appreciated. Attempts have since been made to remedy the injustice that was committed against him at that time, and he has recently been sent to La Réunion as Résident-general, a position which requires the utmost energy, capacity and patriotism.

Norodom Palace again A i

The Palace of the Government

M. Le Myre de Villers will, of course, be up to this task, and the Republic will not have to repent of having placed its trust in a man of such value. He will worthily represent France, forcing the Malagasy and foreigners to respect our protectorate and establish our influence in a country that we so often watered with our own blood, and from which our good friends the English would have us evicted.

In Saigon, the seat of his government, M. Le Myre de Villers had a simple way of receiving guests, which contrasted with the habits of his predecessors.

In the past, governors were content to give several grand formal dinners during the year to members of the Colonial Council, the main authority of the colony, but they rarely interacted with the “mere mortals” who were their constituents. However, M. Le Myre de Villers proceeded quite differently. He still received his Colonial Councillors in full regalia once or twice each year; but every evening he had at his table five or six guests chosen indiscriminately from amongst the civilian and military communities, ranging from simple sub-lieutenants and office clerks to generals and high administrators.

Here is how things usually went. One paid a first visit, which was always invariably followed by an invitation to return for dinner. So we went to the Palace of the Government in uniform or dressed in black. There, M. Le Myre de Villers, immaculately dressed in black coat and white tie and surrounded by his two aides-dc-camp, received us in the kindest way, with a hearty handshake.

Norodom Palace gates i

The front gate of the Palace of the Government on boulevard Norodom

At 7pm exactly, a maître d’hôtel came to inform the Governor that dinner was served and we went into the dining room. In the middle of the beautifully-prepared dinner table was spread a basket of flowers almost the size of a small flowerbed. Each diner was placed at table in order of precedence; this was one of the most difficult functions of the aides-de-camp. Dinner, without being excessive, was very delicate and worthy of the householder who received us.

The conversation was sometimes a bit cold, since some of the guests were not known to us, although the governor did his best to animate the conversation. But the essence of his character is very serious and he has little love for banalities, so that despite all the freedom of speech we enjoyed, everyone remained within the limits of respectful politeness.

After dinner we went into the events hall, which was decorated in a profusion of tropical plants, making it look almost like a greenhouse of colossal proportions. There were whist and écarté tables, and in the centre a large billiard table which was used to play cochonnet (a type of indoor boules), in which the governor excelled. He chose three willing opponents, and for half an hour he made windfall after windfall, soundly beating his novice companions in the art of this rather outmoded game.


The salle des fêtes (events hall) of the Palace of the Government

At 8pm, a dozen more people arrived to talk with the Governor. Like all great workers, he did not like to receive his staff in the daytime and waste his time in idle conversation. On the contrary, he reserved his evenings for all those who might have to speak to him. He devoted about 10 minutes to each person, talking in a playful and familiar way. Meanwhile, his dinner guests enjoyed greater freedom, playing card games, smoking and drinking cold beer which the Chinese servants brought frequently on trays.

At 10pm we took leave of the Governor; this was the time he set aside to plan new invitations for the following day.

We soon found that if we paid regular daytime visits to the Palace of the Government, we were pretty sure to be invited to dine there twice a month.

It was during these intimate evenings, in a relaxed environment and on “neutral ground,” that I was able to get to know the outstanding persons or notables of the colony.


General Louis Eugène Alleyron (1825-1891)

People like General Alleyron, Commander-in-Chief of Troops, a friendly but rather sickly old man who had been posted here after a glorious career in the service of his country.

M. Belliard, Director of the Interior, who on his own merit and through his strong work ethic had risen from the modest position of sub-officer to the eminent position he now occupied. He was a cold, uncommunicative man, with an iron constitution that had already withstood 15 years of residence in the colony.

M. Bert, Attorney General, head of the judiciary of the colony, a kind and well-educated man whom I had known previously in La Réunion.

Dr. Chastang, Chief Medical Officer of the Navy and one of my old colleagues. He was an energetic man and an informed and conscientious doctor, thoroughly acquainted with the diseases in this country.

M. Sergeant, Chief of the Navy’s Administration Service, the most charming, jolly and healthy-looking of all senior officials of the colony. Despite spending several years in Cochinchina, he had retained a magnificent appetite and a robust state of health on which the climate of Saigon seemed to have no effect.

M. Cornu, Mayor of Saigon, one of those men who are indispensible to the colony: honest, hard-working, respected by all, a man of boundless devotion to the interests of a town he has lived in almost since the conquest. He and his younger brother made their fortunes mainly from the rice trade and are now two of the city’s leading businessmen.

Officers of the colonial infantry

Colonial marine infantry officers

M. Denis, the representative of a large trading house from Bordeaux, who like the Cornu brothers enjoys a prestigious position and a great fortune honestly acquired from his large commercial interests.

It was at the Palace of the Government that I also made the acquaintance of M. Nortel, Inspector of Indigenous Affairs, and now Governor of New Caledonia; Colonel Bichot, who has since won his General’s stars thanks to his brilliant conduct in Tonkin; and M. Silvcstre, who rendered such brilliant services in Annam and Tonkin by organising the civil administration there.

After completing my social duties, I formed a plan to visit the cities of Saigon and its neighbour Cholon. I will try to describe as quickly as possible the appearance of these two cities, their principal monuments and the most interesting places to see.

The present city of Saigon is scarcely 25 years old. When Vice Admiral Rigault de Genouilly seized Saigon on 17 February 1859, the Annamite city consisted of the citadel, the camp des Lettrés [the Trường Thi field where the triennial Mandarinate examinations were held] and some dirty and poorly-built huts scattered here and there in a mess that was far from being a work of art. Almost all of the area now occupied by the docks, the market, boulevard Bonard and the centre of the city was a vast swamp intersected by muddy arroyos.

It took the deployment of true creative genius to fill this swamp, firm the soil, dig sewers, create wide tree-lined boulevards with spacious squares and water fountains, and build elegant homes and remarkable monuments, in such a short period of time.

Road roller i

Surfacing boulevard Charner (Nguyễn Huệ boulevard)

To bring together all of these components and create a city which is partly oriental and partly European, elegant, beautiful, convenient to live in, full of life and movement and now occupied by a population of 35,000 souls.

It was the combined efforts of Admiral-Governors Rigault de Genouilly, Charner, Donnant, de la Grandière, Dupré and Duperré and Civil Governor Le Myre de Villers which brought about this rapid transformation. With their efforts, a muddy and filthy cesspool became one of the most beautiful and healthy cities of the Far East!

It took just 25 years to complete such a work, not to mention the civil, political, military and financial organisation of an entire colony of 2 million souls. Is this not a real tour de force?

I wonder if any of the nations who are considered the most skilled in colonisation would have achieved more or better in such a short time. The English, who think themselves more righteous than us in these matters, though jealous of our progress in Indochina, have repeated so often that we performed true wonders in Cochinchina in the few years that elapsed between our conquest and its definitive organisation. Sadly, there are still some French people who all too often like to disparage our work with a lightness and silliness that borders on a complete lack of patriotism.

Bến Bạch Đằng, đoạn giữa Charner và Catinat

Planting trees on the riverfront

Taken as a whole, the city of Saigon is bounded to the north by the arroyo de l’Avalanche [Thị Nghè Creek] and the Saigon River; to the south by the arroyo Chinois [Thị Nghè Creek] and to the west by the vast sandy Plain of Tombs, so named because the Annamese have buried their dead there since time immemorial.

All of the streets are straight, wide, parallel to each other and connect with the quays which line the Saigon River and the arroyo Chinois. Many cut at right angles across other streets, forming spacious squares containing the busts or statues of admirals whose names are closely linked with the conquest or the grandeur of the colony.

To provide shade for pedestrians, we had the good inspiration to plant double rows of trees – mainly tamarind, almond and teak – along most of our streets and boulevards. Intelligent sollicitude can never be excessive in a country where the sun is so hot and dangerous!

Now let’s follow a route through the city which will take us to the most interesting places to visit.

To read part 3 of this serialisation click here.

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

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

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

Old Saigon Building of the Week – 128 Nguyen Thi Minh Khai, 1900-1910


The former Canavaggio villa at 128 Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai

This article was published previously in Saigoneer

In the early 20th century, the colonial villa at 128 Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai (the former rue Chasseloup-Laubat) was home to one of Saigon’s best-known Corsican families, the Canavaggios.


The newspaper Nông cổ mín đàm (Matters of Agriculture, 1901-1924), founded by François Canavaggio

Canavaggio family members were amongst the first colonial settlers who arrived in the service of the French armed forces in 1859. Of these, the most successful was François Canavaggio, whose subsequent business activities enabled him to acquire a large plantation at Xuân Vinh, near Thủ Đức. By 1907, he was Vice President of the Cochinchina Chamber of Agriculture and a member of the Colonial Council of Cochinchina. It was François Canavaggio who acquired the villa at 128 rue Chasseloup-Laubat.

As Philippe Peycam has shown in his book The Birth of Vietnamese Political Journalism: Saigon, 1916-1930, François Canavaggio founded the first quốc ngữ (Vietnamese-language) business newspaper Nông cổ mín đàm (Matters of Agriculture, 1901-1924), which aimed to “expand the agricultural and industrial knowledge of the Annamite people.”

Gilbert Trần Chánh Chiêu

Gilbert Trần Chánh Chiếu (1868-1919), first editor of Nông cổ mín đàm

The paper’s first editor-in-chief was Vietnamese businessman, attorney at law and independence activist Gilbert Trần Chánh Chiếu (1868-1919), who – with the blessing of the liberally-minded Canavaggio – published a series of increasingly anti-colonial articles from 1907 until his arrest in 1908 as an agent of the Duy Tân movement. Thereafter, the newspaper came under much stricter government observation and control.

After Canavaggio’s death in 1922, ownership of Nông cổ mín đàm passed to his Vietnamese widow, but two years later it was closed down by the colonial authorities following a series of outspoken articles on the Saigon port monopoly scandal.

François Canavaggio had several sons, including Marie-Ange who practiced law in Cần Thơ and Jules who served as a Catholic priest in Thủ Đức.


Another view of the former Canavaggio villa at 128 Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai

However, perhaps his best-known offspring was Paul-François Canavaggio, who owned a large rubber plantation at Long Chiêu near Thủ Dầu Một and opened stores in both Phnom Penh and Saigon. In the 1920s and 1930s, his Saigon store (initially at 118-120 rue Catinat, but later at 173-175 rue Catinat) was one of the city’s leading suppliers of men’s hats, shirts, hosiery and footwear.

Sadly for this member of the Canavaggio family, having survived the economic crash relatively unscathed, he went bankrupt in 1935 and was forced to sell up and leave Indochina.

The old Canavaggio villa is one of several old buildings currently hidden behind ugly hoardings on Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai street, opposite the former Cercle Sportif Saïgonnais.


The former Canavaggio villa at 128 Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai, hidden behind shophouse buildings

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 – Arthur Delteil in 1882, Part 1


Delteil travelled to Saigon on the Messageries maritimes vessel Oxus

In March 1882, Arthur Delteil, retired Chief Pharmacist of the Navy, left Marseille on the Messageries maritimes vessel Oxus and travelled to Saigon, where he stayed for a year. This is the first of three translated excerpts from his book Un an de séjour en Cochinchine: guide du voyageur à Saïgon, published in 1887.

Prisoners on Poulo-Condor 1895 by Jean-Marc Bel (1855-1930)

Prisoners on Poulo-Condor in 1895 by Jean-Marc Bel

At 6am on 18 April, we passed the large island of Poulo-Condor [Côn Sơn], which belongs to us and serves as the penitentiary for our colony of Cochinchina. At 5pm, on a calm sea, we anchored off Cap Saint-Jacques [Vũng Tàu] at the entrance of the Saigon River, waiting for our pilot and for the hour of the high tide.

Cap Saint-Jacques is the point where all ships coming to Cochinchina converge before making the journey up river to Saigon. It may be seen from afar, provides an easy landing and is topped by a first class lighthouse.

At the foot of the mountain in Cap Saint-Jacques, we built some houses for the staff who manage the under-sea telegraph cable which leads north from this part of the coast and is used to report the impending arrival of ships to the authorities in Saigon.

Cap Saint-Jacques 1895 by Jean-Marc Bel (1855-1930)

Cap Saint-Jacques in 1895 by Jean-Marc Bel

Cap Saint-Jacques forms part of the granite mountain massif of the province of Baria. In the early years of their occupation of Cochinchina, the French authorities were attracted by the location of Cap Saint-Jacques on the coast and conceived the idea of building a convalescent hospital there.

However, after two years of testing, they were obliged to abandon this hospital, because they found that the soldiers who were sent there became even sicker than the ones who had been left in Saigon. A similar attempt made briefly on Poulo-Condor, an island swept by strong sea winds and situated at an altitude of several hundred metres, was no more successful.

However, this is a project which should be returned to later, when we have better studied the causes that made these early attempts fail; because it seems that both Poulo-Condor and Cap Saint-Jacques enjoy healthy conditions far superior to those of Saigon, which is located a long way inland and only rarely receives sea breezes after they have already passed over the muddy rice fields.

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

The Saigon River in 1900

At 3am on 20 April, we finally entered one of the mouths of the Donaï, one of two major rivers which flows through Cochinchina. The only obstacle which we encountered on this beautiful artery was a large bank of coral located near its mouth which can only be surmounted at high tide. Surely some dynamite and several hundred thousand francs would quickly blow away those madrepores.

It took about three hours for us to reach Saigon. As we sailed up river, we felt the sea breeze abandon us, its place taken by a hot, heavy and humid atmosphere. The thermometer read 31°30 and our bodies began to sweat profusely, leaving us anxious and exhausted as we breathed in the damp mist which rose from the marshes and extended in all directions, as far as the eye could see.

Glancing over the land which surrounded us, we were gripped by the impression which all Europeans feel when travelling through this country. The river which carried us rolled its yellow waters between two almost drowned shores, lined nearly all the way by stilted hits and clusters of trees and coconut palms.


The Messageries maritimes quay

Behind this picturesque and charming backdrop of villages arranged scenically amidst nests of greenery, we could see nothing but flooded rice fields crossed by many arroyos. Everywhere was water and mud; it resembled a primeval scene of land in the process of formation from alluvial soil carried by the Mekong and Donaï.

By midday, as the hot sun beat its perpendicular rays down on this vast muddy plain gorged with moisture and decaying organic matter, we understood that the climate of this country, with its heavy rain and humidity, was little suited to the constitution of Europeans accustomed to more temperate latitudes.

The country was so flat and so low that the river flowed at the same level as the banks. From a distance, we could see the square towers of the Cathedral, the Palace of the Governor and several other monuments of Saigon. The panorama of the city was far from ungracious, and indeed, this view of the capital of our colony caused our hearts to rejoice, for we were very eager to reach the end of our long journey.

Messageries maritimes 3 by Jean-Marc Bel (1855-1930) 1895

Greeting arrivals at the Messageries maritimes quay in 1895 by Jean-Marc Bel

At 8am on 19 April, the Oxus finally moored at the quay of the Messageries maritimes, after 32 days at sea and six stops!

Our arrival had been reported the previous day in Saigon by the Cap Saint-Jacques telegraph, so we were expected by colleagues and friends, who came aboard to welcome us and make themselves available to conduct us to our accommodation.

Gathering our luggage, we boarded a sampan, a lightweight indigenous boat piloted by an Annamite and his “congaï.” We crossed the arroyo Chinois [Bến Nghé Creek], a tributary of the Saigon River which separates the Messageries maritimes from the city, and on the other side we landed on a masonry pier lined with benches and topped by a large flagpole known as the Signal Mast.

This place is known by the familiar name of Pointe des Blagueurs (“Jokers’ Point”), and it becomes very crowded in the evenings, as after-dinner walkers come to breathe the fresh air of the river and watch the incessant coming and going of junks carrying their rich cargoes to the Chinese city of Cholon.

Les quais à Saigon

The Pointe des Blagueurs (“Jokers’ Point”)

From there, we got into one of the carriages of the country known as the Malabar, a type of square box on wheels drawn by a skinny little horse and driven by a Chinese driver who did not understand a word of French. By touching his shoulder with a cane, we could get him to go right, left or straight on.

Many new arrivals to the colony have found themselves in big trouble after entrusting their persons to the mercy of these Malabar drivers in the belief that they would make trustworthy guides. Instead, they delight in taking advantage of newcomers’ naïvety by driving them around the city at random and then demanding payment for a journey of several hours’ duration!

We travelled along a part of the quai du Commerce [Tôn Đức Thắng], then up rue Catinat [Đồng Khởi] to the Hôtel Favre, a large “caravanserai” in the style of the English hotels in Ceylon and Singapore. This hotel is a real boon for travellers; indeed, it is the only one among our colonies which has such good facilities.


Rue Catinat in the late 1800s

The man who designed and built the hotel [Elisée Favre] was a skilled cook and organiser of the first order. He saw the very large number of military and civilian passengers who arrived in the colony each year, and decided that he would build a hotel with all the facilities they needed. By offering large and well furnished rooms, an excellent restaurant, meeting facilities and good service, he succeeded in creating not just a temporary asylum for the newcomers’ first few days in the colony, but a decent hotel which attracted longer-stay guests. Indeed, so successful was M. Favre’s design that he eventually returned to France with quite a large fortune, leaving his successor a flourishing business.

The Hôtel Favre occupies almost the entire part of rue Catinat between boulevard Bonard and rue d’Espagne. It is located in the centre of the city, in the most lively and commercial street, close to the docks, the Messageries maritimes and the naval port.

1895 rue Catinat

A Malabar carriage on rue Catinat in 1895

On the ground floor there is a billiards room, a large restaurant for guests who want to eat alone or in small groups, and two or three other smaller dining rooms for long-stay residents. During meals, diners are kept cool by immense slowly-moving punkah fans, which are suspended above their heads.

Verandahs surround the building in front and behind. The first and second floors are occupied by rooms numbered from 50 to 60. A large, airy corridor divides them into two groups, those which have courtyard views and those which overlook the street. The latter are the most expensive and the most popular. The rooms are built and furnished to a uniform standard, without luxury, yet nonetheless with a certain level of comfort. Beside each is a bathroom with a shower, a bath and a tap which one only has to turn to enjoy fresh water in abundance.

This latter facility is a real stroke of genius on the part of the designer of the property, because in a place as hot as Saigon, being able to take cold water ablutions at any hour is a luxury which cannot be compared to any other!


A Saigon pousse-pousse

During the stiflingly hot months of April and May, when the thermometer never drops below 31° day and night, the greatest physical pleasure that one could have is to plunge into a bath of relatively cold water, bringing about a subtraction of heat and resulting in a relaxed state of well-being which lasts for several hours. These cold water baths permit us to endure the warmer months of the year without too much irritation.

This eager pursuit of guests’ well-being has contributed more than anything else towards the hotel’s success. So many officers have not hesitated to make it their home for the duration of their stay in Cochinchina, rather than renting a private house, with its obligation to furnish and the certainty that one would not be so well served with amenities of the type I have just mentioned.


Merchant houses on the banks of the arroyo Chinois in the late 19th century

The room rate at the hotel ranges from 13 to 15 piastres (63-73 Francs). As for full board, it offers a very affordable price to officers who have come to serve in Cochinchina, whose salaries are generally quite high.

For 30 piastres (130 Francs) per month, the long-stay guest will have 10 dishes to choose from, plus wine, ice, coffee and liqueurs – service included! This is why I opted to settle at the Hôtel Favre for the duration of my stay in Saigon.

Those who prefer to find their own place to live in Saigon are spoiled for choice. They can find small houses for rent at 75 to 100 Francs per month, or larger houses for rent at 125 to 150 Francs per month. It pays, therefore to share, which costs a lot less. A family is obliged to spend at least 100 Francs per month in rent.

As rental buildings can generate a lot of money in Saigon, those people who have made money in business, or have a small amount of capital to invest, frequently spend their money on building or buying properties to let.


Colonial buildings in Saigon

In this way, there are now many rental properties available, and it is relatively easy for those who don’t wish to live in a hotel to find a place to live.

However, renting a property means that one is obliged to furnish the house oneself, and also to meet the costs of installation. In this instance, one goes to the auction room on rue Catinat, which is located opposite the Hôtel Favre. This is where furniture, bedding, crockery, pots and pans and other household items are sold at a relatively cheap price on behalf of those who are leaving the colony.

For modest purchases, I also recommend the Chinese stores on rue Catinat, which sell lightweight, strong and comfortable beds and bamboo chairs at a really reasonable price. If one is not too fussy, one might also consider buying a Cambodian mattress, which can be folded for travel. A mosquito net must also be purchased to cover the bed, after which one is equipped with everything it takes to get a good night’s sleep.


Another Saigon pousse-pousse

The next task, if one is to eat at home, is to hire a domestic and a cook. The domestic is usually an Annamite and he costs a lot – 30-40 Francs per month, excluding food. Annamite domestics are usually young men aged 18 to 20 years, known as “boys.” Cooks are usually of the Chinese race and can cost up to 40 or 50 Francs per month. One is almost always satisfied, since the Chinese cook will rapidly become aware of the habits of European cuisine and the tastes of the people he is called to feed.

In the morning, one should give him money to go to the market and say: “With this you will buy me enough food so that I can eat well.” With the amount given to him, he will always manage to provide a good table for a relatively low price. But one should never count the change with him; if there is a difference to his advantage, that’s his business.


The Saint-Enfance

Families with children will require a female domestic. We can find fairly good ones at the Sainte-Enfance. They come straight from the care of the Sisters of St-Paul de Chartres, knowing how to sew, work and speak French. Unfortunately, when they are pretty they often turn bad, as frequently happens to girls of the same category in France. I’ve heard that these domestics provide adequate services. We must make do with them for lack of anything better.

On my first day in Saigon, I was visited by several Chinese suppliers – launderers, tailors, shoemakers – who came to me offering their services. Each one of them presented certificates which commended them to the benevolence of newcomers to the colony.

For a subscription of 12.50 Francs, the launderer washes and irons all the clothes that one is likely to get dirty during the month. And God knows, in a country where we are always sweating, we must change clothes often enough!


Chinese shops on rue Catinat

In Saigon, the laundry is done only by men. You will find these Chinese launderers in the rue Catinat, where most members of their corporation are based. Ironing is one particularly interesting aspect of their work which deserves to be described. The ironer fills his mouth with a mixture of water and starch and uses his lips to spray a very fine mist of this liquid onto the garment in front of him, at the same time pressing the well-watered item of clothing over a heated pan filled with hot coals. Despite the primitive means used, the linen is always returned dazzling white and beautifully ironed.

As for clothing and footwear, the Chinese can make these so cheaply that that there is simply no need to bring a wardrobe full of clothes and footware out from France. Judge for yourself – a complete light blue flannel suit consisting of trousers, waistcoat and jacket will cost no more than 40 Francs, cloth included. Chinese shoemakers, in turn, will make a strong pair of boots from flexible black material for just 5 Francs.

Messageries maritimes 1 by Jean-Marc Bel (1855-1930) 1895

French colons wearing flannel suits and helmets at the Messageries maritimes in 1895 by Jean-Marc Bel

Their work is not particularly elegant or refined; Chinese tailors and shoemakers do not create fanciful or trendy fashion items; they would be incapable of that. They just slavishly copy the models that you give them and their amibition is limited to this imitation. But their creations are convenient and quite in keeping with the needs of the climate.

A flannel suit and helmet is, in general, the costume worn by the majority of Europeans in Saigon. However, some young people have adopted the fashion of British officers in India and Singapore, that is to dispense with a shirt and wear next to the skin a white cotton jacket, buttoned up and down, which is changed every morning. This is clothing reduced to the bare essentials!

To read part 2 of this serialisation click here.
to read part 3 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.

Ngo Dinh Diem’s Secret Tunnels


Recently-unearthed photographs and documents suggest that the network of underground tunnels built beneath Saigon was much more extensive than originally believed.

While the Independence Palace was under construction in 1962 to replace the bombed Norodom Palace, South Vietnamese president Ngô Đình Diệm ordered his architect Ngô Viết Thụ to dig underground tunnels beneath both the new building and his temporary replacement, the Gia Long Palace (the former Lieutenant Governor’s Palace, now the Hồ Chí Minh City Museum).

Both sets of tunnels may now be visited by tourists, but with sections of each still cordoned off, the rumour that a connecting tunnel was built between the two palaces remains alive and well.

But what about these two intriguing images from the George Krizansky Collection in the Vietnam Center and Archive, taken in the aftermath of the November 1963 coup which overthrew Diệm?

99B This innocent looking building housed a tunnel exit from the Palace. It is located at the Saigon Zoo. 15 November 1963

“This innocent looking building housed a tunnel exit from the Palace. It is located at the Saigon Zoo. 15 November 1963.”

99A Police and army drive curious spectators from seeing exit of tunnel located at the basement of this deceiptive building at Saigon Zoo

“Police officers and army men drive curious spectators away from seeing the exit of the tunnel located at the basement of this deceptive building at the Saigon Zoo.”

The original images can be found online here:

The existence of a tunnel leading from the Gia Long Palace to the Zoo is confirmed in a US Department of State document entitled The Coup Against the Diem Government, October 23-November 2, 1963: Differing Interpretations of U.S. Policy Toward Coup Plotting, Efforts To Obtain Information on a Potential Coup, Lodge-Diem Discussions, U.S. Assessments of a Coup, The Coup, The Deaths of Nhu and Diem (Foreign Relations, 1961-1963, Volume IV, Vietnam, August-December 1963)

“The Generals [General Trần Văn Đôn and Trần Thiện Khiêm] are aware that there are two underground tunnels of escape from Gia Long Palace. These terminate at the [Mạc Đĩnh Chi] Cemetery [now Lê Văn Tám Park] at the corner of Phùng Khắc Khoan and Phan Thanh Giản [Điện Biên Phủ] and at the Zoo. These were formerly part of the sewers, but the sewerage has been diverted into other channels.”

Tunnels leading from the Gia Long Palace all the way to the Mạc Đĩnh Chi Cemetery and to the Saigon Zoo? Clearly the tunnel network under Saigon was once far more extensive than any of us imagined!

Thanks to Tyler Watts for providing this information.

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.

Icons of Old Saigon – The Hotel de l’Univers, 1872

Saïgon l'Hôtel de l'Univers MAP

The Hôtel de l’Univers in the late 19th century (MAP)

This article was published previously in Saigoneer

Contrary to what many tourist websites would have us believe, the Grand Hôtel Continental was not Saigon’s first up-market hotel.


The Hôtel Cosmopolitan, aka the Hôtel Wang-Taï

That title may legitimately be claimed by the Hôtel Cosmopolitan, aka the Hôtel Wang-Taï, housed in the former riverfront residence and office of Cantonese opium dealer Wang Tai, which as early as December 1869 provided “sumptuous apartments” for the state visit of King Norodom of Cambodia – see Wang Tai and the Cochinchina opium monopoly.

However, from the 1870s onwards, most French visitors to Saigon chose to stay not at the Hotel Cosmopolitan, but rather at the Hôtel de l’Univers, which opened in around 1872 under the management of a Monsieur A Lacaze. Initially a two-storey building on rue Vannier (now Ngô Đức Kế street), it was later rebuilt as a three-storey structure with its main entrance (and also its café and bar) at 1 rue Turc (now Hồ Huấn Nghiệp street).

In her 1892 book Les Indes et l’Extrême Orient, impressions de voyage d’une parisienne, wealthy French widow Louise Bourbonnaud describes how, during her 1888 stay at the Hôtel de l’Univers, she rented “a suite comprising two rooms on the first floor” which included “a beautiful bedroom with a large covered balcony overlooking the garden courtyard” and another room “overlooking the street and furnished with a dressing table, a writing desk, a sofa and three side tables.”


Hugues Krafft, who stayed at the Hôtel de l’Univers in 1881

It seems that the hotel’s reputation was based more on the quality of its cuisine than on the comfort of its rooms. In his 1885 book Souvenirs de notre tour du monde, wealthy Parisian photographer Hugues Krafft commented that the hotel, in which he stayed during his 1881 visit, “had been recommended to us for its cuisine, the reputation of which was maintained by Monsieur Ollivier, former head chef of the Governor.”

By 1886 chef Ollivier and his brother had taken over the management of the hotel from Lacaze. However, it seems that the Ollivier Brothers failed to overcome the popular perception that the best thing about the hotel was its restaurant. Describing his 1887 stopover in Saigon in the 1891 book Souvenirs chinois, Léon Caubert recounted the popular adage that one should choose “the Hôtel Laval for sleeping and the Hôtel de l’Univers (Ollivier) for eating.”

As there was no plumbing in the hotel rooms, guests wishing to take a bath or shower were obliged to visit the hotel’s “hydrotherapy annex,” located opposite the hotel on rue Vannier.

In 1885, Hugues Krafft described this installation as “primitive and unkempt,” accusing its Chinese staff of being “sullen and unpleasant individuals, who most of the time couldn’t even be bothered to respond to the requests of the guests.”


Louise Bourbonnaud, who stayed at the Hôtel de l’Univers in 1888

However, staying at the hotel three years later, Louise Bourbonnaud was somewhat more charitable about the annex: “Back at the hotel, I prepared myself for a cold bath, as always. But I found that the hydrotherapy unit, which did so much to gain my admiration when I first arrived, didn’t always work properly. When I went to turn on the stopcock, I succeed only with great difficulty and end up showering myself a little more than I would have desired. I laughed, of course, because when travelling, this kind of thing can be expected.”

By the turn of the century, the choice of up-market hotels in Saigon had expanded significantly and the golden age of the Hôtel de l’Univers was over. In addition to the Grand Hôtel Continental, these included the Hôtel des Nations, the Hôtel de la Paix and the Hôtel de Bretagne on boulevard Charner, the Hôtel de la Gare on boulevard de Canton, and the Hôtel de France and the Hôtel de la Rotonde on rue Catinat.

This grand old Saigon institution made its last appearance in a French government directory of 1923, when it was listed as being under the management of Messrs Ange Frasséto and Eugène Sicé, then owners of the Grand Hôtel Continental. The Hôtel de l’Univers is believed to have shut shop in the mid 1920s.

Hotel de l'Univers 1906 i

The Hôtel de l’Univers in 1906

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 – Hugues Krafft in 1882

Cochinchine - saïgon - les sampans des passeurs pres des messageries maritimes

Sampans moored near the quai des Messageries maritimes

In 1881, wealthy Parisian photographer Hugues Krafft (1853–1935), his brother Edouard Hermann and his two friends Louis Borchard and Charles Kessler, embarked upon a world tour modelled on that of Phileas Fogg in Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days. This translated excerpt from Krafft’s 1885 book Souvenirs de notre tour du monde (Memories of our World Tour) describes their 48-hour stopover in Saigon in August 1882, during a five-month trip which took in India, Ceylon, Java, China and Japan.


An 1892 painting of Hugues Krafft by Léon Bonnat

After two days at sea, the Djemnah arrived in Cochinchina. As it’s easy to see from the map, Saigon is located some distance from the coast, and reaching it involves around three hours’ navigation from Cap Saint-Jacques. This is where the telegraph cable passes to facilitate communication with China, and where a pilot comes on board ships to guide them up the Saigon River.

Once we’d entered the river – a yellow-coloured arm of the great Mekong, the “Nile” of Cochinchina – we quickly lost sight of the promontory of Cap Saint-Jacques, and soon we could see nothing but submerged brush and endless rice fields. As we progressed, the river began to turn in zigzags like the Seine near Paris, so that as we approached Saigon we could see, sometimes to the right and sometimes to the left, the square towers of the cathedral, which seemed to be the only high point in the midst of a uniform plain.

Arriving in Saigon harbour, which had a quiet aspect, we were transferred ashore by sampan, a type of native canoe rowed by Annamite boatmen. These first members of the Annamite race that we encountered did not charm us.

The Djemnah, built 1874 and weighing 3785 tons

The Djemnah, built 1874 and weighing 3785 tons

They were nervous little men with bad expressions, garbling a few French phrases in a rude and guttural way and revealing teeth blackened by betel. Their attire, and especially their hairstyle, was far from picturesque. The latter consisted of a red or green handkerchief, carelessly knotted around a small bun and hung like a rag over their ears and necks.

“Oh what a pretty harbour! What beautiful trees! Victoria carriages! Houses with balconies! A café!” we cried as soon as we set foot on the quayside. One might easily have mistaken this place for Chatou, for it would surely have been impossible to find anywhere else so far from home and yet so reminiscent of France.

We took rooms at the Hôtel de l’Univers, a two-storey building located in the first street which intersects at right angles with that great Saigon artery, the rue Catinat.

Hotel de l'Univers 1906 i

The Hotel de l’Univers, pictured in 1906

This hotel, which had its name written on a blue sign with white letters, had been recommended to us for its cuisine, the reputation of which was maintained by M Olivier, former head chef of the Governor.

The best thing about the Hôtel de l’Univers was indeed the cuisine. Everything else about this place brought to mind a small provincial hotel; the walls of the rooms were hung with drab wallpaper and decorated with coloured lithographs representing the Bal Mabille or the sentimental allegories of Louis-Philippe.

If the comfort of the rooms was higher than that of the Indian hostels we had stayed in, the hotel’s hydrotherapy annex left a great deal to be desired. These facilities were as primitive as they were unkempt, and their Chinese staff were also in urgent need of some retraining. These boys with pigtails were very sullen and unpleasant individuals, who most of the time couldn’t even be bothered to respond to the requests of the guests.


Calling a malabar in colonial Saigon

Taking advantage of the obliging offer of two of our fellow travellers from the Djemnah, we went with them early next morning to Chợ Lớn, a very important city located just a few kilometres from Saigon.

This is the major rice market of the country, and the Chinese, who are very numerous there, control all of its trade. The ponies pulling our Victoria carriage ran like the wind, but in a very ugly way which seemed typical of their species.

The dusty soil was of a pronounced red brick colour, which lent a strange hue to the shrubs and hedges lining our route. A large plain known as the Plaine des tombeaux (Plain of Tombs) lay to the right of the road, alongside which ran the new steam tramway connecting Saigon with Chợ Lớn.


The grand Chợ Lớn residence of Đỗ Hữu Phương

The main purpose of our trip was a visit to a well-known Annamite personage, Đỗ Hữu Phương, the local prefect and Deputy President of the Chợ Lớn Municipal Council. Given that it was still quite early in the morning (7am!), we were not surprised when M Phương received us in his dressing gown.

He was quite the Annamite type. Very proud to have been in Paris, he jabbered a little in French, but as he stuttered badly, we found him very hard to understand. However, he was on very good terms with one of our companions and seemed delighted to receive us. He showed us the many objects in his famous antique collection, including ancient weapons, porcelain and Chinese and Tonkinese furniture, as well as articles specially reserved for the worship of his own ancestors, including an ornate shrine adorned with calligraphic works and incense burners.


The interior of a Chinese Assembly Hall in Chợ Lớn

We were offered cognac, vermouth and… Caporal tobacco! Clear proof that in M Phương’s house, some French habits prevailed over those of his own country. We also met his wife and several of his nine children, who gathered timidly in the doorway to observe us! Madame Phương presented everyone in our group with bouquets of small yellow flowers, a gesture accompanied by a frightening smile which revealed her betel-blackened mouth.

M Phương showed us his garden, in which, following the widespread taste in the East, he raised all sorts of animals, including birds, deer and crocodiles. Then he took us to one of the main Chinese pagodas in Chợ Lớn. This was a large and luxurious temple, fairly new and decorated at all corners with brightly-coloured ceramic sculptures, porcelain decorations and grimacing statues.


A late 19th century Saigon street scene

Returning to Saigon, we had lunch and then followed the example of all Saïgonnais by taking a nap until 2pm. At that hour, the city’s shops and offices, closed since 11am, reopened. In the late afternoon, as the heat began to abate, the city streets slowly regained their animation.

Making the most of the little time remaining, this traveller quickly inspected the local sights: the Cathedral, a beautiful monument of brick and stone; the Palace of the Governor, a large and brand new edifice, doubtless imposing in the imaginations of local people, but in our view looking rather too much like a casino; the Botanical and Zoological Gardens; the Water Tower; and the Citadel with its Marine Infantry Barracks. The latter, very airy with iron verandahs on every floor, had been very well built.


Colonial military personnel in Saigon

But we saw very few of our soldiers there. I should mention that, despite the tropical heat, they are required to wear a collared shirt, a black tie and a jacket, all made from material thick enough for the icy slopes of the Himalayas! We must sympathise with those among their number who must stand guard wearing this uniform, and ask why we cannot learn from the practices of the British military in India and Ceylon, instead of allowing such errors to continue?

How shall I sum up Saigon? This city – perfectly clean, with streets which intersect tidily at right angles, are equipped with sidewalks, manholes, hydrants and lined with symmetrically-planted trees – seems better administered than any city we’ve seen so far on our trip. However, I would add that, in the light of the city’s precarious state just 20 years ago, the recent improvements tend to make us forget the misconduct in failing to establish the capital at Cap Saint-Jacques.

17 Boutique Chinois

A Chinese store in colonial Saigon

The 1,300-strong population comprises French, Malay, Tamil, and above all the active and industrious Chinese, who account for most of its small businesses and industries. It is from their ranks that the city’s tailors, launderers, carpenters and shoemakers are drawn, centralising in the hands of one race all the trades necessary for the needs of the Europeans and even the native Annamites.

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 – 39 Tran Quoc Thao, 1900-1910

Descours et Cabaud TWO

A 2003 photograph of the former managerial residence of Lyon-based metallurgical products company Descours et Cabaud, now the Quận ủy (District council) building at 39 Trần Quốc Thảo (the former rue Eyriaud-des-Vergnes) in District 3.

This article was published previously in Saigoneer

One of District 3’s grandest old colonial mansions, the Quận ủy (District council) building at 39 Trần Quốc Thảo (the former rue Eyriaud-des-Vergnes) was once the plush managerial residence of the Lyon-based metallurgical products company, Descours et Cabaud.

Founded in 1780, the Maison Descours et Cabaud was the first major French company to trade internationally in “iron, steel, cast iron and other metallurgical products, and all that is related directly or indirectly to the trade in raw or manufactured materials used in industries or enterprises.”


Descours et Cabaud’s Indochina head office building at 1 quai de Belgique in Saigon during the colonial period.

The company opened its first Far East office in Hà Nội in 1898, but in the following year, larger premises were acquired at 1 quai de Belgique in Saigon, which subsequently became the Maison Descours et Cabaud’s regional head office. By 1915, the company also had representative offices in Tourane (Đà Nẵng), Hải Phòng, Qui Nhơn and Bến Thủy (Vinh), as well as in Phnom Penh (Cambodia), Vientiane (Laos) and Mongtze (China).

In 1927, in addition to its core business in metallurgical products, this “limited company with capital of 50 million francs” was acting as the Indochina agent for a wide range of international companies, including the Établissements Decauville (railway rolling stock and equipment), Portland Cement, Worthington Pumps, the Société d’Explosifs et de Produits Chimiques (dynamite), the Société Française “Le Métal Déployé” (metal fences) and “Le Gaulois” tamper-proof safes.

516pubdescours 1927

A 1927 poster advertising the services of Descours et Cabaud.

The mansion at 39 Trần Quốc Thảo was built in the early 20th century as an executive residence for one of the company’s best-known Directors-General, Maurice Bergier (1907-1922), who also owned a large plantation (the Plantation Bergier) in Xuân Vinh village, Gia Định Province. In the period 1914-1922, Bergier served as president of the Chambre de Commerce de Cochinchine and of the Saigon Port Council of Administration, and was also appointed to the Cochinchina Colonial Council. After Bergier’s retirement, the mansion was occupied by his successors right down to 1954, when the company left Indochina.

While the Maison Descours et Cabaud office building at 1 quai de Belgique (now Võ Văn Kiệt) was demolished many years ago, the company’s executive residence at 39 rue Eyriaud-des-Vergnes (Trần Quốc Thảo) still stands today.

After the departure of the French in 1954, the villa became the home of a Vietnamese family. It was appropriated by the government in 1975 and has since been used as a local government office.

At the time of writing, a new office block is under construction immediately behind the old mansion. While it is perhaps not one of the most attractive or sympathetic examples of a historic building being retained and incorporated into a new development, this scheme has at least preserved the original building intact.

Descours et Cabaut ad

A Chinese advertisement for Descours et Cabaud.


More Descours et Cabaud promotional materials.


An office building is currently being constructed behind the former Descours et Cabaud executive residence.


Another view of the office building currently being constructed behind the former Descours et Cabaud executive residence.

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 – Leon Caubert in 1887


The Palace of the Government, built from 1868 to 1873

In August 1887, Léon Caubert, a member of an official French delegation to China, made an overnight stop in Saigon to attend a grand ball hosted by the Governor General of Indochina. This translated excerpt from his 1891 book Souvenirs chinois (“Chinese Memories”)  describes his very brief stay in the Cochinchina capital.

On 12 and 13 August 1887, we were lucky to cross the Gulf of Siam without heavy seas. Just a few months later, the unfortunate Japanese battleship Unebi was lost here, body and soul.

Phare de Cap Saint Jacques

The Cap St-Jacques lighthouse

The heat had now become much more tolerable, and on the evening of 13 August, when at about 7pm we saw the lighthouse at Cap St-Jacques [Vũng Tàu], we were almost ready to accuse those geographers who describe Cochinchina as a hot country of exaggeration.

Following a brief report from the Cap St-Jacques semaphore office, which shares with an English telegraph company a hut on a wooded and tiger-infested outcrop, we saw a small steam boat arriving alongside the Natal. It was a launch belonging to a senior official from Saigon, who greeted the Deputy Special Envoy and welcomed him on behalf of Governor-General Filippini (20 June 1886-22 October 1887, died in office).

The Natal had to stop completely and was moored off the coast of Cap St-Jacques to await the high tide. The main thing I remember from that night was the violent discussion which ensued among my companions about the special breed of dog which inhabited the island of Phú Quốc. It concerned whether or not the hair of these animals grew in reverse, that is to say, whether their hair was not planted in the direction of their heads, instead of in the direction of the tail! This important question raised waves of bile and provoked such fury that it took nothing less than all-powerful intervention to restore calm!

Plage du Cap St-Jacques - pêcheurs

Fishermen on the beach of Coconut Bay, Cap St-Jacques

The peak overlooking the lighthouse at Cap St-Jacques is separated from the mainland by a depression whose edges form a cove called the Baie des Cocotiers (Coconut Bay). This is the favourite seaside resort of Saigon, and one of our river pilots, M Arduzer, ran a little hotel there. If one stays at this resort, the sound of tigers may be heard all night, and of course, these animals won’t be afraid to pay you a nocturnal visit! But never fear, because at the Cap, one of the main occupations of the post of Annamese riflemen is to guard against these striped creatures.

Finally, at just the right time in the middle of the night, we began our journey up river towards Saigon. On the way, we passed two small gunboats descending the river with reinforcements for our troops, who had been sent to suppress an insurrection on the borders of Annam. Aboard one of these gunboats was a Phu (a type of native prefect) who, judging by the reputation he has earned carrying out various repressions, did not have a tender heart.

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

A view of the Saigon river

The next day we were awoken by a cannon shot, the only salute we received during our entire journey, signalling that we had arrived in Saigon.

Turning my head to the window without leaving my bed, I looked out at the banks of the river. It was very flat alongside the water, with mangroves and some bamboo. Nothing particularly exotic, except for some small Cochinchina oxen and some rather cranky wild buffalo.

I made my way quickly up onto the deck. The scene awaiting us was much more interesting than that which one sees on arrival in France, with large clumps of trees and tall buildings, mills and rice warehouses. We went ashore, walking slowly but agreeably; even for those people who had not suffered seasickness on the journey, it was a great physical rest not having to fight against the constant movement of the ship.

A steamer similar to ours, but smaller, was moored nearby. It belonged to the Tonkin and Annam authorities. As we walked a few hundred metres further, past the quai des Messageries, we made out two smart Landaus with four horses, a Daumont and a Victoria; the presence of these carriage crews indicated to us that the Governor General himself had come to meet the head of our mission.

Saigon - Le pont des Messageries Maritimes

The Maison Eiffel’s pont des Messageries maritimes (1882)

Then indeed we saw M Filippini himself, along with his aide and his secretaries. After the usual exchange of pleasantries, we boarded our carriages, which took us at a trot to the Palace of the Government.

We crossed a magnificent single-arch iron bridge [the Maison Eiffel’s pont des Messageries maritimes], which was built over the arroyo Chinois [Bến Nghé creek] at the time when M Le Myre de Villers was Governor. We travelled along the quai du Commerce [Tôn Đức Thắng street], rue Catinat [Đồng Khởi street] and into the place de la Cathédrale, then took the wide boulevard Norodom [Lê Duẩn street] to the Palace. As we passed through the front gate, the Annamite sharpshooters on duty there presented arms in salute.

In all, our first impression was very favourable. In fact, it would have been excellent, had it not been for the heavy and humid atmosphere. But it’s precisely because of this difficult climate that we must admire all the more the enormous efforts which have been made and the results which have been obtained here.

10 Cathedral square

Cathedral square at the top end of rue Catinat

Let’s not forget that our city is less than 30 years old; in another 30 years, if the improvements continue, if wise and timely administrative measures are taken, Saigon will be a great and beautiful city which will form a whole with its suburb of Chợ Lớn and may be home to more than one million people.

As in Singapore, the Chinese issue is very important here in Saigon, especially since most of the Chinese who have settled here in recent years are Cantonese, that is to say active and industrious traders. Certainly, we cannot afford to hand the reins of commerce to that population, as they would eventually reign as masters in our country; but we must hold them in respect and always treat them with fairness and scrupulous integrity. This is the safest way to ensure that these hard-working communities are harnessed to our ideas, and to make them, if not love, then at least appreciate, our domination.

Like all official buildings, the Palace of the Government is an imposing building, with a central pavilion, two wings and side pavilions. The central pavilion extends quite far back and forms the front of the great hall, which measures around 15m W x 50m L x 9-10m H. The other salons – the dining room, the atrium, the vestibules and the private apartments – are in keeping with the grandness of the building, but the number and dimensions of rooms is actually smaller than one first imagines, because on each floor of the Palace, the rooms are surrounded by a 4m wide verandah. The interior decor is modern, but not too heavy and quite tasteful.

Saigon - Un coin du Jardin de la Ville

A cormer of the Jardin de ville in Saigon

Lawns extend all around the palace and merge partially with those of the largest municipal park in Saigon, which bears the modest name Jardin de la ville (City Park) – although this does not prevent it from being a very nice place to walk, rich in high trees and intersected by wide avenues. We must not confuse the Jardin de la ville with the Botanical and Zoological Gardens, which is located at the other end of the city and is also well designed, well maintained and stocked with many interesting wild animals.

They were very busy at the Palace, making preparations for the ball to be held that evening in honour of the Governor. Gardeners pottered around bearing plants to adorn the rooms, stairs and verandahs; upholsterers removed covers from the furniture and nailed up bunting and strings of flags.

M Filippini had invited us to join him for dinner before the ball. Some of our party decided to return to the Natal first, in order to take an afternoon nap, but I preferred to make the most of my visit by taking a trip to Chơ Lớn on the steam tramway which operates a half-hourly service between Saigon and its Chinese suburb. The price of the trip was 12 cents per person (approximately 45 centimes, the piastre is thus worth 3.80 Francs).


French Indochina piastre de commerce coins, 1885

The Paris Mint manufactures, especially for French Indochina, silver coins in denominations of 1 piastre, 40 cents, 20 cents and 10 cents, and bronze coins in denominations of 1 and 2 cents. The effigy on these coins is that of the Great Seal of France [featuring Liberty personified as a seated Juno wearing a crown with seven arches], holding in his right hand a fasces, but with a relatively simple background.

It took 35 minutes to make the tram journey across a barren plain from Saigon to Chợ Lớn. The pace was fast enough, and I was told that in the evenings, many Saïgonnais take the tram in order to enjoy the cool breeze sitting next to the open carriage windows.

The price of horse-drawn carriages in Saigon is very moderate indeed: 30 cents for a single journey, 40 cents for an hour, 2 piastres for a day; they can also take you to Chợ Lớn, but on this day there was no question of making the journey by horse-drawn carriage, because nearly all of them had already been hired for the Governor General’s ball.

5 SGTVC No 3 'Le Myre de Vilers' pictured on a Sài Gòn-Chợ Lớn 'High Road' tramway service in 1905

A Sài Gòn-Chợ Lớn ‘High Road’ tramway service arriving in Chợ Lớn

The city of Chợ Lớn has more than 80,000 inhabitants, most of them Chinese. It is clean, with wide and well surfaced streets and sidewalks where Annamite and Chinese shops mingle fraternally. They are open 24 hours a day and their counters, which contain no displays of goods, open directly onto the street; products for sale are stacked behind in semicircular rows.

Here we can see many weavers and manufacturers of cabinets made from camphor wood. Merchants also sell fabrics and items of hardware from all over the world, including England, Germany and America as well France.

In Chợ Lớn, I was taken to visit the residence of the native prefect, the Phu of Cholon [“Tổng Đốc” Đỗ Hữu Phương, see Dinner with the “Tong Doc”] a well known personage in Cochinchina who is entirely familiar with our customs.


The family temple and “antiques museum” of the “Tổng Đốc” Đỗ Hữu Phương’s residence in Chợ Lớn

The interior of his residence is furnished partly in European and partly in Annamite style; his indigenous furniture, made from precious wood inlaid with mother of pearl, is very beautiful. I was told that some pieces had been sent to France and placed on display in our 1878 Exposition.

During my return journey to Saigon, I was struck by the colossal and imposing dimensions of the new Palais de justice (Central law court), which resembled a Greek temple.

The administrative services of the colony are centralised under the Direction of the Interior, which occupies several well-constructed buildings on rue Catinat, all of them perfectly adapted to the climate.

The Marine Infantry Barracks, located in the Citadel (though it is now only a citadel by name), are also very well ventilated; the walls of the barracks are open, allowing fresh air to circulate freely throughout their extent.


Part of the Marine Infantry Barracks in the former Citadel compound

Like most residences, all of Saigon’s public buildings have only one or two storeys, always surrounded by verandahs.

In recent years, a Château d’eau (water tower) with steam pumping apparatus was built to guarantee residents a plentiful supply of fresh water.

However two things are still lacking in Saigon – the first is adequate lighting and the second is a dry dock.

In 1887, Saigon was still lit by oil lamps, since attempts to install gas lighting had proved unsuccessful and the technology then available made it impossible to provide electric lighting. It seems that dynamos suffer almost as much as men from the humidity which prevails almost constantly here in Cochinchina, inducing oxidisation with surprising speed. However, it must be said that, although the city is still lit by oil, the quantity of Saigon’s street lights makes up for their quality.

As for the dry dock, this kind of installation is still rare everywhere, even in Europe. You may think, therefore, that it is even more rare in East Asia and Australasia. However, ships of more than 100m in length may already be refitted at dry dock facilities in Sydney, Australia, and at Kowloon docks in Hong Kong.


The dry dock which was eventually built in the Saigon Naval Arsenal

At the present time, our authorities in New Caledonia are lobbying to build a dry dock facility in Nouméa for the French fleet in the Pacific.

Here in Saigon, in 1881, instead of a dry dock, we installed a floating dock made from iron. However, this installation was short-lived: inaugurated during the course of August, it sank on 1 September 1881!

Yet, with an expenditure of about one million (not including machinery, pumps and sluices, of course), using modern methods of construction (the Monier reinforced concrete system, for example), we could very easily construct a large and perfectly waterproof basin. Surely it would be much more useful to build it here in Cochinchina, rather than in New Caledonia!

I had intended to head straight back to the Natal to get ready for the ball, but I suddenly remembered the recommendation made to me by a fellow traveller to change my French money to piastres during my visit in Cochinchina.

59 Banque de l'Indochine 1

The original Banque de l’Indochine building on quai Belqique (now Võ Văn Kiệt)

Arriving in Saigon, travellers coming from Europe and continuing to China will certainly benefit by changing gold or European banknotes for piastres; but it’s important to demand Mexican piastres [the Indochina piastre was initially equivalent to the Mexican peso]. This is because the Mexican piastre is always worth less in Cochinchina than in the Chinese ports, and the difference in rate increases gradually as one moves northward. So, by changing French money for Mexican piastres in Saigon, you will get a better return later. An exception must be made, however, for Japan, where the piastre exchange rate is usually very low.

At 7.15pm we were sitting on the first floor verandah of the Palace of the Government. The street lights illuminating Norodom Boulevard stretched into the distance in four long lines and their perspective was very reminiscent of the Champs Élysées.

The dinner, served in French style, was as good as one could expect in Cochinchina, where fresh vegetables, in particular, still leave much be desired.

Norodom Palace i

Another early view of the Palace of the Government

Since the advent of the civil governors, the tone of the Palace has declined significantly, but one cannot blame this decline of representation on the officials who have succeeded to this high office. Both Army and Navy officers benefit from a wide range of facilities and can subsist easily on a salary of 100,000 Francs, but such facilities are completely lacking for the civil servant, who costs us twice as much. From this point of view, many regret the replacement of admiral governors by civilian governors.

As we returned to the verandah for coffee, the guests began to arrive for the ball, the thousand lanterns of their carriages descending at full trot along boulevard de Norodom. It was just like the Place de la Concorde on summer nights, when carriage crews bring day trippers back from the Bois de Boulogne.

All the verandahs and all the rooms of the palace were illuminated. Through the bay windows of the atrium, we saw the great hall sparkling in understated detail, as bright as the grand ballroom of the Foreign Office in London, to which it also approximates in dimensions.


Guests attending a ball at the Palace of the Government

The official procession advanced into the great hall, and on the entrance of the Governor, the marine infantry band, located on a platform near the door, struck up the opening bars of the Marseillaise.

All around we saw many military uniforms and a plethora of pretty female costumes, and by the time the ball was in full swing, some 700 or 800 people were milling around the various salons of the palace.

Among them we saw the Phu of Chợ Lớn, very correctly dressed in a long black coat with an almost imperceptible red rosette, and wearing his badge of office, a white silk sash embroidered with gold. He was accompanied by his wife, Madame Prefect of Chợ Lớn, and his daughters; these ladies were surrounded by Europeans and natives who commented enthusiastically on the richness of their national costumes.

Gaming tables had been set up in several salons, and the card game Écarté was all the rage, with guests pitting piastres against Bank of Indochina notes in a frenzied dance.

5219617603_e00ef8981d SAIGON - palais de justice_O

The Palais de justice

Under the verandahs roamed groups of Annamite scholars and indigenous performers; they stopped occasionally to roll cigarettes at tables loaded with mountains of tobacco and piles of cigars, or to sample the food from the well-stocked buffet tables.

It was past 2am when we finally returned to the Natal in a carriage which a councillor had kindly placed at our disposal.

On the way back, the deep blue of the night sky was of unparalleled transparency; the moonlight reflected off the dusty roads and illuminated the colonnades of the Palais de Justice so vividly that the building appeared to be made of marble – a true Parthenon, which contrasted sharply with the surrounding clutter of dilapidated huts and pagodas with fantastic roofs.

As we approached the quayside, we heard the familiar drone of the mosquitoes, and so we went without lights into our cabins, so as not to attract those nasty insects. With this precaution, they left us almost alone.

Saigon - L'accostage d'un cargo boat des Messageries Maritimes

Unloading cargo from a ship at the quai des Messageries maritimes

A few hours later we were awoken by the last unloading of luggage from the Natal.

As I ascended onto the deck, the first person I met was our friend de Clamart, who was leaving us to go to Hà Nội.

“Did you find a good hotel last night?” I asked him. “Yes,” he replied, “They advised me that I should choose ‘the Hôtel Laval for sleeping, the Hôtel de l’Univers (Ollivier) for eating.’ But I must leave you now, because I have to go and make sure they transfer my furniture carefully.”

Just at that moment, a huge crate was hoisted precariously into the air by crane. “That crate contains my wardrobe,” said my companion, “I must go down to the quayside to receive it!”

De Clamart had hardly completed that sentence, when the crate became detached from the crane and fell heavily onto the deck of the ship with a terrible crash of breaking glass and splintering wood. It was painful to see the desperation of its owner, who had turned around just in time to witness this disaster. “I had a premonition that this might happen,” he muttered with a sorry air. “Bah!” replied one phlegmatic witness, “There’s no need to complain – the company will pay! Console yourself!” And indeed, this comment seemed to comfort my stricken friend.

Shortly before high tide, the Natal raised anchor and began its journey back down the Saigon River.

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.

Life in Saigon, 1868-1870, by M A Petiton

44 Boulevard Charner 1882

By the time Emile Gsell took this photograph of the Grand Canal or Canal Rigault de Genouilly in 1882, all except its lower section leading to the city market had been filled

This is an excerpt from a lecture delivered before the Geographical Society of Lille on 3 March 1883 by M A Petiton, a mining engineer from La Grand-Combe in Gard (Languedoc-Roussillon) who was recruited by the administration of Rear Admiral de la Grandière as Chief Engineer of the Cochinchina Mines Service to carry out geological and mining studies throughout Indochina. In the event, by the time of his arrival in October 1868, de la Grandière had died and funding for geological exploration had been cut drastically by the new administration of his successor, Rear Admiral Ohier (5 April 1868-11 December 1869). Rather than being sent back to France, Petiton was forced to remain in Saïgon until 1870 “with only the financial means for insufficient actions,” continuing his geological studies largely at his own expense. His disillusionment with the colonial authorities in Saïgon is evident in much of his writing.


Saigon harbour in the late 1860s

The general appearance of Cochinchina, when you arrive by sea off the coast of Cap St-Jacques [Vũng Tàu], fills one with sadness. This is due to several different features of the country itself; however, I think that this first impression has a lot to do with the very low elevation of the coastline; as he arrives, exhausted after a long journey, the earth seems to flee in front of the passenger’s eyes. With the exception of the small mountains around Cap St-Jacques and the general massif of Baria on the right, you can see only low, marshy land, hardly distinguishable from the sea.

The journey up river to Saïgon hardly does much to reduce this feeling of sadness, with its monotony of river banks covered with mangroves. It seems almost as if there is no land in this country, that its entire surface is swampland!

When arriving in Saïgon, the first question one asks is: where is the city? When I first arrived, I asked seriously which side of the river it was on. I must say, and I was not the only one who had this impression, that at first sight Saïgon seemed a dismal place. Apart from a few large buildings – the Messageries nationales, the famous Maison Wang-taï, and four or five cafés along the waterfront – there was not a lot to see.

Plan Coffyn 1862

The Projet de ville de 500.000 âmes à Saïgon of 30 April 1862 by Lieutenant Colonel Paul Coffyn

We anchored in front of the Arsenal, that’s to say beyond the city.

I came ashore in light rain, under the cover of a grey sky. I walked past the general stores of the Navy, making my way from the dock to the place du Rond-point [now Mê Linh square].

Saïgon felt to me not like a city, but rather like a sketch of a city.

Indeed, I was not wrong to say this, because some years earlier, a French officer with unlimited confidence in the future of the colony drew up a plan of the layout of the capital of Cochinchina for a future population of 500,000 souls [the Projet de ville de 500.000 âmes à Saïgon of 30 April 1862 by Lieutenant Colonel Paul Coffyn of the Marine Engineering Corps Roads and Bridges Department]. In this plan, Saïgon stretches out for several kilometres over marshy land. The officer drew long lines at an angle of about 45° from the river, along with a series of other perpendicular lines which met the others; thus was the city drawn.

As I walked, I saw a number of caïnhas [the word used by the French for a local house, from the Vietnamese cái nhà] looming out of the mud. The caïnha is a horrible construction built by the Annamites, with a low roof and burning tiles that reflect heat from the sun by focusing it on your heads.

111 La premiere residence des Gouverneurs a Saigon 1

A drawing of the first governor’s palace from the 1931 book Iconographie historique de l’Indochine française (1931)

It was right in the midst of these caïnhas that we built our first Governor’s palace, a temporary wooden building with a large reception room in the shape of a barn. At that time I felt that the building was perfectly adequate for our colony.

Since then, at enormous expense, we have built the Messageries building, which is separated from Saïgon by the arroyo Chinois [Bến Nghé creek]. A Chinese known throughout Saïgon, named Wang-Taï, also built a large colonnaded house on the quayside between the arroyo Chinois and the Grand arroyo [modern Nguyễn Huệ boulevard]. The location of this “Maison Wang-Taï” [the structure rebuilt in 1887 to a design by Alfred Foulhoux as the Customs House] is regarded as the centre of Saïgon. It has two floors with verandahs and contains the Town Hall, the residence of the Mayor, who is truly the best accommodated official in Saïgon, a post of the Central Police Station and the office of the Secret Police (a new institution created in Saïgon).

Another organisation based here is the Grand cercle, which counts among its members almost all of the officials and naval officers in Saïgon and a small number of marine infantry officers, but very few traders. This is because the traders have their own Cercle du commerce, which is less important than the Grand cercle.

47 Maison Wang-Tai

The Maison Wang-Taï

Almost the entire first floor of the Maison Wang-Taï facing the arroyo is occupied by the Grand cercle. In the evening one can see light gleaming from the windows as the regulars play cards or walk along the veranda, smoking; this is about the only thing to do in the city when night falls, and many Europeans may be found here.

Next to the maison Wang-Taï, there is a canal several hundred metres long, which runs perpendicular to the river [the lower end of modern Nguyễn Huệ boulevard].

The construction of new masonry walls alongside this canal cost a great deal of money. It seems that we attach great importance to the completion of this canal for the unloading of cargo brought by different Annamite ships. However, I would be very happy to hear the considerations that led to the execution of this expensive work, as I fear that because of constant silting, the upgraded canal will not serve us as well as we would be entitled to expect.

SAIGON - Rue Charner

Another view of the Grand Canal or Canal Rigault de Genouilly

This canal is called the Canal Rigault de Genouilly (after the Navy Minister, Admiral Rigault Genouilly, who was one of our first Cochinchinois); it is bordered on the right by European and some Chinese and Malabar houses, and on the left by Chinese houses, the main city market [1870-1914] and a number of Chinese shops.

The canal once continued further, but it now ends near the church. However, the filling of the upper end of the canal was carried out imperfectly, and it currently forms a swampy rectangular square, lined with houses!

On the left side of this rectangular square is a bowling centre. So that I don’t have to mention it again, I will briefly describe this game of bowling, which is played mainly in the English colonies, usually in the evenings.

The bowling centre is a large rectangular hangar, about 4 metres in width, which contains two parallel polished bowling alleys, separated by a channel. The servant boys place skittles at the far end of each alley and the players stand at the other end, using just one hand to roll a huge ball along the alley with the aim of knocking down the skittles. The balls roll quickly and can cause havoc with the skittles.

66 Boulevard Charner market

The second central market (1870-1914) on the Grand Canal

However, if the player is unlucky, or has no skill, the ball will simply roll down a slope into the central channel. The servant boys return the balls to the players and also keep their scores using a kind of large polygonal glass lantern with numbers, illuminated by coconut oil. This scene takes place amidst the noise of rolling balls, scattered skittles and the general hilarity of the young German and English regulars, who greatly enjoy this entertainment.

What shall I say of the church? Nothing. This building [the Église Sainte-Marie-Immaculée, inaugurated on 8 June 1865 on the site of the modern Sun Wah Tower at 115 Nguyễn Huệ] is just a temporary church; part of the central nave closest to the chancel is reserved for Europeans and is equipped with chairs. The rest of the building has wooden benches. The church bell is mounted on a frame. Outside the building, not far from the church, is the presbytery, which I believe is the special property of the priest.

At the moment they are building a new cathedral near the government palace, along with a palace for the Bishop, an old cleric who has already lived in Indochina for nearly 30 years.

74A Old Cathedral

The inauguration of the Église Sainte-Marie-Immaculée on 8 June 1865

We can only hope that he will still be alive to profit from this good administrative intent, because, as he himself has said, he does not have the time to wait.

Leaving the filled upper section of the canal and walking up towards the Governor’s Palace, we pass two or three large European houses, the office of the Directorate of the Interior and the residence of its Director, the Treasury, the Post Office, the General’s residence, and finally the Governor’s Palace itself.

Nearby are the Marine Infantry Barracks, located in the former Camp des lettrés [the Trường thi or royal mandarinate examination yard, which once stood outside the citadel], the Military Hospital and the Artillery Barracks. I have little to say about these places, other than that conditions for patients in the hospital are as bad as those for the soldiers in the barracks. It is deplorable that the first money we have to spend is not used to improve this state of affairs. We should not have to tell the public that our colony has three main institutions in continuous operation: a barracks, a hospital and a cemetery.

l'Église Sainte Enfance par Emile Gsell c 1866

An 1866 photograph of the original building of the Sainte-Enfance (Holy Childhood), run by the Sisters of the Order of St-Paul de Chartres

Continuing my journey along rue Isabelle [modern Lê Thánh Tôn street] as far as the Botanical Gardens, I come to the building of the Sainte-Enfance (Holy Childhood), run by the Sisters of the Order of St-Paul de Chartres, which takes care of the education of a number of little orphans. The Chapel of the Sainte-Enfance is surmounted by a remarkable steeple, the spire of which can be seen from the Saïgon River, long before you arrive in Saïgon.

We must not forget to point out that there is also a convent of five Carmelite nuns, right next to the Sainte-Enfance.

Further down towards the arroyo are the Arsenal buildings, which are currently under construction.

Above the Sainte-Enfance is the Seminary, and a little further, near the Botanical Gardens, a Christian Brothers school known as the College d’Adran. Finally, we arrive at the Botanical Gardens, located between the Arsenal and general stores of the Navy, close to which is the gunpowder magazine.

Building rue MacMahon i

Road construction outside the new Governor’s Palace in the early 1870s

At the opposite end of town, beside the route de Cholon, are the home of the Attorney General, the Prison and the Central Police Station. The latter is a true monument which cost a great deal of money.

Just a stone’s throw from the Central Police Station, on the same plateau, we get a glimpse of the new Governor’s Palace [built from 1868-1873 and later known as the Norodom Palace], under construction in the middle of a very beautiful park; the structural work of this palace has already been completed. This location is one of the least unhealthy places in Saïgon, being a high plateau about 8 metres above sea level.

Saïgon has two Islamic temples and one Hindu temple. These temples are not very remarkable, but in any case, the Indians do not let us visit them. I think, however, that the argument of the piastre would be taken into high consideration, and would probably permit Christians to tread the sacred ground.


A scene alongside the arroyo Chinois

To complete this brief review, I will say that there are still some European houses of just one storey; all the rest of the city is composed of miserable caïnhas, which may have killed more people than all of the other numerous natural causes of ill health in this country.

The streets of Saïgon are wide and the ground is muddy or dusty: for tarmac, we substituted a red clay-iron-silicon based material which was certainly a most unhappy choice. In 1869, the authorities introduced watering trucks pulled by buffaloes to reduce dust; trees planted in the streets for the shade are also watered regularly.

In 1869, there was some momentum to build new houses; at least 40 new homes were built in that year, although it’s true to say that many of those houses only replaced crumbling caïnhas. However, this construction fever did not bring any reduction in rents, which are excessive given the poor conditions of comfort of many of the city’s apartment buildings. Small rooms lacking in breadth and height are rented out for upwards of 6 piastres per month. It seems that we build here without worrying about comfort or hygiene, with the aim of making the most money possible, instead of constructing the large and airy residences which are one of the first needs of the country.

La premiere maison de commerce europienne

The first European merchant trader’s office in Saigon

Singapore has much better hygienic conditions than Saïgon. I only spent a day or two there, but everywhere I saw houses with ceiling heights of at least 4 or 5 metres, and huge stairways leading to spacious first floor offices. It is true that such buildings must also be rented out at a high price, but they are safe and designed to facilitate the through flow of fresh air. In Saïgon, the government conceded a great deal of land almost free – just 0.75 francs per square metre – to encourage the agents to build. However, out of 20 concessionnaires, I think that just two have built, while the others have mostly engaged in speculation. That is a game they love here in Saïgon.

Saigon 1864

The location of the first Marine Infantry Barracks either side of the rue National (modern Hai Bà Trưng street) is shown clearly on this 1864 map

I spoke very briefly of the Marine Infantry Barracks; this is a depot of 1,000 to 1,500 men who radiate out from this centre to occupy various posts in the colony. However, I have nothing to add to what I said about the barracks, which are completely insufficient in terms of welfare; moreover, they will be demolished soon. If I am correctly informed, the troops will be installed in new buildings which are being constructed in the old Fort du Nord [in 1870-1873, a larger Marine Infantry Barracks was built over the front section of the ruined 1837 Citadel]. The current barracks are located on either side of the road leading to the village of Gò Vấp [modern Hai Bà Trưng street]. A few hundred metres further north along this road is the cemetery, a vast enclosure surrounded by a bamboo hedge. When you live Saïgon, you quickly learn the way to the cemetery.

There also exists in Saïgon a modest but very useful institution: the Municipal Interpreters’ School, the name of which sufficiently indicates its goal.

One other institution which can be considered as a “building” of Saïgon is the stationary vessel Duperré, which houses all those sailors who do not have any specific purpose. The Duperré is a large floating barracks, a most fantastic ship, the history of which is difficult to understand for those who are not initiated into its mysteries.

In front of the Arsenal is the floating dock, a vast sheet metal structure of incontestable utility; however, you cannot but question the exorbitant price it cost to build, as they say back in France. The Arsenal, which is still under construction, is perhaps the most important establishment from the point of view of material. Its director is an assistant engineer first-class who specialises in shipbuilding; he currently has a large staff of many thousands of men. Every night, you can see a procession of Annamites coming out of the gates of the Arsenal and heading in the direction of Gò Vấp. Since the current Arsenal buildings are temporary, it is unnecessary for me to give a description which will be inaccurate tomorrow.

Arsenal de la Marine 1895

The main gate of the Marine Arsenal in 1895

The Navy attaches great importance to the Arsenal of Saïgon, in fact I heard more than one person say that we only keep the colony of Cochinchina in order to provide an Arsenal for our national Navy, a place of repairs for the ships of the state. When it is completed, the Arsenal will include various docks and canals, the establishment of which will cost a great deal of money.

I have one sober criticism to make about the way in which we build our institutions in climatic conditions as difficult as those of Cochinchina. I noticed that all of the wood required in the Arsenal has to be brought from a depot on the other side of the arroyo de l’Avalanche [Thị Nghè creek], and that this takes very considerable manpower. Wouldn’t it have been preferable to build a depot on this side of the arroyo, near the Botanical Gardens?

The general stores of the Navy, whose biggest customer is the Arsenal, are, if I am not mistaken, also separated from it by the Botanical Gardens. Is not this a mistake?

And as I have said, these stores are dangerously close to the gunpowder magazine, Is this not another error?

Saigon 1864 2

The location of the Botanical Gardens, the general stores of the Navy and the gunpowder magazine are indicated on this 1864 map

I think that the Botanical Gardens would be perfectly able to give up some of its land to make way for a new general stores. If one took away part of their land to build a wood depot, they could easily be compensated with other land a few hundred metres away, further along the arroyo.

The Arsenal employs both Chinese and Annamite workers; the Annamites are pretty good blacksmiths; Annamite boys are strong sail makers, while the Chinese are good modellers for the foundry. In the Arsenal there are less than 20 French employees. I am able to appreciate the efforts of the Director in such conditions and I applaud the difficulties he has managed to overcome.

The governor’s yacht, the Ondine, is currently moored at a fixed station nearby, in the port of Saïgon.

Many steam ships work in and around the naval port in the service of the port authority; sampan owners unfortunate enough to find themselves in the path of these vessels would be sunk quickly. This is a serious problem in the Saïgon River.

Les quais à Saigon

A late 19th century view of the Signal Mast

Several steam gunboats for the arroyos and two or three other vessels of a slightly larger tonnage for the sea complete the naval port.

Two courier ships are usually anchored in the harbour – one in front of the Arsenal and the other a little further down the quayside, awaiting the return of the third. The latter is making a return journey to and from Marseille which usually takes around three months, including a three-week stopover in Suez.

In front of the Maison Wang-Taï is the commercial port. There are some 30 ships in the harbour, including French, German and English vessels.

The Director of the Commercial Port has his residence and offices between the Maison Wang-Taï and the arroyo Chinois. In front of this house is a very interesting Signal Mast, which heralds the arrival of the mailboat from France, by means of a complicated system of flag signals. At the foot of the Signal Mast is a pier with a stairway, around which is grouped a swarm of sampans. For a nominal fee, the boatmen will take you to a ship, or to the buildings of the Messageries nationales located on the other side of the arroyo Chinois. Like their colleagues in other countries, they are all cheeky, loud and arrogant.

Saigon 1863

This map from 1863 shows the Fort du Sud, located next to the river in what is now District 4.

The limit of the harbour of Saïgon downstream is the Fort du Sud. This fort is located about two kilometres from the Maison Wang-Taï, on the right bank of the Saïgon River. It was and still is a place of punishment for badly behaved soldiers and sailors; however, nowadays we use it very little. It is this fort which protects the maritime entrance to the Saïgon harbour.

I did not mention, I think, the administration of justice in Saïgon.

In Saïgon there is a legal service, led by an Attorney General; a Court of Appeal consisting of two Counsellors, a President and a Hearings Officer; and a Court of First Instance composed of a President (Judge) and an Investigating Judge. There is also an Indigenous Justice Appeals Tribunal, run by Inspectors of Indigenous Affairs.

All of these people work at the Palais de Justice, a caïnha as miserable as the rest. Moreover, there is something particularly curious about the judicial staff, which is that rarely does the holder of a particular office fulfil the functions of that office. So in practice, we see the following in Saïgon, where judicial staff are cheap:

Personnel of the Director of the Arsenal, 1875

Legal personnel pictured in 1875.

The President of the Court is Attorney General; a Counsellor is President, the Hearings Officer is Prosecutor; the Prosecutor is Hearings Officer; and a humble secretary in the Directorate is the Advocate General to the Court. For all we know, he could soon be President of the Court – no-one in Saïgon would be surprised.

I laugh a little, but it saddens me deeply to see French law being applied to a country and people for which it was not designed. Sometimes this results in monstrous absurdities which can lead dedicated people who are keenly interested in Cochinchina’s different races to despair.

As to the Indigenous Justice Appeals Tribunal, I am anxious to see it work properly, because a lot of bad judgments must be reviewed. Suffice it to say that the Inspectors of Indigenous Affairs who are responsible for administering justice in this area are mostly inexperienced young officers.

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.

Goodbye to Steam at Thai Nguyen Steel Works


Gongjian 1.435m gauge 0-6-0T steam locomotive No 030-1045 arrives to collect passengers at the Thái Nguyên Iron and Steel Works event on 22 October 2014

This article was published previously in Saigoneer

Wednesday 22 October 2014 was officially the last day of steam locomotive operations at Thái Nguyên Steel Works. Tim Doling takes a look at the history of this extraordinary industrial plant, which owes so much to the railway for its development.

The Thái Nguyên Iron and Steel Joint Stock Corporation (Công ty cổ phần Gang thép Thái Nguyên) was originally set up in 1959 by the Democratic Republic of Việt Nam as the Thái Nguyên Iron and Steel Company (Công ty Gang thép Thái Nguyên), with the aim of exploiting the region’s abundant iron resources. Construction of the plant got under way in the Spring of 1959 and it began operations in November 1963.


One of Thái Nguyên Iron and Steel Works’ steam cranes in action

From the outset, the railway played a crucially important role in the plant’s activities. Rail tracks were laid throughout the compound, and the Chinese government donated 11 Gongjian 1.435m gauge 0-6-0T steam locomotives (Nos. 030-1035 to 030-1045), four steam cranes, and a large fleet of flat, open-top and ore wagons.

Equal importance was given to the task of linking the steel works by rail with the main line, in order to ensure the direct passage of coal, iron ore and other raw materials into the factory and the shipping of the finished product to the Red River Delta.

In 1959-1960, a brand new railway line was built from Đông Anh (on the Hà Nội–Lào Cai line) to Thái Nguyên and Quán Triều. Then in late 1965, following the outbreak of war, the entire railway line from the Chinese border at Đồng Đăng to Yên Viên, Đông Anh, Thái Nguyên and Quán Triều was converted to dual gauge (both 1m and 1.435m), in order that supply trains could run directly from the standard-gauge (1.435m) Chinese network into Việt Nam.


Another view of Gongjian 1.435m gauge 0-6-0T steam locomotive No 030-1045 on 22 October 2014

The operation of the steel works was deemed so important to the North Vietnamese war effort that in October 1965-December 1966, in response to repeated US bombing of the railway line from Yên Viên and Đông Anh, a second new strategic rail corridor to the steel works was built, this time of only 1.435m, linking Kép (on the Hà Nội–Đồng Đăng line) directly with Lưu Xá, south of Thái Nguyên.

After 1975, freight transportation to and from the Thái Nguyên Steel Works was gradually switched from rail to road. The standard-gauge Kép-Lưu Xá line was abandoned in the 1990s, and while the dual-gauge Hà Nội-Đông Anh-Thái Nguyên line remains operational, it now sees little traffic other than a daily market train.

However, the network of railway lines within the Thái Nguyên Steel Works has not only survived, but is still the primary means of moving ore, steel and other materials around the factory compound.


One of the factory’s second-hand Russian TU7E diesel hydraulic locomotives purchased from Vietnam Railways in the 1990s

In the 1990s, a fleet of second-hand Russian TU7E diesel hydraulic locomotives was purchased from Vietnam Railways, and in recent years, these have gradually replaced the original steam locomotives as the works’ main source of traction. Recently, a fleet of higher-powered diesels has been acquired to replace the ageing TU7Es.

Four of the works’ original Gongjian steam locomotives have survived, and on 22 October, one of their number – 030-1045 – made its last scheduled working appearance inside the compound. The locomotive participated in some light shunting activities and then toured the compound with its passengers (including a large group of Australian rail enthusiasts visiting Việt Nam with Scott McGregor’s Railway Adventures) perched behind it on a flat wagon – something which would definitely not be possible in the health-and-safety-obsessed west!

Happily, since No 030-1045 has recently been purchased by a private individual, the old steam engine’s appearance at Thái Nguyên Iron and Steel Works on 22 October 2014 will not be its last public outing. The new owner has plans to run future steam-hauled events in the north for rail enthusiasts. All enquiries regarding future steamings of locomotive 030-1045 should be directed to Mr Lưu at


Iron ore being smelted with coke and limestone in a blast furnace, producing molten iron


Australian rail enthusiasts travelling on a flat truck behind Gongjian 1.435m gauge 0-6-0T steam locomotive No 030-1045 on 22 October 2014


Gongjian 1.435m gauge 0-6-0T steam locomotive No 030-1045 conveys its passengers across a public road outside the compound on 22 October 2014


Another view of Gongjian 1.435m gauge 0-6-0T steam locomotive No 030-1045 on 22 October 2014


A diagram of the complex rail track layout at Thái Nguyên Iron and Steel Works


Another view of one of Thái Nguyên Iron and Steel Works’ steam cranes in action


Russian TU7E diesel hydraulic locomotives outside the factory’s engine shed


Three of the surviving four Gongjian 1.435m gauge 0-6-0T steam locomotives await their fate in the factory’s engine shed.

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

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

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

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

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