2014 – A Watershed Year for Saigon’s Built Heritage?

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The Saigon Tax Trade Centre at 135 Nguyễn Huệ

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

In the future, 2014 may be remembered as a watershed year in which a popular urban conservation movement emerged to champion the cause of Hồ Chí Minh City’s fast-disappearing built heritage.

The year 2014 began, just as 2013 had ended, with the destruction of a further batch of Hồ Chí Minh City’s colonial-era heritage buildings to make way for new developments.

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The old Ogliastro warehouse at 132 Bến Vân Đồn in District 4, rebuilt in early 2014

These included 213 Đồng Khởi, 200 Lý Chính Thắng, the last Naval Artillery building at 3A Tôn Đức Thắng, and the old Ogliastro warehouse at 132 Bến Vân Đồn in District 4.

Early in the year the public also learned, through various press articles, the fate of other surviving colonial-era heritage buildings located on so-called “gold land” sites, including 59-61 Lý Tự Trọng, the Catinat Building at 26 Lý Tự Trọng, Bót Catinat at 164 Đồng Khởi, and the Nguyễn Văn Của Imprimerie de l’Union building at 49-57 Nguyễn Du.

However, perhaps what 2014 will be remembered for most is not the continued destruction of old buildings, but rather the growing realisation of local people that old Saigon – once described as the “Pearl of the Orient” – was fast disappearing under the wrecking ball of modernisation. And it was this growing awareness which led, during the course of the year, to the emergence of a community-led urban heritage conservation movement.

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213 Đồng Khởi, demolished in March-June 2014

Public opposition to the fast-paced redevelopment of historic buildings first became apparent in the press coverage which followed the announcement that a new 14-storey City Administration Centre would be built immediately behind the Hồ Chí Minh City People’s Committee building. To make way for the new building, the plan involved the demolition of the art deco office and apartment block at 213 Đồng Khởi (1929) – a building which as recently as 2011 had been earmarked for repair and preservation – along with its neighbour, the former Secrétariat général du gouvernement building (c 1888) at 59-61 Lý Tự Trọng.

Then in March 2014, just as the wreckers began their work on 213 Đồng Khởi, the Vietnamese press gave extensive column space to an alarming report presented to an urban heritage conservation seminar organised by the Hồ Chí Minh Institute of Development Studies (HIDS) and the Hồ Chí Minh City Urban Development Management Support Centre (PADDI). According to this report, of the 377 colonial villas in Districts 1 and 3 which had been catalogued in 1993, more than 56% had been demolished, degraded or significantly altered by 2013.

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Another view of the Saigon Tax Trade Centre

However, it was the revelation in September 2014 of a long-planned scheme to demolish the Saigon Tax Trade Centre and replace it with a 43-storey tower block which really got the embryonic conservation movement into gear.

Though heavily modified since its glory days as the up-market Grands Magasins Charner (1924) and no longer the city’s most successful department store, the Saigon Tax Trade Centre building enjoyed iconic status and was greatly loved by many local people. Little more than a week after the announcement, a group comprising architects, academics and other concerned citizens had been formed under the leadership of Mr Phùng Anh Tuấn, the Honorary Consul of Finland in Hồ Chí Minh City, to raise concerns about the redevelopment plan and propose alternative solutions. An online petition was subsequently drawn up, requesting the Hồ Chí Minh City People’s Committee to preserve elements of the old building as part of the new development. Shortly before Christmas, responding positively to the recommendations of this group, the People’s Committee announced its agreement to a proposal by the Director of Planning and Architecture that the main lobby of the Tax Trade Centre with its priceless mosaic staircase, along with design features of the building’s exterior façade, should be preserved and incorporated into the new building.

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The Catinat Building at 26 Lý Tự Trọng

In December 2014, building upon the momentum of its successful Saigon Tax Trade Centre campaign, the “Tax Team” relaunched itself as the “Saigon Heritage Observatory.” On its Facebook group page, the group declares its stated aims to be: (i) working with a range of partners to encourage and assist in the protection and restoration of historic buildings and streetscapes; (ii) promoting the important role played by the historic environment in economic and social development; (iii) providing a platform for the dissemination of information on best practice in urban conservation management; and (iv) monitoring and raising public awareness about the condition of buildings and streetscapes in danger of damage or destruction.

In 2015, the Saigon Heritage Observatory group plans to launch a unique open data heritage mapping project which will permit members of the public owning GPS-equipped cameras and smartphones to participate in the protection of the city’s heritage by uploading images of old buildings onto a website. These images will automatically be inserted in their correct locations on a Google map of the city, and website moderators will then add relevant details of each building, including date of construction, architect, historical data, architectural/artistic value, current condition and status.

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The Saigon Heritage Observatory was set up in December 2014

It is envisaged that the project will become the basis for the development of a comprehensive inventory of colonial-era heritage buildings, something which does not currently exist in Hồ Chí Minh City. In future, the open data heritage mapping project can be used by the Vietnamese authorities and the general public, both as a tool for extending legal protection to selected heritage buildings, and as a means of improving people’s awareness of their cultural significance. It is believed that this will be the first instance of “crowdsourcing” techniques being harnessed in order to protect a city’s endangered built heritage.

Considerable challenges face the conservation lobby here in Hồ Chí Minh City. In the absence of any type of protection, the great majority of the city’s colonial buildings can still be modified or demolished at any time with impunity. While those located on the so-called “gold land” prime sites remain at the greatest risk of destruction, many others may yet be lost before statutory protection measures can be drawn up to save them.

However, the new group believes strongly in the power of community advocacy and remains upbeat about its efforts to protect and preserve what remains of Hồ Chí Minh City’s rich architectural legacy for future generations to enjoy.

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.

Date with the Wrecking Ball – Vietnam Railways Building, 136 Ham Nghi, 1914

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The Vietnam Railways building today

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

Featured earlier this year as a Saigoneer “Building of the Week,” the 100-year-old Vietnam Railways Building at 136 Hàm Nghi is the latest of Hồ Chí Minh City’s historic buildings to be threatened with destruction. Let’s take another look at its long history.

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An early 20th century image of the Chemins de fer de l’Indochine (CFI) building with the Halles centrales in the background

When construction of the southernmost section of the Transindochinois (North-South) railway line got under way in 1904, it was envisaged that the existing terminus of the Saigon-Mỹ Tho line at the riverside end of rue de Canton (modern Hàm Nghi boulevard) would serve both lines. However, when the first northbound trains began operating, the colonial authorities realised that a larger station was required.

In 1910, a scheme was drawn up to reroute both railway lines as they entered the city centre, building a larger Sài Gòn Railway Station in reclaimed swamp land to the west and demolishing an old locomotive depot to free up land for the construction of a new central market and spacious city square.

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A colonial-era taxi rank outside the CFI building

The project was beset by delays, but the Halles centrales (now Bến Thành Market) finally opened in March 1914 and the second railway station in September 1915.

As part of this scheme, the government railway company Chemins de fer de l’Indochine (CFI) built itself an imposing new southern region railway headquarters on the square, right opposite the station entrance. It was inaugurated in 1914, a full year before the opening of the new railway station. Each level of the ornate three-storey building incorporated a spacious outer corridor which shielded the offices from the heat of the external walls.

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A 1960s shot of the building when it was the headquarters of Hỏa xa Việt Nam (HXVN)

In May 1952, when CFI became the Việt Nam Department of Railways (Sở Hỏa xa Việt Nam, HXVN), the railway building became its southern branch headquarters. Just three years later, HXVN became the southern rail operating company, responsible to the South Vietnamese Ministry of Public Works and Transport.

During the 1960s, the railway headquarters acquired a certain notoriety after the sidewalk outside the building was turned into a place of execution.

Since 1975, the building has functioned as the Hồ Chí Minh City branch office of Vietnam Railways. However, as part of co-operation agreement with Kinh Đô Land, the site is now earmarked for redevelopment as offices and serviced apartments – http://www.baomoi.com/Thanh-lap-Trung-tam-ung-pho-su-co-thien-tai-va-cuu-nan-Duong-sat/144/8925682.epi.

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A present-day shot of the façade of the Vietnam Railways building

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

Tim Doling is also the author of The Railways and Tramways of Việt Nam (White Lotus Press, Bangkok, 2012) and 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 pages Saigon-Chợ Lớn Then & Now to see historic photographs juxtaposed with new ones taken in the same locations, Đài Quan sát Di sản Sài Gòn – Saigon Heritage Observatory for up-to-date information on conservation issues in Saigon and Chợ Lớn, and Rail Thing – Railways and Tramways of Việt Nam for more information about Việt Nam’s railway history and all the latest news from Vietnam Railways.

Date with the Wrecking Ball – Former Imprimerie de l’Union Building, 49-57 Nguyen Du, c 1920

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The Nguyen Van Cua Imprimerie de l’Union building at 49-57 Nguyễn Du

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

Located close to the Saigon Post Office, the unassuming two-storey white shophouse building at 49-57 Nguyễn Du was once the headquarters of one of the most successful colonial-era printing companies.

In the early days of the colony, the Cochinchina administration set up its own government printing works to handle the publication of all official French government publications, including the Annuaire de Cochinchine Française and the Annuaire de l’Indo-Chine française.

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The Imprimerie coloniale, established in 1867 on the site of today’s Intercontinental Hotel, as indicated on a map of 1891

Established in 1867 on the site of today’s Intercontinental Hotel and run by a high-ranking government administrator, this institution was initially named the Imprimerie impériale, but later went by the alternative names of Imprimerie nationale or Imprimerie coloniale.

However, following the replacement of the early Admiral-Governors by a civil administration in 1879, the printing market was opened up to competition from private companies, leaving the poorly-funded Imprimerie nationale unable to compete effectively. It eventually closed in 1904.

According to a report in the Moniteur de la papeterie française et de l’industrie du papier of 15 January 1904, “The Printing Office of Cochinchina has been abolished. The equipment was old, worn, and required replacement; the Governor recognised that the private printing companies were sufficient, so he decided to close the Imprimerie nationale in order to save public money, while arranging for the fair dismissal of staff.”

In subsequent years, both public and private books and documents were printed by a variety of independent printing companies, including the Imprimerie Saigonnaise, the Imprimerie Commerciale Ménard et Rey and its later offshoot the Imprimerie Rey, Curiol et Cie, the Imprimerie nouvelle A Portail and the Imprimerie Moderne.

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In the 1920s, the Imprimerie de l’Union printed the Lục Tỉnh Tân Văn newspaper

However, by the 1920s, one of the best-known and most successful of Saigon’s printing enterprises was Nguyễn Văn Của’s Imprimerie de l’Union, based initially at 13 and later at 57 rue Lucien Mossard (modern Nguyễn Du street). It printed the newspapers L’Écho annamite: Organe de défense des intérêts franco-annamites, L’Eveil économique de l’Indochine and later L’Ere nouvelle: Organe bi-hebdomadaire du Parti travailliste annamite, along with journals such as Pháp Viện Báo: Revue judiciaire franco-annamite and a wide range of Cochinchina, Saigon municipal and provincial government publications. The company also took over the printing of Lục Tỉnh Tân Văn (“Six Provinces News,” founded 1907), one of the earliest newspapers to use the Vietnamese quốc ngữ script.

Regarded as one of the leading Vietnamese intellectuals of his day, proprietor Nguyễn Văn Của acquired French citizenship, was elected as a Colonial Councillor and could frequently be found mixing amongst the high society of Cochinchina. He also became the owner of a 288-hectare plantation in Long Thành, Biên Hòa, and an active member of the Association des planteurs de caoutchouc de l’Indochine (Indochina Rubber Planters’ Association).

In 1925, Của was elected president of the committee tasked with raising funds for the statue of Pétrus Trương Vĩnh Ký and succeeded in raising 90,000 Francs to pay for the construction and installation of the monument. Significantly, when it was formally installed in 1928 behind the Cathedral, it was Của himself who delivered the eulogy.

Nguyễn Văn Của was also an active member of the Société des Études Indochinoises, and in 1927 the Société made him the president of the subscription committee they had set up to raise funds for the purchase of naval pharmacist Dr Victor-Thomas Holbé’s Asiatic art collection.

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The words “Nguyen Van Cua” and “Imprimerie de l’Union” are still visible on the upper façade of the building

Của’s fundraising skills and extensive network of contacts ensured that Holbé’s priceless art works became the core collection of the new Musée Blanchard de la Brosse (opened in 1929), now the Hồ Chí Minh City History Museum.

Của’s eldest son Nguyễn Văn Xuân also became a naturalised French citizen, attending the prestigious Collège Chasseloup Laubat Laubat (now the Lê Quý Đôn Secondary School) and later embarking on a successful career in the French army, rising to the rank of lieutenant-colonel.

When he died in May 1941, Nguyễn Văn Của was given a grand funeral which was attended by many of the colony’s great and good. A few days later, in a long article in the Écho annamite newspaper, the President of the Chamber of Agriculture J Mariani gave a long eulogy describing Của as “a fine example of a self-made man” and “a model partisan of the Franco-Annamite union.”

The Nguyen Van Cua Imprimerie de l’Union building is a two-storey building which originally incorporated commercial spaces at ground floor level and family accommodation above. It has survived intact until the present day, with the words “Nguyen Van Cua” and “Imprimerie de l’Union” still visible on its upper façade,  but it is now in very poor condition. Sadly, it stands on the so-called “Gold Land” block enclosed by Đồng Khởi, Lý Tự Trọng, Nguyễn Du and Hai Bà Trưng streets, which, according to newspaper reports, will soon be redeveloped to accommodate “services, culture, luxury hotels, finance offices and exhibition areas.”

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.

 

Date with the Wrecking Ball – Former Secretariat du Gouvernement Building, 59-61 Ly Tu Trong, 1888

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The project to build a new 14-storey City Administration Centre behind the Hồ Chí Minh City People’s Committee involves the destruction of several heritage buildings. The art deco office and apartment block at 213 Đồng Khởi was demolished in mid 2014 and it remains to be seen whether or not its neighbour, the old French government building at 59-61 Lý Tự Trọng, will be next in line.

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The earlier Direction de l’Intérieur as depicted in the 1881 engraving, Saïgon d’après nature

Many of us pass it every day and scarcely give it a second look. Yet the building which houses the Hồ Chí Minh City Department of Information was once a focus of French colonial power second only to the Governor’s palace.

The first French government building on this site was the Direction de l’Intérieur (Department of the Interior), constructed by the Cochinchina authorities in the early 1860s. Although no photographs of the building have survived, it was depicted clearly in the remarkable 1881 engraving, Saïgon d’après nature.

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The 1888 compound as it appears on the 1890 map of Saigon

According to L de Coincy’s book Quelques mots sur la Cochinchine en 1866 (A few words about the colony in 1866), the department was “responsible for the entire civil, judicial and financial administration of the colony” and its representatives throughout Cochinchina were inspectors of Indigenous Affairs.

In 1888, the functions of the Direction de l’Intérieur were subsumed by the Secrétariat général du gouvernement de la Cochinchine, and soon after this a larger building – the current one – was constructed at 59-61 rue de la Grandière. By the early 20th century, this was often known by the alternative names of Bureaux du gouvernment or Bureaux des Services civiles.

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The compound in the early 20th century

Following the Second World War, the French briefly set up a Ministère de l’Intérieur (Interior Ministry) in the compound for the short-lived State of Việt Nam.

However, after 1955 a new Bộ Nội vụ (Interior Ministry) was opened in the former Direction de la Police et de la Sûreté compound at 164 Tự Do and 59-61 Gia Long (as it then became known) was transformed into the South Vietnamese Ministry of the Economy (Bộ Kinh tế).

In 1958 the compound made a fleeting appearance in Joseph L Mankiewicz’s film version of Graham Greene’s novel The Quiet American.

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In the late 1940s the compound briefly served as the Interior Ministry of the State of Việt Nam

The 126-year-old compound currently serves as the headquarters of the Department of Information and Communications (Sở Thông tin và Truyền thông) and the Department of Trade and Industry (Sở Công thương).

In December 2014, the Hồ Chí Minh City People’s Committee launched a competition to select a design for the new building “which will achieve the highest requirements, the optimal location in the most solemn part of the city, with architectural harmony between works to be preserved and embellished and those to be built new, in harmony with the architecture of the surrounding area.”

Postscript: In October 2015 it was reported that the People’s Committee had chosen the design for the new City Administration Centre by the Nikken Siekei company, which envisages preserving the old French government building at 59-61 Lý Tự Trọng after it has been physically moved in three sections so that it is in line with the central axis of the Town Hall. See TP.HCM sắp có khu trung tâm hành chính mới.

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The Secrétariat général du gouvernement de la Cochinchine building in the early 1900s

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The building serving as the South Vietnamese Ministry of the Economy (Bộ Kinh tế) in the 1960s

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Today the building houses the Department of Information and Communications (Sở Thông tin và Truyền thông) and the Department of Trade and Industry (Sở Công thương).

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 – Andre Pancrazi’s Cafe de la Musique and Grand Hotel des Nations

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The Café de la Musique and the Grand Hôtel des Nations

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

One of many French settlers of Corsican descent who made names for themselves in colonial Saigon, André Pancrazi is remembered as the proprietor of two old Saigon icons – the Café de la Musique and the Grand Hôtel des Nations.

Since André Pancrazi does not appear in the colonial records as a hotelier and restaurateur until 1900, little is known about his earlier business activities.

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An 1889 advertisement for the Hôtel and Café de la Musique, then under the management of Madame Hermann

However, it seems that he was one of several Pancrazi siblings who settled in Saigon in the late 19th century, including Antoine (who became his business partner), François (a clerk in the Saigon Immigration Service) and Bonaventure (a colonial administrator in Long Xuyên).

The “Hôtel and Café de la Musique” at 4 place Francis Garnier [modern Lam Sơn square] – with which Pancrazi’s name is forever associated – was originally opened in the mid 1880s by a businesswoman named Madame Hermann. During her 1888 visit to Saigon, wealthy French widow Louise Bourbonnaud was advised by one of her fellow travellers to stay at this establishment, but she chose instead to take a room at the more famous Hôtel de l’Univers.

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A view of the Café de la Musique from rue Catinat (modern Đồng Khởi street)

By the late 1890s, one Lucien Chêne briefly appears as the café’s proprietor, but in 1900 the business was acquired by André Pancrazi.

By this time, the Café de la Musique was one of the city’s most popular café-restaurants, but its hotel facilities were very limited, so in 1900-1901 Pancrazi commissioned the construction of the 65-room Grand Hôtel des Nations at 70 boulevard Charner, at the other end of the same city block. After the new hotel opened, the old hotel rooms above the Café de la Musique became the hotel annex.

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Saigon: a view of boulevard Bonnard and the Grand Hôtel des Nations

Sadly, no descriptions of the hotel’s facilities have survived. However, it seems that the “fine dining” offered at the “Grande Terrasse” restaurant of the Hôtel des Nations was appreciated by Saigon’s gourmands. In his Excursion en Annam of 1905, G. Le Roy Liberge commented that the hotels in Saigon were so uninviting that he preferred to rent a room – and to take all his meals at the “Restaurant Pancrazi.”

In 1913, André Pancrazi was awarded the Chevalier de la Legion d’honneur for his services to the city, and from that date onwards he also appears in the colonial records as a Municipal Councillor.

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After 1922, the old Café de la Musique building was taken over by the Pharmacie principale L. Solirène

André Pancrazi remained a figure of importance in colonial Saigon’s hospitality industry for nearly two decades, but in 1919 he sold both the Café de la Musique and the Grand Hôtel des Nations, and soon afterwards he left Saigon. The records remain silent about the reasons for his departure.

By 1922, the Café de la Musique building had been taken over by the Pharmacie principale L. Solirène, which advertised itself as “the former Maison Holbé et Renoux, the oldest and most important pharmacy in the Far East, founded in 1865.”

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A 1929 advertisement for the “Ancienne Maison Pancrazi”

After Pancrazi’s departure, the Grand Hôtel des Nations continued in operation under the management of a M. de Fourcauld, but such was Pancrazi’s reputation that throughout the 1920s its advertising continued to describe the hotel as the “Ancienne Maison Pancrazi.” Indeed, Henri Danguy, in his Nouveau Visage de la Cochinchine of 1929, commented that one never called this establishment the “Grand Hôtel des Nations” – it would always be the “Hôtel Pancrazi.”

The Grand Hôtel des Nations survived on its original site until the early 1950s, when the building was demolished to make way for the six-storey Liên Seng complex. A new Grand Hôtel des Nations subsequently reopened in that building and survived until the early 1970s.

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Another view of the Café de la Musique from rue Catinat (modern Đồng Khởi street)

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A view of the Grand Hôtel des Nations from place Francis Garnier (Lam Sơn Square)

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The “Grande Terrasse” restaurant of the Grand Hôtel des Nations

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The original Grand Hôtel des Nations was demolished in the early 1950s to make way for the six-storey Liên Seng complex, but a new Grand Hôtel des Nations subsequently reopened in that building

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

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

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

Saigon Through the Eyes of Early Travellers – A Maufroid in 1912

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The Messageries maritimes vessel M V Polynésian, pictured in 1914

In early 1912, A Maufroid visited Cochinchina as part of a six-month tour of the Far East. This is an English translation of the chapter entitled “Saigon” from his 1913 book De Java au Japon par l’Indochine, la Chine et la Corée (From Java to Japan via Indochina, China and Korea).

Yesterday afternoon, the Polynésian passed close to high mountains that we first took to be part of the coast of Cochinchina. In fact, they were the islands of Poulo Condor, huge rocks rising from the sea which France turned into a place of exile for the indigenous criminals of Indochina.

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A view of the Messageries maritimes wharf in Saigon

By this morning we were in calm waters. The boat moved slowly up the Saigon River. The countryside was very flat and very green. Along the banks, we saw mangrove bushes at the foot of unknown shrubs, and beyond them the rice fields. The greenery, the plain, the light mist over the water which caught the first light from the rising sun, all was reminiscent of Holland.

At 9am, the Polynésian docked at a wooden pier, where around 20 colons dressed in white were waiting for friends from France.

A river of moderate breadth, a smattering of officials meeting colleagues or greeting superiors, the very small amount of activity in a port containing just five or six ships – all of this seemed quite modest when you compare it with the great English ports of Colombo and Singapore. On the horizon there were no factory chimneys, and close to the wharf one could see only clusters of low houses, customs halls and courier offices. It gave the impression of a small, sleepy provincial town.

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A Saigon pousse pousse in 1910

Two pousse-pousse – that’s the name given to the rickshaw in this French territory – carried me and my luggage to the Hôtel Continental, the most recently established hostelry here in Saigon.

In fact, this name “pousse-pousse” (which can be abbreviated simply to “pousse,” meaning push) is only really justified in Pondicherry, where the driver really does push a small carriage ahead of him. Here, as in Ceylon, Singapore and elsewhere throughout the Far East, the vehicle is pulled, not pushed.

Unlike the Dutch, our Indochina compatriots do not regard this mode of locomotion as being incompatible with human dignity. The pousse-pousse abounds in Saigon, and its exaggerated number has had the effect of reducing the price of journeys to one of incredible modesty. For just 10 cents (5 French sous – the piastre of 100 cents is worth about 2.50 Francs) you can buy yourself an average-length journey.

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The Lieutenant Governor’s Palace

People rarely walk in the streets. The soldiers themselves spend their time going from barracks to café and from café to barracks and they enjoy prices which are lower than those which civilians have to pay.

Besides, at certain hours of the day it’s so hot that walking is almost impossible for the European, while the “man-horse” – the pousse-pousse driver – runs like a deer, his back cooked by the sun and his skin dripping with sweat.

Saigon boasts of being the most beautiful city in the Far East. This may be true, if by “beautiful” we mean a city which is built to measure and intersected by broad avenues which cross each other at right angles. But for tourists seeking original buildings, or even just the coolness of shadows in the sweltering 32° heat, perhaps the old eastern cities with their bizarre and irregular houses have more to offer.

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Gambetta, dressed for Arctic weather

Some of the city’s monuments are very elegant: the Palace of the Lieutenant Governor of Cochinchina on rue Lagrandière; the Post Office; Cathedral square, beautifully landscaped to combat the excessive temperature of the country; and especially the Palace of the Governor General, located at the end of boulevard Norodom, the wide verandahs of which are very well suited to the climate.

One may say the same of a statue which seems almost to menace the Governor General’s official residence with his vehement gestures: a bronze Gambetta, who struggles under a thick coat, like a North Pole explorer. The natives, who sweat all year topless, gaze with amazement at his incomprehensible clothing.

The Saïgonnais would have been unhappy if, over the past few years, they had not built a wondrous theatre. This building stands in the heart of Saigon, a square surrounded by cafés, where rue Catinat, that great artery of the city, joins boulevard Bonnard.

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The Saigon Theatre on place Francis Garnier

It cost nearly four million Francs to build, and each year the Municipal Council awards its Director a further subvention of 125,000 Francs, to which is added a tidy sum for artists’ travel.

Along with the cafés which surround it, the Saigon Theatre is the great preoccupation of the Saïgonnais. However, if you take account of the fact that, of its 50,000 inhabitants, Saigon has about 4,000-5000 Europeans capable of savouring comic operas and vaudeville, you will no doubt understand that the evening entertainments laid on here for the colons place a rather heavy burden on the local budget.

Saigon has the appearance of a quiet prefectural town in France which revolves around the lives of its garrison and officials. During the daytime, its spacious boulevards, roasted by the sun, become veritable desert steppes. Each functionary scribbles away all day in an office – unless he chooses to sleep while waiting for the cocktail hour. Then, at about five o’clock, everyone wakes up; the pavement cafés of the rue Catinat fill up with customers; and Theatre square is perfumed with the scent of absinthe. This is truly the magic hour! By this time, the temperature has become more bearable. Friends gather to talk politics while watching the promenaders pass by.

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French colons doing the “tour de l’Inspection” by automobile

And how they pass by! An endless stream of people travelling by pousse-pousse, carriage, automobile; in fact, one might say especially by automobile. The motor car, in hot countries, has become a very explainable success. Its speed generates a violent current of fresh air, compared with which the faint breath of the electric fan or the archaic punkah is simply a caress without energy. Here, those who own motor cars may take a tour to the Inspection de Gia-Dinh, along a beautiful road where the powdery dust turns their white suits pink.

After dinner, even more people arrive at the cafés where the orchestras play. Then, during intervals in the performance at the Saigon Theatre, members of the audience come outside and spread themselves all over the square, sitting down at café tables to enjoy iced drinks with grandly dressed ladies.

As soon as a customer is sufficiently refreshed and gets up from his chair in the Café de la Terrasse, the Café de la Musique or the Continental Terrace, up to 20 pousse-pousse drivers immediately gather round him expectantly.

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The Grand Café de la Terrasse

As for these pousse-pousse drivers harnessed to their tiny carts, one wonders, seeing their heavy buns of black hair, their effeminate faces, their amphoral hips, whether they are men or women. But these are certainly men … of a somewhat frightening mentality.

When you call a pousse-pousse to go home, the driver will run for just ten seconds before turning to ask “Congaï, Mossié, congaï?” And you answer: No! To the hotel! And make it quick!

And so, the driver once more begins to run. But then, after another 30 metres, he slows and again puts his insidious question. A second refusal, this time even more categorical.

Finally, a little further on, he will amend his offer by asking: “Boy, Mossié, boy?”

I did not attend any performance by the visiting theatre troupe in Saigon. Yet the posters were enticing. The astute director had warned families of character about the particularly frivolous nature of the show.

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The Café de la Musique

If this theatre didn’t help me to pass my evenings in Saigon, its presence was not, however, completely without use. As I strolled around the square during one intermission, admiring the grandly-dressed audience members who came outside to breathe the cool air, I was recognised by a lady with whom I had travelled on a steamship two years earlier. Madame P introduced me to her husband, who was kind enough to invite me to dinner the next day and then placed his automobile at my disposal for several refreshing promenades.

It was thus that I went one morning by motor car to Cholon. While Saigon is the bourgeois city, the town of administrators, theatre and cafés, Cholon is the city of business.

Cholon is exclusively Chinese, and has three times the population of Saigon. It is here that the trade in rice, tea, ceramics and various other commodities is concentrated entirely in the hands of the “Heavenly Ones.”

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Chinese workers in Chợ Lớn

The city is located five kilometres from Saigon on the arroyo Chinois [Bến Nghé creek]. This river is crowded with junks which are packed tightly against each other alongside rows of rice husking factories.

What I said about Singapore is equally true for Cholon: it is a Chinese colony ruled by Europeans. In the streets, one sees exactly the same spectacle as in Singapore; vertical banners with their golden characters on a black background, and paper lanterns carrying the owners’ names on their flanks.

In the shops – for indeed, most of the houses are shops – the Chinese go about their business wearing only shiny black pants; now that their hair has been cut short [the compulsory pigtail was abolished in China in 1911 following the overthrow of the Qing dynasty], we may see the spot on their necks from where their pigtails were recently excised.

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A pagoda in Chợ Lớn

A Chinese employee of Mr P who accompanied me showed me around a few pagodas, which were all very much alike. Their walls were decorated with human and animal figures and flowers made from glazed ceramics, while their angled roof ridges featured dragons with gaping mouths and sharp tongues darting from under slender moustaches. Inside, carved and gilded wooden panels celebrated the names of generous donors. In front of the Buddha statues burned incense sticks, placed in pots filled with ash. The fragrant jostick spirals hanging from the ceilings added their sandalwood fragrance to the scent of the incense sticks.

The Chinese in Cholon include some notorious millionaires. In order to flaunt his wealth, one of them, named Taï-Maïen, had the idea of building a villa which was almost an exact copy of the Palace of the Lieutenant Governor of Cochinchina.

L0055713 Cochin China [Vietnam].

The Plain of Tombs

Behind the shopping streets, located on swampy land alongside the canals, are scattered huts made from bamboo and leaves inhabited by Chinese people of low status. One day, by dint of cunning and economy, some of these people may come to compete in luxury with Mr Taï-Maïen. And if they do, in order to humiliate their compatriot, they will be forced to go one step further by building a copy of the great Palace of the Governor General!

We returned via the Plain of Tombs. A very sad place located in grey countryside covered in tufts of straw, with blackened, sunken gravestones everywhere.

On this side of the city, much of the land is covered in rice fields. Further east, in the direction of Thu-Dau-Mot, many rich Saïgonnais have recently set up rubber plantations, the fruits of which we will be able to appreciate in several years time.

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The tomb of the Bishop of Adran, Monsignor Pigneau de Béhaine

Between the Plain of Tombs and the Inspection de Gia-Dinh, I stopped for a moment before the tomb of the Bishop of Adran, Monsignor Pigneau de Béhaine. In the 18th century, the Bishop of Adran was the adviser and friend of Gia Long, Emperor of Annam. In 1787, through his mediation, the Asian sovereign concluded an advantageous treaty for France.

In his old age, Monsignor Pigneau de Béhaine retired to this place, occupying himself by cultivating a small garden. On his death in 1799, he was buried here, and Gia Long raised in his memory an Annamite-style mausoleum, on which one is surprised to see decoration which juxtaposes the Christian cross with Chinese characters and imaginary monsters!

Seeing the tomb of Monsignor Pigneau de Béhaine reminded me of my own country. In fact, I know several families from his birthplace, the village of Thiérache, to where, I think, I must one day carry some stories about the great prelate who served France so well in far-away Asia.

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Chettyar money changers in Saigon

While I was in Singapore, I visited an entire neighborhood of Hindu workers, which was not surprising to see in an English colony. In the streets of Saigon we encounter Indian people of a different aspect; these are the Chettyars, who go about naked to the waist, their energetic faces lit by cruel eyes.

The Chettyars are Saigon’s most formidable usurers. They are widely hated in the colony, where they exploit the vices of gamblers and bon viveurs. Anyone who borrows money has reason to use their services. In a country where the normal interest rate in prime mortgage investments is around 8-10%, the Chettyars serve those who do not measure their spending in accordance with their budgetary resources. With such customers, I’m told that some Chettyars demand up to 45% interest on their loans!

“They are a plague!” say many colons. But I say that the plague is not the Chettyars, it is rather the mentality of the borrowers who come to them to pay off gambling debts that no one is obliged to contract, or to pay for disproportionate amounts of luxury which too many French are getting used here as a result of their inexcusable snobbery.

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’s Five Most Endangered Heritage Buildings, December 2014

The Five no title

In recent years, while the fate of Hà Nội’s built heritage has been more closely monitored by specialists from the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, a very large number of Hồ Chí Minh City’s historic buildings have been systematically demolished with apparent impunity, in the name of economic development.

As the city waits to see which elements of the original “Grands Magasins Charner” design will be incorporated into the façade of the 43-storey replacement for the doomed Saigon Tax Trade Centre, here are the city’s “Top Five” historic buildings which are currently under the greatest threat of redevelopment:

1. District 1 People’s Committee Building, 45-47 Lê Duẩn

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The Cercle des officiers building in the 1920s

Several weeks ago it was announced that the headquarters of the District 1 People’s Committee at 45-47 Lê Duẩn, housed in the former “Cercle des Officiers” (Officers’ Mess), would be rebuilt. Opened in 1876 and thus one of the city’s oldest colonial structures, it is typical of the colonial civic architecture of its period, with spacious exterior verandahs and shuttered windows. UPDATE: After an initial response to public concern which stressed that the building was not a historic, architectural, cultural or artistic vestige and therefore the redevelopment plan did not violate any regulations, the District 1 People’s Committee has now pledged that the old building will be preserved and the new building constructed behind it.

2. Phương Nam Mansion, 110-112 Võ Văn Tần

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Phương Nam Mansion

The largest and most imposing French building in District 3, the Phương Nam Mansion is believed to have been constructed between 1910 and 1920 for a rich Vietnamese businessman. Its unique design features a spacious surrounding upper verandah with decorative balconies and a high-ceiling interior with intricately carved coving work. The building is currently on the market for US$35 million, and at that price, it’s obvious that only demolition and reconstruction as a tower block will offer prospective buyers a big enough return on their investment.

3. Catinat Building, 26 Lý Tự Trọng

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The Catinat Building in the 1950s

This 1927 apartment building stands on the so-called “Gold Land” block enclosed by Đồng Khởi, Lý Tự Trọng, Nguyễn Du and Hai Bà Trưng streets, which, according to newspaper reports, will soon be redeveloped to accommodate “services, culture, luxury hotels, finance offices and exhibition areas.” One of the best-loved icons in the heart of the city, the Catinat Building is known for its classic art deco interior design. For more information see Date with the Wrecker’s Ball (3): The Catinat Building.

4. 273 Điện Biên Phủ

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273 Điện Biên Phủ

The Hồ Chí Minh City Department of Science and Technology recently announced its intention to build a new Centre for Science and Technology Research and Transfer. The new centre will replace the current building, the French mansion at 273 Điện Biên Phủ, which was built in the 1920s and was once the residence and office of the Swiss Consul General to Cochinchina.

5. 59-61 Lý Tự Trọng

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The Secrétariat général du gouvernement building in the early 20th century

A few years back, the former Secrétariat général du gouvernement de la Cochinchine building (c 1888), currently the Department of Information and Communications at 59-61 Lý Tự Trọng, was earmarked for demolition as part of the scheme to build a new 14-storey Government Centre immediately behind the People’s Committee building. However, following the public outcry which attended the early demolition of its neighbour 213 Đồng Khởi and the controversial plan to replace the Saigon Tax Trade Centre with a 43-storey tower block, the authorities have just launched a new design competition which encourages participating architects to incorporate the façade of 59-61 Lý Tự Trọng into the design of the new building. For more information see Date with the Wrecker’s Ball (2): 59-61 Ly Tu Trong.

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 – 93-95 Dong Khoi, 1900-1910

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93-95 Đồng Khởi today

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

One of the most elegant old colonial buildings in the centre of the city, 93-95 Đồng Khởi – originally 93-95 rue Catinat – is believed to have been constructed in the period 1900-1910.

Down to the mid 1920s, it seems to have functioned exclusively as an office building, accommodating a wide variety of commercial tenants.

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The “Grand Hôtel et Bar Catinat” at 93-95 rue Catinat in the early 1950s

These included the fashion shops Courtinat and Tournier et Cie, the Société Industrielle d’Exportation en Extrême-Orient (SINDEX) which sold chain saws, machine tools, jacks, pumps, dynamos and electric motors, and the Société Phonique d’Extrême-Orient, which sold gramophones and gramophone records.

In around 1927 or 1928, a M. Barthélemi transformed the entire ground floor of the building into the “Bar Catinat,” one of the most popular watering holes of its day, which became famous in the 1930s for its soirées de boxe (boxing nights).

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The “Hôtel l’Impérial” at 93-95 Tự Do street in the late 1950s

During this period, the upper floors of the building continued to be used as office space. However, in the early 1940s, a M. Bonelli, the Corsican co-director of one of its tenants, the Plantation Pierlovisi, took ownership of the whole building, turning offices into hotel rooms and transforming the Bar Catinat into the “Grand Hôtel et Bar Catinat.”

After the departure of the French, the Grand Hôtel et Bar Catinat” reopened under Vietnamese ownership as the “Hôtel l’Impérial” at 93-95 Tự Do street. However, just a few years later the hotel closed and the name changed yet again to “Café and Bar l’Impérial.”

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A Life magazine image of the “Café and Bar l’Impérial” at 93-95 Tự Do street in 1961

As the American presence in Saigon increased in the 1960s, the Café and Bar l’Impérial became a popular meeting spot for GIs, and was thus targeted on several occasions.

One account of a grenade attack on the building in 1963 describes it as “a little French open-air corner bar… classic French, tile floor, zinc top bar, uncomfortable stools, bistro menu, maybe a dozen tiny tables open to the street on two sides, ancient Vietnamese waiters in khakis, white shirts and flip-flops, no girls…”

Since 1975, 93-95 Đồng Khởi has been used for a variety of purposes, but in the early 1990s it became home to its current occupant, the tourist restaurant Vietnam House.

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Another 1961 image of the “Café and Bar l’Impérial” at 93-95 Tự Do street (John Proe Collection, Vietnam Center and Archive)

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A 1962 image of the “Café and Bar l’Impérial” at 93-95 Tự Do street (Barry M’s Gallery)

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 3

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A buffalo cart stands in front of the old market on boulevard Charner (now Nguyễn Huệ boulevard)

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 third 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.

To read part 2 of this serialisation click here.

From the end of the arroyo Chinois which opens into the Saigon River, we will first cross boulevard de Canton [Hàm Nghi] where may be found the homes of several wealthy Chinese merchants, low wooden houses with no more than two storeys, designed in the particular style of this nation.

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The Grand Canal (now Nguyễn Huệ boulevard), the lower section of which survived until 1890

Then we cross a bridge over the Grand Canal, which leads some 200 to 300 metres into the city. On the right and left sides of this canal are the quai Charner and the quai Rigault de Genouilly, and it is on the latter that the city market was built. It occupies considerable space and is divided into four large covered compartments: one is for fish, another for fruits and vegetables, the third for poultry and meat, and the fourth for small industries and local restaurants. The market is frequented by a large crowd of Chinese and Annamese of both sexes, who buy food and often consume it on the spot at their convenience.

In the fish hall, one may see large water tanks filled with live fish; those caught in the arroyos are mud coloured and have a viscous appearance which makes them rather uninviting. Only the Annamite population consumes them; in the language of the country, they are called ca-ro, ca-lac, ca-bong, ca-chiai, ca-gay, ca-hop, ca-tre, ca-tien and luong (eel).

Marine fish, caught in deep waters off Cap Saint-Jacques, have a more appetizing appearance. We may buy many fine species of saltwater fish here, including tuna, mullet, bream, shad, sardine and anchovy. The market also sells delicious clams, winkles, oysters, crabs, prawns and lobsters, which are not inferior in any way to those of Europe. Fish are also caught each year in the great lakes of Cambodia for drying, and these occupy an important place in the market, because they are the basis of Annamite food. These are also used to make nuoc-mam, which I will describe later.

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A corner of the old market on boulevard Charner (now Nguyễn Huệ boulevard)

The fruit and vegetable market contains a great variety of products, including bananas, mangoes, mangosteens, cucumbers, cabbages, asparagus and lettuce.

In the meat section, pork dominates; it is of good quality and comes from rather small animals with curved spines and bellies which drag on the ground in a rather unsightly way. The beef costs 7-8 sous per pound and its quality is not bad; eggs cost a few sous per dozen. Game and poultry are very abundant: ducks, green pigeons, plump capons, wild roosters, peacocks, guinea fowl, snipe, quail, hares, wild boars … we are indeed spoiled for choice!

The most curious part of the market is the section devoted to food, and in particular the Chinese food stalls. There you will find a huge variety of the special dishes which are consumed by local people, including every different kind of rice and noodle dish, pastries, roasted duck and suckling pigs adorned with large red peppers. The consumers throng around the stalls and choose from among 10 or 12 dishes which have been spread before their eyes. These are served on small plates and consumed with the aid of small chopsticks which are manipulated with remarkable dexterity. One particular dish which I saw looked very appetizing; this was a small omelette, inside which the cook placed two or three shrimps, tender bean sprouts and two or three other substances I could not recognise.

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A Chinese food stall near the old market on boulevard Charner (now Nguyễn Huệ boulevard)

I was particularly interested to see an old woman making pancakes; instead of using a skillet, she took hold of a piece of stiff dough with two small wooden chopsticks and then held it above her stove. At every moment it seemed that the dough, sometimes swollen and sometimes stretched beyond measure, would fall into the fire; but not at all, she handled those small chopsticks with such skill that the pancake was cooked perfectly, with a delicious golden yellow appearance.

In the evening, the market is surrounded by open tables topped with Chinese lanterns which spill out onto the sidewalks. It is here that jolly feasts take place where Annamite people, essentially following their mouths, have a field day. This is a very funny show and I attended frequently. One never sees arguments, all we hear is laughter.

Leaving the market through the front door, we note the Malabar moneychangers squatting on their heels behind stacks of piastres, rupees and sapeks. The latter is the metal Annamite coin; it is made from zinc with a hole in the centre so that bunches of coins can be strung together. It takes 600 sapeks to make a ligature, which is equivalent to 0.80 Francs.

We continue our journey along the quayside, passing on our left the beautiful three-storey building constructed by a rich Chinese named Wang-Taï, and currently occupied by the Administration of Indirect Contributions.

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Riverside cafes on the quai du Commerce (now Tôn Đức Thắng street)

Then we pass a row of riverside cafés, which are arranged just like their European counterparts. Here we may see young ladies of dubious virtue – many of whom came to Saigon with visiting French theatre groups and decided to stay on – serving beers and vermouths to their customers.

Nearby are the facilities of the Messageries fluviales, which has a fleet of steam ships of all sizes, perfectly fitted for hot countries. These ships transport passengers and goods to Tonkin, Cambodia and all intermediate stations. Still following the river, one reaches the Port Directorate, opposite which is moored an old demasted vessel known as the Tilsit, which is used as a pontoon and barracks for sailors; then come the Naval Stores, the Artillery and the Arsenal with its floating dock, where steamships are repaired and small boats built. The Arsenal, which occupies an area of 22 hectares, has not, for the moment, the importance it might have. In future it will become necessary to construct dry docks and provide this installation with all other necessary equipment to repair and maintain a powerful fleet. The recent events in Tonkin probably oblige the Government of the mother country to realise this project which has been studied for so long.

Travelling up the boulevard de la Citadelle, we pass the Sainte-Enfance, which receives orphans and children abandoned by their parents; the Collège d’Adran, run by the Christian Brothers; the St Joseph’s Seminary, led by priests of the Paris Foreign Mission Society; the Carmelite Convent, occupied by unfortunate nuns who it seems came to this deadly climate looking to intensify their already harsh discipline; and finally the Zoological Gardens, facing the arroyo de l’Avalanche [Thị Nghè creek].

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The Zoological and Botanical Gardens

This wonderful garden, where all the useful plants of Lower Cochinchina and neighbouring countries are gathered along with the main wildlife specimens living in the colony, was established and organised by M. Pierre, a native of La Réunion endowed with an undeniable zeal and dedication to science.

All to which art and good taste can give birth with limited resources has been created in this garden, which on weekdays is the popular rendezvous of the Saïgonnais. It its elegant birdhouses we may see most of the bird species indigenous to Cochinchina, including cranes, marabous, peacocks, vultures, pheasants and swamp hens. Nearby is the monkey palace, which contains a young chimpanzee with a frightening resemblance to a human; and further along, cages containing tigers, jaguars, bears and snakes. In the parks, deer roam freely. Pelicans and other waterfowl swim on miniature lakes. On the south bank of the arroyo de l’Avalanche, a large area has been set aside for visitors to enjoy this beautiful river, covered with Chinese bridges and traversed by junks and sampans.

Leaving the Zoological Gardens, we pass on our right the Naval Stores and arrive, via the rue Tabert, at the Citadel. It has the shape of a square, each angle of which terminates in a pentagon. Its parapets are surrounded by a broad ditch without water. It is, in fact, a rather formidable fortress.

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The Marine Infantry Barracks, built on the site of the 1837 Citadel in 1870-1872

It was built in 1790 by French officers during the reign of Emperor Gia Long [this is incorrect; the Citadel occupied by the French was built in 1837 during the reign of Minh Mạng to replace the larger 1790 citadel]. Within the walled enclosure we built a magnificent Marine Infantry Barracks of iron and brick, where our soldiers may find the comfortable and hygienic conditions which are so necessary for Europeans in these hot and humid regions. They are housed in superior buildings and very well nourished. We must offer the military genius responsible for these barracks the fair praise he deserves for having designed buildings which are so well adapted to the needs of the climate.

Continuing along the rue Tabert, we arrive at the Military Hospital, also worthy of the admiration of foreigners. It strikes the eye with its beautiful proportions and the perfect intelligence that governs the distribution of all the parts that make up the whole. More praise to the officers of Marine Engineering Corps!

One is particularly inspired by its beneficial system of separate pavilions, which were built, like the Marine Infantry Barracks, of iron and brick. The Military Hospital extends over a wide area and includes all the facilities that we are accustomed to seeing in larger French establishments of the same kind. Absolutely nothing has been neglected, so that our soldiers and our sailors may enjoy the best possible conditions to speed their return to health.

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The Military Hospital, today a Children’s Hospital

I made a long visit to the sisters of the Hospital, with whom I was destined to stay for some time. In the parlour that serves as their living room, I met Mother Superior Benjamin, who did not seem to feel the fatigue of her 20 years of Cochinchina, along with five or six other sisters who welcomed me with affability and motherly kindness. I was moved to tears; I felt that I had found a family. When illness descends upon you, as happens so often in our unhealthy colonies, especially in Cochinchina, you are always assured of meeting with these excellent creatures, who not only provide constant and delicate care, but also to offer the consolation which only women know how to give.

Let me mention above all Sister Germaine, the nun responsible for the officers ward, all for the good, I think! It was providential that she entered the Military Hospital, for never has the Christian religion produced a more accomplished woman. Her face of angelic sweetness and her inexhaustible goodness have made her extremely popular in Cochinchina. Her name is pronounced with respect and tenderness by many officers who have received her care, and not one of her former patients will pass through Saigon without visiting this holy woman and giving her a little present.

I also visited Father Thinselin, the hospital chaplain, who combined the size of a battleship and the beard of a sapper with a face of a childish sweetness. This colossus was a true friend of his patients and all those who attended the hospital.

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The Cercle des Officiers, now the District 1 People’s Committee building

On leaving the hospital, we travelled along boulevard Norodom, a wide and busy thoroughfare which is home to the Hôtel du Général, the Cercle des Officiers, the Cathedral, and right at the other end, the Palace of the Governor.

The Cercle des Officiers is a large two-storey building which owes its existence to the munificence of a Governor, who had it built in order to create a meeting place for officers of all arms. The ground floor is devoted to the marine infantry officers’ mess. On the upper floor there is a library, a reading room, a billiard room and a bar. The subscription is one piastre per month.

Close to the Cercle is a rather ugly bandstand, in which a military band plays twice a week. On those days, all the elegant people of Saigon love to promenade along this boulevard. They travel in carriages, they walk, they engage in conversation, they laugh. One could believe oneself to be in any of those cities of France where military music always draws crowds of people.

The Cathedral, which faces the rue Catinat, is far from being a pretty monument. Built entirely of brick, its great mass sitting on granite bedrock, it recalls one of those heavy pastries that are commonly referred to as pâtés. This pretentious and ugly building cost the colony several million.

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The Saigon Cathedral before spires were added in 1897

Externally, it has the shape of a long rectangle bounded by two square towers and a portal. Inside, the nave is wide and very hot, since fresh air does not penetrate; it is almost like entering a diving bell. Instead of a light, elegant church with a double gallery to permit air to circulate freely, they constructed a large building without taste and without style, far too big for the small number of faithful who attend mass. It seems that they wanted to capture the imagination of the Annamites with the imposing spectacle of a grandiose church building dedicated to the Christian God; I do not know if they succeeded. But in my opinion, the design of this church is lacking.

The Palace of the Government, on the contrary, is a monument worthy of the capital of our future colonial empire in the Far East. It strikes the eye with its purity and the simplicity of its lines, as well as the beautiful proportions of its architectural mass. It quite reminds one of the Palais de Florence with its white colonnades. Located at the end of a beautiful park, the dark green colour of which highlights the whiteness of the marble facade, the palace may be seen from afar.

The two most noteworthy parts are the vestibule and the events hall, which are in no way inferior in their richness and ornamentation to any of those that we admire in our most famous Parisian palaces.

The vestibule, which is accessed by a grand marble staircase, is circular in shape, decorated with a profusion of tropical flowers and plants.

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The Palace of the Government

The events hall, which can hold up to 800 people, has a grand appearance. Its rich ceiling, consisting of boxes with gilded mouldings, is supported by columns of the finest style; on each side are galleries which allow air to circulate throughout, and at the end a rotunda balcony which overlooks the park. When the room is lit and decorated for a reception or a great ball, we can see nothing more beautiful and more imposing.

Behind the palace is the Jardin de ville (City Park), a huge park of virgin forest which becomes very busy on Sundays at the time of “la Musique” [a Sunday afternoon military band concert].

On days such as this, the Jardin de ville becomes the “Bois de Boulogne of Saigon.” Between 5pm and 6pm, the carriages are so numerous that they have to file in two rows, at walking pace. This is the rendezvous of all of Saigon’s belle société, a veritable assault of fashion and elegance. Among the crowd are the pretty Congaïs, wearing rich silk clothing. We can get a good idea of the elite crowd which attends “la Musique,” a weekly promenade which has now become a regular event in the lives of the population.

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The Collège Chasseloup-Laubat, now Lê Quý Đôn High School

Leaving the gardens of the Palace of the Government, we continue up to the rue Chasseloup-Laubat where the College of the same name is situated. This institution receives young Annamites from good families who are taught the French language and elements of our science and our arts. They are intended primarily for careers as government interpreters. There is also, on the rue d’Espagne, a secular school for the children of Europeans, and on the rue Nationale, a school run by the priest of Saigon where indigenous and mixed-race children are taught.

Now let’s conclude our journey of exploration through the city by travelling down the rue Catinat, the busiest and most hectic street in Saigon.

It is in this street that we find most of the public institutions: the Treasury, the Post and Telegraph Office, and the Department of the Interior, along with the residence of its Director; these latter two monuments are veritable palaces. Further down, we find the Hôtel Favre, which I have already mentioned, the Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall), which has no special character, the Theatre, and then several cafés, Chinese and European stores and clubs. The street is filled with horse-drawn carriages of all descriptions, Annamite rickshaws, and both Chinese and Annamite pedestrians who circulate all day long in crowds, producing scenes of great animation.

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A Malabar carriage on rue Catinat (modern Đờng Khởi street)

The rue Nationale, which follows rue Tabert and boulevard Norodom, is also full of noise and movement. Other areas of the city have little which is worth mentioning.

Private houses are nearly all built on the Bourbon model, either of brick or wood. They are rarely more than two storeys in height and are usually composed of a main building with a courtyard and garden, decorated with a verandah in front and behind. Usually buried in the midst of a clump of greenery, they have a graceful and stylish appearance, with large and airy interior rooms. Down towards the lower part of the city, there are many houses built of brick in the European style, which serve both as shops and as housing to the traders.

The city’s drainage system leaves nothing to be desired; it is so comprehensive and well-designed that the torrents of water which inevitably follow the storms of the rainy season seem to vanish in just a few hours.

The supply of water in homes and on street corners, where good fountains and pumps are located, is provided by an elegant Chateau d’eau (water tower), built at the top of the rue Catinat extension. Abundant groundwater which has been percolated through the sands of the Plain of Tombs is brought together in a vast underground aquifer. From there, a powerful steam pumping apparatus conducts the water to the top of the water tower, whence it is distributed to different parts of the city.

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The Water Tower which stood on the modern Turtle Lake intersection until 1918

Outside the boulevards, the public gardens, the squares and the parks that I mentioned, there are still, in the vicinity of the city, some charming promenades which are well frequented by city dwellers in the evenings after sunset: these are the Tour de l’Inspection and the Route de Cholon.

The Tour de l’Inspection involves a tour of the city. It leads you along a wide and well-maintained road, lined with trees, past beautiful houses, cultivated fields to the Inspection de Gia-Dinh, the residence of an Inspector of Native Affairs and an important centre of population.

There’s nothing as graceful as this small town, which quite reminds one of a clean and well-maintained European village. All the carriages stop here, then they resume their journey and pass through villages, rice fields and bridges over the arroyos.

In the summer months, from 5pm to 10pm, this route is crowded with horse-drawn carriages, which pass each other and weave their way through crowds of walkers who lazily and blissfully enjoy the fresh air.

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The Pigneaux de Behaine Mausoleum (demolished in 1985)

A little further on, located in a very picturesque spot, is the tomb of the Bishop of Adran, M. Pigneaux de Behaine, who died in 1779. The Bishop, who played a major role in the last century during the reign of King Gia Long, was buried here under the care of his royal friend. After giving him a magnificent funeral, the king built this beautiful monument of Annamite art.

The road to Go-Vap, which passes through some of the best-cultivated and richest areas around the city, is another well-frequented promenade. It’s here that one can see those little Annamite houses on plots of one hectare surrounded by trees where they cultivate tobacco, corn and sugar cane. They bring to mind those fragmented farms in some parts of the French countryside which are equally well cared for by our farmers.

The two roads which lead to Cholon, 5 or 6 kilometres west of Saigon, are also a favourite promenade for carriages. The first, which is accessed from the upper part of the city, is the route Stratégique; it is wide, comfortable and the more attractive of the two. The countryside along this route is beautiful and well cultivated; Annamites of high class live in small and pretty domains, where their houses disappear amidst a tangle of mango, banana and areca nut trees.

Le chemin de fer Saïgon-My Thô Maison Asie Pacific (MAP)

A Saigon-Mỹ Tho train calling at Chợ Lớn station

A short distance from the city, there is a model farm known as the Ferme des Mares, where we are carrying out research into the cultivation of cane, indigo and coffee, which to date have not given very brilliant practical results.

The second road to Cholon runs along the entire length of the arroyo de Chinois; it passes through several Annamite villages which teem with a very dense population, and leads to the Hôpital indigène de Cho-Quan (Cho-Quan Indigenous People’s Hospital), which receives Annamites and Chinese of the poor class.

Those who have no carriage can reach Cholon in only 20 minutes by taking the steam tram that leaves from the bottom of the arroyo Chinois, or the newly-built railway which now goes all the way to Mytho.

After visiting the city of Saigon in all its details, I went to see Cholon, a city of 50,000 souls, exclusively inhabited by Chinese and Annamites. This is the most commercial city of Cochinchina, a great marketplace for rice, silks and teas. I arrived at 9am on a day of great celebration and went directly to the Inspection, where I received hospitality. Outside was a procession preceded by musicians beating tom-toms, clashing cymbals and playing horribly piercing flutes. It was abominable, discordant music, without rhythm and without musical theme. All one could hear was the piercing noise.

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Rue de Canton (now Triệu Quang Phục street) in Chợ Lớn

After the orchestra came a group of little girls aged 6 to 7 years, adorned with magnificent costumes, their faces heavily made up, mounted on richly decorated platforms raised aloft by pages in bizarre and colourful outfits.

Other small girls were grouped together on floats, sitting in front of tables laden with dishes or doing various small handicrafts. Behind them walked guards carrying fantastic weapons and wearing brilliant costumes; others held banners, parasols and huge fans. Then came the penitents, monks in saffron robes, followed by the literati, venerable old scholars in glasses. And finally the procession of the dragon. The parade lasted half an hour. To close the ceremony with dignity, firecrackers were exploded in profusion. The whole thing was very original, but it would have been necessary to stand next to an interpreter in order to grasp the real meaning of the procession, which for us seemed more like a mascarade than a religious festival.

The city of Cholon is very much a Chinese city; it is devoted exclusively to trade, and the streets near the arroyo Chinois, covered with many high bridges, are full of shops that sell all kinds of special food for Chinese and Annamite consumption.

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Chinese duck merchants in Chợ Lớn

Traders from the Celestial Empire, naked to the waist, with plump bellies and noses adorned with large spectacles, sit in front of their shops taking care of business. The accountants among them move their nimble fingers across their abacus, with which they perform the most complicated calculations.

Through a nearby doorway, I saw a Chinese schoolteacher surrounded by a gang of mischievous kids who were making a thousand efforts to appear attentive to their lesson. Further along the arroyo I passed several large rice husking factories, owned by French businessmen but run in collaboration with the Chinese.

I briefly entered the Central Market, which sold the most varied products ranging from fish and rice to clothes, shoes, books, mirrors and fabrics of all kinds.

My curiosity was aroused when I saw a Chinese pagoda surrounded by a dense crowd of people. I entered and found its main hall packed with a mob whose gaiety seemed decidedly out of keeping with the respect due to a place of worship. Cake and sweet sellers had set up stalls here, surrounded by eager customers. The ceiling in this hall was decorated with a multitude of gaudy lanterns of the worst possible taste; were these votive lanterns, or had they been installed just for the festival?

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The interior of a Chinese temple in Chợ Lớn

Leaving this noisy room, I entered the main sanctuary of the temple. At the entrance was the horse of the Buddha, which resembled a harmless quadruped, its attitude recalling nothing of its divine role in Chinese religion. At the rear of the sanctuary were shrines decorated with statues, candles and sacred urns. A priest looked at me good-naturedly and seemed not the least bit scandalised by my mocking smile which was inspired by the sight of the big-bellied Buddha, enthroned amidst the lesser gods that surrounded him.

An old woman kneeling on the steps of the shrine burned josticks before the images of her gods and made an offering to the priest, who responded by turning his prayer wheel at the feet of the divinity, thereby taking care of her wishes. Such a simple and uncomplicated system! However, the crowd seemed to delight more in the first enclosure than in the sanctuary, as the few devotees in the latter appeared to have a distracted air and soon rushed back to the noisy party to see what would happen next.

In the afternoon, a carriage drove me to the Cay-Mai ceramics factory, located next to a military barracks of the same name [the former Cây Mai Pagoda] occupied by a company of marines. To get there, we crossed an area of barren land scattered with Annamite mounds and tombs resembling headless sphinxes.

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The Plain of Tombs

A cadaverous stench coming from a freshly dug grave suddenly filled me with nausea; the Annamites have, in fact, the bad habit of burying their dead in ground of very little depth, so that the putrid fumes of decay spread easily throughout the area, to the great detriment of public health.

The Cay-Mai ceramics factory consists of a long low shed covered with a roof of reeds and a brick oven. The Chinese workers here artistically manipulate the clay that is drawn from the soil and give it a variety of forms according to their own imagination or the needs of their customers. In general, the objects produced by this factory – mainly vases and household utensils – are of rather coarse quality. However, some of the Cay-Mai ceramic artists are endowed with a greater ability and create groups of figures or plates and vases decorated with crabs or fish that do not lack character. What a surprise it was to see how, with such rudimentary means, they were able to make relatively fine objects.

Above the main workshop area I saw a balcony containing the modest bunk beds used by the workers of the factory. Nothing can give a better idea of the minimal requirements of the Chinese worker. He works hard and never complains; he also saves hard and contents himself with the bare essentials of clothing, food and housing. Despite this, he always seems happy and contented.

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The “High Road” which led from Saigon to Chợ Lớn

How different he is to the workers of our major cities, who are in general so exacting and so unscrupulous! It seems that the Chinese, who we so often treat like an old and corrupt race of barbarians, have long since solved the social problems that we have pursued in vain for so many years. When we know better the manners and habits of this people, we will, no doubt, draw from them lessons in wisdom, moderation and social organisation.

I returned to Saigon by carriage along the road through Choquan. As I left Cholon, I was pleasantly surprised by the sight of many wonderful vegetable gardens, cultivated with talent and expertise by Chinese gardeners, where delicious vegetables such as lettuce, cabbage and asparagus are grown largely for the Saigon market.

However, since time immemorial, these people have used human manure to fertilise their crops, a
scarcely aromatic treatment which has the serious drawback of spreading intestinal worms, whose eggs are well spread over the vegetables we eat.

I stop for a moment to shake hands with the Navy doctor who heads the Choquan Hospital, and then head back to Saigon, delighted with my journey and all of the interesting things I have seen.

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.

Date with the Wrecking Ball – Former Cercle des Officiers, 47 Le Duan, 1876

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The District 1 People’s Committee Building, originally the Cercle des Officiers

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

In November 2014 it was announced that another old French civic building, featured earlier this year as an “Old Saigon Building of the Week,” would be redeveloped.

The colonial pile at 45-47 Lê Duẩn, right opposite the Diamond Plaza, is one of the oldest surviving French buildings in the city.

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The Cercle des officiers in the late 1870s – note the Cathedral under construction in the background

It was built in 1876 at the command of Rear Admiral-Governor Victor Guy Duperré (30 September 1874-30 January 1876) as the Cercle des Officiers or Officers’ Mess, to provide social and recreational facilities for high-ranking members of the French armed forces. The no-nonsense design by the Cochinchina Department of Public Works, typical of the period, features a surrounding verandah and high ceilings to enhance ventilation.

Visiting Saigon in 1882, retired Chief Naval Pharmacist Arthur Delteil described the Cercle des Officiers as “a large two-storey building which owes its existence to the munificence of a Governor, who had it built in order to create a meeting place for officers of all the armed forces.”

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The Cercle des officiers in the early 20th century

He continued: “The ground floor is devoted to the marine infantry officers’ mess. On the upper floor there is a library, a reading room, a billiard room and a bar. The subscription is one piastre per month.”

Between 1955 and 1975, the old Cercle des Officiers building was repurposed to house the South Vietnamese Ministry of Justice (Bộ Tư pháp).

Since Reunification it has served as the headquarters of the District 1 People’s Committee (Ủy ban Nhân dân Quận 1). However, on 17 November 2014 it was reported by VNExpress  that following an estimated windfall profit of over 6,000 billion đồng in the current year, the District 1 People’s Committee planned to proceed with the construction of a new administrative centre at 45-47 Lê Duẩn.

UPDATE: After an initial response to public concern which stressed that the building was not a historic, architectural, cultural or artistic vestige and therefore the redevelopment plan did not violate any regulations, an official of the District 1 People’s Committee pledged in an interview with Thanh Niên newspaper on 11 December 2014 that the old building will now be preserved and the new building constructed behind it.

 

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The Cercle des officiers in the 1880s

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Another image of the Cercle des officiers in the 1880s

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The Cercle des officiers in the 1920s

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Another view of the Cercle des officiers in the 1920s

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The Cercle des officiers in 1929

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In 1955-1975 the old Cercle des officiers building became the Ministry of Justice of the Republic of Việt Nam. It is pictured here in 1967.

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.