Icons of Old Saigon – The Casino de Saigon, 1910


French businessman Léopold Bernard, founder of the Casino de Saigon.

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

Founded by French businessman Léopold Bernard, the Casino de Saigon was one of the city’s earliest cinemas.

Casino original i

The original Casino de Saigon building at 30 boulevard Bonnard.

Bernard set up the Société anonyme pour l’exploitation des cinémas Léopold Bernard in around 1910 and proceeded to build a chain of cinema-entertainment halls in Saigon (the Casino de Saigon), Mỹ Tho (the Casino de Mytho), Cần Thơ (the Casino de Cantho) and Bến Tre (the Casino de Bentre). Each auditorium was equipped for both stage and screen presentations and offered a varied programme of “cinema, theatre, concerts and other attractions.”

The original Casino de Saigon building stood at 30 boulevard Bonnard (Lê Lợi), but it was subsequently expanded into number 28, the larger adjacent building on the corner of rue Pellerin (Pasteur). The original building was then remodelled to become the Casino’s restaurant-café, known after 1915 as the “Brasserie des sports” and managed by one of Bernard’s business partners, Daniel Courrèges.


The Casino de Saigon later expanded into 28 boulevard Bonnard next door.

Apart from its regular programme of film screenings, the Casino de Saigon was billed as a venue for “European theatre” and hosted frequent performances by visiting French drama groups. It also became a popular venue for amateur boxing.

Following the death of Bernard Léopold on 31 July 1918, management of the Société anonyme pour l’exploitation des cinémas Léopold Bernard was taken over by his brother-in-law, Constant René Blot. The company remained in family ownership until the end of the colonial era.

Casino Theatre A i

After 1955 the Casino Cinema was rebuilt just round the corner at 59 Pasteur.

After the departure of the French, the Société anonyme pour l’exploitation des cinémas Léopold Bernard was acquired by a local businessman. The original Casino buildings were sold, and in the late 1950s, a larger and more modern Casino Cinema was built just round the corner at 59 Pasteur.

After 1975, the Casino Cinema at 59 Pasteur was renamed the Vinh Quang Cinema and in 1998 it was converted into the Saigon Drama Theatre (Sân khấu Kịch Sài Gòn). It was closed several years ago and today the new Liberty Central Hotel stands on the site.


The Casino de Saigon buildings at 28-30 boulevard Bonnard.

Casino B i

The Casino de Saigon buildings at the corner of boulevard Bonnard and rue Pellerin

Casino Brasserie des sports i

After 1915 the original Casino de Saigon building was known as the “Brasserie des sports” and managed by one of Bernard’s business partners, Daniel Courrèges.

Saïgon. Le Casino et le restaurant Daniel Courrèges

“The Casino and the Daniel Courrèges restaurant.”

Casino 1960s i

After 1955, a new Casino Cinema was built at 59 Pasteur.

Saigon traffic cop

After the Casino Cinema was relocated to 59 Pasteur, the old Casino de Saigon buildings were redeveloped.

Saigon Drama Theatre A i

In 1998 the Casino Cinema at 59 Pasteur was converted into the Saigon Drama Theatre (Sân khấu Kịch Sài Gòn). It was closed several years ago and today the new Liberty Central Hotel stands on the sit

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

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

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

The People Vote on the New City Administration Building


The exhibition of shortlisted designs was held in the City Exhibition Centre at 92 Lê Thánh Tôn.

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

On 23-25 February 2015, Hồ Chí Minh City residents were given the opportunity to view 11 shortlisted designs for the new City People’s Committee Administration Building and to vote for the scheme they felt was best suited for the site and purpose.

The exhibition of shortlisted designs was held in the City Exhibition Centre at 92 Lê Thánh Tôn and attracted a steady throughput of visitors, including a very large number of young people.


One of the most popular shortlisted designs was this futuristic semicircular structure with an undulating roof.

While the shortlist included a number of more conventional monumental designs, it also featured several stunningly futuristic glass and steel creations. These included a semicircular structure with an undulating roof, apparently inspired by “the simple act of two hands held together, fingers interlocked – a humble expression of unity,” and a “sustainable, intelligent building” comprised of curved, abstract-shaped floors layered slightly off-centre from one another.

However, for members of the city’s growing urban conservation movement, the concern was not simply the design of the new building and its impact on the cityscape. Equally important was the fate of the 1888 Bureau du Gouvernement building at 59-61 Lý Tự Trọng,which had previously been threatened with demolition to make way for the new Administration Building.

Encouragingly, no fewer than seven of the 11 shortlisted designs planned to retain the 1888 building intact, without negative impact on its heritage value. One proposed minor modifications to the old building, two others envisaged building around it, and just one of the shortlisted designs involved dispensing with the old building altogether.


One shortlisted design suggested moving the former Bureau du Gouvernement building (59-61 Lý Tự Trọng) to a more central location, in order to repurpose it as the rear entrance to the People’s Committee building.

Undoubtedly the most intriguing design was one which envisaged moving the Bureau du Gouvernement building in three complete sections to a more central location on the site, in order to repurpose it as the rear entrance to the People’s Committee building. Addressing the concerns of visitors about the dangers of moving a 126-year-old heritage building, a representative of the design consultancy responsible for this scheme pointed out that this had already been done safely on many occasions in Japan and involved no danger to the old building.

The Saigon Heritage Observatory, set up last year by the group which led the 2014 Saigon Tax Trade Centre preservation campaign, issued a statement urging voters to choose a design which will preserve the old government building intact.

The results of the vote were expected to be announced in February 2015.


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 and Cho Lon – The Impressions of Magistrate Raoul Postel in 1882, Part 2


Chợ Lớn Central Market

This is the second of two excerpts from La Cochinchine française (1883), one of several works on colonial Indochina written by Saigon magistrate Raoul Postel.

To read part 1 of this serialisation, click here.

The Chinese City of Cholon

To get to Cholon, two roads are frequented by preference: that of the route des Mares and that of the Arroyo-Chinois.


The countryside around Saigon

The route des Mares continues west from the rue de Lagrandière [Lý Tự Trọng]. On the right as we head for Cholon is the Plain of Tombs; and on the left, a long strip of rich and fertile land. Here, on the outskirts of Saigon, are the former garden houses of the Annamite mandarins. Located one after the other, the ruins of their opulent pleasure houses are now hidden in the undergrowth. All that now remains are the trees which once adorned these delicious retreats: guava and grapefruit, mango and mangosteen, curious banyan, beautiful tamarind, slender areca. But European construction in this area is gradually making them disappear.

Further along, the road runs past the government Stud Farm and a former artillery park, now an Annamite army barracks known as “les Mares” because of the two small ponds which adorn each side of its main entrance – in one of these the mandarins kept fish, and in the other crocodiles. There were once two royal pagodas here, which were celebrated in the annals of the country. Here, in 1783, a French soldier who had given his life in defence of King Gia Long was buried amidst great pomp in the first pagoda; while in the other, Gia Long himself married the woman who later became the mother of his successor, King Minh Mang. After passing this place, this road offers nothing else of interest. It has a total length of 6 kilometres.


The “Camp des Mares” army barracks

The arroyo-Chinois [Bến Nghé creek], so animated, so crowded, and so graciously designed to provide a pleasing contour to the eye, is the second route to Cholon and the most convenient one for those who fear the dust and heat.

Taking this route, it becomes apparent that there are few cities which can offer prettier scenery than Saigon. Along the riverbank, lines of houses on stilts advance over the water, serving as quays for the residents. Narrow canals lead away behind mountains of greenery.

On the right, we see the huge roof of the Cau-Ong-Lanh Chinese Theatre, of which I will say more later. On the left, a little further upstream, we see the arroyo-de-l’Amphytrite (Ong-Lanh). Near this creek, set back amidst a grove of areca and coconut trees, on may see the modest spire of the Cho-Quan Church. Nearby is the hospital of this pretty village, a hospital devoted to Asians. It is connected to the Pagode des Mares by a thousand paths, each one shaded and cool.


The banks of the arroyo-Chinois in Chợ Lớn

The arroyo-Chinois is as useful for the merchant as it is pleasant for the tourist to travel on. It is always packed with boats bringing goods from the vast storehouses of Cholon to Saigon for export. In the past, a bridge located at the entrance of the arroyo-Chinois prevented larger sea junks from accessing the creek and sailing down to Cholon. However, some years ago this bridge collapsed and happily we have now replaced it with a rotating iron bridge, built in France.

If we now enter the city of Cholon by one of the branches of this beautiful creek, we can admire its wide streets lined with solid and well-built one-storey houses, and the crowded quaysides with their shophouses packed with countless treasures, collected through the active and patient commerce of the Chinese. Cholon is their city, and in a very short time it has undergone considerable development.

Commercial freedom was the only way to achieve this rapid development. By breaking the old barriers, we succeeded in permanently settling the Chinese in this, their city of choice. It is true that some of them have been established here for more than a century. Many currently own land and houses. They understand fully the scope of the measures we have taken in their favour, which are intended to facilitate their efforts. And they profit greatly from them.

62 Arroyo Chinois

Boats on the arroyo-Chinois

The real name of Cholon is Taï-Ngon, the Chinese name which the Annamites transformed into Saï-Gon. Today, the Chinese city is known only by its indigenous name Cholon, which means “big market.”

When we French first arrived in Cochinchina, Cholon was a dirty city, with dark and unhealthy homes clustered alongside narrow and winding streets. Its makeshift bridges, impassable to carriages, were also inconvenient for the feet of Europeans. Roads were often flooded by the tide, and house fronts were receptacles of filth. We created wide and airy streets, developed the docks, dug a new canal, rebuilt or restored the houses along the water’s edge, built bridges and bounded properties, cleaning and brightening up the city. Through our efforts, Annamite suburbs were transferred to new locations. Now, in the middle of the city, there stands an immense arcaded City Market with a tiled floor, courtyards and exterior sidewalks. Today we can finally move at ease in this bustling centre.

Thanks to the connecting arroyos and canals, junks, sampans and fishing boats can enter the city from all directions and unload their goods on the wharfs, where they can be transferred directly into the shophouses. A special steam boat service also runs back and forward every half-hour between Cholon and Saigon, carrying travellers and their goods.

Pagode des sept congregations i

The Pagode des sept congregations in Chợ Lớn

The city is divided into five districts, each with a Chinese, Minh Huong and Annamite chief, which has had the effect of homogenising the population of these three very disparate elements, and also of encouraging the Annamites to become more interested in the commercial development of the city. Our Inspector of Native Affairs is responsible for the supervision and control of the chiefs of the Chinese congregations, and he is also responsible for justice and tax collection. When I left the colony, the pressing question was whether or not Cholon could be provided with an exclusively Asian city council. But, from the point of view of future development, I think that this would be an unfortunate measure.

The greatest attraction of Cholon, as far as the European is concerned, is its very large number of pagodas and temples. This city is the true “boulevard of Buddhism” in Cochinchina and we will now visit three of its most famous places of worship.

The first is the Kuang-Ti [Quan Công or Guānyǔ] pagoda, dedicated to the warrior deity. From the outside, it looks like all the rest of its peers. A high brick wall surrounds it on all sides, at the front of which stands a monumental three-entrance gate, the upper compartments of which are decorated with ceramic bas-reliefs: the one in the centre is the highest of the three, and each is covered with a light roof of tubular tiles, designed to protect against heavy rain.


The Nghĩa An (Cháozhōu) Assembly Hall, known locally as the Quan Đế Temple (Miếu Quan Đế) or the “Mr” Pagoda (Chùa Ông)

Within the walls, located in the centre of a vast courtyard, are two long buildings. One wing is the temple, while the other is reserved for temple officials. Between the two buildings is a tall and thin carved wooden column supporting a bronze carved cornice, in which is housed a deformed genie. The brick roof of the pagoda is richly decorated with an array of wonderfully crafted ceramic ornaments: giant birds, huge bunches of flowers, figurines intertwined in capricious arabesques, and sacred lotus flowers emitting holy rays.

As we enter the left wing, closely followed by a hungry pack of local dogs, we venture through a small hidden door – this is the everyday entrance of the temple, because the great door of the front hall is only opened on festival days.

The interior is divided into several parts, each supported by many pillars of black wood on granite bases: an area adjoining the front hall is reserved for the faithful.

The middle hall comprises an open courtyard which serves to illuminate the main sanctuary. It contains a single shrine of enormous proportions, covered with embroidered silk and gold banners and surrounded by bronze-tipped wooden weapons.

Cantonese Pagoda interior i

The interior of a temple in Chợ Lớn

At each corner of the main (rear) hall are two bulging idols, grimacing bodyguards of colossal size, one with a black face and lance in hand, the other with his hands buried deep in his wide sleeves. Both sport moustaches and long beards, and they face each other with serious expressions. Placed on the central shrine is a statue of the famous Kuang-Ti [Quan Công or Guānyǔ]. To his right is a statue of his son Kouang-Ping [Quan Bình or Guānpíng], and to his left, a statue of his faithful squire [Châu Xương or Zhōu Cāng], resembling the ridiculous Sancho-Panza in the story of Don Quixote.

The second temple we will visit is the Kwan-chin-Hway-quan, which was built to worship the goddess Koang-Yin or A-Pho, the creative power and patron saint of sailors.

To get there, we must cross a paved courtyard of granite slabs which were brought from Canton. The entrance is guarded by two granite sphinxes, each rolling a ball between its teeth. Along the walls, we see ceramic flower garlands of a very high quality; this is unusual, because in the past, the Chinese have rightly been criticised for their rather rough work in this genre. Above these are glazed ceramic panels featuring a variety of characters. The ridges of the tiled roof are decorated with snakes and fantastic birds.


The Tuệ Thành (Guǎngzhōu) Assembly Hall, popularly known as Bà (Lady) or Thiên Hậu Pagoda

The doors are intricately carved; inside, on both sides, sit small shrines featuring bearded deities. Along the side galleries, black marble slabs covered with Chinese inscriptions are embedded vertically in the wall. Above them on both sides, a series of paintings depict mandarins sitting in judgement, ladies of the court, and scenes of equestrian combat involving spears, axes and bows and arrows.

The square open courtyard in front of the main hall is reserved for detonating firecrackers. Worshippers also set light to gold and silver votive papers, which are thrown into a large and ornate cast iron urn located in front of the shrine. The main sanctuary is separated from this space by a screen made from fine hardwood, and the pillars on either side carry twin sentences in gold characters. Here there are also wooden chairs, a wooden settee and several small wooden sideboards with marble tops.

The main hall of the temple features a canopy supported by beautifully carved pillars; beneath it, the shrines comprise vast carved and gilded wooden niches where the Chinese deities are enthroned. The main shrine is occupied by the goddess, and on either side of her are two smaller subsidiary shrines occupied by bearded deities.


Ceramic roof ridge decoration on a temple in Chợ Lớn

The goddess wears a crown topped with a red square which resembles an Italian beret. She also wears earrings and around her head is a golden halo. Near her are placed two other goddesses. Two characters with a menacing demeanour stand guard on either side.

In front of the shrine we see large screens decorated with peacock feathers, rows of triangular flags, a model junk with sails, large fragrant joss sticks, and imitation flowers and lotus buds, interspersed with small sundials, mirrors and inscribed panels. On festival days, the banners of the Cantonese congregation are displayed here, along with insignia mounted on top of painted sticks and a fragrant sandalwood cylinder which is eventually burned as a sacrifice. On one side of the shrine is a drum, and on the other a beautiful Chinese bell.

Three tables are arranged in front of the shrines to receive the sacrificial offerings, which consist of whole glazed roasted pigs, fruit, cakes, poultry, seafood and tea. At the foot of the tables are mats and cushions, where worshippers prostrate themselves and make their offerings against a background of incessant noise which includes the sounds of drums, bells and firecrackers.

Cholon une pagode 1890 MAP

A Chinese assembly hall in Chợ Lớn in 1890

It is also in this part of the temple that worshippers have their fortunes told using the curved root of a bamboo branch split into two: the two parts are dropped on the floor and the way in which they separate and are respectively positioned is said to denote either a favourable or unfavourable prognosis. Alternatively, they can throw into the air a bunch of 49 small sticks, on each of which predictions are written; if they land in a fortuitous position which corresponds to that indicated in the books of the monks, it is a happy lot for the thrower. On festival days, the monks preside at the ceremonies, and Chinese come in full costume early in the morning to pay homage.

In the right side of the temple is a small workshop where prayer sheets are printed. The characters are first engraved in relief onto a wooden board and then the sheets are reproduced in considerable numbers. This method is not as perfect as that of the Buddhists who sent to our 1867 Exhibition a prayer machine which was capable of turning out 120 sheets each day. Nearby, they also make and sell candles, votive gold and silver papers, and stacks of ingenious imitation coins and piastre notes, which are within the reach of every budget. By burning them, the good Chinese pass these items on to their ancestors, along with clothes, utensils and everything else which is deemed necessary for the material life, all represented on coarse paper and destined to go up in smoke.

Saïgon - Chinois mécaniciens à bord des chaloupes

A Chinese boat crew

A compartment on one side of the main hall contains four large burners, and it’s here too that food is served on large tables during festival days. Large quantities of roast pig are sacrificed for the greater benefit of the living, who come and go within the temple precincts, talking and laughing loudly. A native orchestra mingles its discordant notes with all the rest of the noise.

On the other side is a room filled with a large table and chairs and decorated with Chinese calligraphy: it’s the boardroom of the congregation.

Besides these areas, there are still more shrines, as well as a kind of attic, which may be reached by means of a wooden staircase, but contains nothing remarkable.

We are now sufficiently educated about the interior of this temple.

The third pagoda we will visit is the Pagode-neuve (New pagoda), which is dedicated to the Buddha. I attended its solemn inauguration, presided over by a monk who came especially from Tibet, and on whose travel huge sums had been spent.


A “Chinese pagoda” in Chợ Lớn

A deep ditch, protected by a dry stone wall, separates the Pagoda from the street. Its exterior and interior decoration is similar to the previous two. One notices, however, a unique and wonderful work comprising six enormous granite columns, around each of which the artist sculpted gigantic dragons. Two of these columns are placed at the entrance to the front hall, two in the middle hall, and two on either side of the main sanctuary.

Right opposite the pagoda on the other side of the street is a vast enclosure surrounded on three sides by high walls decorated with gigantic tigers. The side facing the street is decorated with a lattice fence, through which it is possible to see all of the goings-on inside. However, this space is usually empty, being reserved for stage performances on festival days.

This is the general appearance of the famous pagodas, of which there are nearly 30 in Cholon. But none are as rich as those which belong to the Chinese.

The three pagodas that I have just described are located in the street that leads back to Saigon, not far from the Catholic church and the convent of the French nuns.

Plaine des tombeaux

The Plain of Tombs

As we head back down that street, we pass the magnificent residence of three Indigenous Affairs Administrators, surrounded by a beautiful garden. In front are the guards’ barracks. Here we are back on the route des Mares, alongside which, set amidst huge mango trees, are situated numerous brick factories. After that, we must bid farewell to all the movement and life, because from this point onwards the eye contemplates only the sorry weeds of the Plain of Tombs.

Since 27 December 1881, Cholon has been connected to Saigon by a steam tramway line, which has succeeded wonderfully. It appears that its trains carry no less than 2,000 to 2,500 Asians each day, for the price of just 0 Fr.30. This is an excellent result. In their colourful language, the Annamites have dubbed this tram the cheval de feu (“fire horse”).

I don’t suppose that you expect me to write an in-depth essay on Chinese drama. Apart from the fact that the language is totally unknown to me, I must say that I have very rarely attended performances at the theatres in Cau-ong-Lanh or Cholon. All I can say is that the dramas, based on either history or fantasy, usually last two or three days, and that each evening performance extends for seven or eight hours. Everything is interconnected, from the main story, entr’actes and pantomimes, to the conjuring shows in which the Chinese excel. As for the décor, it is primitive. The scene never changes: a simple sign, hanging from a string or nailed onto a board, successively indicates change of place.

Théâtre chinois

A Chinese theatre troupe

Members of the audience are content with these limitations and intelligence makes up for what cannot be glimpsed by their eyes. The lighting also leaves much to be desired. The backstage candle-snuffer is not in the least embarrassed to walk half naked across the stage in order to carry out his duties, even while the hero is delivering a speech, neither do the spectators seem to care.

As for the orchestra, it sits at the back of the stage and plays almost continuously; but its frenzied cacophony is one of the cruellest punishments which can be inflicted on the newly-arrived European. In a word, attending a Chinese theatrical performance once, in passing, can offer the charm of the unexpected; but attending a second time – which no-one is forced to do – is, in my view at least, a tedious chore for which there is neither excuse nor explanation.

The Chinese also play comedy and vaudeville. But I would not commit any of my French lady friends to risk viewing such performances. These representations are all too often of a revolting immorality. The Asian is never afraid to present on stage acts which, by their very nature, should be confined behind closed doors. On one occasion, the government intervened to defend the actors of the Cau-Ong-Lanh Theatre from attack by neighbouring Europeans who deemed their foul improvisations to be both offensive and dangerous.


An outdoor performance of Chinese theatre

In Cholon and other remote centres, the administration has more scruples. For my part, I wanted to attend one of these hideous representations, in order that I could understand the extent of their licentiousness. I must admit that eventually I had to retire in disgust. The Chinese are a people of little prudishness, and the Chinese audience members revel in such spectacles, which they supplement with a barrage of their own shameless jokes, made in loud voices at all of the most risqué points of the performance. Note that the Chinese never applaud with their hands. Their laughter alone, which they produce without restraint, indicates their satisfaction.

The first time I attended a performance at Cau-Ong-Lanh was at the opening of the theatre season, in June. Two of my colleagues and a Saigon lawyer accompanied me. The impresario had arranged everything splendidly. As the troupe knew in advance that three French judges would “honour” the festival by their presence, a carefully-stocked buffet was installed in the gallery which had been reserved for Europeans. Nothing was lacking, not even the champagne, that wine so dear to the wealthy Chinese! Needless to say, we could enjoy all this without spending a penny, for this gracious kindness was paid for in its entirety by the banker Mr Banh-Ap, farmer of opium in Cholon and sponsor of the theatre.


The entrance to the former arroyo Cau-Ong-Lanh

We were escorted by one of the native interpreters of the legal department; but the manager of the troupe, fluent in French, wanted to explain the scenario and the events of the drama himself. Besides, a little surprise had been arranged. As the curtain rose, the principal actor, advancing alone to the front of the stage, addressed us with a pompous harangue, partly improvised, we were told. It seems that this preliminary declamation was customary in the presence of Frenchmen of importance who attended the opening performance of the season.

The translation that was made to us was remarkable, though perhaps a little too hyperbolic. Having arrived at half past eight, we did not retire until well after midnight.

The area surrounding Cau-Ong-Lanh Theatre is hard to describe. The building is accessed via a long wooden corridor, decorated with a multitude of fantastic banners and colourful lanterns. During festival times, firecrackers are detonated frequently, their noise echoing through the arroyo. No-one burns as much gunpowder as the Chinese, who distinguish their every festivity in this way. We have even had to ban this practice in some of the more crowded locations of the city, in order to avoid accidents.

COL Market

The old Cầu Ông Lãnh Market

The theatre emits a bright red glow from many sections of its roof, which extends far into the night. This glow and the sound of the audience and the firecrackers have often been mistaken as signs of a major fire.

The Cau-Ong-Lanh Theatre building is constructed entirely of wood around a huge rattan frame. All this is of proven strength. As for the numerous corridors which radiate from it, these are all packed with little businesses from which entrepreneurs derive great profit.

However, those of high moral standard will find little of satisfaction here, because gambling houses and brothels are in the majority.

Indeed, these constitute one of the necessities of Chinese life. They are not the most sumptuous of places. On both sides of a low and narrow corridor next to the theatre are a series of small rooms containing furniture as minimal as the wardrobe of the courtesans they house.

But the women spend little time here. In the evening, a crowd flocks to the doorstep of this establishment and the highest bidders are free to conduct the women whose charms have seduced them back to their own homes.


The streets behind the Hôtel Wang-Taï or Hôtel Cosmopolitan were a red light district in the early 1880s.

Europeans do not disdain from attending these kinds of establishments in Saigon, almost all of which are grouped immediately behind the Hôtel Wang-Taï in the rue des Fleurs.

But the installations.of Cau-Ong-Lanh offer them serious competition.

Unfortunately, French residents are too easily led to imitate the moral turpitude of the Chinese, which is definitely not the way to raise our colony.

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 and Cho Lon – The Impressions of Magistrate Raoul Postel in 1882, Part 1

Postel 1

This is the first of two excerpts from La Cochinchine française (1883), one of several works on colonial Indochina written by Saigon magistrate Raoul Postel.

The European City: Saigon

The name “Saigon” was improperly given by the French to the capital of their colony. The Annamites [Vietnamese] designate it as Ben-Thanh, or alternatively Ben-Nghe. Saigon is, in fact, the true name of the Chinese city of Cholon. We muddled up these names without cause, just for the sake of creating something new.


Saigon harbour in the early colonial era

The land area within the city limits is extremely large. Admiral de Lagrandière dreamed of a city with a core population of 500,000 souls, but his grandiose plan has not yet been realised. Although Saigon increases in size day by day, and has experienced particularly rapid growth over the last eight years, I can’t believe that the current city, including the many villages which border it on all sides, contains more than 115,000 individuals. In my view, the more narrowly-defined “European city” has no more than 30,000 inhabitants. It is true, however, that it is very difficult to quantify the Annamite and Chinese populations, whose records are poorly kept.

I will concern myself here only with what may be called the “white man’s city,” leaving the suburbs with their teeming oriental populations for later discussion. This European Saigon is enclosed in a square formed by the Don-nai [Saigon] River to the east, the arroyo-Chinois [Bến Nghé creek] to the south, the arroyo de l’Avalanche [Thị Nghè creek] to the north and the Canal de ceinture [Belt Canal] to the northwest, the latter connecting the two arroyos. Needless to say, the vast area of land between the Palace of the Government and the Canal de ceinture remains uninhabited, and will perhaps never be fully populated.

On the Don-nai River, just downstream from the mouth of the arroyo Chinois, stand the offices of the Messageries maritimes shipping company. On the other side of the arroyo, situated on the tree-lined quayside, one may find the Directorate of the Commercial Port, and in the Hôtel Wang-Tai, the Town Hall and the Commercial Court. After that there is a long line of restaurants and cafés, and, further up river, the Naval Port Directorate, the shipbuilding yards and the floating dock.

45 Boulevard Charner 1882

The Grand Canal [Nguyễn Huệ] pictured in 1882, bordered by rue Charner and rue Rigault de Genouilly

Running perpendicular to the quayside, and almost dividing the city equally into two parts, stretches the Grand Canal [Nguyễn Huệ], bordered by two streets: rue Charner and rue Rigault de Genouilly. These two streets lead as far as the rue d’Espagne [Lê Thánh Tôn], which intersects them and marks the perimeter of the upper town.

While the rue Charner is occupied only by French, Chinese or Malabar traders, the rue Rigault de Genouilly also includes the residence of the Commissioner and the former offices of the Regulator. Each of these streets has, in addition, a branch of the Auction House. The upper part of the Grand Canal has been filled, and in its place has been built a vast square dominated by a bandstand, where music can be heard several times a week.

Also on the rue Charner are the City Market and the very modest Cathedral. Most of the streets in the area behind these two monuments are occupied almost exclusively by industrious Asians, except for the rue Mac-Mahon, where one may find the most beautiful house in the city, occupied almost entirely by European traders.

To the right of the rue Rigault de Genouilly, running parallel to it but of greater length, is the rue Catinat [Đồng Khởi], a bustling entrepôt of both European and native traders which was once the main thoroughfare of the Annamite city. Also in the same direction, one may find the rue de l’Hôpital [Thái Văn Lung] and the rue de Thu-Duc [Đông Du], the latter leading to the vast buildings of the Naval Arsenal and beyond it to the grandiose constructions of the Sainte-Enfance [St Paul’s Convent].


The Sainte-Enfance (St Paul’s Convent) in the early colonial era

Close to the Sainte-Enfance are the Carmelite Convent, the Mission and the College d’Adran. Behind these institutions are the Botanical and Zoological Gardens, the intelligent and learned director of which, Monsieur Jean-Baptiste Louis-Pierre, has transformed it into the true rendezvous of all specimens of trees, shrubs and flowers from Indochina.

All this is, strictly speaking, the ville basse (lower town). Here one may find only small houses, with little or no garden spaces other than those of the Sainte-Enfance, the Mission and the Collège d’Adran, which are all splendidly laid out. The lower end of the rue de l’Hôpital [Thái Văn Lung] is still a swamp, while the area west of rue Mac-Mahon presents the same spectacle, with forlorn clumps of trees protruding from marshland. These two areas are quite unhealthy.

I mentioned that the ville haute (upper town) begins at the rue d’Espagne [Lê Thánh Tôn]. This is the luxurious European quarter, the leafy “aristocratic district” of the city. There are no trading houses, no indigenous people and no Malabar or Chinese in this area – it is inhabited entirely by “palefaces.” Since there are no streams or wetlands here, the air is clean and healthy. Each house has its own pretty garden. The offices of government administrators in the upper town are also more spaciously built, forming a huge contrast to the meagre barracks which were provided in the lower town during the early years of the colony.

Quartier Europeen

The ville haute (upper town), described by Postel as the luxurious European quarter, the leafy “aristocratic district” of the city

Running parallel to the rue d’Espagne is the rue de Lagrandière [Lý Tự Trọng]. Located on the right side of this street, as we travel in the direction from Cholon to the Botanical and Zoological Gardens, are the Prison, the Courthouse, the Attorney General’s office, the Telegraph administration, and the offices of the Direction of the Interior. On the left side of the street, heading in the same direction, are the Gendarmerie, the Observatory and the Military Hospital.

Three great arteries intersect the upper town perpendicularly: the rue Pellerin [Pasteur], at the centre of which one may find the Bishop’s Palace; the rue Catinat [Đồng Khởi], which contains the Direction of Roads and Bridges, the Land Office, the Directorate of the Interior, the Treasury and the Post Office; and finally the rue Nationale [Hai Bà Trưng], on which are situated the Council of War building, the former Palace of the Government, the National Printing Works and the Officers’ Mess. Finally, please note the newest government office, that of the Regulator, on rue Tabert, the street which runs parallel to rue de Lagrandière.

It remains for me to mention the principal building of the colony, the Palace of the Government, located alongside the Route stratégique from Saigon to Cholon, behind which is the beautiful Jardin de la ville (City Park), where military music may be enjoyed every Thursday evening. On the other side of the Route stratégique is the Plain of Tombs, which will be described elsewhere.


The Palace of the Government in the 1880s

The Palace of the Government has an imposing appearance. However, this immense building serves only to house the governor and his two or three aides-de-camp. Yet it cost the colony a dozen million francs! This was one of those ruinous fancies, useless and motivated only by the vain whim of a previous governor.

A final word about the port. Although it may not yet be compared to the wonderfully animated harbour of Singapore, our port of Saigon is no less frequented by many ships of all shapes and from all sources. These include Malay prahos and lorchas, Chinese and Annamite junks, warships of the various European nations which maintain colonies in the Far East, trading vessels flying all the flags of the world, and passenger ships and steamers heading for multiple destinations. It’s a real hive of activity, the contemplation of which has always fascinated me.

What surprises Europeans the most is the design of the Asian boats which we see here. What strange machines they area, these vessels which are still built to ancient plans using techniques which have changed little down the centuries. Take, for example, the Chinese junk. Anyone who hasn’t seen one could not imagine what an inconvenient piece of apparatus it is. Massive, heavy and square, it has wooden anchors and each of its four tall masts is made from a whole tree. Huge eyes, symbolising the vigilance of its captain, are painted in bright colours on its bow. The stern, which rises above the water as high as the châteaux-d’arrière (stern castles) of our older vessels, is also decorated with paintings; here one can often make out the image of a huge eagle with outstretched wings.

Postel 2

A typical Chinese merchant junk of the late 19th century

Inside the junk, the clutter is simply indescribable. Not an inch of space is wasted, but if we try to walk from one end of the junk to the other, we do not know where to place our feet and the journey is literally fraught with obstacles, to the extent that one wonders what maneouvres are possible at sea in the midst of such disorder.

Even the smallest gaps are packed full of goods. As for the passenger accommodation, every tiny nook, however exposed, is equipped with matting or hammocks and crammed so full of people that it is hard to understand how they avoid being swept overboard during a sea crossing.

Only two spaces are respected within the junk: the kitchen, a spacious area at the centre of the ship, which is a theatre of incessant activity; and the stern castle, a monumental fortress that contains the crew’s weapons and ammunition, along with the shrine of a portable deity, before which fragrant jossticks are burned.

One wonders how this machine, seemingly devoid of all nautical qualities other than strength, can accomplish its double pilgrimage every year with so few accidents. The view of the land is the only guide to navigation. Thanks to long practice, the pilot is always familiar with every detail of the coast. This is very fortunate, because the compass – the discovery of which counts among the few maritime claims of the Chinese – is used very little. Indeed, I would venture to suggest that no Chinese crew has any understanding of it; it is only the confidence and willpower of these bold sailors which saves them from disaster.

62 Arroyo Chinois

Merchant shipping on the arroyo-Chinois

Some of these Chinese junks measure as much as 700 tonnes, but their average size is 300 tonnes. In China they cost around 75,000 to 80,000 francs to buy. Malay and Annamite vessels hardly differ from the Chinese model.

The cries and songs of the junk crews are impossible to recreate. One could describe them as sounding like a squad of screaming demons.

Needless to say, here in Saigon the Asian boatmen operate within limits which have been specifically determined for them: the arroyo-Chinois belongs to them. And it is in this area that all trade with the interior is focused.

Such is Saigon today. How to predict its future?

Saigon is a newly-created city and should therefore not be compared with the ports of neighbouring European colonies. What we are aiming at is to establish a compact, homogeneous source of wealth, useful above all to our Métropole. To us this seems preferable to an agglomeration of 20 different races, based solely on domestic trade, without proper resources and subject to all the dangers of a distant war. This is our avowed aim: but are we succeeding?

46 Direction du port de commerce 1866

Another view of Saigon harbour in the early colonial era

From a purely physical point of view, responding to those who compare Saigon unfavourably with Singapore and regard our new city with disdain, one must point out that, 22 leagues inland, we can’t all of a sudden build a city as monumental as one which already has over 40 years of existence and sits happily on the seashore. Of course the coup d’oeil here is not yet as satisfying as it is in Colombo or Singapore. We are still in the work of raising our child.

However, consider what Saigon was like 15 years ago, when swamps covered one part of the city and a vast cemetery occupied the remainder, both giving off a formidable odour during the rainy season. Not to mention the poor stilted houses which once served as residences for all French colons. Now consider what has been done since that time – the filling of the canals, the construction of roads and bridges, the great colonial buildings which have sprung up everywhere, and the elegant upper town which has grown as if by magic. We cannot ignore the achievements of recent years, notwithstanding the complaints of those envious people who seek to undermine our progress to date.

In a few years time, our Saigon will lack nothing in comparison with those other proud Asian port cities. We have already achieved a great deal and we will achieve more, because we are still far from reaching the point at which our path of expansion is complete. Already, construction has begun in the area around the ancient citadel, and the trowel of our developers now begins to threaten the bushes of the Plain of Tombs. This is not a sign of decadence.

To read part 2 of this serialisation, click here.

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

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

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

Icons of Old Saigon – Etablissements Bainier Auto Hall, 1927

Bainier 1

The Établissements Bainier Auto Hall, pictured soon after it opened in 1927.

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

While foreign visitors still flock to the famous Rex Hotel, few have heard of the Établissements Bainier Auto Hall which preceded it, a building once feted as the greatest automobile dealership in Asia.

Little is known about the early life of company founder Émile Bainier, other than the fact that he was a skilled mechanic who arrived in Saigon and set up his own business in around 1908.

15A Paul Blanchy

Rue Paul Blanchy [Hai Bà Trưng street], viewed from place Francis Garnier [Lam Sơn Square].

On 26 April 1909, it was Bainier who demonstrated to a group of distinguished guests the colony’s very first public bus. According to an article of that month in the Écho Annamite newspaper, “At 16h.30, the bus, driven by Monsieur Bainier, travelled a pre-planned route through the city. Arriving at the bottom of rue Paul Blanchy [Hai Bà Trưng street], it stopped at a garage in which a table had been set up, laden with glasses of champagne. After drinking to the success of this new form of locomotion which had thus been launched on our streets, the guests returned by the same route, observed by a great crowd of onlookers.”

In 1911, Bainier became the Director of the Garage Ippolito, a Peugeot dealership run by the Société d’automobiles Ippolito et Cie, which had made its name in 1901 by launching the very first automobile courier service from Saigon to Phnom Penh. However, in 1914, Bainier parted company with the Garage Ippolito and set up his own business, the Société Anonyme des Établissements Bainier. Initially based at 40 boulevard Bonnard, it specialised mainly in electrical and electro-mechanical equipment, but also sold auto-pousses and voiturettes (miniature automobiles).

First Bainier

The first Établissements Bainier Auto Hall at 21 boulevard Bonnard and 100-102 boulevard Charner, situated diagonally opposite the company’s later premises.

By 1920, the Société Anonyme des Établissements Bainier had moved to more imposing premises, the first Établissements Bainier Auto-Hall at 21 boulevard Bonnard [Lê Lợi boulevard] and 100-102 boulevard Charner [Nguyễn Huệ boulevard], where it became a full-blown automobile dealership, advertising itself as the exclusive agent for Darracq, Unic, Dodge Brothers and the recently-established Automobiles Citroën.

The company also acquired a fleet of service vehicles, and in 1922 it won the concession to run the thrice-weekly Saïgon-Phnom Penh bus and postal service, which departed from the Saigon Post Office at 6am on Tuesdays, Thursday and Saturdays. By this time, the company also had a large branch office in Phnom Penh, which launched the first metered Citroën taxi service in that city in 1925.

Unfortunately for Bainier, the reputation of his business sustained some damage in June 1926, when the Écho Annamite newspaper reported the case of a wealthy Vietnamese man who had bought a brand new Citroen 10CV car from the Bainier Auto-Hall. When he complained that it was not ready for collection at the agreed time, the man was subjected to racist comments by one of the European garage staff. In response, Bainier was obliged to issue a public apology and to declare in the newspaper that his company made no distinction between local and European clients and that, in fact, most of its sales were to local people.

Bainier C i

Another view of the Établissements Bainier Auto Hall, soon after it opened in 1927.

Despite this minor PR setback, the company’s sales and earnings increased steadily throughout the 1920s, largely due to its exclusive dealership of the increasingly sought-after Citroën marque. In 1926, seeking to build upon this success, Bainier commissioned the construction of a brand new Auto-Hall, situated diagonally opposite the old one at the junction of boulevards Charner and Bonnard.

The new Établissements Bainier Auto-Hall was inaugurated in March 1927 amidst great fanfare. According to a report in the Écho Annamite newspaper of 21 March 1927, the new premises were located just across the road from the recently-opened Grands Magasins Charner, “of which they constitute a beautiful and worthy counterpart,” and “occupied the entire block leading up to rue d’Espagne [Lê Thánh Tôn street].”

“It has been said of the new Bainier garages that they are the most beautiful in the Far East, and that they yield nothing to similar ultra-modern buildings in proud America,” continued the press report. “Skeptics might think that this is pure advertisement. Well, they would be wrong, because we believe that it would be impossible to design garages more elegant or better suited to the purpose for which they are intended. Imagine a gigantic hall, with no columns obstructing the central area, where air and light circulate profusely, without recourse to a glass roof… Here, a system of overlapping corrugated roofs lets in the bright light of the tropical sun without any risk to the employees who work in the building. The builder has indeed created a masterpiece.”

Bainier 3

The “Grand Hall Bainier” viewed through its windows.

By this time, Établissements Bainier had branches in Saigon, Hà Nội, Tourane, Huế and Phnom Penh, totalling 16,800m² of floor space and employing a workforce of 25 Europeans and 300 local staff.

The remarkable design of the new Établissements Bainier Auto Hall in Saigon was reported widely by both local and international press, and the building quickly became an attraction in its own right. On 19 November 1927, the new “Grand Hall Bainier” was “generously made available” for a grand society ball organised to raise money for victims of the Great War. Then in 1928, the Paris newspaper La Lanterne reported that “His Majesty King Monivong of Cambodia, visiting the city of Saigon, stopped to visit the largest garage in the Far East, that of M Émile Bainier, exclusive concessionnaire of Automobiles Citroën in Indochina.”

The following year, 1928, was one of the company’s most successful, thanks mainly to the “great sensation” caused by the release of the brand new six-cylinder Citroën C6, with its “moderate price and exceptional qualities.” The car sold spectacularly well in Cochinchina, and in that same year, Bainier himself was awarded the Order of the Légion d’Honneur for his services to the colony.


An advertisement for the six-cylinder Citroën C6 of 1928, one of the Établissements Bainier’s best-selling vehicles.

With the onset of the Great Depression in 1929, the company suffered a drastic loss of income, obliging it to downsize its operations. According to the annual reports of its Conseil d’Administration, the Société Anonyme des Établissements Bainier recorded significant business losses throughout the period 1931-1935. But the biggest blow came in 1933, when it lost the prized Citroën concession.

Établissements Bainier did not return to profitability until the late 1930s. By that time it had become the main Indochina dealer for Unic, Delahaye, Rosengart, Motoconfort and Mobylette cars and motor cycles. However, having lost the prestigious Citroën dealership, it never recovered its former pre-eminence.

For Émile Bainier, the 1930s were difficult years. When he died in early December 1941, the troubles of that period were alluded to by a brief obituary in Le Nouvelliste d’Indochine, dated 14 December 1941:

“Saigon has learned with great sadness of the death of M Émile Bainier, President and founder of the Société Anonyme des Établissements Bainier. We’ve lost one of our oldest residents, who has worked hard in this country for over 30 years, and his demise leaves deep regrets. A man of duty, honest, sometimes stubborn, but always fair and good, he was typically a self-made man who built his own destiny. He brought a remarkable lustre to the Cochinchina automobile industry and, like so many others, suffered many adversities without complaining. Through his hard and intelligent work, he repaired the damage which had been inflicted on his business. This was his last satisfaction.”

Bainier B i

A Mobylette advertisement of the early 1950s.

Bainier’s widow and her son Jacques Bainier continued to run the Établissements Bainier for the remainder of the colonial period, but some time after 1953 the garage was closed and the family sold up and returned to France. The new owners, Prince Nguyễn Phúc Ưng Thi and his wife Nguyễn Thị Nguyệt Nga, had the old building demolished and hired local architect Lê Văn Cấu to design in its place the six-storey Rex Hotel, Commercial Centre and Cinema. Following its completion, most of the complex was leased to the Americans. And the rest, as they say, is history.


The exterior of the Établissements Bainier Auto Hall.


The Citroën C6 of 1928, one of the Établissements Bainier’s best-selling vehicles.


The Établissements Bainier Auto Hall in the early 1950s.


In this scene from the 1958 Joseph L Mankiewicz film of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, Thomas Fowler (played by Michael Redgrave) stands outside the “big store on boulevard Charner” to witness the events of “Operation Bicyclette.” At the time the film was made, the Établissements Bainier Auto Hall was about to be demolished.


A Rosengart advertisement of the early 1950s.


The Rex Hotel Complex which replaced the Établissements Bainier Auto Hall in 1959, pictured in 1965.

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 and Cho Lon – The Impressions of Colonial Lawyer George Durrwell in 1910, Part 3

090_001 (2)

Chợ Lớn – barges in front of a rice factory

George Dürrwell spent nearly three decades working for the Cochinchina legal service. His 1911 memoirs, Ma chère Cochinchine, trente années d’impressions et de souvenirs, février 1881-1910 (My Dear Cochinchina, 30 years of impressions and memories, February 1881-1910) afford us a fascinating picture of life in early 20th century Saigon and Chợ Lớn. This is part 3 of a three-part excerpt from the book.

To read part 1 of this serialisation, click here.

To read part 2 of this serialisation, click here.

Let’s now complete our fantastic journey through the streets of Saigon, transporting ourselves along the boulevard Charner, that wide thoroughfare which runs parallel to the rue Catinat and which, in its animation, is somewhat reminiscent of one of the dreary main avenues in the dull city of Versailles. The boulevard runs from the central market as far as the new City Hall.

67 Boulevard Charner market

The old Saigon Central Market (1870-1914) on boulevard Charner

A market is always an interesting place to visit, and in every town and village here, it offers the astute observer an opportunity to observe an infinite variety of real-life scenes which reflect local customs. Each market is also a small agricultural show, where the region’s key products are all grouped together. In the Central Market of Saigon, where there is the most variety, Europeans and Asians – Annamites, Chinese and Indians – mingle and jostle, making such a visit even more captivating.

Yet how few of my fellow citizens have ever set foot in the Central Market? I don’t reproach them for this, having ignored it myself for many years, simply because of my lazy reluctance to get up at the early hour when it is at its busiest. However, I finally decided to visit, and if you make the effort to do the same, I can assure you that you will not regret it.


A corner of the old Saigon Central Market on boulevard Charner

Moreover, the time left to see this market is now short [at the time of writing, the new Halles Centrales, new Bến Thành Market, was being planned]. It seems, in fact, that all the picturesque corners of our old Saigon, of which the dilapidated, rotten, yet so characterful old Central Market is the real centre of attraction, are now condemned to disappear. It’s not for me to discuss here the rights and wrongs of this measure, although I have every reason to believe that not everyone will lose out as a result of the change. But let’s not dwell on this subject.

So, here we are in the old Central Market: it is 7am, and around us is an intense and noisy scene with traders and customers swarming incessantly back and forward.

5188225635_b71087e859 Un coin du March de CHOLON_O

Another market scene

Here, in long rows at the edge of the sidewalk, one can see big baskets covered with large woven mesh, which serve as temporary cages for the various types of poultry brought every day by the little tram from Go-Vap. Nearby are piles of indigenous vegetables from the same source, including sweet potatoes and those long white turnips which grow in abundance on the sandy plains of Hoc-Mon.

Next to them, under the watchful eyes of merchants from the countryside, are spread out the seemingly infinite varieties of fruit which are produced throughout the year in this fertile land of Cochinchina. According to the season, these include: juicy yellow mangoes; mangosteens with their tasty white pulp; large oranges from Cai-Be, whose rough green skin contrasts starkly with the gleaming brilliance of small golden tangerines; bulging watermelons with rose coloured flesh; fragrant guavas; bunches of fresh indigenous lychees covered in spines which make them look like tiny curled hedgehogs; and more, many more. Not to mention the mountains of green and yellow bananas, that veritable national fruit of the earth in the land of Nam-Ky.

Charner Bvd Market A i

The front of the old Saigon Central Market on boulevard Charner

Further on, market gardeners from the suburbs obligingly spread out their green wares, pale reproductions of our vegetables from Europe, in the middle of which, marking a cheerful note, sit piles of scarlet peppers.

There, in a dark corner of the market, are the Chinese butchers, their appearance and that of their wares leaving much to be desired. They do business side by side with collectors of old scrap, rags and other rubbish. Frankly, that area is not the most attractive place to shop.

And here is the fish market, the best-stocked part of the market, but also the smelliest, due to the acrid and sickening stench of the muddy water.

Tough Indian collectors working for the market administration circulate, demanding sapeks from the traders. Their demands are often resisted loudly by the Annamite merchants, especially the women, and the police are frequently obliged to intervene.


Chinese restaurants on rue Vannier

Along the rue d’Adran [Hồ Tùng Mậu street], right outside the market, small open-air Chinese restaurants are set up on rough benches. It’s here that our cooks and boys line up and gorge themselves at our expense on a variety of steaming concoctions, washed down with a fine drop of choum-choum.

The immediate vicinity of the market, especially the rue d’Adran, is as interesting to visit as the main market pavilions. Watching the crowds of people going back and forth busily in the narrow alleys, it feels like one has been transported into one of the most populated areas of the city of Cholon; indeed, apart from some merchants of Indian fabrics whose shops line the rue Vannier [Ngô Đức Kế street], Chinese commerce reigns supreme here.

On the occasion of the great religious and family celebration of Tết, the market lies idle for two days, and during this period it is impossible to find even a radish in exchange for its weight in gold.

Hotel de ville A i

The Hôtel de ville (Town Hall) soon after its inauguration in 1909

The new City Hall is another great attraction of the boulevard Charner, located at the top end of the street. Like the Swing Bridge across the arroyo Chinois, this building has attracted much attention from the press, most of it lukewarm.

It can’t be disputed that the City Hall presents, both as a whole and in its detail, big imperfections. The main entrance steps, which should rise high above the ground in order to comply with the most elementary rules of perspective, exist only in a rudimentary state; the central belfry, which claims to recall the elegant architecture of some city halls in Flanders and the north, is narrow and mean; and the main interior staircase is woefully lacking.

However, these gaps are largely redeemed by the admirable salle des fêtes, that most essential part of the building, even devoid of the lavish artistic decoration that has been bestowed on it, which is really worthy of our beautiful Saigon.


The salle de spectacles of the Hôtel de ville (Town Hall)

It is supplemented by other rooms especially assigned to the municipal council or reserved for weddings, including a charming reception room.

The solemn inauguration of the Town Hall took place just a few months ago, in February 1909, in the presence of the Governor General of Indochina, and it had the happy inspiration to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the French occupation of Saigon. The loyalty of the Annamites of Cochinchina was affirmed, on this occasion, by the willingness of all to respond to the invitation of the Mayor.

To follow the example of our cities in France, and especially the cities of the southwest, which, without exception, have spawned at least one great man, Saigon has decorated some of its squares with statues. However, these monuments have the merit of reviving genuine national or colonial glories. As for local celebrities, it has wisely been decided that for now their names should simply be given to streets in the city. Sic itur ad astra [“Thus you shall go to the stars,” from Virgil’s Aeneid book IX]

48 Rigault de Genouilly and Chambre de commerce

The statue of Admiral Rigault de Genouilly

Next to the Saigon River, facing the naval port, stands the figure of Admiral Rigault de Genouilly, that glorious sailor to whom France owes the conquest of the old capital of Nam-Ky, and who now seems to contemplate the scene of his former exploits from the top of his pedestal. Some 30 years ago, the inauguration of his statue was the object of a great patriotic gathering to which the entire population Saigon was invited.

The inauguration of the Rigault de Genouilly statue was an occasion which lacked nothing in solemnity: the highest authorities of the colony praised the hero of the day in the most generous terms; land and sea troops marched in parade in front of him; a poet celebrated the Admiral in pompous Alexandrine verse; and the youth of local schools performed a cantata featuring the chorus: Come, children of Annamite France, To the land of steam and electricity!

And in those few happy words was summarised the whole of our future programme.


The monument to Ernest Doudart de la Grée

Nearby, a modest pyramid was erected in memory of the famous explorer Ernest Doudart de la Grée. The description of this monument can be found in a technical report to the municipality by one of our former councillors: “It is,” says the report, “a monolith composed of three cemented blocks of granite.” So now you know.

Nor have we forgotten Commandant de la Grée’s faithful companion, the valiant Mekong River explorer Francis Garnier, who remains one of the purest and most sympathetic figures among our early Indochinese pioneers.

16 Francis Garnier statue

The statue of Francis Garnier

We gave his name to the small square in front of the place du Théâtre and erected a statue there to his memory. Dressed in his naval officer’s uniform, he seems ready to draw his sword in the service of colonial France, to the greatness of which he devoted his entire life. I must admit, however, that the attitude of the statue reminds one greatly of the Jean Rapp monument in one of the squares of the old Alsatian city of Colmar, and it is not the most attractive to look at.

Occupying pride of place in the place de la Cathédrale is a statue of Monsignor Pigneau de Béhaine, Bishop of Adran. In the last years of the 18th century, he was a wise counsellor to the great Emperor Gia Long, and the true inspirer of the Versailles Treaty which opened up Annam to French influence.


The Pigneau de Béhaine statue which once stood in front of the Cathedral

The statue, inaugurated in 1902, is the work of our friend Édouard Lormier, the author of the Monument aux sauveteurs (Lifeguard Memorial) in Calais, who created a real tour de force by treating a rather awkward subject with great artistic originality.

The statue depicts the venerable prelate in a standing pose, presenting him as a tall and commanding figure, thanks to his long, tightly buttoned cassock and the narrow plinth on which he stands. At his feet, in ceremonial costume, is his beloved pupil, the little prince Canh, eldest son of Gia Long, to whom he is seen presenting a copy of the alliance and pact of friendship signed between the two kingdoms. The physiognomy and attitude of the child is also charming, and the group, though somewhat mannered, creates, in short, a beautiful overall effect.

102 Gambetta statue

The Gambetta monument

Nearby, in the midst of the shaded lawns of boulevard Norodom, is Léon Gambetta himself. Wrapped in a large fur coat which seems somewhat inappropriate in our sunny Cochinchina, the great orator stands, head slightly thrown back, apparently addressing the crowds. His extended right arm seems to envelop the whole city with a sweeping and protective gesture. The two subjects flanking the monumental pedestal – a sailor and a mortally wounded naval infantryman – cut a fine figure, recalling the glorious role played Gambetta in the epic of the Défense nationale. The statue inspires the relentless admiration of all the good Nha-que who visit the capital.


French statesman Léon Gambetta (1838-1882)

In fact, the Gambetta monument on boulevard Norodom has a history that could serve as a theme for some amusing production in the Théâtre du Palais-Royal. Here it is in a nutshell.

The premature death of Gambetta, which inspired genuine public mourning in France, also caused deep emotion here in Cochinchina. In response, seeking to interpret faithfully the common sentiment, our local assembly decided to perpetuate his memory by raising a dignified statue to him in one of our Saigon squares. The funds were voted by acclamation, and one of our honourables, then on leave in Paris, was charged with commissioning the work.

Our man, thus given a mandate, made his choice among the great artists of the capital, and that choice was good; a few months later, the desired monument arrived safely. Everything was going well.

Gambetta B i

Another view of the Gambetta monument

But we had reckoned without the patriotic zeal of our deputy. The confusion resulting from his informal intervention was not long in coming. One morning, the mayor was informed that another large box labelled “statue – fragile” had just arrived at his address. A duplicate statue had been mistakenly produced and delivered to Saigon. The excitement was great, but so was the embarrassment, because a large monumental statue is rather more difficult to refuse than a simple parcel sent cash on delivery. The Mayor had a good practical solution: the duplicate was given to the deputy who had rashly ordered it, and he was obliged to pay for it. It was cruel but logical, and in our good Cochinchina, where money comes easy, a compromise solution was not even offered. In this way, Saigon is even now in possession of two Gambetta statues. The one we all know is proudly located in the sunlight of boulevard Norodom, while the other is stored and long forgotten, buried for years in the white wooden coffin in which it once made its long and unnecessary trip to our overseas territories.


The main gate of the European cemetery

Arriving at the end of the long avenue lined with sao trees named rue de Bangkok, one reaches the entrance to the great Saigon necropolis, which is open to all.

It is here that Cochinchina keeps the remains of officials who have fallen foul of the deadly climate, old disillusioned settlers who have succumbed to hard work, bright future officers struck down far too early and poor young soldiers whose weeping mothers wait in vain for their return. Here they all sleep side by side, and alas, there are far too many of them!

The Saigonnais, who are always rather careless about tomorrow and even cheeky in the face of the death that awaits them, refer to this large cemetery by the graceful name of the “Jardin du père d’Ormay” (Father d’Ormay’s Garden).


A military monument in the European cemetery

In order to explain this etymology, I must tell you that the said Father d’Ormay whose sympathetic memory has indeed remained very much alive in Saigon, once occupied the high functions of Director of the Public Health Service and of the Military Hospital.

Pierre Loti dedicated some beautiful pages of his work L’Indochine Coloniale – Un Pélerin d’Angkor to a description of this special garden. In heartfelt lines of poignant melancholy, he spoke of these French graves, dug so far from the land of France. However, none of them has been completely abandoned, and in default of family, all of the deceased may still count on a friendly hand to care for their graves and make floral tributes.

Saigon also has two other public parks, large exotic gardens with shady paths and flowerbeds. However, with the exception of the days of “La Musique,” they attract fewer visitors than the gloomy park we just left.


The orchid house at the Botanical Gardens

Only the Botanical Gardens sometimes offers asylum to amorous couples fleeing from prying eyes; indeed, if the plants in some mysterious corners of the orchid house could talk, they would undoubtedly disclose some curious revelations about the romantic intrigues which take place there. But hush! Let’s remain discreet and not interfere in matters that do not concern us.

Located at a distance of about four kilometres from Saigon, at the other end of the dreary Plain of Tombs, stands the Chinese city of Cholon. This is the “big market” of the colony, the rich industrial and commercial warehouse of our Cochinchina.

Two tramway lines and several roads connect the two cities with each other; and in the future, a wide boulevard will link them even more closely: however, a great many interests of all types, both public and private, are engaged in this enterprise, so we may have to wait a long time for its completion.


Junks being loaded in Chợ Lớn

Of all the channels of communication between Saigon and Cholon, the busiest and most active is unquestionably the arroyo Chinois [Bến Nghé Creek], the waterway along which the rice of fertile Cochinchina flows incessantly, from Cholon with its large factories to the port of Saigon where the international cargo ships are moored.

In order to account properly for the inexhaustible richness of this wonderful land of promise, it is necessary to travel, during the working hours of the day, along the Binh-Dong and Binh-Tay quays where rice paddy undergoes successive transformations in the large steam rice mills. It is here, from dawn to dusk, that we encounter at first hand the relentless hard work on which our economy is based.

Massive junks hasten, bow to stern, along the waterway, loading and unloading again and again.

091_001 (2)

Junks on the arroyo Chinois in Chợ Lớn

Half-naked Chinese workers walk back and forth between the junks and the vast stores, their spines bent under the weight of heavy gunny sacks packed with grains.

Nothing interrupts the work of these beasts of burden; and one can not help admiring their tireless stamina, a vaguely disturbing activity that a whole race knows so well as their daily business of life.

It is by design that I refer to a vague uneasiness and apprehension about the hard work of the Chinese, because the coin has two sides. We must remember that these great labourers work only for themselves and for their country; all the money they amass so patiently, sapek by sapek, invariably leaves the producer countries and makes its way back to China, and there can be no doubt that its owners would follow at the first opportunity.


The departure of a junk in Chợ Lớn

In fact, with just a few exceptions, the Chinese merchant who has settled in our country is not fixed here. His only desire, his only dream for the future, is to make a fortune and then to return to his homeland. Ideally he will achieve this while he is still alive, so that he can enjoy with his family the fruits of his labours acquired abroad. However, if he only manages to return after his death, he will at least sleep peacefully in the field alongside his ancestors, near the family altar on which incense sticks will be burned to honour his memory.

18 Merchants

A street scene in Chợ Lớn

An article published in the journal Dépêche coloniale under the title “The True Yellow Peril” (1 October-November 1909) is a well-documented study of this financial exodus which we suffer without being able to stop it. All those who have concern for the future of our colony will read it with interest and meditate fruitfully on its wise conclusions.

In the evenings, Cholon turns into a real fairyland city. Everywhere in the crowded streets and squares, in the markets and even in the shops and open-air restaurants that line the roads, countless lights shine out into the night. Among them, forming the keynote of this illumination, are large lanterns of isinglass on which Chinese characters are painted in large brush strokes, indicating the names of the proprietors and their multiple professions – the thousand and one trades in which the good Chinese, without distinction, are masters.

Gradually, the clubs begin to light up in their turn; theatres open their doors; brohels, gambling and opium dens prepare quietly to receive their customers; and all Cholon, that which we know and that which remains for us mysterious and closed, begins its search for pleasures more varied than innocent, a relaxation to the labour of the day.

017_001 (2)

Representatives of the Chinese congregations taking part in the Procession of the Dragon in Chợ Lớn

Once a year, in early May, all Saigon travels to Cholon to attend the ritual “Procession of the Dragon,” which makes its way from pagoda to pagoda through the crowded streets of the city.

The Procession of the Dragon is a veritable feast of beautiful and colourful Chinese silk costumes and banners, which shimmer in the bright Nam-Ky sunlight. The banners seem to float in the wind, proudly displaying in broad embroidered characters the names and slogans of each Chinese congregation. Meanwhile, those taking part in the procession wear elegant silk festival costumes in soft shades of azure blue and mauve. Some carry subtlely decorated silk umbrellas.

But the undoubted highlight is the group of adorable Chinese children who play a major role in the procession. Their heavily made-up little faces and colourful silk costumes seem to transform them into cute, finely-modelled wax dolls.

Inspection de Cholon Bureau 2

The Procession of the Dragon reaches the grounds of the Inspection de Cholon

Some ride on richly-decorated horses, while others are perched high on a float, where they emerge curiously from a gigantic blossoming pink or white lotus flower. Their hieratic appearance and apparent imperturbability complete the illusion; and we realise that all of the children are fully aware of the important role they play in the ceremony. Meanwhile, attentive and anxious fathers follow their brood step by step, ready to jump in and save them at the first sign of a fall or an accident.

Finally, at the very end of the procession, marches the hero of this great celebration, the fantasy dragon of Chinese legends. Its body, which exceeds 30 metres in length, is made from a rattan frame concealed by wide bands of scarlet silk, decorated with sparkling sequins. It is carried by a troupe of around 20 young men. The mission of those half-hidden under its body is to give the monster the appearance of life by recreating the soft undulations of a creeping beast. However, the real virtuoso of the troupe is concealed beneath the grotesque head, which moves up and down relentlessly until the final great ritual, in which the dragon bows down before the Mayor of Cholon as the crowd of onlookers presses around him.

Pagoda 2

Firecrackers explode in the grounds of a Chinese Assembly Hall

The festival ends with the crowd storming a mountain of Chinese food, meats, cakes and sweets which has been set out in front of the Pagode des Sept-Congrégations. Needless to say, the assailants don’t take very long to devour everything.

Then, in the evening, the pagodas light up; noisy firecrackers explode everywhere and the feast continues more intimately in restaurants and private houses, not stopping until long into the night.

Close to Cholon’s busy industrial and commercial centre, one may find a quiet city of charity where all who are suffering may find succour and assistance, regardless of the nature of their infirmity. Thanks to this admirable initiative, the area contains a range of support establishments which can meet every need.


The Drouhet Hospital in Chợ Lớn

There is the Hospital Drouhet, a model hospital with wards and operating rooms equipped in accordance with the most modern rules of hygiene and comfort, and where the Europeans of the colony, officials and settlers, may find the illusion of home and all the amenities they can reasonably desire.

The natives have, moreover, not been forgotten and a beautifully landscaped hospice has made available to them.

Next to the Hospital Drouhet rise the elegant buildings of the Maternité, where all young expectant mothers, are welcomed and treated without distinction. A school for native midwives has been annexed to this building, which has become very popular with the local people, rendering invaluable service to the business of Annamite birth, once so neglected and so culpably compromised.

CHOLON 1909 - la Maternité

The Maternity Hospital in Chợ Lớn

Nearby is an asylum for blind children, where around 40 youngsters learn, alongside the first elements of primary education, the manual trade that will keep them later from want and ensure that their daily rice bowl remains full. This asylum is maintained under the intelligent direction of a French teacher who is also blind. Among all the infirmities that afflict our poor and unbalanced humanity, deprivation of sight has always seemed to me the most unjust and the most cruel. Thus, my concern has always been carried by preference towards those who are afflicted by it. If you agree with me, go and visit the blind children of Cholon: by the time you leave, your heart will be overflowing with charity.

Unfortunately, a nearby project devoted to the education of deaf children did not give as good practical results, for competitive reasons that it is better not to mention.

Rue Cantonnaise

Rue de Canton in Chợ Lớn

Finally, to end our pilgrimage, there is an old people’s asylum, created with the ingenious idea of providing facilities for elderly men and women without families who previously displayed their decay and misery on the streets of the city. I once made an official visit to this place and was saddened to find that one of its residents was the nephew of the great patriot Phan-Tan-Giang.

It was in the midst of this group of model institutions that the Société de Protection de l’Enfance (Child Protection Society), with the generosity of the Chinese city, built its orphanage on a gracefully conceded plot of land. More than 60 children, mostly those of mixed race who had ruthlessly been abandoned by their fathers, are currently sheltered and raised here. This work fills an important gap in social provision, and thus happily completes the works of the charities to which the administration of the city of Cholon is honoured to attach its name.

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 – The “Y” Bridge, 1937

Pont en Y

The “Y” Bridge in the 1940s

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

Built by the French during the latter years of the colonial era, Chợ Lớn’s “Y” Bridge became the focus of several important battles during the two Indochina Wars.

1950 Saigon Aerial View - Rạch Bến Nghé, cầu Chữ Y Indochine, Couverture, Saigon-Cholon - Photographie Aerienne 1950

An aerial view of the “Y” Bridge in 1950

The “Y” Bridge was originally conceived by the French in 1937 as part of a scheme to build a new municipal abbatoir in Chánh Hưng, immediately south of the existing Arroyo Chinois (Bến Nghé/Tàu Hủ creek) in what is now District 8. Known to the French as the pont Tripode or pont en Y, the bridge formed a crucial part of this scheme, because the construction of the “Canal de dérivation” in 1906 and of the “Canal de doublement” in 1919 to relieve congestion on the Arroyo Chinois had left much of the Chánh Hưng area ringed by waterways.

In 1938, the Cochinchina authorities voted just over 400,000 piastres from their regional budget to pay for the construction of the bridge. Then on 28 October 1939, according to the Bulletin économique de l’Indo-Chine, “Mr Governor General Brévié laid the first stone of the pont Tripode to serve the future slaughterhouse.”

Saigon 1952

The “Y” Bridge marked on a 1952 map

In the wake of the Japanese invasion of 1940, construction of the bridge was placed on hold, but work eventually resumed and the pont Tripode was inaugurated on 20 August 1941. In the words of a Vichy government press release of 23 September 1941, “Its construction, carried out despite the circumstances, is a symbol of our constructiveness and confidence in the future. It meets multiple needs and will enable Greater Cholon to develop. With a length of 90 metres and a deck 8 metres wide, it required 8,900 tons of steel and more than 4,000 cubic metres of reinforced concrete for its construction. Its lateral and access roads required an additional 7,099 cubic metres of fill.”

Apart from its unusual configuration, the “Y” Bridge was regarded at the time of construction as a utilitarian work, and it may have lapsed into obscurity had it not been for the various battles which took place in its vicinity during the two Indochina Wars.

Y Bridge 1968

The “Y” Bridge in 1968

From as early as the 1920s, the neighbourhood immediately south of the bridge harboured various bands of thieves and outlaws. By the 1940s, it had become home to the Bình Xuyên, an organised coalition of gangs involved in racketeering, petty crime, river piracy and kidnapping.

After World War II, the Bình Xuyên emerged as a powerful military and political force, initially allying itself with the Việt Minh and staging a vigorous defence of the “Y” Bridge from 24 September until early October 1945 in order to prevent returning French troops from reoccupying the southern part of the city.

However, in 1947 it switched allegiance, offering money and military support to the French authorities and later to the State of Viêt Nam in exchange for legal recognition of its gambling, prostitution, money laundering and opium trafficking activities.

Following his rise to power in the spring of 1955, President Ngô Đình Diệm resolved to crush the Bình Xuyên, and during the subsequent “Battle for Saigon” (28 April-3 May 1955), VNA forces attacked its base of operations in Chợ Lớn, blowing up part of the “Y” Bridge to prevent Bình Xuyên reinforcements from entering Saigon. By the end of this operation, Bình Xuyên forces had been routed and driven from the city.

Vietnam War

“Smoke rises from the southwestern part of Saigon on 7 May 1968 as residents stream across the “Y” Bridge to escape heavy fighting between the VC and South Vietnamese soldiers.” (AP Photo)

The “Y” Bridge was subsequently repaired, and in late May 1968 it once more became a battlefield during the National Liberation Front’s “Mini Tet” Offensive.
During six days of intense house-to-house fighting, the area around the bridge was devastated, but the bridge itself remained intact.

Refurbished in 1992, the old bridge was completely rebuilt in 2007 to permit higher clearance over the East-West Highway, retaining the original columns and abutments.


The “Y” Bridge in 2015 viewed from the East-West Highway


Traffic approaching the centre of the “Y” Bridge in 2015

The Y Bridge Then and Now

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 and Cho Lon – The Impressions of Colonial Lawyer George Durrwell in 1910, Part 2


George Dürrwell spent nearly three decades working for the Cochinchina legal service. His 1911 memoirs, Ma chère Cochinchine, trente années d’impressions et de souvenirs, février 1881-1910 (My Dear Cochinchina, 30 years of impressions and memories, February 1881-1910) afford us a fascinating picture of life in early 20th century Saigon and Chợ Lớn. This is part 2 of a three-part excerpt from the book.

To read part 1 of this serialisation, click here.

Grand Hotel De La Rotonde

The terrace of the Grand Hôtel De La Rotonde

It’s 6pm. The cafés fill with customers and groups begin to form around small tables. Gossipers’ tongues wag while the concert orchestras throw their discordant notes to the wind. The squares and the streets become increasingly animated and noisy, with pedestrians and carriages, automobiles and pousses-pousses crossing this way and that: all of Saigon is outdoors!

The focus of this exuberant scene is the Municipal Theatre, which presents a very stately air with its vast monumental staircase and high-arched open portico framing artistically sculpted allegorical figures. Flooded at this time of the evening by the last rays of a bright sun, its white façade is tinted a pale purple of infinite sweetness. Then suddenly, the curtain of night falls, almost without transition. Saigon is lit up, but the lighting is very poor, despite the pretty penny spent from the municipal budget on the profusion of electric lamps. This is truly “light hidden under a bushel.” Only the place du Théâtre forms a bright spot amidst the darkness.


The Saigon Municipal Theatre, inaugurated in 1900

From October to April, when the theatre season is in full swing, the entertainment of the evening extends long into the night. The Theatre and the adjacent hotels and cafés overflow onto the streets, transporting the intense nightlife of the French boulevard some four thousand leagues from the great city of Paris to this remote little corner of Asia, where the French soul has already become so deeply rooted.

By midnight, “the day is over,” as the song says. The Theatre closes its doors and turns off its lights, and with them are extinguished the lights of the square and surrounding streets. On the terrace of the Grand Hôtel Continental, there remain just a few groups of late diners, several incorrigible gamblers playing bridge or poker, and here and there a few clowns who have stayed up to contemplate the moon. Good luck to them all – and to all a good night.

The arrival of the theatre company is the big social event of the year in Saigon. Well in advance, it becomes the major subject of conversation and it is also advertised in the windows of our chic bookshops, along with portraits of the performers who are so impatiently expected: the ladies, of course, take the place of honour. Some of the city’s so-called arbiters of elegance are snobbish enough to travel to Singapore in order to be the first to contemplate the stars that will come to us from France: Ave maris stella!

Messageries maritimes 4 by Jean-Marc Bel (1855-1930) 1895

Greeting arrivals at the Messageries maritimes pier in the late 1800s

Finally, the big day arrives. The boat is signalled from the Cap; it enters the river and heads towards Nha-Be. Immediately, all of Saigon’s high society gets dressed up and invades the pier of the Messageries maritimes. After negotiating the last loop of the river, the great courier ship advances majestically into port and wastes no time docking. As soon as the gangway is in place, it is immediately stormed by the crowd, which eagerly spreads itself onto the deck. The impact of all those waxed moustaches and starched collars and cuffs is naturally lost in the crowd and many of our hungry socialites are inevitably obliged to return home empty-handed, with only the platonic satisfaction of having witnessed the arrival of their idols. However, most of them are content, and for good reason, in this special sport where many are called but few are chosen. Then calm returns, as theatre lovers bravely begin to study their scores and all Saigon awaits the minor intrigues which inevitably attend the presence of thespians. Some days later, the Theatre solemnly opens its doors to serve the gathering crowd of attentive spectators. Once more, we are treated to that venerable masterpiece of Gounod, the inevitable Faust, which every year is featured mercilessly in our opening programme. Saigon’s theatre season has begun, and that’s it for the next six months.


The score of Gounod’s Faust

The Saigon public have a reputation for being connoisseurs, and they are therefore very difficult to satisfy. In fact, among the self-appointed art critics, there are some who have never attended any theatrical performances other than those of Landerneau or Pont-à-Mousson. But no matter; it is fashionable to be a connoisseur and each tries to be one, judging with equal severity the débuts of the unfortunate artists and the efforts of their director. Many circumstances, however, argue in their favour. For example, the almost insurmountable difficulties of recruitment for performances in the Far East and the consequent lack of homogeneity of the troupe; not to mention the rigours of a climate which constantly threatens the artists’ health and often attacks their vocal cords; and finally, the excessive labour imposed on them to rehearse a programme which changes every day.

There is, in fact, a remedy for this state of affairs, and I would like to suggest it to the honourable committee which is entrusted with the organisation of our annual theatre programme. In my humble opinion, it would be wise to cease the performance of cumbersome operas with full orchestral accompaniment which require special staging and a standard of performances that only our Music Academy is able to achieve. Instead, the offerings should be limited to some light comedies and comic operettas whose spirit and quality is so exclusively French. I know that my proposal will make our excellent amateur critics leap with indignation, and I can’t offer any cure for that: however, on their return to France, they can at least console themselves by attending performances in Landerneau or Pont-à-Mousson.

AP3674-Despierres (1)

The former Saigon Municipal Theatre (Association des Amis du Vieux Huế)

Our new Theatre, opened on 15 January 1900 on the occasion of the visit by Prince Waldemar of Denmark, is undoubtedly a very beautiful monument, worthy in every respect of our beautiful Saigon. It has, moreover, even excited the jealousy of the incomparable Hanoi; and that says it all.

But I would be ungrateful if I didn’t also mention our former theatre, so small and so simply decorated, yet so cosy and intimate, surrounded by lawns and shaded by large trees. There, we saw no “dressing to impress,” no show of luxury; we attended without any fuss, as if we were attending a family gathering, and we always came out happy. All the old Saigonnais, myself and my contemporaries, certainly regretted the loss of this lovely theatre in its corner of greenery. But we must, it seems, march with progress, using a catchphrase like that of the seller of the first boxes of sardines in Nantes: “Always for the better.”

Like a Parisian boulevard, the rue Catinat has had its characters who have lived a little of its life, and whose absence is noted and regretted.


Rue de Bangkok, Saigon

A good example is the former official who became the landlord of several large buildings and could invariably be found perched at the corner of rue de Lagrandière. His thick crop of white hair, cut in the style of Titus, served as a contrast to his amiable ruddy face, a sign of good living. Always smiling, he would sit and watch the passers by, and for him, each was a friend to whom he extended his hand.

Then, in the vicinity of the Grand Hôtel Continental, at all hours of the day and night, we could once find a character with an opulent black beard and a booming voice with a touch of a Gironde accent which resounded across the square. He knew everything about Saigon the day after he arrived, and all Saigon knew and loved him.

And there too once went a perky little man, trotting daintily along boulevard Charner [Nguyễn Huệ] with a triumphant waxed moustache. That was our “king of automobiles.”

Personnel of the Director of the Arsenal, 1875

A carriage crew waiting outside the Marine Arsenal

Also operating in this area of the city was one of the friendliest people in our legal office. Dressed elegantly in his light jacket, he would stride along the street with his nose in the air, like the ogre in Tom Thumb, sniffing the fresh and fragrant scent of…. female flesh. Yes, he was out hunting, and you would always find his prey just a few steps in front of him.

Today, the judiciary is still represented in the rue Catinat by a friendly group which we call familiarly “the Fifth Chamber,” whose members wander along the pavement with slow, rhythmic steps, chatting about the interests of their clients. Happily when I pass them today I don’t have to count the missing, as they are still numerous in this country where the dead go quickly.

From the rue d’Espagne [Lê Thánh Tôn] to the place de la Cathédrale, the rue Catinat climbs between two rows of government buildings, on which it would be pointless to dwell. The same must be said for the Cathedral, which similarly deserves little attention. Completed in 1880, it replaced the modest little wooden chapel that once stood on the present site of one wing of the Christian Brothers’ Institution Taberd. It is therefore one of the oldest monuments in modern Saigon, but it is certainly not one of the best – its inelegant mass is enhanced only by its two front towers.

5803338464_313ee84d83 SAIGON - clocher en construction_ chaffaudage en bambou 1902_O

The bell tower of the Huyện Sỹ Church under construction in 1905

I much prefer the pretty little church [Huyện Sỹ Church] which was built next to the high road to Cholon, according to plans drawn up by an artist in a cassock, and with the posthumous piastres of an old Annamite Crésus in search of absolution.

In the same way, I prefer the elegant Hôtel des Postes, which was built a few years ago in the immediate vicinity of the Cathedral. I followed with great interest the various phases of its installation, and have even contributed, in a very small way, to its interior decor. But I see you are smiling in disbelief, so let me explain….

The Indochina Postal Administration was placed under the direction of a great man, an outstanding public servant who remains etched on the memory of all who knew him. Hard on himself, he was also hard on others, but his spirit of high equity and impeccable righteousness, the extent of his technical knowledge and his tireless work ethic made him the model department head, a man for whom no detail could be left unattended. And it is to him that the colony owes the organisation of its admirable telegraph network.

Today only old Cochinchinois can still remember the tenacity and energy with which he carried out this gigantic work. His epic battles with the elephants of Annam, who took pleasure in shaking and demolishing the telegraph poles, are also legendary in Saigon. He left us knowing that if all had not loved him, he had at least forced everyone to hold him in high esteem. And is not this the highest praise that a public servant can hope for?


Saigon Cathedral and Post Office

I had, in fact, quite frankly sympathised with him in the early days of my arrival in Cochinchina, and out of this shared sympathy was born a strong friendship marked by frequent meetings. I also never forget our Sunday walks along the paths of suburban Saigon: with such a guide, a veritable walking encyclopaedia, each of these walks was for me a lesson of the most captivating interest.

One can expect that the construction and development of a new building to house his Postal Service would not leave our man indifferent, and indeed, it provided him with a unique opportunity to apply his infinite skills and energy. As soon as dawn broke, he was everywhere, keeping an eye on everything, sometimes emerging from the basement of the Post Office like a cricket coming out of his hole, sometimes appearing like a genie of the Bastille on the roof ridge of the building.

One morning, I found him perched high on scaffolding which had been erected in the vast central hall, brush in hand, exerting his topographic talents on one of the large maps which decorated the walls. “Climb up here to help me,” he shouted from his perch. I happily climbed up the bamboo ladder, and, installing myself next to him. immediately set to work, marking with strong artistic design the exact location of the good town of Chau-Doc, “capital of mosquitoes.”

Hotel de postes inside

The interior of Saigon Post Office

Behind the Cathedral, a wide boulevard stretches the entire length of the plateau from the Botanical Gardens up to rue MacMahon [Nam Kỳ Khởi Nghĩa]. Baptised with the gracious name of His Majesty King Norodom of Cambodia, this beautiful avenue, lined with tamarind trees, provides access to the Palace of the Government General. This imposing monument, the elegant proportions of which harmonise perfectly with the greenery around it, stands in the middle of a large park full of old trees which extend their high foliage into the adjacent Jardin de la Ville (City Park).

For over 30 years, the Palace of the Government General has been home to the high functionaries to whom the government of the Third Republic successively entrusted the fate of the colony – first the Governors of our Cochinchina, and then, after the consommation of the beneficent Union of Indochina, to the Governors General of Indochina, on those occasions when they visited their southern capital. When I landed in Saigon, the palace was looked after by an energetic and shrewd administrator, one of those men of whom one can say, with reason, “he’s a real character,” and who leave in the countries they are called to direct an indelible mark of their passage.

Norodom Palace again A i

The Palace of the Government General

We had to appear before this terrible man the day after our arrival; and I beg you to believe that, as we climbed the steps of the side porch which led into his office, my colleagues and I felt very uncertain indeed. I could, but dare not, use a much more intimate and forceful expression which would describe more accurately the intense feeling of fear which gripped us.

When we were introduced to him, I must admit that our initial reception was rather cold. “What are you doing here?” cried the ogre as soon as we crossed the threshold of his office. “I have not asked for you, neither do I have any use for you.” Then, seeing our discomfited expression, he suddenly calmed down and explained that the Collège des stagiaires was about to be abolished and that we had unfortunately arrived in the middle of a complete administrative reorganisation.

We took our leave of him on these good words, especially happy that our meeting had finished. In fact, it was this short interview which decided my colonial career; a few months later, without having otherwise been consulted, I traded my junior professional officer’s stripe for a deputy judge’s hat. Later, I learned to understand and appreciate the “beneficent coarseness” with which we had been greeted; and then I realised that his apparent rudeness hid true goodness and loving concern.

SAIGON - Le Palais du Gouvernement général illuminé

The Palace of the Government General illuminated for a ball

Many years have passed since the colonial adventures of my youth, and over time I have become an old and disillusioned magistrate who is surprised and intimidated by little. Yet even today, when I enter the former office of the ogre in the Palace of the Government General, I still feel a disagreeable frisson creeping across my skin.

On major public holidays such as 14 July or the first day of New Year, or when some prominent person honours our city with his presence, the Palace is decorated to the peak of its dome with illuminations. The doors of its reception rooms are opened wide and all Saigon dances breathlessly until dawn, while lovers of the Queen of Spades crowd around the gaming tables. These balls, known as “ouverts,” are particularly interesting, and it is prudent on such occasions to delay as long as possible the opening of the buffet … and the boxes of cigars.

Our Governor of Cochinchina, dispossessed of his palace, had to seek asylum in a large building located on rue de Lagrandière which was originally designed as a commercial museum, and for the construction of which the architect was inspired by the Munich Pinacothèque. Although it was only a poor copy, costly adjustments made it habitable, and it would, in fact, look good too, if the great caryatids flanking the entrance porch did not so miserably disfigure the façade they claim to decorate.

101 Palais de Justice

Alfred Foulhoux’s Palais de Justice (1885)

The Judicial Service is housed nearby, on the corner of rue Mac-Mahon [Nam Kỳ Khởi Nghĩa]. It is very comfortably installed in the Palais de justice, and it may be said that the sober architecture of that building and the perfect harmony of its proportions may be among the most beautiful sights of Saigon. During my early days in the colony, the premises of this important government office, which then existed in its infancy, were infinitely more modest.

The Tribunal once occupied the former Hôtel de la gendarmerie (Police Station). As for the Court of Appeal, it was encamped, after a fashion, in the stores of the Service local on rue Thu-Duc [Đông Du], while the French Chamber held solemn audience in a long hangar which can be admired even today on rue Taberd [Nguyễn Du], near the place de la Cathédrale. The magistrates there had, at short notice, replaced the horses of the gendarmes. The staff of the Attorney General’s Office had been assigned the other wing of these decommissioned stables. It was simple and tasteful. It was here that I was initiated, in around 1882, in the subtleties of native criminal procedure and the mysteries of the modified Penal Code.

Among my new friends was a cheerful fellow, as sharp as a monkey and even more bohemian than clever. Among his eccentric hobbies, he kept some of the most bizarre animals, and he had in his menagerie a cute little honey bear which became the frequent guest of the Prosecution, despite the opposition of the Attorney General, who then had an office in the same building.


The Justice de Paix

In fact, the Attorney General only honoured us with infrequent visits because he he trusted us, and this confidence was well placed. However, those rare visits, which this excellent man knew how to endow with a very intimate and familial charm, had a serious drawback for us, as they usually coincided with the time we had designated our “cocktail hour” at the nearby café de l’Europe. So we devised a means of guaranteeing the tranquility of these extra-judicial drinking sessions.

Every day, a little before cocktail hour, I was dispatched under any pretext, in my capacity as leading man of the team, to the office of the Attorney General, who always greeted me with his most benevolent smile, and inquired with bonhomie about our health and our work. My reply was of course that all was excellent; but then I would make a discreet allusion to the presence in the building of the honey bear. “What?” the irascible little man would cry, brandishing a huge paper cutter, “He’s brought that dirty beast into the building again?”

That was enough, and it only remained for me to retire with the consciousness of duty done. Upon my return to the Prosecution, the indictments were lightly abandoned, the dossiers quickly rolled up, and our merry band, marching in English style, rushed down to the café de l’Europe where those pernicious cocktails awaited us, covered in snowy ice.


Cafes on the Saigon riverfront

Since I’ve already recounted several old memories, let me just mention one more which dates from the same period and relates to the same subject.

One fine morning, probably taking advantage of the absence of the bear, our mentor arrived in our midst. By the merest chance, he found most of us installed in our rightful places, and painstakingly plunged his nose into the voluminous files which were piled up around us. Only one of the desks remained unoccupied, and for good reason. Its owner, big Robert, had just begun doing exercises, suspended on one of the horizontal iron bars high above the room, and was, at the moment of the Attorney General’s entrance, engaged in some skilful acrobatic manoeuvres.

The arrival of our unexpected visitor caught him by surprise, so big Robert sat above us silently and unnoticed, with his legs dangling down, while we strove to account for his absence. The chief went away satisfied, big Robert nimbly left his uncomfortable perch, and we welcomed his descent with a loud ovation. Thus ended one of the happiest incidents in the life of the colonial Prosecution service.

And what may surprise you most, dear reader, is that our work was no worse for it.

Sadly, most of the actors in these innocent little scenes have long since descended into the grave, and now I live alone with my memories.

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.

Saigon and Cho Lon – The Impressions of Colonial Lawyer George Durrwell in 1910, Part 1


George Dürrwell spent nearly three decades working for the Cochinchina legal service. His 1911 memoirs, Ma chère Cochinchine, trente années d’impressions et de souvenirs, février 1881-1910 (My Dear Cochinchina, 30 years of impressions and memories, February 1881-1910) afford us a fascinating picture of life in early 20th century Saigon and Chợ Lớn. This is Part 1 of a three-part excerpt from the book.

Saigon has been described as the “Pearl of the Orient,”and all of those who have had the good fortune to live there or to visit the city – except, perhaps, for one or two Tonkinese chauvinists – are agreed that it deserves this graceful designation without any reservation. It is also the true capital of our French Indochina: a commercial capital with an admirable maritime location; a historic capital, to recall the happy expression once used by Governor General Beau, “to glorify our dear city and the unforgettable memories that its name alone evokes;” and finally a political capital, simply by birthright.

KHA NHOI - Plantation de Cocotiers et Habitation de Colon

After arriving by ship at the Messageries maritimes wharf, early travellers passed through Khánh Hội en route for Saigon

The first impression on arrival in Saigon is not, in fact, the most engaging. After following the meandering path of the river, and contemplating for several hours its melancholy shores bordered by endless flat and monotonous rice fields, the traveller reaches, after a passage of 24 days, the pier of the Messageries maritimes.

There, in both sight and smell, he feels the perfectly unpleasant sensation of approaching a slum. For in front of him, right next to the dusty and often muddy road which leads to the old bridge across the arroyo Chinois [Eiffel’s Pont des Messageries maritimes], he encounters a shapeless mass of decrepit and lamentably rickety huts which emerge from pools of stagnant water, forming an ugly and unsightly view unworthy of the great city of which Khanh-Hoi is the suburb.

In fact, there is now a second bridge, known as the Pont tournant (Swing Bridge), over which passengers may travel to reach Saigon without passing through this ghetto, but it swings very badly. Some even claim that it doesn’t work at all; but those are grumpy and biased people who deserve no credit.

Pont tournant

The joint road-rail swing bridge, opened in 1908

I can say, indeed, that I saw it open at least once, at a practical time which permitted the free movement of the public. But as the saying goes, “One swallow doesn’t make a summer.” This unfortunate bridge has thus acquired, from the beginning of its existence, a true local celebrity; and the rivers of ink that have been spilled talking about it are certainly more tumultuous than the waves of dirty water which agitate the river over which it was thrown.

But let’s hasten to flee this smelly suburb, taking either one or the other bridge over the arroyo which still separates us from the city. For when we reach Saigon, everything changes.

One of the most brilliant writers of our colonial literature, Myriam Harry, devoted several graceful lines to Saigon in one of her evocative novels:

Saïgon - Haut de la Rue Catinat

The upper end of rue Catinat

“Ah! what a pretty city Saigon is! We don’t know why we love it, perhaps for its space, perhaps for its somnolence, or perhaps because of its tide of greenery, which swallows up its square white houses with their resemblance to small Greek temples.”

All this is perfectly true; it is certain that Saigon displays an indefinable charm and exercises a strange fascination on all those who visit it, on all those whose hearts it captures, and its evergreen trees certainly play a large part in this. Nevertheless, there is a disturbing question here, because those very trees which line our city streets are currently under threat. The idea of cutting down trees was raised for the first time by a friendly doctor involved in public affairs, who lost something like an arm or a foot or a finger – I don’t know what exactly – and because of this he imagined that he needed to cut down everything around him. He chose the trees of rue Catinat for his first attempt at field surgery, and it is to him, dear reader, that you owe the excessive sunlight which now beats down onto that street near its junction with the rue Lagrandière.

Saigon - Angle de la rue Catinat et rue La Grandière

The junction of rue Catinat and rue de Lagrandière

All of our poor trees would have been cut down if this ruthless lumberjack had not fallen victim to the unforgiving climate of our Cochinchina. However, he left behind a legion of devout followers; and, following the example of the empire of Lilliput, where civil war almost broke out between its citizens, Saigon today is still divided between those who advocate an almost complete slaughter of our treelined avenues, and others who argue for simple and hygienic pruning. I agree without hesitation with the latter. In the name of the beauty of the Saigon which we all cherish equally, I say this: cleanse our sewers; make clean water available in abundance; fill that home of microbes, the Boresse Swamp; but please, leave our “Pearl” its green adornment!

677_001 (1)

A merchant walking along the streets of Saigon in the early 20th century

There are, of course, vandals in all latitudes; and it’s nothing short of a miracle that the giant plane trees and ancient elms which line the incomparable allée des Alyscamps in Arles escaped, most recently, the axes of the tree killers.

Anyway, we will use the cool shade of the trees, which for the moment we are still allowed to enjoy, to wander together through the streets of the city – a city in which for me, every house brings to mind a memory, good or bad, sad or happy. Alas, sometimes those memories are very sad! For it was on the threshold of one of those houses, many years ago, that I left on a journey from which there would be no return. This was the journey I chose as my path through life, one which has left me alone with my infinite despair. Such memories bind one inextricably to the places which evoke them.

And as your “cicerone,” I will try as hard as possible to be the least “Joanne” guide possible [a reference to the Hachette travel guidebooks written by Adolphe Joanne].

SAIGON - Café de la Terrasse

The Café de la Terrasse on Theatre Square

First of all, let’s give honour where honour is due. Just as Marseille has its Canebière, so Saigon has its rue Catinat [Đồng Khởi], which it shows off justly and with great pride. It is, indeed, unique.

From the quai Francis Garnier [Tôn Đức Thắng], which by right of occupation would be more accurately be called the quai des Messageries fluviales (River couriers quay), up to the plateau that forms the place de la Cathédrale, lies a route of over a kilometre. Shaded by a double line of tamarind and mango trees, this road rises gently and in recent years the heavy traffic which fills it has made it too small for current needs.

The houses that line the rue Catinat, taken in isolation, have for the most part no special qualities: some are old buildings which date from the time of the conquest, while others are of more recent construction. Most simply have a beautiful appearance and nothing more.


A pousse-pousse makes its way through the tree-lined streets of Saigon

Yet all of them, bathed by the rays of our Cochinchina sun, create an intimate and welcoming cheerfulness, like a group of large family homes which seduce irresistibly. This is true of some women’s faces: itemise their features individually and you will sometimes find them unsightly; but bring them together and they will often form a harmonious whole which charms more than accepted notions of beauty.

The lower part of the rue Catinat, which stretches as far as rue d’Espagne [Lê Thánh Tôn], is occupied by European and Asian traders, while the upper part is reserved for government offices. We will travel quickly from the one section to the other, stopping en route at the exquisite place du Théâtre, which I can describe unreservedly as a real gem.

17 Boutique Chinois

A Chinese shop on rue Catinat

All of the most varied branches of our metropolitan commerce are widely represented on the lower end of rue Catinat: gold and jewelry shops, large, well-stocked bazaars, coquettish millinery shops, comfortable hair salons, bookstores stacked with the latest Parisian novels, pharmacies with gleaming and carefully labelled jars…. nothing is missing, you can buy everything here at moderate prices. But it is undoubtedly the grocery stores which take first place in this animated corner of the city; and this is an area of business in which the good Chinese pose a formidable competition to the French, I must tell you, moreover, that the honourable profession of the grocer is much more complicated here than it is in Europe, as it requires a more complete and varied practical knowledge.


Chinese merchants on rue Catinat

An amiable comic ditty that my good friend S sometimes hums in private, between the pear and cheese, proclaims in its chorus that:

In the business
Of the grocer
It is necessary to sell candles.

However, our Saigon grocers are not content just to add the commerce of the candle to that of selling cans of conserves and other colonial products. They sell a bit of everything, from pith helmets to saddles, manufactured everywhere from Paris to Nuremberg. There’s truly something for everyone.

Grocery stores which have expanded their activities in this way are described generously as “magasins généraux d’alimentation” (general provisions stores); they are more chic and more expensive than the rest.


One of the original Chinese compartment buildings on rue Catinat

Chinese small industry and commerce has effectively taken over the lower end of the rue Catinat, and this deserves our attention.

Here, first of all, picturesquely located in dilapidated old compartments which in this central area form the last vestiges of the old town, one may find a confederation of Chinese tailors whose workshops open directly onto the pavement. Every morning, their brave workers come and sit down, shirtless, in front of the benches upon which their daily work piles up. They don’t leave until nightfall, and it’s wonderful to see their nimble hands stir in a tireless toil, measuring, trimming, cutting and recutting, running their needles through fabric. For them there is no unemployment, no weekly rest, and especially no irritating discussion of the “three-shift” system: only the ritual celebrations of Tết interrupt their ardent working lives for a statutory fortnight’s holiday. And as you may know, it is from such good Chinese manufacturers that come, signed A-Tac or A-Hon, the colonial suits that help us dress so elegantly.

Marchand de sourbets

An ice-cream merchant on the streets of Saigon in the early 20th century

The meticulous precision work required by industry of clockmaking and jewelry also naturally appeals to the patient and industrious Chinese artisans, who have also cornered the market in this area. Shops in which rather dated clocks rub shoulders with a whole assortment of native jewelry are also numerous in the rue Catinat.

Further along, furniture makers and basket weavers obligingly spread out their masterpieces of dubious elegance – but beware of termites!

Along the lower end of rue Catinat there have survived a few Chinoiserie and Japonerie merchants which the customs tariffs have not yet reduced to bankruptcy. Once they were many, but now they are a dying breed. I recall many years ago the shop of a very large, paunchy man who combined his official duties as an interpreter in the Immigration Department with a Chinese antiques business. There, by browsing carefully and paying well, one could acquire some very beautiful artefacts.


A Chettyar merchant in Saigon

But amongst the hectic scenes of daily life that play out all along rue Catinat, the most interesting are those surrounding the small money changers and tobacconists shops which line the left sidewalk. Around a dozen of these little shops stand side by side, opening directly onto the street. On the threshold of each, set tirelessly in the legendary pose of the artisan at work, stands a son of our French India, boss of his narrow house, proudly exhibiting his wares to passers by, including packs of cigarettes or tobacco of Algerian origin, fine Manila cigars, Japanese matchboxes and wooden pipes. Some of these tobacco shops also have attached to them small haberdasheries selling articles which are specifically intended for military customers.

I have not yet spoken about Saigon’s cafés. So, in order not to give the lie to the reputation of French colonisers, I will say that Saigon certainly has no shortage of them. Many of these, establishments of the second order, are grouped at the bottom end of the old rue Nationale [Hai Bà Trưng] in the neighbourhood of the naval port, which provides them with a guaranteed clientele. But it’s near the theatre that one may find most of the more up-market cafes. These are vast, well-appointed facilities, with large terraces which spill out onto the sidewalk, cluttering them up with a casualness which is very colonial.

Grand Hotel De La Rotonde

The Café of the Grand Hôtel de la Rotonde in the early 20th century

It’s here, at the “green hour,” that the Saigonnais come to rendezvous after the oppressive heat of the day has subsided, escaping from their desks and offices, eager to breathe the “good air” and enjoy the relative cool of the evening. Incidentally, I recall that in one of those vague early accounts of the Far East penned back in the 1870s by one of a special category of travel writer known today as the “pantouflards” (couch potatoes), it was written that Saigon was a city of idlers who spent their days and nights in taverns getting drunk on strong liquor such as absinthe. It’s time to do proper justice to this assessment by describing it as both inaccurate as malicious. They do not drink more in Saigon than they do in France, and consumption of absinthe is certainly more moderate here than it is in other French dependencies. In any case, the harsh climate we experience, ruthless to alcoholics and opium smokers, obviates against excesses of this nature. Let us therefore no longer make such rash judgments. We have a duty to recognise that in a city where one lives mainly an outdoor life, where it is necessary to escape the heat of the office or the solitary home, institutions of this nature have an undeniable practical utility.


André Pancrazi’s Café de la Musique on rue Catinat in the early 20th century

In my case, I can only make a single complaint against the café, and that relates to the incessant noise created by their concert orchestras, which have transformed this exclusive location of Saigon into a true outpost of the Point-du-Jour. You like violins? You’ll find them everywhere on the rue Catinat, from 6pm until curfew, their bows darting back and forth enthusiastically. Where music is concerned, I admit that I’m only a vulgar layman. But for many months in my little hermitage on the rue Blancsubé [Phạm Ngọc Thạch] – a neighbourhood of music lovers – I had to suffer the piano playing of a very amiable boy who sat down at his piano in the late morning and didn’t get up from it until nightfall. He carried on playing endless scales on this horrible instrument, interrupted only by his appalling rendition of “Salut, demeure, chaste et pure” from Gounod’s Faust. His dragging interpretation of the high note which marks the penultimate syllable of this air left a throbbing and painful impression in my eardrums which still lingers today. It almost drove me mad, and had it done so, that would have been very unfortunate for my family.

So let’s waste no more time being grumpy about the cafés of the rue Catinat with their blaring music and continue to the place du Théâtre.

To read part 2 of this serialization, click here

To read part 3 of this serialization, 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.