Dong Nai Forestry Tramway


Many thanks to Michael Pass and his colleagues Eric Fresné, Rob Dickinson, Iain Hutchinson, Helmut Dahlhaus, Claus Gaertner, Martin Murray, John Raby, Geoff Coward, Ray Schofield, Alan Brown and Chris Yapp for identifying this as one of the two CFTD Borsig 0-6-0T locomotives

Commercial exploitation of the forests was an economic priority for the Cochinchina government, and in the early 20th century, several private tramway lines were established to facilitate this work. Perhaps the best known was the Đồng Nai Forestry Tramway, set up in 1911 serve the Biên Hòa industrielle et forestière company (BIF).

Une exploitation forestière en Cochinchine

A forestry exploitation in Cochinchina

In October 1910, the Biên Hòa industrielle et forestière (BIF) company (established in 1908) signed a contract with the Cochinchina authorities to exploit 30,000 hectares of forest in Đồng Nai Province.

As part of the contract, they undertook to build a 21.9km branch line to transport wood and other forest products from its main logging camp at Bến Nôm to Trảng Bom on the Sài Gòn–Nha Trang line.

In the following year the company also opened a lime acetate factory at Tân Mai, connected to the main line by a 0.5km rail spur.

The Compagnie française des tramways du Donnaï (French Tramway Company of Đồng Nai, CFTD) was set up by BIF in 1911 to run both of these lines.

62. A 0.5km spur led

A 0.5km spur off the main line east of Biên Hòa Station led into BIF’s Tân Mai lime acetate factory

Conceived from the outset as a 1m-gauge line in order that its wagons could continue their journey from Trảng Bom to Sài Gòn on CFI metals, the Đồng Nai tramway incorporated four short forestry spurs with a combined length of 3.144km. Construction took two years and the branch opened in late 1913.

Three years later, in order to accommodate the construction of a larger and better-equipped interchange between the branch and the main line, the colonial authorities agreed to relocate Trảng Bom Station nearly 2km to the west of its original position.

The post-World War I economic recession hit both BIF and CFTD badly, and in 1922, the latter attempted unsuccessfully to persuade the authorities to buy back the tramway franchise.


Plans for the relocated Trảng Bom Station (1916) where the tramway met the main line

An inventory of rolling stock undertaken at this time revealed that the company owned four locomotives. These were two Borsig 0-6-0Ts, “Bienhoa No. 1” and “Bienhoa No. 2,” each weighing 23 tons; a 14-ton Ateliers de Tubize (Belgium) locomotive; and a 5.3-ton Decauville locomotive named “Bébé,” which was used exclusively in the acetate factory at Tân Mai.

The Đồng Nai tramway underwent comprehensive refurbishment in 1925-1926, and although its later history is poorly documented, the line is known to have continued in operation for at least another four decades.

Never a profitable concern, BIF was hit badly by the Great Depression, and in 1939 it was split into two companies, Les Caoutchoucs du Donnaï (Đồng Nai Rubber) and Forêts et scieries de Biên Hòa (Forests and Sawmills of Biên Hòa). The tramway company was incorporated into the latter.


Mishap on the CFTD line, c 1920, photos by Marcel Auguste Fermé, from “La mystérieuse locomotive de la BIF.” in Les carnets de Bái Lìdé

In 1958, both companies were purchased by the South Vietnamese authorities, and in subsequent years the Trảng Bom–Bến Nôm branch line was subsumed by the national rail operator, Hỏa xa Việt Nam (HXVN). It continued in operation until at least 1968.

Today no traces of the old line have survived. In the 1970s, most of its former trackbed was transformed into the Đường Trảng Bom.

Trang Bom

The route of the former tramway line superimposed onto a modern Google map

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

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

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

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

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

Icons of Old Saigon – The Eglise Sainte-Marie-Immaculee, 1863


Inauguration of the cathedral constructed in Saigon by the French government (after a sketch by Naval Lieutenant Dumont)

This article was published previously in Saigoneer

The Sun Wah Tower at 115 Nguyễn Huệ stands on the site of Saigon’s first Roman Catholic cathedral.

33 Pagode et case dans la rue Catinat

In 1860 Bishop Lefèbvre set up his first “cathedral” in an abandoned pagoda in the ville basse (lower city)

The earliest French colonial settlers were obliged to celebrate mass in a makeshift church. According to Alfred Schreiner’s Abrégé de l’histoire d’Annam (Short History of Annam, 1906), in 1860 Monsignor Dominique Lefèbvre, Bishop of Isauropolis and Apostolic Vicar of Lower Cochinchina, set up his first “cathedral” in an abandoned pagoda in the ville basse (lower city).

This arrangement continued until 1863, when Admiral-Governor Louis Adolphe Bonard (30 November 1861-1 May 1863) commissioned the construction of the city’s first purpose-built cathedral, the Église Sainte-Marie-Immaculée (Church of Saint Mary of the Immaculate Conception).

The location chosen for the new cathedral was the mid point of rue Charner, right next to the Grand Canal [Nguyễn Huệ boulevard]. According to the journal Moniteur de l’Armée (Army Monitor), it was built to the plans and under the direction of Lieutenant Colonel Paul Coffyn of the Marine Engineering Corps Roads and Bridges Department. Lieutenant Colonel Coffyn was assisted by Captain Blazy. The first stone was laid on 28 March 1863 by Bishop Lefèbvre.

The cathedral took just four months to build and was inaugurated on 26 July 1863 in the presence of Bishop Lefèbvre and Bonard’s successor, Admiral Governor Pierre-Paul de La Grandière (1 May 1863-31 March 1865).


Admiral Governor Pierre-Paul de La Grandière (1 May 1863-31 March 1865)

The inauguration ceremony was described as follows in Le Monde illustré (Illustrated World) magazine of 19 September 1863:

“Admiral Governor de Lagrandière arranged to surround Bishop Lefèbvre with every imaginable pomp. The Admiral himself appeared at the head of his General Staff in the full uniform of the country, that is to say, with light clothing and pith helmet replacing the thick fabric uniform and leather headdress worn in Europe. Flags and banners marked the passage of the procession, cannon sounded and military music and religious songs were performed by the bands and choirs of our brave sailors.

There are currently few Europeans in Saigon; apart from our troops, they do not exceed 200 or 300; there are also about 8,000 Chinese and 10,000 Annamites, but we can say that not one was missing from this grand celebration.

It created a profound impression, particularly on the local people who were attending for the first time one of the solemn ceremonies of their western allies.

Back home in Paris, this cathedral (of which we have provided a very accurate drawing, see above) would only be regarded as a chapel. But it has a no less monumental aspect, which is even more remarkable as it was built with great intelligence to meet the needs of the hot climate. It is constructed from wood and brick. The windows, with which it is abundantly provided on two floors, are equipped with louvres to optimise air flow.

It was built by Chinese labourers, who as we know are very proficient in all types of manual and mechanical work, under the direction of French engineer officers.

Saigon - Revue des troupes - Boulevard Norodom

A review of colonial troops on boulevard Norodom

As for the interior, no attempt was made to provide unnecessary luxury; it is very simple. At the rear is a rose stained-glass window set in an iron frame, which creates a beautiful effect. The high altar is located in a vaulted niche painted in blue with gold stars.

The church can hold 400 people; thus, from what we have said of the French population in Saigon, it is very adequate.”

The magazine also comments:

“We had no intention of creating a lasting monument; that would have taken a lot of time and financial resources which are not yet available to us. But this church will last us 15 to 20 years and can then be replaced by a building which accords with plans for the ‘new Saigon’ [the Coffyn Plan “for a city of 500,000 souls,” drawn up in May 1862].”

It is perhaps just as well that the new cathedral was regarded only as a temporary one, because, according to Schreiner, “it was devoured in less than 10 years by termites…. in 1874 we were obliged to set up a temporary cathedral in the salle des fêtes (events hall) of the former governor’s palace.” This arrangement continued until the inauguration of the Notre-Dame Cathedral in 1880.

Following the demolition of the Église Sainte-Marie-Immaculée in the early 1870s, a new law court housing a Justice de paix (Justice of the Peace) was opened on the same site in May 1875.


The Justice de paix (Justice of the Peace), opened in 1875

Before the completion of the Palais de Justice de Saïgon in 1885, this served as the main judicial organ of the city, with jurisdiction in both criminal and civil cases, and the boulevard in front of it became a place of execution. Later, the Justice de paix dealt mainly with local administrative applications. After 1954 it became the District 1 court, in which capacity it survived until 1994.

Saigon 1863

A map showing the location of the Église Sainte-Marie-Immaculée in 1863. By 1864 the upper half of the Grand Canal, including the area in front of the cathedral, had been filled

Saïgon - La Justice de Paix

Another photograph of the Justice de paix (Justice of the Peace)

76 Execution

After 1875 the boulevard in front of the Justice de paix became a place of execution

Justice de Paix C ii

Today the Sun Wah Tower stands on the site of the Église Sainte-Marie-Immaculée, Saigon’s first cathedral

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

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

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

Date with the Wrecking Ball – Saigon Hospital, 125 Le Loi, Late 1930s

A “colorised” image of the the Polyclinique Dejean de la Bâtie after it became a Municipal Hospital in 1949.

This article was published previously in Saigoneer

The Saigon Hospital at 125 Lê Lợi was originally built in the late 1930s as the Polyclinique Dejean de la Bâtie. The French named it after French doctor Théodose Déjean de la Bâtie, who devoted his life to treating members of the Vietnamese community.

Indochina - medicine in 1930s

Indochina – medicine before 1930

While the wealthy Chinese communities set up their own well-appointed hospitals in Chợ Lớn from as early as the 1870s, medical facilities in Saigon during the first half century of colonial rule were provided almost exclusively for the use of European settlers.

During that period, Vietnamese people living in Saigon had to travel to the Chợ Quán Hospital for treatment, or alternatively to visit the tiny Thị Nghè clinic of the Sisters of Saint-Paul de Chartres, which, according to one government report, “compensated, to some extent, for the lack of an Hôpital indigène in Saigon.”

The need to create a hospital “specifically designated for indigenous people” in Saigon was taken up at the turn of the century by Dr Théodose Dejean de la Bâtie (1865-1912).

A former director of Chợ Quán Hospital who developed a pioneering programme to improve standards of maternity care, Dejean de la Bâtie was elected to the Colonial Council in 1900 and lobbied vociferously for the government to provide more civilian doctors for the treatment of local people.

saigon - polyclinique dejean de la batie

A CFTI electric tram passes the Polyclinique Dejean de la Bâtie in the early 1940s

In April 1903, using his own money, Dejean de la Bâtie set up “a clinic on the rue d’Adran [Hồ Tùng Mậu], behind the Justice of Peace,” which offered “free medical and surgical treatment to all Asians who wished to benefit from European medicine.”

Dejean de la Bâtie personally funded the operation of the clinic for nearly two years, but its success nearly bankrupted him, and in 1905 the municipal government took over its operation. In that year, the clinic received subsidies from the Saigon Municipality (1,200 piastres), Chợ Lớn Province (300 piastres) and Gia Định Province (300 piastres).

According to a report of 1905 in the Annuaire général de l’Indo-Chine française, “Although recently founded, this institution has given brilliant results and seems to be destined to be of great service. For the first 12 months of operation, the free consultation room was crowded with 3,151 patients of all nationalities. In total, they came here 15,717 times to ask for bandages or medication, or simply for advice on their health. During this period, Dr Dejean de la Bâtie, assisted by his colleague Dr Flandin, carried out 166 surgical procedures under chloroform, 86 under cocaine and 21 under ethyl chloride. The free healthcare services are provided here by Dr Dejean de la Bâtie, assisted by a European nun, an Annamite nun, an Annamite nurse and a secretary-interpreter.

The Polyclinique Dejean de la Bâtie after it became a Municipal Hospital in 1949

When Dejean de la Bâtie died unexpectedly in 1912 at the age of just 47, many tributes were paid to the man who had devoted his life to improving standards of medical care for local people.

Speaking in 1930, his former deputy, Dr Georges M L Montel, commented that he “cared too much for his patients and didn’t charge fees… It was only when his clinic became such a major undertaking, and his personal resources were no longer adequate to pay for it, that he consented to hand it over to the municipality. He had a heart of gold. That’s why he died penniless, and his widow, instead of being chauffeured around in a car like so many other ladies, had to be content to live as a modest teacher.”

Two years after his death, the clinic founded by Théodose Dejean de la Bâtie was relocated to a larger building on boulevard Bonard, the site occupied today by the Saigon Hospital. Known initially as the Polyclinique du Marché or the Polyclinique du boulevard Bonard, it was placed under the direction of Dr Georges Montel.

However the demand for medical services by local people continued to grow, prompting Colonial Council member Trương Văn Bền in 1919 to urge the government to build a much larger Hôpital indigene in Saigon in order to cope with the “alarming growth” in the number of local patients.

Polyclinique Dejean de La Bâtie 1949

Another shot of the Polyclinique Dejean de la Bâtie after it became a Municipal Hospital in 1949

As annual patient numbers at the Polyclinique du Marché rose from 28,982 in 1922 to 37,957 in 1924 and 45.161 in 1926, the authorities responded by opening smaller clinics at Tân Định (1925) and Khánh Hội (1930),

Finally in 1935, Cochinchina Governor Pierre Pagès (1934-1939) approved plans to rebuild the Polyclinique du Marché as a fully-equipped city hospital.

Constructed and opened in stages between 1937 and 1939, the new hospital cost 185,000 piastres (1,850,000 francs) to build. In February 1938, the Colonial Council decided that it should be named the Polyclinique Dejean de la Bâtie, “in honour of the devoted and selfless philanthropist who was the creator of the municipal polyclinique.”

While most of the funding came from the city government, the Hui-Bon-Hoa family made a sizable donation of 38,000 piastres, securing for themselves the naming rights to the south wing (nearest the market), which became known as the “pavillon Hui-Bon-Hoa.” The north wing was named after Bâtie’s protégée Dr Georges Montel, who had become known in the 1920s for his groundbreaking treatment of leprosy, while other smaller donations were recognised by the naming of individual consulting rooms and operating theatres. A marble plaque was posted in the main entrance lobby, bearing the names of all donors and benefactors who had contributed to the construction.

Saïgon - Polyclinique Dejean de La Bâtie 1949 ii

The Saigon General Hospital today

In 1949, the Polyclinique became a full-blown Municipal Hospital, with former Emperor Bảo Đại, then head of state of the State of Việt Nam, presiding over the inauguration ceremony on 16 December 1949. After the establishment of the Republic of Việt Nam in 1955, it was renamed the Saigon General Hospital (Bệnh viện Đa khoa Sài Gòn). Since that time it has continued to function as one of the most important hospitals in the city.

However, in recent years the fabric of the building has become badly degraded and in an article of 10 June 2014 in Người Lao Động newspaper, the hospital was described as “seedy, dirty, with inadequate service and bad management.” The same article quoted a leader from the Hồ Chí Minh City Department of Health as saying: “It has all the necessary facilities and a convenient location, but the performance of the Saigon Hospital is very poor….This situation must be resolved. The Department of Health is considering whether the entire hospital personnel should be reorganised or the hospital should be closed completely.”

Since the word on the street is that the land on which the Saigon Hospital stands is already earmarked for redevelopment, we can confidently assume that the old building’s days are numbered.

The inauguration of the former Polyclinique as a Municipal Hospital on 16 December 1949 in the presence of Head of State, former Emperor Bảo Đại

The inauguration of the former Polyclinique as a Municipal Hospital on 16 December 1949 in the presence of Head of State, former Emperor Bảo Đại

The inauguration of the former Polyclinique as a Municipal Hospital on 16 December 1949 in the presence of Head of State, former Emperor Bảo Đại

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-Souvenir – A 1906 Visitor’s Guide to Saigon

Title page

In 1906, an unknown writer using the pen name L. I. published a small brochure entitled Saïgon-Souvenir, petit guide saigonnais à l’usage des passagers des débutants dans la colonie for first-time visitors to the Cochinchina capital. Here is an English translation.


Saigon panorama (east): the Post Office, the Arsenal and the Sainte-Enfance, viewed from the towers of the Cathedral

Overall appearance – The city has the shape of an irregular trapezoid, with its sides formed by the Saigon river, the arroyo-Chinois (Bến Nghé creek), the Canal de ceinture (Belt Canal) and the arroyo de l’Avalanche (Thị Nghè creek).

The streets are straight, parallel, and intersect each other at right angles. Many boulevards cut through the city in all directions, connecting the spacious squares which are scattered throughout.

Saigon presents a cheerful aspect, jolly, spacious and elegant, while boasting the very best conditions of hygiene and safety.

The progress we have made in such a short time illustrates quite clearly the effort and energy which has been expended in order for Saigon to become recognised as the foremost city in Indo-China.

Indeed, if we think that in 1859, the date of the occupation by Admiral Rigault de Genouilly, Saigon was a dirty city filled with stinking swamps, its streets lined with unhealthy and badly-built huts, one can easily realise the importance of this change to the developing wealth of our capital of Cochinchina, the trade and industry of which continues to develop day by day.


Cap Saint-Jacques (Vũng Tàu)

Arrival in Saigon – The author assumes that the reader of this brochure is arriving for the first time in the country. The many surprises for the new arrival include the wonderful baie des Cocotiers (Coconut Bay), Cap Saint-Jacques (Vũng Tàu) and the banks of the Saigon river. As we make our way up river, passing the rice fields and various plantations, we do not complain about the slow progress of the ship, which is partly due to the many twists and turns in the river, and partly due to the shifting sandbanks which the ship must carefully avoid.

Eventually in the distance we see the spires of the Saigon Cathedral, then gradually, the main monuments of the city and the rows of the large trees which line its boulevards and gardens.

As it makes its way towards its destination, the ship overtakes other merchant ships which are anchored along the shore and the city begins to reveal itself, scattered in all directions under the shade of thick vegetation.

A few brief orders are shouted, the whistle is blown repeatedly, and after a great deal of noise, the engine stops. The ship has docked at either the Messageries Maritimes or the Charner pier, the latter facing the main boulevard of that name.


Saigon – awaiting the arrival of the courrier ship

A crowd of people, many stylishly dressed in white, awaits the arrival of friends, relatives or letters and parcels from France. This little spectacle touches your heart and makes you feel less homesick…

But the time for dreaming is over and life begins again. More shouting – from porters competing for luggage, hotel grooms handing out the calling cards of their hostelries, Chinese traders offering made-to-measure suits and shoes for almost nothing. All of this brings you back to reality.

Those whose ship has docked at the quai des Messageries Maritimes have a choice of transportation. If you want to save time, take a sampan and disembark near the boulevard Charner (Nguyễn Huệ). Alternatively, if you’re not in a hurry, hire a carriage or pousse-pousse and travel across the recently-built bridge which spans the arroyo-Chinois.

Those whose ship has docked at the Charner pier may very easily walk into town.

Visiting the city – According to Alexandre Dumas, there are three ways to tour a city: visiting the major monuments, visiting one neighbourhood after another, or, simplest of all, going from place to place visiting what lies immediately in front of you. We will tour Saigon in the latter way, believing it to be the most enjoyable and the most interesting.


A corner of boulevard Charner, Saigon

We will begin on the quayside, facing the boulevard Charner, once a muddy and unhealthy arroyo. Later it was filled, the land was levelled, houses were built alongside it, and boulevard Charner was created.

The name of boulevard Charner comes from the great admiral who distinguished himself during the conquest of 1859. This boulevard leads to the recently-built Hôtel de Ville (City Hall), the architecture of which is a compound of different styles. The effect is original and pretty. Many electric arc lamps illuminate the boulevard, as well as the neighbouring streets of the city centre.

Note the imposing Hôtel des Douanes et Régies (Customs and Excise Department), located at the junction of boulevard Charner and the quayside.

Continuing along the river, we see proud warships at anchor; sampans and other small boats ply the water in all directions; and in some places, junks and other cargo ships load or unload their goods. The docks are crowded with people and cargo and the movement is incessant.

We pass in front of the rue Catinat (Đồng Khởi), which commences at the quai Francis-Garnier and leads up to the Cathedral.


The statue of Admiral Rigault-de-Genouilly

We continue along the river, passing in front of the offices of the Chargeurs Réunis, the Messageries Fluviales, and various other transportation companies.

We arrive at the place Rigault-de-Genouilly (Mê Linh square), named after the famous French admiral to whom we owe the conquest of Cochinchina. On the square is a very beautiful statue of the admiral in full battle dress. This statue was installed in 1878 by national subscription. Next to it stands a high pyramid erected in memory of Doudart de Lagrée, the frigate commander who led the Mekong Expedition. This latter monument is surrounded by cannon which were confiscated from the enemy.

Many streets are arranged in a fan shape around the place Rigault-de-Genouilly, the most important being rue Paul Blanchy (Hai Bà Trưng). One of the longest streets in Saigon, it connects the river with an outer suburb, passing through much of the city.

Continuing through this square we reach the Naval stores and maintenance depots, the office of the Naval Commander, the Naval Artillery workshops, and then, on the boulevard Luro (Tôn Đức Thắng), the Naval Arsenal.

Saigon - Entrée de l'Arsenal

The main entrance to the Naval Arsenal

The Arsenal is undoubtedly the largest and busiest industrial installation in Saigon, staffed by large numbers of European and local civilian employees of all categories, not to mention the soldiers and sailors who are stationed here. Its dry dock permits our largest ships to be repaired easily.

Let’s now continue to the end of the boulevard Luro. After passing several charming villas and a number of religious institutions, we arrive at a vast square with manicured lawns, situated in front of the Colonial Infantry Barracks.

The Barracks were built on the site of an Annamite Citadel and are composed of large and airy iron pavilions, with surrounding vérandahs on each floor. The rooms are spacious and clean and the pathways connecting the pavilions are planted with trees; in short, the ensemble gives a very pleasing impression. Needless to say, the most rigorous standards of hygiene are observed here, offering our soldiers excellent conditions for safety and comfort.

All travellers are unanimous in saying that Saigon’s colonial barracks are the most beautiful in the world.

To further enhance the well-being of our military, a Cercle des Soldats et Marins (Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Club) has been installed right next to the barracks. A charming house serves as a reading room with a library of 1,500 volumes; a military theatre company gives evening performances at certain times in a special hall; and a bar sells refreshments at very low prices.


The Colonial Infantry Barracks

All of this offers our troops a range of diversions which they can enjoy without leaving the neighbourhood, and especially without incurring significant expenditure.

If one also mentions the games and sporting events of all kinds which are on offer in the garden of the Cercle, we may conclude rightly that the French soldier, when compared with the soldiers of other nations, is much better provided for in many respects.

Coming out of the barracks, our eyes are drawn to an area located close by, set amidst a forest of tall trees: it’s the Botanical and Zoological Gardens.

This institution, criss-crossed by wide and well-designed pathways, contains countless varieties of plants and shrubs, as well as cages containing animals of all kinds. Wild beasts represented here range from deer to elephants.

From time to time, the roar of a panther may be heard, but visitors have no need to worry and can continue their pleasant tour of the gardens. A large pavilion serves as an aviary where finches live in harmony with waders.

A forest kiosk showcases all of the species and varieties of wood in the country.


The Botanical and Zoological Gardens

The Botanical and Zoological Gardens is thus a true educational resource and visitors leave amazed and very satisfied, because they have learned so much about the fauna and flora of Indo-China.

The street in front of the Barracks is the boulevard Norodom (the name of the former king of Cambodia), and as we walk west along this street we find the Temple protestant (Protestant Church), the Conseil de guerre (Council of War), the Hôtel du Général de Division, and the Cercle militaire (Officers’ Mess).

Further along, as we pass behind the Cathedral, we reach the impressive statue in memory of Gambetta, erected by public subscription on 5 May 1889 under the title “Defender of colonial policy.” The statue depicts the great man standing proudly; the inclusion of a soldier and a sailor at his feet gives a martial flavour to the entire work.

At the end of boulevard Norodom, we arrive at the Palace of the Governor General, a princely and sumptuous residence set amidst vast gardens. This monument cost 12 million francs.

Returning to the Cathedral and making our way round to its front entrance, we find the statue of the Bishop of Adran, a peace-loving prelate and a true Frenchman.


Saigon Cathedral

The Cathedral is a remarkable building of which the Saïgonnais are very proud. Thanks to its red brickwork, it bears a strong resemblance to the new church of the place des Abbesses in Paris. Built in 1877, the Cathedral cost 2.5 million francs.

A curious and original spectacle which deserves to be seen is the exit of the congregation from mass every Sunday morning. Here the pretty fashions of the European ladies, and the white suits worn without exception by all their men folk, mingle with the garish multicoloured outfits of the Indian women and the dark costumes of the Annamites.

On the place de la Cathédrale we find the Hôtel des Postes (Post Office), a magnificent building with a hall of grandiose dimensions; in short, a monument which honours the city.

Opposite the Cathedral, the rue Catinat leads down to the river. Catinat was the name of the first French corvette which bombarded the forts of Tourane in 1852. This street is the city’s oldest and largest, and it crosses Saigon at its centre point. As we travel down it, we find the Treasury, the Cadastre (Mapping Office), the Hôtel du Commandant de la la Brigade Coloniale, some administrative offices, and then shops, grand cafés and hotels.

In the middle of the rue Catinat, majestic and splendid, stands the Municipal Theatre, the pride of all the city’s inhabitants. Its elegant façade, tasteful interior decor and clever stage layout are a veritable marvel. Theatre troupes specialising in opera, comic opera, operetta and comedy give performances here four times a week, six months of year. The artists are engaged at great expense and their reputations are the best guarantee of success; performances are well attended by the entire European population, and passing travellers are also happy to spend their evenings here.


Saigon Municipal Theatre

Behind the Theatre is the electricity station. The main cafés are also located close to the Theatre; their appearance has nothing of the severity and coldness of the British cafés in Colombo or Singapore. Their rooms are spacious, pretty, filled with greenery and furnished with powerful electric fans; in short, they have an attractive appearance. Regular musical events are also organised in the large café terraces to cater for the European clientele.

Further down the street, beyond the Theatre, we find the houses of European traders and industrialists, large grocery stores run by Chinese merchants, and a wide variety of other shops, including basket weavers, tailors, shoemakers and watchmakers.

In the daytime, the animation on rue Catinat is somewhat limited, but towards the end of the day, the traffic increases as many people come here in their carriages to meet friends and acquaintances. It’s just like any major junction at 6pm on the boulevards of France.

At this time of day, the European ladies take advantage of the cooler temperatures to do their shopping, or simply to admire the stalls lit by electricity, the pretty appearance of which brings to mind the shops on the rue de Rivoli. Indeed, for our Saïgonnais, the rue Catinat is both the rue de Rivoli and the boulevard des Italiens.


A view of boulevard Bonard

Another of the busiest places in the evenings is boulevard Bonard (Lê Lợi), which cuts across both the rue Catinat and the boulevard Charner. Lined with trees and decorated with beautiful lawns, it is a favourite spot for promenades.

A statue of Francis Garnier stands at the eastern end of this street, facing the Theatre. Nearby, at the intersection of the boulevards Bonard and Charner, a bandstand lit by electricity provides a forum for musicians of the Colonial Regiment and Musique de la Flotte every Wednesday night.

From the junction where the boulevard Bonard meets the rue Pellerin (Pasteur), we may visit the Palace of the Lieutenant Governor on the rue de Lagrandière (Lý Tự Trọng), a thoroughfare which leads back to the rue Catinat. Or we may continue up as far as the rue Taberd (Nguyễn Du), where we may find the Masonic Lodge, the local Société Philharmonique, and the Jardin de la Ville (City Park). The latter is beautifully laid out, with many trees and wide lawns intersected by neat pathways.

Continuing westward, we arrive at the camp des Mares, where both the barracks of the Annamite Rifle Regiment and a provisional camp of the Colonial Infantry are located. The camp des Mares is located on the Plain of the Tombs, which is entirely covered with ruined funerary monuments. The appearance of this place would be unpleasant, were it not for the bushes and leafy trees which dot the area.

SAÏGON - un jour de réunion au champ de courses

A race meeting at the Saigon Racecourse

Nearby, the beautiful Racecourse offers a cheerful note which compensates for the poor impression given by its dismal surroundings. Its stylish and well appointed spectator stands give it the look of a Parisian racecourse.

Returning via the rue Chasseloup-Laubat (Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai), we pass the northern perimeter of the Jardin de la Ville, which on this side contains the Vélodrome, and the facilities of the local sports society.

Going straight on, we pass the Water Tower and eventually arrive back at the Colonial Infantry Barracks,

The visitor will be struck by the splendour of the principal streets which cross the city, including notably the rues de Lagrandière, d’Espagne (Lê Thánh Tôn) and Paul Blanchy, all shaded by tall trees and lined with graceful villas set in manicured gardens full of exotic flowers and shrubs.

Visitors are recommended to visit the morning market on boulevard Charner. In fact the market, with its eight large halls, is insufficient to house the large number of merchants who do business here, and consequently many have set up shop in the surrounding streets. It would be superfluous to describe the market in detail; suffice it to say that it is both a native and a European market. In summary, a very interesting free spectacle.

Other places to tempt visitors include the Museum, which is always very interesting to visit. Nearby is the Military Hospital, with its pavilions similar in design to those of the Colonial Infantry Barracks.


The second City Market (1870-1914)

Circles and societies – Many distractions are offered to Saïgonnais, thanks to the various societies which provide splendid entertainments: I will mention first of all the Société Indo-Chinoise de Secours Mutuels des anciens Militaires et Marins, which provides invaluable services; then I will mention the Cercle Colonial, the Cercle Militaire, the Société Philharmonique, the Société sportive, and the Société Hippique (Equine Society) which organises various popular events at its racecourse on the Plain of Tombs.

Surrounding areas – Thanks to the Tour d’Inspection, we can in a very short time discover the surrounding areas of the city. The Tour d’Inspection is a long standing tradition which involves following a specific route out of the city and back again. Every evening at around 6pm, after work is finished, most Saïgonnais feel the need to escape the sweltering heat by heading out of town for a breath of fresh air. Travelling in carriages, automobiles, pousse-pousse or even on horseback, they generally travel from Saigon to Gia-Dinh, a very pretty village located 5 kilometres from the city, with the return journey via the Botanical and Zoological Gardens. These roads are very pleasant and well maintained.

There are also other promenades on offer, such as that which takes visitors to Cholon, six kilometres from Saigon.


A Chợ Lớn street scene

Cholon – It would fill up a whole book to talk about this city, which has been called the most industrial and commercial city of all Indo-China. A visit to Cholon is essential for all newly arrived persons and its sights will surely remain etched on the memory. The means of transportation to get there are also quick, easy and inexpensive.

Bishop of Adran’s Tomb – It is also recommended to visit the tomb of the Bishop of Adran. Passing along rue Paul-Blanchy, the 3rd pont de l’Avalanche (Kiệu Bridge) and the route de Go-Vap, we then take the route de Tong-Kéou which crosses the canal de Ceinture (Belt Canal) and the Plain of Tombs. The tomb of the Bishop is classified as a national monument.


The population of Saigon consists of a variety of nationalities. Here are the approximate figures:

French: 6,000
Other Europeans: 5,000
Annamites: 30,000
Cambodians: 150
Chinese: 13,000
Indians: 1.000
Japanese: 100
Malays: 500
Total: 55,750


A Vietnamese house

The Annamites form several classes that are easily distinguished by the costume they wear.

Workers are generally coarsely dressed and not very stylish in their appearance; they walk barefoot.

Supervisors and clerical staff dress in white trousers and a dark shirt.

Finally there is the upper class, which includes retailers, attorneys and key employees of the government or large industries. These include alumni of the Écoles Chasseloup-Laubat and Taberd who have a higher education. Their female equivalent often dresses in European fashions.

Most Annamites carry an umbrella in any season, both for luxury and utility, for this item is necessary to protect against both the rain and the sun.

In general, the Chinese are in charge of trade and commerce. It is also noted that many small industries, such as tailoring, shoemaking and watchmaking on the rue Catinat, are the domain of the “sons of Heaven.”

Some Chinese own large merchant houses in Saigon and have very large interests in the market. Several of these are naturalised Frenchmen.

SAIGON - Un Chetty

A member of the Chettyar (Tamil) community in Saigon

The Indians we encounter in the city are the subjects of Pondicherry. Educated and reliable, they occupy trusted employment in commerce, administration and the police force.

The Hindus, commonly named Malabars, are small traders. They do small trade and above all exchange money. Many tiny stalls around the city are held by them.

One kind of Indian, the Chettyars, are very oddly dressed. Wrapped in a white cloth, head shaved, forehead and cheeks decorated with ash, they lie in wait for the naïve European who needs money. They lend willingly, but only with strong guarantees and at a very high rate of interest.

The Malays keep properties and drive carriages. However, on the coast at Cap Saint-Jacques, many Malays are engaged in fishing and conduct a considerable trade.


The main hygiene requirements to be observed by Europeans, especially when they first arrive, are as follows:

Frequent and light meals, not too much meat; regular use of coffee in small doses, hot or cold.

Frozen drinks are beneficial for taste and hygiene, but their excessive use, as with all things for that matter, should be avoided.


A European house in Saigon

The siesta is more harmful than useful, but it takes a tremendous will to abstain.

Clothing made from flannel or wool should be considered by all colonials.

These ideas are purely personal ones, but there are many other common sense precautions which are required for the preservation of health.

General rates (in piastres)

Racecourse: 1st class – 0.25, 2nd class – 0.15
Return journey (15 minute stop): 1st class – 0.35, 2nd class – 0.20
First hour: 1st class – 0.50; 2nd class – 0.30
Subsequent hours: 1st class – 0.40; 2nd class – 0.25
Saigon to Cholon: 1st class – 0.70; 2nd class – 0.50
Saigon to Cholon return (1 hour stop): 1st class –1.30; 2nd class – 0.90
Tour d’Inspection, simple: 1st class – 0.90; 2nd class – 0.60
Grand Tour d’Inspection: 1st class – 1.50; 2nd class – 1.00

Racecourse: 0.10
First hour: 0 25
Subsequent hours: 0.20

14 CFTI Gare boulevard Charner

The steam tramway terminus on boulevard Charner

Saigon-Cholon Steam Tramway
Saigon to Cholon: 1st class – 0.10; 2nd class – 0.06; 3rd class – 0.03

Other items

Stamps, postcards, letter cards and stamped envelopes are sold at the Hôtel des Postes and in branch post offices at the same price as in France (giving to the piastre a constant value of 2.50 francs).

We close these pages without wanting to dwell on anything at length or to stray outside the framework outlined. We just wanted to give, simply and in a succinct way, some information about the city and its surroundings. We hope that this brochure will be received benevolently by the public. Soon we plan to publish a more substantial guide giving exact details of the commerce, industry, agriculture, etc, of the country.

Hoping in this way to be helpful to all new arrivals in the colony, the author very modestly permits himself to dedicate this pamphlet to all its readers.

L. I., June 1906

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

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

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

Icons of Old Saigon – The Electricity Building, 1896

Usine electrique i

This article was published previously in Saigoneer

The recently rebuilt EVN Hồ Chí Minh City Power Company building at 72 Hai Bà Trưng stands on the site of Saigon’s very first electricity station.

Electricity was first used in Indochina in the late 1870s to set up a telegraphic network, but it took another two decades to develop coal-fired steam generators which could function efficiently in the tropical climate and provide sufficient power for street lighting.


One of the original oil lamps on rue Catinat in 1895

In the meantime, Saigon’s streets were lit by oil lamps.

As late as 1887, Leon Caubert wrote: “It seems that dynamos suffer almost as much as men from the humidity which prevails almost constantly here in Cochinchina, inducing oxidisation with surprising speed. However, it must be said that, although the city is still lit by oil, the quantity of Saigon’s street lights makes up for their quality.”

Soon after this the technical obstacles were overcome, and in 1896 the Société d’Électricité de Saigon (SEVS) was founded to supply electricity to the Cochinchina capital. In the same year, the company opened its first AC generating electricity station on the rue Nationale in Saigon, the site still occupied today by the EVN Hồ Chí Minh City Power Company (Tổng công ty Điện lực thành phố Hồ Chí Minh) at 72 Hai Bà Trưng. A substation was later opened in Chợ Lớn.


Three Laval turbines were installed in the 1896 electricity generating station

According to the Bulletin économique de l’Indo-Chine of 1908, “In Saigon, light is provided by the factory of the Société d’électricité de la ville de Saigon, which is actuated by steam pumping apparatus with a driving force of 1,100 horsepower.” Street lighting was initially confined to the two city centres and comprised arc lamps which generated light by creating a spark or electric arc between two carbon rods inside a gas-filled glass bulb.

In 1909, SEVS was bought out by the Compagnie des eaux et d’électricité d’Indochine (CEE, founded 1900), which already held the concessions for water in Saigon and Chợ Lớn and both water and electricity in Phnom Penh. In this way, CEE secured a monopoly on the distribution of water and electricity in the three largest cities of Cochinchina and Cambodia. It would remain the largest of the three electricity suppliers in Cochinchina until the departure of the French, the other two companies being the Société centrale d’éclairage et d’energie (SCEE), covering Cần Thơ and the Mekong Delta, and the Union électrique d’Indochine (UNEDI), serving Cap Saint-Jacques and Phan Thiết.

saigon - la centrale électrique

CEE’s “Centrale-Éléctrique” in Chợ Quán opened in 1913

Before World War I, electricity was used almost exclusively for street lighting, and the extent of the illumination remained extremely limited. In 1910, colonial lawyer George Durrwell commented that, even in the vicinity of the Saigon Municipal Theatre, “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.”

In June 1913, CEE moved to rectify this situation by opening a much larger AC three-phase electricity plant at Chợ Quán, with a design capacity of 5,000 kWH. This new “Centrale-Éléctrique” and its various substations generated enough electricity to meet the basic street lighting needs of Saigon, Chợ Lớn and several outlying areas, including Lái Thiêu and Thủ Dầu Một.


Another view of CEE’s “Centrale-Éléctrique” in Chợ Quán

In 1913, the old electricity generating station on rue Paul Blanchy (formerly the rue Nationale) became a substation. By this time, CEE also had substations at the Chateau d’eau [modern Turtle Lake], boulevard Norodom [Lê Duẩn], Chợ Đũi, Phú Thọ, Khánh Hội and Tân Sơn Nhất, as well as within important civic installations such as the Palace of the Government, the Hôtel de ville and the Municipal Theatre.

After World War I, the electrification of the Saigon tramway network and the increasing use of electricity for home lighting led to a significant increase in demand. Improvements in steam turbine design increased generator efficiency many times over, and by 1930, CEE’s annual power output had reached 37.8 million kWH.

Điện Lực Sài Gòn 1960s

A new CEE headquarters building was inaugurated in the late 1950s

Demand for electricity increased further in the late 1930s, driven by an expanding economy and increased use of household electrical appliances. By 1942, CEE was generating 56.5 million kWH per annum out of an Indochina total of 115.5 million kWH, and all of the major towns in its catchment area had been connected to the grid.

Following the departure of the French, the old 1896 electricity station was demolished and replaced by a new electric company headquarters building. The current building, the third on this historic site, was inaugurated in 2011.

Điện Lực Sài Gòn - 1960s ii

Inaugurated in 2011. the current EVN Hồ Chí Minh City Power Company building at 72 Hai Bà Trưng is the third to stand on this historic site

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 Economic Future of our Colonies – A 1907 Cochinchina Economic Overview by Eugene Jung

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A rice de-husking and blanching factory in Chợ Lớn

A fascinating overview of the economy of Saigon and the south in 1907 from Eugène Jung’s book l’Avenir économique de nos colonies 1: Indo-Chine, Afrique occidentale, Congo, Madagascar (The Economic Future of our Colonies1: Indochina, West Africa, Congo, Madagascar”), Paris, 1908


Cochinchina has an area of 59,800 square kilometres, much of which is composed of alluvial soil from the Mekong, Donnai and Saigon rivers.

It’s a colony known almost exclusively for its rice culture; but with the opening of new railway lines, there is hope that the higher land to the east will be exploited for a range of other products.

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Merchant ships on the arroyo-Chinois

Apart from its major rivers, Cochinchina is crossed by a multitude of other creeks and canals, which permit land irrigation and the movement of boats and junks bringing the crops of the Delta to Saigon. It is extremely rich and it was the first of our colonial possessions not only to cover all of its own expenses but also to make a contribution to the Metropolis. It has been a powerful supporter of the neighbouring territories which form our Indo-Chinese Union.

It’s inhabited by 5,192 French (other than troops) 190 foreigners, 498 mixed-race people and 2,837,787 indigenous people.

It’s almost exclusively a colony of exploitation, home to many important businesses which thrive here and carry out significant transactions.

In 1906, average imports amounted to 143,007,154 francs and exports to 116,612,847 francs. In 1907 it is expected that this figure will be significantly exceeded; but this year is exceptional. Up to 20 September 1907, 1,023,649 tons of rice had already been exported, generating 178 million francs. The tonnage will increase further, perhaps to 1,400,000.

However, only 1,200,000 hectares are currently under cultivation in Cochinchina; if one exploits the remaining two million hectares which remain available and are suitable for rice cultivation, the wealth of Cochinchina will undoubtedly increase in remarkable proportions.

Official infrastructure

Saigon les quais des Messageries fluviales

The Messageries fluviales wharf in Saigon

Cochinchina is served by many ships of all nationalities and by several French companies,

The interior is criss-crossed by steamships of the Compagnie des Messageries fluviales de Cochinchine (Cochinchina River Courriers Company). Founded by J Reiff, it was set up as a limited company on 22 May 1881. Its head office is at 43 rue Taitbout in Paris, and its capital is 2 million francs, in shares of 100 francs, costing 320-340 francs. Saigon is its main place of business, with a sub-directorate in Phnom-Penh (Cambodia). Its fleet consists of 12 steel steamships weighing from 300 to 800 tons, 14 river steamships from 40 to 200 tons and eight steel launches. It travels to 123,000 different places in Cochinchina and Cambodia, serving many communities. It receives a 669,562 franc subvention for its domestic services and 48,438 francs for the provision of its Cap-Saint-Jacques service.

Chinese steamships of the Yen-Seng company also provide services on four routes.

Finally, Saigon is the headquarters of the Compagnie française de Cabotage des mers de Chine (French China Sea Navigation Company).

For a long time, Cochinchina has had just two small railway lines, from Saigon to My-Tho on the Mekong (71km) and from Saigon to Cholon (5km). These belong to the Société générale du Chemin de fer de Saïgon à My-Tho and the Société générale des Tramways à vapeur de Cochinchine respectively.

The former is a limited company, founded on 15 November 1881 for a term of 99 years, with capital of 2,378,500 francs in shares of 500 francs reimbursable at 600 francs, and 8,936 bonds of 500 francs at 3%. There are plans for the Saigon to My-Tho line to be extended in future to Tan-An and Can-Tho (95km).

Saïgon-My Thô le chemin de fer à l'intérieur de la gare Maison Asie Pacific (MAP)

A Saïgon-My Thô line train at Mỹ Tho station – Maison Asie Pacific (MAP)

The Compagnie française de Tramways (Indo-Chine) currently has a network of 29km: Saigon to Cholon via the route basse (low road) tramway; Saigon to Go-Vap; and Saigon to Hoc-Mon, which is capable of extension. A limited company set up with a duration of 50 years, its registered office is at 28, rue Saint-Lazare in Paris. It has capital of 1 million francs, fully-paid shares of 500 francs and 2,300 bonds of 500 francs at 4½%, issued at 475 francs. Transportation of passengers, increasing every year, guarantees the company a very prosperous future.

The automobile firm Ippolito et Cie, founded in 1900, offers regular services between Saigon and Tay-Ninh (106km) on the Cambodian border, as well as to Bien-Hoa, Ba-Ria and Cap Saint-Jacques.

Finally, the new railway line from Saigon to Khanh-Hoa (Annam), belonging to the Indo-Chinese [government] rail network, is currently operational as far as Tan-Linh, 120kms from Saigon.

All these transportation routes leave from Saigon, which is a major city (54,000 inhabitants, including 14,000 Chinese) and a port of the first order. This port has an area of 24,000m². A new port costing several million francs is currently under construction, with depots and 1,100m of quays, but the nature of the subsoil has caused some unfortunate construction problems. In fact, we were warned about this by several old Cochinchina hands, but we did not think it necessary to pay them any attention. When completed, it will have cost 10,394,100 francs. In 1907, the general government spent 220,000 piastres on this project.

Saigon has the peculiarity of being situated 70km from the sea (at Cap Saint-Jacques) and still being accessible by its river to ships of the largest tonnage. It has a naval port with an arsenal and a 160m dry dock, where both warships and other vessels may be repaired.


Saigon – the new quays and docks

In 1906, 526 steamships (including 216 French and 169 English) entered the port carrying 130,752,846 francs of merchandise, while 456 (including 171 French) left carrying 116,039,273 francs of merchandise.

Other ports, including Hong-Chong (Gulf of Siam), Ca-Mau, Rach-Gia and Ha-Tien, can receive only boats of low draught, such as junks.

Exports from Saigon consists of rice, salted fish, cotton, pepper, cardamom, gambodge (tree resin), indigo, animal horns and copra; imports include flour, wines, liqueurs, fabrics, oils, soaps and machines.

Among the inland cities that make up the economic infrastructure of the colony, it is worth mentioning the great Chinese city of Cholon, located 5km from Saigon, with 138,000 inhabitants, of which 41,891 are Chinese. It has quays of 4,520m in length and every year in its factories, 4 or 5 million piculs of rice are placed in sacks for delivery to Saigon or export abroad. Thousands of junks and boats ply its canals. It is also an industrial city of the first order.

My-Tho, situated on one of the arms of the Mekong, is a hub for many steamship services which go to Cambodia, roam the arroyos of Cochinchina or travel along the coast.

Saigon has a practical school for Asian mechanics, a vocational school where students learn how to manufacture machinery and furniture, a Directorate of Land Mapping and Topography, a Directorate of Agriculture, a Botanical and Zoological Garden, an Institute of Scientific Research, a Pasteur Institute, an Indochinese Studies Society which publishes studies on agricultural trials and has its own museum, a Forestry Service, a Syndicate of Planters, a Chamber of Commerce and a Chamber of Agriculture.

Domestic products


Rice paddies in Cochinchina

Rice is the main product of Cochinchina, which gives rise to two crops each year. One should cite in particular the rice of Vinh-Long province, greatly sought after in Europe for distillation. The other main domestic products are pepper, cotton, ramie (Boehmeria nivea), corn, indigo, sugar cane, mulberry, silk, coffee, areca nut, betel, tobacco, coconut, copra, peanuts, jute, wood of all species, cardamom, wax, honey, joss sticks, fish and salt.

As we said at the beginning, Cochinchina includes high lands on the borders of Annam and Cambodia, which explains the diversity of production in this country, although other sectors are currently paid less attention than rice and pepper production.

Pepper is grown especially in the province of Ha-Tien, on the island of Phu-Quoc (which also contains the most valuable timber) and to a lesse extent in the provinces of Ba-Ria. Bien-Hoa and Chau-Doc. The Chinese devote themselves with ardour to the cultivation of this commodity and Indo-China is now its fourth largest exporter.

Tobacco is a major crop in some areas, including Hoc-Mon, where day by day the indigenous people open up more land to cultivation.

Our tax on tobacco came as a surprise to the Annamites, who were suddenly required to obtain a permit for carrying any more than 20 kilos of tobacco. The limit has since been reduced further, first to 10 kilos and then to just 1 kilo. In order to obtain a permit, they are forced to travel 17km to the Customs and Excise office in Cholon, and only after this can they return home to pick up their small loads. In some areas, these vexations have resulted in the complete abandonment of tobacco production and an exodus of residents. It would perhaps have been preferable to develop the lands that produced the tobacco first.

Poivrier Phu quoc

A pepper plantation in Phú Quốc

Some Annamite and Chinese industries are quite sizeable. Largest of all are the seven major Chinese rice de-husking and blanching factories in Cholon. These are expensive facilities, built with the latest steam-powered machinery, and they operate with perfect efficiency.

In Cholon one may still find the famous Cai-Mai pottery. This is now produced by the Société Tung-Hoa et Cie, which manufactures glazed terracotta vases, garden ornaments and ceramic building materials.

Manufacturers of glass and leather, dyeing works, sculpture workshops, silk and cotton weavers, pewter manufacturers, timber mills, brick kilns and junk construction and repair yards may also be found here.

Outside Cholon, one must mention the tortoiseshell crafts of Ha-Tien; the granite of Gia-Dinh and Bien-Hoa; the silks of Chau-Doc; the woven cottons and silks of Long-Xuyen; the sampots of Chau-Doc; the metalwork of Bien-Hoa; and the pottery and kaolin deposits of Thu-Dau-Mot.

European companies

European agricultural concessions are quite numerous in Cochinchina. In total there are about a hundred; but on average they are quite small.

While the larger and more important ones amongst them are thriving, others await the contribution of outside capital, because the work they do in developing new rice fields can be particularly costly, for example in the famous Plain of Reeds.

Among the most prosperous ones, we must mention the rice paddies of Monsieur Paris, lawyer, member of the Colonial Council and President of the Chamber of Agriculture. After many years of toil and expense, his company arrived at a happy outcome.


A rubber plantation northeast of Saigon

Of particular note is the Plantation Suzannah, located at km 67 on the Saigon to Khanh-Hoa railway line. It is situated 175km above sea level and includes 2,600 acres of exceptionally rich volcanic soil which ranges from 25m to 40m deep. A joint stock company with a capital of 150,000 piastres, it was established in 1907 by the founders of a research company sponsored by Monsieur Louis Caseau. It took the company two years of testing before they could begin to cultivate rubber. Today, this is its main crop, with 30,000 plants grown in 1907 and 100,000 in 1908. To cover its expenses, the Plantation Suzannah also grows mulberry trees, cassava, castor, tobacco and peanuts. All of its agricultural tools are mechanical.

In the province of Ba-Ria, Messrs Arcillon and Bertrand grow coffee and pepper. In the province of Gia-Dinh, several European companies grow rice, fruit trees, coffee and rubber and breed livestock. In Hong-Chong, the successors of the late Monsieur Paul Blanchy, former president of the Colonial Council, are known for their excellent pepper plants. And in Than-Hoa, next to the Mekong, the Société Michel Vilaz et Cie owns a large number of rice fields.

Merchant houses may be found in large numbers in Saigon, engaged in both import and export activity.

The proximity of Cambodia and Laos permits the import of products of all kinds, including fabrics, trinkets, hardware and a range of local specialities, which are brought for storage in Saigon and, along with rice and pepper, become the focus of much commercial activity.

We must not forget that many transactions are in the hands of the Chinese, whose merchant houses have considerable capital and largely monopolise the trade with neighbouring countries.


Chợ Lớn – the departure of a junk

Saigon imports goods from Hong-Kong (8,920,739 francs), Singapore (10,463,076 francs), Japan, Siam and China (23,671,410 francs), the Philippines, Java, the British East Indies, Borneo, the Dutch East Indies.

It also exports goods to the same localities: Hong-Kong (21,256,898 francs), Japan (7,492,878), Singapore (6,087,206 francs), the Philippines (19,757,394 francs), Siam and Java (3,941,776 francs), China (13,186,000 francs), etc, etc.

International trade in the other ports of Rach-Gia (imports of 409,771 francs, exports of 319.387, mainly with Singapore, Bangkok and China), Ha-Tien, Ca-Mau and Hong-Chong is under the control of Chinese merchants.

Overall, however, Europeans play a fairly important part, controlling imports from France and other French colonies (59,545,074 francs), England (709,500 francs) and America (1,464,205 francs); and exports to France and other French colonies (28,710,614 francs), England (400,000 francs), Germany (180,000 francs) and the Netherlands (350,000 francs).

European merchant houses in Saigon include the Maison Denis-Frères of Bordeaux; Dumarest et fils of Marseille; Paris, Mangon et Denandre of Paris; the Société Française d’Exportation of Paris; the Maison Speidel et Cie of Paris; and Weil Wormser et successeurs, representing the mill owners of Rouen. In general, these houses are involved in the import and export of all major products, as well as consignment and chartering.


The Messageries maritimes headquarters

Apart from these companies, we may also find all kinds of interesting European enterprises: innkeepers, gunsmiths, insurance companies, automobile dealers and jewelers, as well as shipowners like the Maison Allatini et Cie.

Among the best-known houses are Omnium Français (head office in Dijon), the Société Bordelaise Indo-Chinoise (head office in Bordeaux) and the Compagnie Coloniale d’Exportation.

The banks of Cochinchina include the Banque de l’Indo-Chine, the Chartered Bank of India, Australia and China (of which Messrs Speidel et Cie are the agents), the Hong-Kong and Shanghaï Bank, and the new Banque de la Cochinchine.

Industry is brilliantly represented in Cochinchina.

Firstly, the workshops of the Compagnie des Messageries Fluviales employ more than 300 artisans who build ships both for the company and for the local administration. These workshops are equipped to carry out larger repairs and also to assist the Naval Arsenal as required.

A large number of entrepreneurs is involved in major works projects. The Société de construction de Levallois-Perret (headquartered in Paris) builds bridges, port facilities and reservoirs; the Maison Graf, Jacque et Cie (rue Martel, Paris) has construction workshops in Khanh-Hoï, near Saïgon; and the Société française Industrielle d’Extrême-Orient (headquartered at 11 avenue de l’Opéra, Paris) builds railway equipment and major works in iron. Not to mention MM. Hermenier, entrepreneurs, Braisot Ducellier, etc.

Pont de Binh-Loi pres de Saigon

The Bình Lợi bridge, built in 1902 by the Société de construction de Levallois-Perret

Amongst the other important French industries are the ice factory of Monsieur Larue, whose plant includes two machines with respective capacity of 1,000 and 500 kilos; the distillery of the Société française des Distilleries de l’Indo-Chine, based in Cholon; the distillery of Messrs Mazet, also in Cholon; the Société pour l’exploitation des Alcools indigènes en Cochinchine et au Cambodge, with capital of 100,000 piastres, headquartered in Saigon; the Rizeries de l’Union, in Cholon; and the Rizeries de l’Orient, also in Cholon, with French, German and Chinese shareholders.

We must not forget the printing and lithographic works of Monsieur Claude, whose skilled workers publish books in French and in Chinese characters; and the coachbuilders of Monsieur J. Trigant.

The Société d’Electricité de Saïgon is a limited company with capital of 700,000 francs, with shares of 500 francs, distributing an interest of 5%. The company, whose registered office is at 20 rue Mogador in Paris, operates an electric power station in Saigon and supplies and distributes electricity throughout the city.

The Société anonyme des Eaux et Electricité de l’Indo-Chine, with its registered office at 58 rue de Londres in Paris, was founded on 2 April 1900 with the aim of purchasing and exploiting all factories, concessions and contracts for water and electricity services already installed or to be installed in Saigon, Cholon and Phnom Penh. Under its concession agreement, the company secured guaranteed receipts of 162,000 francs for Saigon, 280,000 francs for Cholon and 363,000 francs for Phnom Penh. The Company’s capital is 2,500,000 francs, in fully paid shares of 500 francs and 6,000 bonds of 500 francs at 4½% paid, issued at 467.50 francs by the Banque Industrielle et Coloniale.


Saigon’s first electric power station, opened in 1896

Finally, we should mention the canning of pineapple, mangosteen and other fruits of the country by Monsieur J Abos in Saigon; the wooden furniture and sculpture workshops of Monsieur Bonnet in Saigon; the soap company of Monsieur Hugand in Saigon; the brick factory of Monsieur Mulot in Vinh-Long; the cotton factory of Messrs Émile Nam Hee and Ly Dang in Cholon; and the quarries of Messrs Loesch-Frères in the province of Bien-Hoa, which are equipped with every modern facility.

The economic future

The potential future of agriculture in Cochinchina is bright. In the famous Plain of Reeds, for example, huge tracts of land are now barren and waiting for development capital. With constant irrigation, we can guarantee two superb crops each year, bringing significant returns. Do not forget, however, that these results are not immediate: for the first two years, we must prepare by removing the salt deposited on land, building dykes, digging irrigation canals, all considerable work in a country with a depressing climate. It is therefore necessary to have access to large amounts of capital.

In the province of Ha-Tien and on the island of Phu-Quoc, pepper can be planted over large areas; but we must remember that duty exemption or reduced duty in France is limited to a certain quantity, and that the remainder is subject to heavy taxation in line with world market prices.

1930 - INDOCHINE. AN LOC - Plantation d'hévéas

The An Lộc Plantation

On higher ground there is potential to create rich plantations, like that of Suzannah. However, success is contingent on several years of research and hard work and many would-be planters have failed.

The exploitation of forests and their products will also be increasingly possible with the opening of the new railway lines.

Several years ago, the Director of Agriculture of Cochinchina told us: “In our colony, according to the regions, one can grow grain products, Java peanuts (from which combustible oil can be manufactured), cotton, sugar cane, jute, indigo, cocoa, mulberry, coconut, copra, Liberian coffee and pepper. However, in order to succeed here, you must set up a limited or other company, so that a director returning on leave to France does not leave the future of the enterprise in the hands of a single employee. And of course, a company is always more influential in its dealings with the government.”

The observation of the Director of Department of Agriculture was and is still accurate; but what that officer could not say is that it is essential to rethink the working conditions demanded by the growers’ unions and to tackle the issues of working conditions and the competence of the courts in matters of labour.

A move in this direction was made in 1906 by a group of the settlers who had suffered as a result of the strongly incompetent laws, decrees, circulars on the matter issued by the Ministry of Colonies, all of which were influenced by the lobbying of organisations such as Défense des Indigènes (Defence of Local People) who are made up largely of those who have never set foot in a colony and have no interest in doing so.

1 CFTI Thu Dau Mot line

Sugar canes next to the tramway line in Thủ Dầu Một

What we say is all the more true since Monsieur Outrey, Inspector of Civil Service of Western Cochinchina, sent a letter to the Lieutenant Governor on the establishment of a Colonisation Office to safeguard the interests of European settlers in relation to those of the natives.

It requests that the administration supports the Europeans in their disputes with indigenous employees who attempt to evade their obligations. It also recommends, in addition, the gradual substitution of the indigenous workforce with new agricultural machinery.

Among the industries which we still have to create in Cochinchina, one must cite a distillery for perfumed essences from either cultivated or natural plants; a factory for producing rush mats; a factory for producing sacks in which to ship seeds and grain; and a cotton manufacturing plant (although since it is essential to ensure a good supply of the raw material, it is best for such a plant to be set up on plantations owned by the company that wants to start the factory).

On the subject of trade, let us finish with some comments by Monsieur Schneegans, President of the Chamber of Commerce of Saigon, addressed to Dupleix Committee:

“Cochinchina has many French and foreign import-export houses. He who would like to set up a new company must have significant capital to compete with the old established merchant houses, and even then, he is likely to encounter at the beginning almost insurmountable difficulties.”

“The retail trade is almost entirely in the hands of a few Chinese and French traders who cater more than sufficiently for the needs of the current European population.”


A Saigon dockland scene

To this we must add that the foreign merchant houses of Saigon are generally large commissionnaires which buy from and sell to wealthy Chinese merchants. Their business is thriving – more than one of them exports between 200,000 and 300,000 tons of rice annually.

Finally, in Saigon, the foreign merchant houses have no need of the administration; they act outside of it, which is not the case in other parts of Indo-China. They also work with Annamite auxiliaries who have direct interests in the business, while elsewhere in Indo-China the local people seek only administrative posts.

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 Grand Hotel, 1930


The Grand Hotel today

This article was published previously in Saigoneer

One of the city’s most historic buildings, the Grand is better known as the former Saigon-Palace, one of the leading hotels of the 1930s.

Henry Chavigny de Lachevrotière (1883-1951)

Henri Chavigny de Lachevrotière (1883-1951)

The Grand-Hôtel de Saigon was founded by Henri Chavigny de Lachevrotière (1883-1951), a Eurasian journalist, plantation owner and businessman who is perhaps best known as the editor of the leading colonial-era newspapers L’Impartial (1917-1926) and La Dépêche (1928-1940).

In 1924, Chavigny de Lachevrotière set up the Société du Grand-Hôtel de Saigon and opened a café at the junction of rues Catinat [Đồng Khởi] and Vannier [Ngô Đức Kế]. In 1925 he acquired the franchise to run the new Majestic Hotel, and then in 1929 his company embarked on the construction of the 68-room Grand-Hôtel de Saigon at 8 rue Catinat. It was inaugurated in 1930, with Chavigny de Lachevrotière as its first director.

Grand Hotel

The  original Grand-Hôtel de Saigon, pictured in the period 1930-1932

In fact, the Grand-Hôtel de Saigon survived for just two years; in 1932, Chavigny de Lachevrotière sold it to a French Corsican businessman named Patrice Luciani.

A former deputy prison governor who had worked both at the Maison Centrale in Saigon and on the prison island of Poulo-Condor in the Côn Đảo archipelago, Luciani amassed a small fortune in the 1920s from his rubber plantation at Lai Khê, Thủ Dầu Một. In 1928, this enabled him to purchase from the Hérald family the first Saigon-Palace Hôtel, located at 82-98 boulevard Charner [Nguyễn Huệ].

SAIGON - Saigon-Palace - entrée rue Catinat

The Saigon-Palace Hôtel pictured in the mid 1930s

Although no images of the first Saigon-Palace Hôtel have survived, a newspaper advertisement of 1929 boasts of “all modern comforts,” including “comfortable rooms and lounges at guests’ disposal” and a restaurant known for the quality of its Corsican soup, Aïoli (Provençal sauce) and French wines.

Immediately after acquiring the Grand-Hôtel de Saigon from Chavigny de Lachevrotière in 1932, Luciani closed his old hotel and changed the name of the Grand-Hôtel to “Saigon-Palace Hôtel.”

Under Luciani’s management, the new Saigon-Palace Hôtel was promoted as a “Hotel of the First Order,” and during the 1930s it became one of the most successful in the city. Its terrace cafe-restaurant became famous for its nightly concerts and its spacious “salle de réunion” was always in demand for meetings by local organisations.

SAIGON - Saïgon Palace

The Saigon-Palace Hôtel in the 1950s

When Luciani retired in 1939, the Saigon-Palace Hôtel was purchased by another French Corsican businessman named Antoine Giorgetti, and it was under his management in the 1940s that it was converted into rented apartments. It is said that in the early 1950s, Graham Greene used these rented apartments as the model for Thomas Fowler’s “room over the rue Catinat,” where much of the action in his novel The Quiet American takes place.

After 1955, the Saigon Palace was reinstated as a hotel under the Vietnamese name Sài Gòn Đại Lữ Quán, but in subsequent years it became increasingly shabby and down-market. It continued to function as a hotel after Reunification, although in 1989 it was renamed the Đồng Khởi Hotel, a name which is still posted today on one side of the building.

Following a major renovation in 1995-1998, the hotel reopened as the Grand Hotel. It was awarded four stars in 2004.

saïgon - grand hotel palace, rue catinat

The Saigon-Palace Hôtel in the 1940s

Saïgon 1950s - Hôtel SAIGON PALACE, góc Tự Do-Ngô Đức Kế

Another 1950s shot of the Saigon-Palace Hôtel

1960 SAIGON PALACE HOTEL - số 8 đường Tự Do (Catinat)

The entrance to the Sài Gòn Đại Lữ Quán (Saigon-Palace Hôtel) in 1960

SAIGON 1968 - Coya Tailor - KS Saigon Palace, góc Tự Do-Ngô Đức Kế

The Saigon-Palace Hôtel in 1968

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-Cho Lon in Madrolle’s Tourist Guidebook of 1913

59A Signal Mast

French travel writer Claudius Madrolle (b 1870) was a Far East specialist and his guidebook Vers Angkor. Saïgon. Phnom-penh (Towards Angkor. Saigon. Phnom Penh (Hachette, 1913) became a best-seller. Here is his chapter on Saigon and Cholon.

Travelling to Saigon

All steamships travelling to Saigon stop at Cap Saint-Jacques. From here you can telegraph to reserve a hotel room in Saigon.


Cap Saint-Jacques

If you are coming from the south, you will pass the Poulo Condore Islands (penitentiary, lighthouse at an elevation of 212m), which also have a telegraph service connecting with the neighbouring stations of the Bassac and the Cap.

Steamships arriving from the north will be in contact with the coast of Annam as soon as they reach Port Dayot [near Nha Trang] and may telegraph via the post of Padaran [Mũi Dinh].

Cap Saint-Jacques is a seaside resort and an important military centre surrounded by fortifications which overlook the harbour. Here, steamships stop in the shelter of a promontory (Ganh-rai or “Cap des Loutres,” meaning “Otter Cape”), on which there is nothing but a lighthouse.

After a local pilot has boarded, the vessel enters the Dong-Nai River via its mouth, the Loi-Rap, passing on its right the sheltered bays of Can-Gio and Dong-Tranh.

On the left is the entrance from the sea to the Cua Tieu, the easternmost mouth of the Mekong River. Foreign steamships entering this waterway en route for Phnom Penh must stop here and report to the Ben-Chua customs post.

Phare de Cap Saint Jacques

The lighthouse at Cap Saint-Jacques

The lower section of the Dong Nai River seems completely deserted, and its banks, lined with mangrove trees, show few signs of habitation. But many large rivers criss-cross the vast deltaic plain which the Annamites have been colonising for 300 years, repressing or driving out the Malays on one hand and the Khmers on the other.

On the right bank, one sees the district of Go-Cong and the wide mouth of the Grand Vaico, the two upper arms of which, emanating from Cambodia, pass through the districts of Tay-Ninh and Tan-An. And on the left bank, the lowlands of the Dong-Nai delta, intersected by a large number of the river’s tributaries, several of which are very deep. Further up the river, the ship passes the heights of the Tan-Luong plateau.

Suddenly, at a bend in the river, the slender towers of the Saigon Cathedral come into view. However, since at this point the river takes a number of capricious turns, it is sometimes on the left and sometimes on the right that we see this landmark from the upper deck of our ship.

After passing the Petrol Depot at Nha-Be, we leave the Dong-Nai River (which continues northward to Bien-Hoa) and enter the Saigon River.

The fleet of the Customs Directorate is moored at the Fort du Sud, an ancient Annamite fortress. On its exterior sloping walls are located the gun battery which is used to salute the fleet.


Saigon port in the early 20th century

Next, we pass the small parish church of Xom-Chieu, the entrance to the Canal de Dérivation (By-pass canal) which connects with the arroyo-Chinois [Bến Nghé creek], and the Tam-Hai wharf where most of the steamships are at anchor.

We arrive at the headquarters of the Compagnie Messageries maritimes, built in 1862, and further upstream we see a few warships anchored in front of the Naval Arsenal.

Encountering the Annamite people for the first time, the visitor is very surprised at first not to find a marked difference between the silhouettes of Annamite men and Annamite women, because both sexes wear almost exactly the same clothing (a long tunic covering the pants) and hair wound in a kind of bun. However, this astonishment is of short duration, for it is easy to recognise from the gait and face whether you are looking at a man or a woman.

Visit customs. Take a carriage or pousse-pousse to your hotel.


21 Hotel ContinentalCP

The Grand Hotel Continental

Continental Palace Hôtel, rue Catinat, near the Theatre (90 beds). Languages spoken: French, English, German, etc. Each room has a shower. Single room and board from 7 to 11 piastres, twin room and board from 12 to 20 piastres, apartment 20 piastres, service and lighting included; fan 1 piastre; breakfast 75 cents; lunch 11am-1pm including wine 2 piastres; dinner 7pm-8.30pm 2.50 piastres, and on the terrace 3 piastres. Arrangements for extended stays and families: full board, garden room from 5 piastres; 3rd floor room overlooking street from 6 piastres.; 2nd floor room overlooking street from 7.50 piastres (12 piastres for two persons).
Hôtel des Nations (Pancrazi), boulevard Bonard, single room and meals from 5 piastres; twin room and meals 8 piastres
Hôtel de l’Univers (Mottet), rue Turc, room and meals from 5 to 9 piastres per day; from 80 to 200 piastres per month long stay.


In addition to those of the above hotels, the Café de la Musique and the Café de la Terrasse, both located near the Theatre.



A “Malabar”

Horse-drawn carriages: There are two types of horse-drawn carriage. The first has two horses and costs 25 cents per single journey, 50 cents per hour and 40 cents for subsequent hours. From Saigon to Cholon, this type of carriage costs 70 cents per single journey and 1.30 piastres for a return journey with a one hour stopover. And for the “Tour de l’Inspection,” it costs 90 cents for a simple round trip and 1.20 piastres with an additional half-hour stop. The second type, a one-horse carriage known as the “Malabar,” costs 15 cents per single journey, 30 cents per hour and 25 cents for subsequent hours. From Saigon to Cholon, this type of carriage costs 50 cents per single journey and 90 cents for a return journey with a one hour stopover. And for the “Tour de l’Inspection,” it costs 60 cents for a simple round trip and 70 cents with an additional half-hour stop.
Chauffeur-driven carriages: 1.50 piastres per hour.
Automobiles: For small runs, we take “auto-taxis” with meters. For day trips, depending on distance, they cost from 25 to 50 piastres – contact Ippolito, boulevard Charner, or Mignot, 19 rue d’Espagne.
Pousse-pousse: With rubber tyres: 10 cents per single journey, 25 cents per hour and 20 cents for subsequent hours. From Saigon to Cholon, 40 cents per single journey, 80 cents for a return journey with a one hour stopover. And for the “Tour de l’Inspection,” 45 cents for a simple round trip and 55 cents with an additional half-hour stop.

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Sampans for hire in the harbour

Voitures ordinaires: 8 cents per single journey, 20 cents per hour.
Sampans: Available in the harbour, from 8 to 10 cents per single journey, from 10 to 15 piastres per hour, 1.50 piastres per day and 1 piastre for subsequent days.

Post Office

Near the Cathedral; long-range wireless telegraphy connecting with the stations at Cap Saint-Jacques, Hanoi and Kouang-Tcheouwan [Guǎngzhōuwān or Guǎngzhōu Bay].


Banque de l’Indo-Chine, 22 quai de l’arroyo-Chinois; Hongkong & Shanghai Bank, 9 quai de l’arroyo-Chinois, Chartered Bank of India Australia and China, 1 rue d’Adran.


Cercle de l’Union, place du Théâtre; Cercle Colonial, rue Catinat; Cercle Sportif, rue de Lagrandière – lawn tennis, shooting, cycling and motorcycling, fencing tournaments.

Tourism information

SAIGON Le marché No 185

A market scene

The Syndicat d’Initiative du Sud Indochinois (Southern Indochina Tourism Information Office) contributes to the development of tourism in southern Annam, Cochinchina and in Cambodia.

Concerts, theatre

Military band music: Monday at the Cercle militaire; Wednesday on boulevard Charner [Lê Lợi]; Friday at the Military Hospital; Sunday at the Botanical and Zoological Gardens.
Theatre: Performances of comic opera, operetta, comedy-vaudeville, from October through to April, Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Prices: Upper Boxes, Lower Boxes and Front Stalls 5 Francs, Middle Stalls 4 Francs, Rear Stalls 3 Francs, Gallery 2 Francs.


Great Britain, Germany.


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A corner of rue Catinat in the early 20th century

Rousseau (L Royer), 39 rue Catinat; C Ardin, 74 rue Catinat; Portal, 125 rue Catinat; F H Schneider, 2 rue Kerlan.
Tourists may purchase a 1:200.000 road map of Cochinchina, prepared in 1912 by M. Lebret on the orders of Governor Destenay, or 1:100.000 maps (price 1.33 piastres) issued by the Indochina Geographic Service.

Scientific and educational institutions

The Société des Études Indochinoises (Indochina Studies Society): 16 rue de Lagrandière; museum open daily except Monday, 8am-11am and 3pm-6pm; samples and casts of Khmer and Cham art; coin collections from the Far East; library open to visitors.
Government Library: 27 rue de Lagrandière; 8am-11am and 2.30pm-5pm, 12,000 volumes.
Institut Pasteur: rue Pellerin, an annex to that of Nha Trang.
Colleges for the study of French language; Franco-Annamite schools where native pupils are taught transcription of their own language in the Latin alphabet, which, in this form, is improperly called quoc-ngu, meaning “national language;” and private schools which sometimes teach Chinese ideographic characters for future members of the literati.



The Saigon-Cholon “High Road” steam tramway

Saigon-Cholon “High Road” steam tramway: 5.1km, stops at rue Mac-Mahon in Saigon, Cho-Dùi (church built in 1902), Cholon.
Saigon-Cholon “Low Road” electric tramway: 6.3km, stops at Cau-Ong-Lanh, Cau-Kho, Cho-Quan (4km), Rizerie, Cholon (Binh-Tay).
Saigon-Hoc Mon steam tramway: 20.2km, price 20 cents, departures every hour, stops at Arsenal, Citadelle (3.2km), Dakao (4.5km, with 1km branch line to Tan-Dinh), Gia-Dinh, Pagode de Xom-Ga (7.2km), Go-Vap (with additional 10km branch line to Lai-Thieu on the Saigon River, 1 hour journey, price 30 cents), Xom-Thuoc, Hanh-Thong-Tay, An-Hôi, Cho-Moi, Quan-Tre, Trung-Chanh, Hoc-Mon.


Saigon-My Tho railway: 70.8km, via Cholon and Tan-An.
Saigon-Nha-Trang railway: 408km, via Bien-Hoa (33km), Phan-Thiet (190km), Phan-Rang (320km, with 37km branch line to Xom-Gon, and projected 60km branch line to Da-Lat on the Langbian Plateau) and Bang-Hoi (Cam-Ranh, 370km).

Places of interest


The old Saigon Market on boulevard Charner

The rue Catinat; Museum of the Société des Études indochinoises, Notre Dame Cathedral, the Palace of the Governor General, the Jardin de Ville (City Park), the Botanical and Zoological Gardens, the Naval Arsenal, the Chinese Quarter.
Visit the market in the early morning; take the late afternoon “Tour de l’Inspection” from 4pm to 7pm; and (in wintertime) spend an evening at the Theatre.


For those with only a few hours: visit either the Botanical and Zoological Gardens or the Chinese city of Cholon.
For those with a full day: The beautiful roads of eastern Cochinchina are ideal for those wishing to take interesting excursions by automobile. Destinations include: Cap Saint-Jacques (129km, hotel) via Bien-Hoa and Ba-Ria; Tay-Ninh (101km, guest house) (for these two destinations one can also use the postal service automobile); Thu-Dau-Mot (29km); Chon-Thanh and its forests (74km); Hon-Quan and its forests, hunting, plantations and ethnic minorities (99km, villa for rent, take food); the superb Tri-An Waterfall (55km, villa for rent, take food) via Bien-Hoa; and the Tombs of the Royal Family near Go-Cong (56km) via Cholon and Can-Giuoc (22km).


An apertif in the bush before a hunt resumes

The hunting areas of La-Nga and Dji-Rinh are ranked among the most remarkable in the world. However, if the tourist goes into the forest, he must be very careful, be armed and have a good guide. The Malay aboriginal is very sweet natured, but one must always be on guard against the attacks of wild beasts, such as tigers, panthers, rhinoceroses, elephants, bears, wild buffalo and wild boar. It is easier to hunt wild hens, pheasants, partridges, quails, peacocks, hares, deer. There are also monkeys and pangolins. Beware of reptiles such as cobra, python, green pit vipers, coral snakes and boa constrictors.
Rubber plantations growing Hevea brasiliensis, Ficus elastica and Gutta-percha are easy to visit – contact the companies directly. Some, like Xa-Trach and Loc-Ninh, are located on terre grise (grey earth) territory in the province of Gia Dinh, while others, like Suzannah and An-Loc, are situated on terre rouge (red earth) territory in the north and east of Cochinchina. One reaches the latter by train.


Saigon is located at latitude 10°47’24” N and 104°18’26” E on the Ben-Nghe or Saigon river, 75km from Cap Saint-Jacques. The population of Saigon at the end of 1883 was 13,348 souls, including 913 French, 53 other Europeans, 5,595 Chinese and 6,246 Annamites. By 1911 it was 58,998 inhabitants, including 8,364. French, 157 other Europeans, 16,500 Chinese and 32,500 Annamites.

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The pont des Messageries-maritimes

To local people, Saigon is in fact the official name of the neighbouring “Big Market,” commonly called Cholon. The area occupied by the government, meanwhile, was originally known by the administrative name Phan-Yen or Gia-Dinh, while the commercial area adjacent to the river retained its old popular names Ben-Nghe or Ben-Thanh (the latter meaning “Citadel of the firewood”), names which are still in use today. The error committed by foreigners in naming their capital as Saigon has begun to be accepted by the Annamites. Meanwhile, the Chinese, who once employed the characters Tch’ai-Koun – meaning “firewood” – now write Si-Kong, meaning “Tribute of the west.”

The upper part of the city was inhabited in prehistoric times, as evidenced by weapons and polished stone tools found during excavations carried out during construction of the Cathedral. At the time of the Angkorian empire, this sparsely-inhabited land was Khmer territory. In the 17th century, the Annamites came to trade on the shores of Dong-Nai river and on “the plain of the Deer,” setting up a Customs House in Ben-Nghe (Saigon) which was conferred on them in 1623 by the Cambodian king. In 1672, the Nguyen princes of Upper Cochinchina (Hue), intruding bit by bit in the affairs of lower Cambodia, installed a Cambodian Vice King at Ben-Nghe, but replaced him in 1699 with a high Annamite official with the title Kinh-Luoc.


Lord Nguyễn Phúc Ánh, later King Gia Long

At this time, Ben-Nghe was the capital of the General Government of Gia-Dinh (Lower Cochinchina), the seat of the tinh (province) of Phan-Tran and that of the huyen (district) of Tan-Binh. In 1773, the extent of the walled city was doubled in distance following the construction of an earthen wall measuring 15 li in length. However, this did not prevent the city from being occupied four times by the troops of the Tay-Son.

In 1789, the Nguyen army definitively recaptured the walled city, then called Binh-Duong-Huyen. After peace was restored, a new administrative organisation was created.

In 1808 Ben-Nghe (Saigon), capital of Gia-Dinh, became the seat of the tinh of Phan-Tran, of the phu (prefecture) of Binh Duong and of the huyen of Binh-Tri; this organisation was maintained until the arrival of the French (1859).

The first Citadel was built in 1790 in the Vauban style and the city walls were reinforced in 1808. However, in 1835 these structures were considered too extensive and were demolished. A smaller citadel was built in 1837, and it was this entrenchment which was captured on 17 February 1859 by the French, assisted by a Spanish detachment.


French troops storm the Gia Định Citadel in 1859

Saigon today is one of the residences of the Governor General of Indochina, and the seat of the Lieutenant Governor of Cochinchina, assisted by directors of various administrative services, the Apostolic Vicar of Western Cochinchina, the Commanding General of Troops in Southern Indochina, and a Rear Admiral commanding the Naval Arsenal and the fleet of the colony. It is also the seat of the Court of Appeal, the Court of First Instance, the Commercial Court and the Colonial Council. It has a Chamber of Commerce and a Chamber of Agriculture.

Saigon, together with its suburb of Cholon, forms a conurbation of 240,000 souls; its commercial traffic is worth 350 million francs. This is one of the largest Far Eastern rice markets; it exported 1.1 million tonnes of rice in 1910, 652,000 tonnes in 1911, and 600,000 tons in 1912.

The city extends from the left bank of the arroyo-Chinois [Bến Nghé creek] to the Citadel. Along the Saigon River, docks and European homes have replaced the ancient landings and shops of the former Annamite town of Ben-Nghe, which was connected with the official ville haute (“upper town”) by the street which became rue Catinat.

The western part of the city

67 Customs House 1

The Customs Directorate

After leaving the Messageries maritimes, one arrives at two bridges over the arroyo-Chinois, which lead from the maritime city to the commercial city.

We see the 30m high Semaphore, and then, on the quay Francis-Garnier [Tôn Đức Thắng], a series of jetties. And at the corner of the rue Krantz [Hàm Nghi], the Customs Directorate.

Behind the Customs Directorate, in the rue des Fleurs, is a Khmer Shivaite temple known as the “Temple of the Phallus” which is revered by a great number of women.

Boulevard Charner measures 40m wide and 1km long and was built over the former Grand Canal, which once permitted junks to bring their goods to the main City Market. That Market is currently situated a short distance along this road, but it will soon be relocated. Beyond it is the Justice of the Peace, built on the site formerly occupied by the Église Sainte-Marie-Immaculée. Here, leading off to the left, is the rue Ohier, an area inhabited by natives of India, with a Brahmanic temple and three Hindu houses belonging to wealthy Chettyars. At the far end of boulevard Charner is the Hôtel de ville (City Hall), built in 1901-1908 and decorated with a belfry.


Boulevard Charner, Saigon

The rue Catinat, 20m wide and the oldest street in the city, leads 1,500m from the quayside up to the Cathedral. Situated at the point where it crosses the boulevard Bonard, near the statue of Francis Garnier (1839-1873), is the Municipal Theatre. Built in 1899 to the plans of Ferré, it can hold up to 800 spectators. Around it, on the square, are the Continental Hôtel and several large cafes. Nearby are the offices of the main administrative services.

Up on the “plateau” is the Cathedral square, decorated with a statue of Monsignor Pigneau de Béhaine, Bishop of Adrán, which was inaugurated in 1902. The bishop is depicted presenting to the court of Versailles the Prince Canh, son of the future King Gia-Long, to whom he was the ambassador. He holds in his hand the treaty he had just signed with the Count de Montmorin, Minister of Louis XVI.

The Notre-Dame Cathedral was built in Romanesque style between 1877 and 1883 to plans by Bourard. Constructed in red brick on a granite plinth, its two 40m high square towers are topped by iron spires. Close by is the Post Office, its main hall decorated with frescoes.

Gambetta 1

The statue of Gambetta (1838-1882)

Further north, the boulevard Norodom runs from Palace of the Governor General to the Botanical and Zoological Gardens. On this street is the statue of Gambetta (1838-1882) and nearby, on the rue de l’Evêché [Alexandre de Rhodes], the Bishop’s Palace.

The Palace of the Governor General was built in the middle of a beautiful park during the “time of the admirals.” The façade, pierced by large arched windows, measures 80m. It is flanked by two small wings. Access to the ground floor is via a large porch with two gentle ramps. Just inside the main entrance is a vast hall containing a marble stairway. On the right is the office of the Governor, and on the left, the main dining room. Beyond the stairway is the salle des fêtes (events hall), where 600 guests may be accommodated. The upper floor contains civil and military offices and private apartments.

The Jardin de la Ville (City Park) is adjacent to the Palace compound. It contains a bandstand for musical events and a sports fields which hosts football matches every Sunday.

Nearby are the Collège Chasseloup-Laubat; the Service de l’identification judiciaire (Service of Legal Identification), near the Prison; the Palais de Justice [Law Courts]; and the Palace of the Lieutenant Governor of Cochinchina (a former Museum).


The Palace of the Governor General

The Museum of the Société des Études Indochinoises at 16 rue de La Grandière [Lý Tự Trọng] is dedicated to the arts and ethnography of the peoples of southern Indochina. In the museum garden, one may find carved stones taken from various Cham ruins in southern Annam, and under the veranda, several Cham and Khmer statues.

The museum has a library and two exhibition rooms. The “salle de Beylié” on the ground floor contains casts of bas-reliefs from Angkor and My Son. On the first floor is the largest room. On the right, a showcase of Indochinese currencies, Japanese weapons and collections of shells and Buddhist books; at the back, a collection of traditional Malay, Annamite and Khmer musical instruments; on the left, samples of wood from the forests of Cochinchina and various types of Cochinchina rice; and near the entrance, exhibitions of Annamite fishing gear and Malay ethnic minority weaponry. Next to the walls of this room on both sides are various collections of artefacts, including: prehistoric tools, bracelets and pottery from Cu-Lao-Rua (Bien-Hoa) and Samrong-Son (Kompong-Chnang); Chinese, Korean and Japanese currencies; Annamite, Khmer and Siamese bronzes and porcelain; Lao woven fabrics; model carts and canoes; ceramics from Cay-Mai near Cholon; and blue Chinese porcelain. In the centre of the room are exhibitions of Chinese currency and more Buddhist books. In one of the nearby small meeting rooms, there is a collection of pottery; and in the other, a series of stuffed reptiles from the Lower Mekong.

The eastern part of the city


The infantry barracks built on the site of the old Citadel

The Citadel, the southern walls of which were razed, contains the “Martin Pallières” Barracks. This fortification, of the Vauban system, occupies the northeast corner of the earlier [1790] fortress, which was built by the Annamites during the reign of Gia Long to plans by the French military mission. It was demolished in 1835 following the revolt of the previous year, and replaced by the current Citadel.

The Military Hospital is formed of pavilions connected by large porches.

The Botanical and Zoological Gardens, created in 1864, is one of the most interesting parks in the Far East. It contains a bandstand for music. This “pleasure garden” incorporates a large aviary, animal pavilions and several greenhouses. In the latter, we may see beautiful collections of orchids and magnificent ornamental plants. The paths intersecting the green lawns of the park are lined with tropical flowerbeds. The aviary and pavilions are home to an endless variety of Indochinese birds and other fauna, including tigers, panthers, bears, elephants and snakes. The fields on the opposite bank of the arroyo-de-l’Avalanche [Thị Nghè creek] are annexed to the Agronomic Service.

The Naval Arsenal stands at the confluence of the arroyo-de-l’Avalanche and the Saigon river, on the site of the ancient Annamite shipyard. This property is the main base of the French fleet in the Far East and has an area of 22 hectares, including a 168m dry dock.


The dry dock

The workshops, forges and power-hammers here are used to perform major repairs and even to build torpedo boats. Its employees include 1,500 Annamite and Chinese workers under the supervision of specialist foremen. On the river, several warships are anchored.

Located along the quay towards rue Paul Blanchy [Hai Bà Trưng] (which runs parallel to rue Catinat) is the Admiralty, and beyond it the Rond-point [Mê Linh square], with its statue of Admiral Rigault-de-Genouilly (1807-1873) by sculptor Alexandre-Victor Lequien, and mausoleum of sailor and explorer Doudart-de-Lagrée (1823-1868).


Cholon (pronounced Tioeu-leune and not Cho-len) is the “Big Market” (or big city). This is the commercial and industrial suburb of our Cochinchina capital. Its municipality has 181,640 inhabitants (1911), one-third of whom come from southern China. It is located at the confluence of Lo-Gom creek and the arroyo-Chinois and its importance dates from 1778 when Chinese traders settled there.

Three railways and four roads connect Saigon with Cholon.


The Saigon-Mỹ-Tho railway line

The railways are: 1. The Saigon-My-Tho railway, first stop Cholon, journey time 9 minutes, price 40-60 cents; 2. The “High Road” tramway (5.1km), services every 20 minutes from 5.20am to 9.20pm and on Sundays up to 11pm, journey time 14 minutes, price 10 cents; and 3. The “Low Road” electric tramway (6.3km, extension to Binh Tây), services every 30 minutes from 5am to 8pm, journey time 28 minutes, price 8 cents.

The roads (average journey time 35 minutes) are as follows: 1. The “Route du Polygone,” an extension of the rue Legrand de la Liraye [Điện Biên Phủ], which passes the Racecourse and then crosses the huge “Plain of Tombs,” a vast necropolis covered by tumuli of brick or stone. 2. The “Route Stratégique,” an extension of the rue Chasseloup-Laubat [Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai] which cuts across the Saigon-My-Tho railway line. 3. The “Route Haute” (High Road), an extension of shady rue de Lagrandière [Lý Tự Trọng] which passes the pretty Cho Dui church (built in 1902) and the Camp des Mares, now assigned to the Annamite Riflemen but originally the location of Trung Hien-tu or Temple de la Fidélité éclatante (Temple of Bright Loyalty). The latter was built by King Gia Long (1802-1820) in memory of his mandarins and generals who helped to bring down the power of the Tay-Son (1789-1802). The loyal generals it honoured included a Frenchman named Man-oe (Manuel), commander of a royal squadron, who was killed in 1783 during a battle in Can-Gio harbour. He was described by Gia Long as a “Faithful subject, just and deserving” and was given the title “Leading general, column of the empire.” 4. The “Low Road,” which follows the arroyo-Chinois via Cho Quan (4km) to Cholon (6.3km).


A decorative screen in one of Chợ Lớn’s assembly halls

A fifth road, a new 40m wide extension of boulevard Bonard, will eventually connect with the rue des Marins [Trần Hưng Đạo B] in Cholon.

All of Cholon’s commerce and industry is in the hands of the Chinese, grouped into five congregations according to their place of origin and language.

These congregations are: Kouang-Tong [Guǎngdōng] and the Si-Kiang [Xījiāng] Delta; Fou-Kien [Fújiàn], specifically Hok-lo [Hokkien or Min-nan] people from the area of E-moui (A-moi); Hak-ka (A-ka) from northeast Kouang-Tong [Guǎngdōng]; Trieu-Chau [Cháozhōu] from eastern Kouang-Tong [Guǎngdōng]; and Hai-Nam [Hǎinán], from the district of Wen-Tch’ang [Wénchāng] in the eastern part of Hainan island.

The curved bridges above the arroyos, the long signboards above each store, the Chinese lanterns which are lit as soon as the sun goes down, the crowds of people crammed into the streets or in the doorways of the theatres, all give this city a uniquely Asian stamp. Amble along the rue des Marins and the rue de Canton.


The Guǎngzhōu Assembly Hall

Some temples were raised by the various Chinese congregations to honour the saints or genies of their homelands; among these temples we may mention: those of Kouang-Tcheou [Guǎngzhōu] and Fou-Kien [Fujian], along with another one on the rue de Cây-mai which was reproduced in the Paris Exhibition of 1900. Also of note are the Collège franco-chinois and the city’s hospitals.

The Cây May (“Apricot Tree”) Pagoda was originally built by the Khmers as the Ho-Tang-Tran-Thap Pagoda, but in the 18th century the Annamites built the An-Tan Pagoda here in its place. It gets its current name from the apricot trees which were planted on the May-Ki hill. During the Tay-Son occupation of the south, the pagoda was damaged. When it was restored in 1814, a large quantity of ancient bricks and tiles was discovered, along with two gold tablets inscribed with the image of the Buddha seated on an elephant. Today, the pagoda is surrounded by extensive fortifications. Around it there is large-scale manufacturing of ceramics.

Surrounding areas

The “Tour de l’Inspection:” This 9km journey, taking 1 hour 20 minutes and travelling via the Botanical and Zoological Gardens, the pont de l’Avalanche, Phu-My, Gia-Dinh and Phu Nhuan, is the favorite promenade of the Saigonnais.

SAIGON Pagode du marechal Le Van Duyet

The tomb and temple of Marshal Lê Văn Duyệt

Reaching Bac-Lieu, capital of the province of Gia Dinh, visit the tomb of Le-Van-Duyet, the “Great Eunuch,” Kinh-Luoc (Viceroy) of Cochinchina during the reign of Minh Mang (1820-1841), who died in Saigon in 1832. This monument is one of the largest (24m by 10m) in the country. The temple is adjacent and contains interesting sculptures, weapons, costumes and the palanquin and ancestral tablets of Le-Van-Duyet.

In some difficult legal cases tried by indigenous courts there is still a tradition of “swearing an oath” in front of the altar of Le-Van-Duyet while drinking the blood of a freshly slaughtered chicken. In case of deception, this potentially submits the one who has uttered the oath, along with his family, to the wrath of the Eunuch.

The Tomb of the Bishop of Adran at Tan-Son-Nhut: A journey of 11km there and back, taking 2 hours, including the visit. The Tomb of the Bishop of Adran stands in a grove of beautiful mango trees. Monsignor Pigneau de Béhaine was the author of the 1787 treaty between France and Annam. He died near Qui-Nhon on 9 October 1799. The Prince Nguyen, soon to take the title of King Gia-Long (1802-1820), posthumously made him “Duke Bi-Nhu” (Pigneau). He also ordered the construction of this funeral monument in the style of Annamite temples and composed the epitaph which is engraved on his tomb. By a decree of 3 August 1861, the monument was declared French national heritage.


The tomb of the Bishop of Adran

Travel there via the third pont de l’Arroyo-de-l’Avalanche and the road to Go-Vap; then return via the route de Tong-keou, the canal de Ceinture and the Lignes de Chi-Hoa (an Annamite fortification destroyed in 1861 after a bloody struggle) and the arid Plain of Tombs.

Other places to visit: The column commemorating the battle of the Lignes de Chi-Hoa in 1861; the Annamite village of Phu Tho, created in 1747; the Kien Phuoc Temple; Phu Nhuan-(Binh-Hoa); the Thap-Phuoc Temple with its Buddhist pantheon.

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.