House of Horrors – Bot Day Thep

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The main building of Bót Dây Thép

It’s surely only a matter of time before the Bót dây thép (“Steel Wire” Police Station), situated next to a main road in Hồ Chí Minh City’s District 9 east of Thủ Đức, joins the pantheon of so-called “dark tourism” destinations along with other infamous places of torture like the Medieval Crime Museum in Rothenburg, the Prison Gate Museum in The Hague and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh.

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Inside Bót Dây Thép

The complex originated in the 1920s as a French radio communications station, popularly known in Vietnamese as Nhà dây thép (literally “steel wire house”). The three 70m high steel antenna which once stood outside the complex have long since disappeared, but an old French water tower may still be seen near the entrance to the compound, which currently belongs to the District 9 People’s Committee.

The main former police station building has been converted into a small museum, while its rear ground floor section is currently used as the District 9 Public Library.

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The entrance to the temporary internment cellar

Bót dây thép was placed under the command of one Lieutenant Pirolet and his psychopathic deputy Ác râu (“Evil Beard”), who in 1946-1947 is said to have tortured and killed over 700 hundred Vietnamese political prisoners within its walls. The plaque outside the main building may be translated as follows:

After taking over the station in 1945, at the start of 1946 Lieutenant Pirolet transformed it into a police station which would bring horror to the people of Tăng Nhơn Phú and neighbouring districts.

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The exterior of Bót dây thép

Under the authority of Pirolet and the bloodthirsty “Evil Beard,” the French set out every morning to the villages where they searched, pillaged and raped; they used barbed wire to bind together groups of innocent villagers, then they brought them back to the police station where they were imprisoned and subjected to various savage and barbarous tortures, turning this place into a hell on earth. They poured soapy water into the victims’ noses and mouths, hung them upside down from the ceiling and used red hot iron chopsticks to burn their bodies, hoping to find out about the activities of revolutionary soldiers. Though often tortured to death, the stubborn spirit of loyalty and steadfastness helped prisoners to remain silent to the last, making the French soldiers all the more furious because they could not achieve their objective. The bodies of the dead prisoners were decapitated and carried to Bến Nọc Bridge, where they were thrown into the river. Their severed heads were displayed on bamboo stakes outside the main gate of Bót dây thép to frighten the local community into submission. The remaining prisoners were then forced to lick the blood and eat the ears of the dead. Whoever refused to do this was also beheaded….

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An ox cart used by the French to convey the decapitated bodies to the river for disposal

The main ground floor exhibition area incorporates a stairway which leads down into a small surviving section of the Hầm tạm giam (temporary internment cellar) and also displays a barrel used to hold the soapy water which was poured into the prisoners’ mouths and noses during interrogation sessions, a piece of wood (formerly part of a bed) used to hold prisoners’ heads in place so that “Evil Beard” could decapitate them, an ox cart used by the French to convey the decapitated bodies to the river for disposal and a boat used by local people to recover the bodies for burial.

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The Special internment cellar

To the rear of the building is a small room which provides access to another former chamber of horrors, the Hầm biệt giam (Special internment cellar). The Vietnamese sign here reads:

This is a place in which the crimes of the French colonialists against the people of Tăng Nhơn Phú Ward and neighbouring areas have left a dark imprint.
A cover was installed over the cellar with a hole measuring 0.4m x 0.4m, just large enough for someone to be lowered in. Whenever they conducted interrogations, the French would lower the prisoners into this cellar with a rope lasso around their necks. Although the space below was very small, the French also held many people here at one time, in humid and putrid conditions, so that their bodies quickly became debilitated, then they were pulled up by ropes around their necks so that they could not breath.
The savage acts perpetrated by the French caused much tragic pain and injury to innocent people.

The upper floor of the building, which served from 1945 to 1947 as the main offices of the French police station, houses a meeting room and two small exhibition areas – one dedicated to District 9’s “Heroic Mothers” and the other to the victims of Pirolet and “Evil Beard.”

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The final bas-relief on the wall of the Bến Nọc Memorial Temple shows Pirolet and “Evil Beard” being shot by revolutionary forces

Here visitors can see ropes, barbed wire and other items used to torture prisoners, spikes on which prisoners’ heads were impaled and personal details of many of the revolutionaries who died within the walls of the compound. This room also presents photographs, maps and artefacts outlining the anti-French revolutionary campaign conducted within the Thủ Đức area.

Around two kilometres east down the hill, next to the modern Bến Nọc Bridge, stands the Bến Nọc Memorial Temple (signposted Đền tưởng niệm Bến Nọc), erected in the 1990s in memory of the victims of Bót dây thép. The exterior walls of the temple are decorated with eight bas-reliefs which illustrate the entire story of the police station under Pirolet and “Evil Beard.” In the final panel we learn that they eventually got their come-uppance – both were killed by revolutionary forces during an attack on the compound.

Getting there
Address: Bót Dây Thép, Khu phố 2, Đường Lê Văn Việt, Phường Tăng Nhơn Phú A, Quận 9, Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh
Telephone: 84 (0) 8 3897 3064 (Mrs Thu Vân), 84 (0) 98 545 0654 (Mr Hưng)
Opening hours: On request 7.30am-11.30am, 2pm-5pm daily

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 – 32 Ham Nghi, 1926

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32 Hàm Nghi today

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

Notwithstanding its 1939 makeover, the flat iron building at the corner of Hàm Nghi and Hồ Tùng Mậu street is still one of the city’s most attractive colonial relics.

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Octave Homberg, pictured in New York in 1915

The building at 32 Hàm Nghi was originally constructed in 1925-1926 as the headquarters of the Société financière française et coloniale (French and Colonial Finance Corporation, SFFC), a large holding company founded in 1920 with capital of 30 million Francs by billionaire businessman and former diplomat Octave Homberg (1876-1941).

At its height before the economic crash of 1929, Homberg’s SFFC had nearly 30 affiliates. Working mainly in the fields of agricultural and forestry exploitation, mining, utilities and credit, they included the Société des Caoutchoucs de l’Indochine, the Société française des Distilleries, the Société des Anthracites du Tonkin, the Société des Eaux et Electricité de l’Indochine, the Société des Sucreries et Raffineries de l’Indochine, and Energie Electrique Indochinoise.

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The Société Financière Française et Coloniale (SFFC) building in the late 1920s

Such was the economic power and influence of the man they called the “Midas of the Colonies,” that in 1926, a publication entitled La France devant le Pacifique. La Comédie Indochinoise jokingly asked: “Indochina: French colony or Homberg’s colony?”

SFFC’s first Saigon office was at 93 boulevard de la Somme, but on 18 April 1926, its new building at 32 boulevard de la Somme [Hàm Nghi boulevard] was inaugurated.

According to an article in the newspaper L’Éveil économique de l’Indochine, “This important building will permit the SFFC to house in its own premises a certain number of its affiliates, amongst others the Crédit Foncier de l’Indochine.”

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Another view of the SFFC building in the late 1920s

The article also noted that the SFFC’s new premises would permit the company to expand its operations by offering personal and commercial banking services.

“This inauguration marks the starting point of a new phase, the development of the SFFC’s Saigon operations. Previously, because of the smallness of its premises, the SFFC’s activities were almost exclusively for the benefit of companies in its own group. Now, it is able to serve the Saigon public by offering full banking operations in its own premises, with maximum facilities. In this connection, it should especially be noted that the SFFC now rents safes to its customers, housed in vaults of excellent design. This is a very welcome development, since no such service has previously existed in our banks.”

According to the Bulletin économique de l’Indo-Chine, the building also incorporated a plant analysis laboratory to assist its affiliate companies with crop management.

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The Banque Franco-Chinoise pour le commerce et l’industrie (BFC) building in around 1945

The SFFC  was hit very hard by the Great Depression, and in 1930 it narrowly avoided insolvency thanks to the intervention of French prime minister André Tardieu, who persuaded the Banque de l’Indochine to save it. In the general downsizing which followed, it ceased to operate as a bank.

In 1939, the SFFC headquarters building was sold to the Banque Franco-Chinoise pour le commerce et l’industrie (the Franco-Chinese Commerce and Industry Bank, BFC, 法国和中国 工商银行), which had formerly been based at 160 rue Mac-Mahon [Nam Kỳ Khởi Nghĩa]. Relocating all of its Saigon operations to 32 boulevard de la Somme, the BFC took the opportunity to expand its operations, removing the building’s old domed roof to make way for an additional floor. The “BFC” logos which still form part of the building’s ornate wrought-iron gateway and window grills date from this period.

Even after the BFC took over the building, the SFFC (known after 1949 as the Société Financière pour la France et les pays d’Outre-mer, SOFFO) and some of its affiliates continued to rent offices on the upper floors of the building until the end of the colonial era.

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The BFC building in 1965 (Michael Mittelmann Collection, Vietnam Center and Archive)

The Banque Franco-Chinoise remained at this address (known from 1955 onwards as 32 Hàm Nghi) until 1975. After Reunification, the building was occupied by a variety of organisations, including numerous departments of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development.

Since 1997, 32 Hàm Nghi has functioned principally as the headquarters of the Mekong Housing Bank (MHB).

As rumours circulate of plans to construct a 40-storey tower on the site, the future of this old building – like that of so many others in Saigon –currently hangs in the balance.

The author would like to thank Elvis Chan and Huỳnh Trung for their assistance in researching this article

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Another view of 32 Hàm Nghi today

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The “BFC” logos which still form part of the building’s ornate wrought-iron gateway and window grills date from 1939-1940

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The view looking up from the rear yard of 32 Hàm Nghi

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A stairway in 32 Hàm Nghi

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A corridor within 32 Hàm Nghi

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.

What’s Wrong with Saigon Tourism – A Colonial View, 1919

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Saigon port in the 1920s

Though arrogant and condescending in its tone, A Desbordes’ 1919 assessment of what’s wrong with tourism in Saigon – published in his journal Les Affiches saïgonnaises on 10 October 1919 – nonetheless sheds light on the appalling conditions suffered by many poor people in the “Pearl of the Orient”

How many cruise ships of the large foreign shipping lines ever stop in Saigon? Not one! Shouldn’t there be some way to reroute them, so that they bring us their tourists? In theory, yes. But given the current state of our port, no!

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Sampan boatmen in Saigon

We must develop our port, dredging the river and building new docks, so that these giants of the seas can moor. Better still, we should to reduce the horrifying five hour journey up river from Cap-Saint-Jacques by digging a direct canal from the Cap to Saigon, in order to facilitate the journeys of these ships. After all, they not only bring travellers, but also come to load up with our products. We must give proper consideration to commercial needs and create what does not currently exist – modern equipment for loading and unloading ships, and above all, the facilities of a large, modern commercial port.

We have already addressed this matter in previous issues, and we promised to return to it. However, we’ll stop there and say no more about it. Instead, let’s ask ourselves, do we really want to carry out all these works?

When our tourist wants to venture beyond Saigon and go on an excursion, will he be able to find the level of physical comfort he can enjoy on board the steamships of the Messageries maritimes and in our Saigon hotels? Again, we must say, no, a thousand times, no. Far from it.

So, away from our beautiful roads which lead nowhere, let’s review the means of transport at our disposal. Comfort, we must admit, is rather absent.

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The interior of the Continental Hotel, early 20th century

Outside Phnom Penh, in what other centre of Cochinchina, Annam and Cambodia visited by the tourist can he hope to find the comfort he needs? In Angkor, and also in Dalat, such comfort is unknown; even more so in Tourcham [Tháp Chàm], a place where our tourist may be forced to spend a night or day. There, he will have to stay in a one-room apartment without water or shower, make use of a dubious laundry service and suffer the vulgar cuisine of a spoil-the broth Chinese cook. The train which will convey him from Saigon to Langbian [Đà Lạt] doesn’t even offer him facilities to quench his thirst or sate his hunger. Can we call that comfort?

But let’s return to Saigon, for it could be that the tourist has decided not to go any further, not to stay here any longer, but to leave quickly.

Let’s consider what awaits our great tourist when his ship arrives.

If he arrives on a Messageries vessel, it moors in the quay of the Messageries, but if he arrives on a foreign vessel, it is moored in the open river against a buoy and he is transferred to land by sampan (first trouble).

We meet him and join him on his journey to the hotel, which he has chosen at random. At our exit of the “seigneurial domain” of the Messageries maritimes, we find the path leading to the swing bridge crowded with vehicles of all kinds, so instead, we continue straight on.

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Housing alongside the arroyo-Chinois

On his left, the tourist – who after all came here to take in the sights – sees a few remnants of the earliest European homes, of the kind one often encounters in and around the equatorial ports, adding a bit of local colour. There is a house and an attractive restaurant on stilts; but our tourist’s attention is immediately drawn by the wild shouts and savage screams of a group of children on his right, more or less dressed, but each dirtier than the other. His olfactory nerve having detected a disagreeable aroma, he spies in the damp mud in front of the row of “compartments” (a word consecrated by the owners to designate buildings slightly taller but little more comfortable than a cowshed) a ditch full of sewage.

The ditch is loosely covered with boards, and into the gaps between them, local residents throw everything they can no longer keep in their homes. Part of what lies underneath is visible through the gaps, and further scrutiny reveals that there are children under there, buried up to their waists in the filthy mud. As they stir it, the mud emits sufficient stench to generate an outbreak of plague. They are fishing with both hands for crabs and small fish, which are either eaten, taken to the market, or sold to restaurants, some of which occupy riverside dwellings alongside fruit merchants, tailors and hairdressers.

Our tourist suppresses the urge to retch and leads us on quickly, not without noticing that each of the houses contains an average of 15 to 20 people, a number which at night is doubled if not tripled, in an area of just 20 square metres and a height of just 3 metres!

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More housing alongside the arroyo-Chinois

A little further along the left, the spectacle is more or less the same, except that the buildings are made of wood and have at their rear a large cesspit, into which all kinds of rotting carcasses –dogs, cats, pigs, etc – are constantly thrown.

Our first contact with the “Pearl of the Orient” is, as we confess with shame, rather painful, and our tourist, who remembers having heard that cholera and plague are latent in Saigon, begins to be convinced.

Arriving on the bridge [pont des Messageries maritimes], our view of the banks of the arroyo (the name applies well) suggests to us that their maintenance does not much encumber the budget. The ramp which we follow to descend the bridge presents the curiosity of two tiny sidewalks, unusable for pedestrians from one end of the year to the other, since they are always crowded with heaps of garbage – that is, when the latter, in all its forms, is not scattered everywhere, which is far from being an attractive sight.

To avoid this spectacle, we take instead the staircase which descends from the other side of the bridge to the quai de Belgique [Võ Văn Kiệt]. Here we find our steps less congested, but unfortunately, the smell of ammonia is such that even a blind man could identify this as the quarter’s public urinal.

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The swing bridge, viewed from the ramp of the pont des Messageries maritimes

We stop for a moment at a bank on the corner of rue d’Adran [Hồ Tùng Mậu], and then we immediately head out onto that street again, to avoid the dust on the quayside produced by vehicles travelling from the ship.

However, since the pavement on our right hand side is crowded, we are obliged to walk in the street, where mud reigns from one end of the year to the next, even in the driest period.

Hardly have we resumed our journey than another awful, unbearable smell seizes our nostrils. Our friends the Chinese merchants, selling dried or rotting fish, force us to run away as fast as possible. These gentlemen of special refinement have chosen our banking and consulates district as the location for their warehouses and shophouses!

By now, our companion – a tourist, let’s not forget – can bear it no more and asks to be taken away from all of these noxious and unhealthy odours. We rejoin the quayside as quickly as possible, heading for the rue Catinat [Đồng Khởi], the name of which is not unknown to him.

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A view looking up the rue Catinat

Wanting to see everything, our companion choses the left pavement, onto which we step slowly. As we walk, we pass countless money changers, tailors and shoemakers, which follow each other almost without interruption.

I have nothing to say about this – except firstly that there are far too many of them and they would be better accommodated in the smaller adjacent streets. They certainly do not embellish our main city artery in which, every day, the European element is seen to be increasingly repressed.

Secondly, the foreigner does not hide his surprise to observe in this street some rather dirty groups of children playing on the sidewalk, and also to breathe the puffs of air wafting from the back rooms of these shops. The latter is nothing to celebrate, because it reminds us uncannily of the smell that emanates from a pigsty. That is not surprising, because everyone knows that the Chinese like to raise ducklings and piglets in their own back yards.

A stop near the Theatre and a short visit to his apartment appears to satisfy our tourist, but despite his politeness, he can’t conceal from us the fact that his stay in Saigon hasn’t made him smile a great deal and he has the urge to get back on the boat.

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The road to Thủ Đức

Yet, the hot hours having ended, and wishing to see more of Saigon, we decide to take a trip by car. This hunting promenade seems to compensate for the bad impression given to him on our arrival, but the next morning, everything seems to have been compromised again.

Our tourist does indeed want to go back on board ship. We ask to accompany him. We hire a pousse-pousse, and this time we take the swing bridge. Alas for this crossing! The view of the ditch which borders the street leading to the Messageries, and the awful smell emanating from the stagnating mud which workers are at that moment attempting to move, blocking the pathway reserved for pedestrians, once more evokes a negative reaction. Again, we fear that our visitor will decide to leave us at the earliest opportunity.

We will not dwell longer on these curiosities of our “Pearl,” but can we really believe that such a state of things, with such a lack of moral comfort and the constant apprehension of an epidemic, is any way to recommend a city which is so nice and welcoming in other ways. It’s not for us here to identify those responsible for all this, nor to suggest ways to address it, but a local government worthy of the name should aim to rectify the problems as quickly as possible.

SAIGON 1920s - Le pont tournant by Leon Ropion

The swing bridge in the 1920s by Leon Ropion

Let’s just say that, as long as all these drawbacks remain, Saigon will never be thought of as a favourite stopover for tourism or grand touring. How much effort, how many initiatives will be needed by the tourist office and the official tourism bureau in order to change all of this, and how many years will it take to get there, taking into account all of the various vested interests.

Of all necessity, however, these pestilential nests must be destroyed and sanitised, because like it or not, such warts never constitute an attractive sight. Despite the authorities’ lack of concern about public health, and despite of all the difficulties as well as the indifference of some, are we prepared to act?

We ask this question, and if we are afraid to encroach on the political field, we should say that this must be the first programme of any candidate in the upcoming elections. The voters can speak and say what they want: a clean and comfortable city, a modern port or an Asian city!

A Desbordes

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

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

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

Saigon’s Subterranean Secrets

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Underground display at Secret Cellar “B,” 122/351 Ngô Gia Tự

With so many other destinations to visit, Hồ Chí Minh City is often regarded as little more than a convenient starting or finishing point for a tour of Việt Nam. However, there is a wealth of untapped touristic resources that could help turn this city into a great deal more than a brief stopover. Prominent amongst them are the little-known registered historic buildings that form the city’s underground tunnel and cellar network.

IMAGE 3 Underground in the Phú Thọ Hòa tunnels

Underground at the Phú Thọ Hoà Tunnels

Secret passageways and compartments may be found throughout the world, but it’s hard to think of anywhere else where underground tunnels and cellars have been put to such extensive or indeed effective wartime use as Hồ Chí Minh City. Which makes it all the more surprising that, in this age of mass tourism, such a prime touristic resource remains unexploited.

The story of Vietnamese reliance on underground hideouts during the struggle for independence may be traced back to the period immediately after World War II, when the French returned to Sài Gòn, driving Việt Minh forces into the hinterland. In the years that followed, the revolutionary command in the south came up with an ingenious solution to the problem of concealing their activities from French eyes – hiding men and weapons underground.

The prototype for many subsequent revolutionary tunnel complexes was the Phú Thọ Hoà Tunnels in Sài Gòn’s northwest suburb of Tân Phú, where, early in 1947, Việt Nam’s first network of interconnected underground caverns was dug beneath cassava fields to serve as a guerilla base and storage facility.

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A tunnel entrance at Phú Thọ Hoà

Packed with weapons, food and medical supplies, they played a crucial role in the First Indochina War. However, their close proximity to the French high command in Sài Gòn proved something of a mixed blessing and revolutionary activity soon switched to the more remote Củ Chi underground base, construction of which had got underway soon after the completion of the Phú Thọ Hoà complex.

The development of the Củ Chi Tunnels after 1962 and of residential tunnel networks at Vịnh Mốc, Vĩnh Linh, Mụ Giai and Kỳ Anh in the heavily-bombed “DMZ” after 1965 is of course the stuff of legend. Yet few people realise that Hồ Chí Minh City is also home to an extraordinary network of secret cellars, which were dug under residential buildings from the late 1940s onwards to serve as covert printing houses, weapons stores or safe houses.

Covert publishing

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Underground display at Secret Cellar “B,” 122/351 Ngô Gia Tự

Propaganda was crucial to the success of the revolution, and both the Việt Minh and later the National Liberation Front (NLF) went to great lengths to keep the population informed about events in the north.

Built to replace an earlier and less secure cellar under a house near Bà Chiểu Market, Secret Cellar “B” (122/351 Ngô Gia Tự, Q 10) was dug under cover of darkness between February and May 1952 by a team of operatives led by Hà Minh Lân, who set up a shrine-making business as daytime cover for the operation. Highly sophisticated in both design and construction, the cellar housed a covert printing press that functioned for over five years, publishing in leaflet form the latest news transcribed from northern radio broadcasts.

IMAGE 5 The ingenious layout of Secret Cellar B

The ingenious layout of Secret Cellar “B”

The cellar was abandoned in December 1957 for security reasons and decommissioned in 1959 by stuffing it with soil-filled containers that preserved the structure intact until after Reunification.

As the insurgency gathered pace in the early 1960s, several other covert printing presses were set up in the city. One of these, the Secret Printing Cellar of the Chinese-language Propaganda and Training Committee in Chợ Lớn, was originally established at 81 Gò Công. However, after several years of operation that address was deemed insecure, so in mid-1965 it was relocated to a quiet back-alley house at 341/10 Gia Phú in District 6. An 11-member NLF team, once more posing as a family, dug two cellars below the house and installed printing machinery. Metal stamping machinery was also acquired to manufacture school bag locks above ground as cover and drown out the clatter of the printing press below their feet. The underground printing press on Gia Phú operated without discovery until 1970, when it moved to another location.

Weapons storage

IMAGE 7 The weapons storage cellar at 183-4 Ba Tháng Hai

The weapons storage cellar at 183/4 3 Tháng 2

The NLF also dug numerous secret cellars to store weapons and explosives brought from rural bases such as Củ Chi, particularly in the run-up to the 1968 Tết Offensive. One of the earliest examples was dug in 1965 by shoemaker and seasoned revolutionary Đỗ Văn Căn under his house at 183/4 3 Tháng 2. Over the four-month period from July to October 1965, Căn secretly collected 50kg of explosive and detonators, 50 grenades, seven AK47 sub machine guns, several pistols, 21,000 bullets and a number of other items of weaponry from a warehouse in An Đông, transporting them back to his house concealed in bales of rubber.

They were stored in his secret cellar until January 1968, when plans were made to use them in an attack on the city Police Headquarters. However, the operation was aborted and the weapons and explosives remained undiscovered in the cellar. In April 1975, as PLA forces approached Sài Gòn, they were unpacked and prepared for an attack on the nearby nearby ARVN barracks, “Camp Lê Văn Duyệt.” However, the Sài Gòn government surrendered before the attack could take place.

IMAGE 8 The weapons cellar at 287-70 Nguyễn Đình Chiểu

The weapons storage cellar at 287/70 Nguyễn Đình Chiểu

Unlike the munitions in the cellar on 3 Tháng 2, those stashed beneath the house at 287/70 Nguyễn Đình Chiểu did see combat. Early in 1967 the house’s owner, NLF operative Trần Văn Lai, dug two cellars underneath the house and from June 1967 onwards, pistols, rifles, grenades and over 350kg of TNT were transported there in hollowed-out boxes and specially-adapted wickerwork baskets and plant pots.

On the evening of 30 January 1968, the 19-strong Special Forces Team 5 collected them and launched an attack on the heavily-defended south gate of the Independence Palace. The attack failed and all of the team members lost their lives, but despite a subsequent search of the address, the secret cellar was never discovered.

Concealment

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91 Phạm Văn Chí in District 6

Some of the secret cellars established in Sài Gòn and Chợ Lớn during the 1960s were intended not as printing houses or munitions stores, but rather for concealing revolutionary activists.

In 1963 a Chợ Lớn businessman known as Lưu Vinh Phong purchased a house at 91 Phạm Văn Chí, right opposite the District 6 Police Station and Courthouse. He then proceeded to dig a secret cellar under the floor and also created a secret compartment behind a false wall at mezzanine level to hide revolutionary cadres.

From late 1967, many members of the National Chinese Language Committee of the South were successfully hidden in these two spaces, facilitating preparations for the Tết Offensive of 1968. As with other covert bases in the city, a craft workshop was set up here to provide cover.

Phong Phú Communal House in District 9 won its revolutionary spurs during the struggle against the French – its remote location made it an ideal spot to train revolutionary youth militia groups and assemble supplies, food and weapons for the armed struggle against colonialism.

IMAGE 9 Phong Phú Communal House

Phong Phú Communal House in District 9

The Communal House was destroyed by the Việt Minh during a scorched earth campaign in 1948, but it was rebuilt in 1952 and later played a key role, becoming the headquarters of revolutionary forces in the Thủ Đức area. In 1960 the entire Communal House Association was arrested on suspicion of ties with the revolution. However, they would not be shaken from their efforts and continued to channel money and supplies to revolutionary forces for the duration of the war. After suffering further damage in 1969, the Communal House had to be rebuilt yet again, this time with a secret cellar underneath a bathroom to hide revolutionary cadres during raids.

Hot-footing it from the palace

Yet it wasn’t just revolutionaries who dug secret cellars. When South Vietnamese President Ngô Đình Diệm ordered the construction of a new Independence Palace in February 1962 after the bombing of the original Norodom Palace, the plans by architect Ngô Viết Thụ included a network of underground tunnels, reinforced to withstand the impact of 500kg bombs.

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The underground tunnels built for South Vietnamese President Ngô Đình Diệm at the Independence Palace

At the start of the four-year construction period, Diệm took up temporary residence in the Gia Long Palace – the former French Lieutenant Governor’s Palace, now the Hồ Chí Minh City Museum at 65 Lý Tự Trọng in District 1 – and immediately ordered the construction of a second network of tunnels under that building, so that he could take shelter and if necessary escape in the event of a further coup attempt.

The fact that the tunnels under the Gia Long Palace were also designed by architect Ngô Viết Thụ accounts for the persistent rumour that a connecting tunnel was built between the two palaces. Both sets of tunnels may now be visited by tourists, but with sections of each still cordoned off, that rumour remains alive and well!

Recently-unearthed US photographs and documents (see Saigon’s mystery tunnels) suggest that Diệm also commissioned the construction of at least two other tunnels, leading from the Gia Long Palace all the way to the Mạc Đĩnh Chi Cemetery [now Lê Văn Tám Park] and the Saigon Zoo.

Ironically, when the final coup did take place in November 1963, Diệm only made use of the tunnels under the Gia Long Palace to escape out the back door onto Lê Thánh Tôn street and flee by car to Chợ Lớn, where he and his brother Nhu were assassinated the following day.

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The tunnels built for South Vietnamese President Ngô Đình Diệm under the Gia Long Palace, now the Hồ Chí Minh City Museum

Collectively, the secret tunnels and cellars of Sài Gòn represent a unique type of “revolutionary architecture” which played a crucial role in the fight for independence. Those examples which have survived stand as a tribute to their creators and to the unsung heroes who lived and worked in them.

And for Hồ Chí Minh City’s tourism companies, they provide an opportunity to breathe new life into the city’s tourism industry.

Getting there

Phú Thọ Hòa Tunnels (Khu Di tích Địa đạo Phú Thọ Hòa) at 139 Phú Thọ Hoà, Q Tân Phú are open daily from 7.30am-11.30am and 2pm-5pm.

Secret Cellar “B” – Printing Office of the Patriotic Support Association (Hầm bí mật “B” – Cơ sở In ấn của Hội Ủng hộ Vệ Quốc đoàn) at 122/351 Ngô Gia Tự, Q 10 and the Secret Weapons Hiding Place (Hầm bí mật chứa vũ khí) at 183/4 Ba Tháng Hai, Q 10 may be viewed by special arrangement with the District 10 Office of Culture, Sports and Tourism, 474 Đường 3 Tháng 2, Phường 14, Quận 10, TP.HCM

Secret Printing Cellar of the Chinese-language Propaganda and Training Committee (Hầm bí mật in tài liệu của Ban Tuyên huấn Hoa vận) at 341/10 Gia Phú, Q 6 and Sài Gòn-Gia Định Special Region Committee Secret Headquarters (Cơ sở bí mật của Thành ủy Sài Gòn-Gia Định) at 91 Phạm Văn Chí, Q 6 may be viewed by special arrangement with the District 6 Office of Culture, Sports and Tourism, UBND Quận 6, 107 Cao Văn Lầu, Phường 1, Quận 6, TP.HCM

Secret Weapons Hiding Place Museum (Bảo tàng Hầm bí mật chứa vũ khí) at 287/70 Nguyễn Đình Chiểu, Q 3 opens Mon-Fri on request from 7.30am-11.30am and 2pm-5pm.

Phong Phú Communal House (Đình Phong Phú) at Khu phố 3, Phường Tăng Nhơn Phú B, Q 9 is open daily from 7am-6pm.

Unification Palace (the former Independence Palace, Dinh Thống nhất) at 135 Nam Kỳ Khởi Nghĩa, Q 1 opens daily at 7.30am-11am, 1pm-4pm, admission Đ30,000 adults, Đ3,000 children.

Hồ Chí Minh City Museum (Bảo tàng Thành Phố Hồ Chí Minh) at 65 Lý Tự Trọng, Q 1, opens daily from 8am-4pm, admission Đ15,000.

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

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

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

Old Saigon Building of the Week – Former Grall Hospital, Late 1870s

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The Children’s Hospital 2

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

One of the oldest hospitals in Asia, the Children’s Hospital 2 (Bệnh viện Nhi đồng 2) at 14 Lý Tự Trọng began life as a French military hospital.

Saigon 1864

The original location of the hospital is marked clearly on this 1864 map

Founded in 1862 by Admiral-Governor Louis-Adolphe Bonard (1805-1867), the Hôpital Militaire was originally located at the southeast corner of the rue Nationale [Hai Bà Trưng] and boulevard Norodom [Lê Duẩn] intersection, where the Kumho Asiana Plaza now stands.

Its primary function was to serve the marine infantry, who were then garrisoned in makeshift accommodation on the northern side of the same junction. However, from the outset it treated colonial civil servants as well as French and Vietnamese soldiers.

The hospital was staffed by French military doctors, with nursing support provided by the Sisters of Saint-Paul de Chartres.

Published in 1900, Les missions catholiques françaises au XIXe siècle, a history of the French Catholic foreign missions in the 19th century, describes the facilities of this early Military Hospital:

“Naturally, the first Military Hospital was nothing like the magnificent property that exists today: there were just three small rooms for the sick, a cramped room for the Sisters, and another tiny room of the same size for the administrator and doctors – that was all! The furniture was no better; biscuit boxes served as chairs, empty bottles as chandeliers. But the good Sisters hardly thought of comfort; their main concern was looking after the sick.”

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The Military Hospital in the early 20th century

In the late 1870s, the hospital was rebuilt at its current location, 14, rue Lagrandière [14 Lý Tự Trọng], to plans by Lieutenant-Colonel J Varaigne, Director of the Marine Infantry Engineering Corps, and his deputy, Captain A A Dupommier.

Their design for the Colonial Infantry Barracks (1870-1873) had already attracted considerable acclaim, and it was therefore decided that the hospital buildings should be built in identical style.

The hospital buildings comprised a series of large pavilions, built from cast iron and brick on raised granite platforms. Linked to each other by gangways, they overlooked a central tree-lined avenue and incorporated peripheric verandas to enhance ventilation and optimise sanitary conditions. All of the construction materials were transported from France.

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The main entrance to the Military Hospital in the early 20th century

In his memoirs of 1905, former Indochina Governor-General Paul Doumer (1897-1902) described the Military Hospital and the Colonial Infantry Barracks as “models of their kind…. The Hospital in particular, with its huge buildings and gardens lined with trees, plants and flowers, gives an impression of serene beauty that should make pain more bearable, and death sweeter for those who will die – too many, alas!”

It was in one of the hospital’s smaller pavilions that Albert Calmette (1863-1933), tasked with developing vaccines against rabies and smallpox, founded the first Pasteur-Institut outside France in 1891.

In 1904, when Alexandre Yersin (1863-1943) set up a larger Pasteur-Institut in Nha Trang, the Pasteur-Institut in Saigon became its annex. It was relocated to its current address, 167 rue Pellerin [Pasteur], in 1905.

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The Grall Hospital in 1951

In 1925, the Hôpital Militaire was transformed into a general hospital and renamed the Hôpital Grall (Grall Hospital), in honour of the former Cochinchina Inspector-General of Medicine, Dr Charles Grall.

During the late colonial period, the hospital’s facilities continued to expand, and by the early 1950s, the Grall offered in excess of 500 beds and was recognised as a flagship of French medicine in Southeast Asia.

After the withdrawal of the last French troops from Indochina in April 1956, an agreement was signed between the French and RVN Foreign Ministries, permitting the French to continue running the hospital. During the 1960s, the hospital’s French medical staff ran training programmes at several universities and teaching hospitals, set up leprosy and polio treatment centres, and conducted several important research projects on Southeast Asian pathology.

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The stele honouring the memory of scientists Calmette and Yersin

In 1963, a stele was set up in the hospital grounds, honouring the memory of scientists Calmette and Yersin, founders of the Pasteur-Institut in Việt Nam, which began life at the Military Hospital.

Following Reunification, the Grall Hospital resumed operation as a general hospital, but on 19 May 1978, it was transformed into a specialist pediatric hospital.

In May 1990, the Association des Anciens et des Amis de l’Hôpital Grall (Alumni and Friends Association of the Grall Hospital) was set up. Five months later, a Memorandum of Understanding was signed between France and Việt Nam, providing for “the Rehabilitation of Children’s Hospital No. 2 in Hồ Chí Minh City, known as the Grall Hospital,” including the upgrading of buildings and the improvement of medical and surgical equipment.

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The main entrance to the Children’s Hospital 2 today

Carried out in stages between 1991 and 1995, this major project restored the old hospital pavilions sympathetically, adding an additional floor to what had previously been two-storey buildings, yet retaining all of the original architectural features.

Set amidst lush gardens and shady trees, the Children’s Hospital 2 has been cited as a prime example of how good architecture can make a healthcare environment welcoming to patients and their families, rather than treating them as victims in a stark and sterile space.

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The design of the 11th Colonial Infantry Barracks buildings became the model for those in the Military Hospital

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The Military Hospital in the late 19th century

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A patient being cared for by one of the Sisters of Saint-Paul de Chartres in the Military Hospital in the early 20th century

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The hospital chapel, now used as a store

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In 1925, the Hôpital Militaire was renamed the Hôpital Grall, after former Inspector-General of Medicine, Dr Charles Grall

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An art deco hospital building, added in the early 1930s

Part of the Grall Hospital in the 1940s

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Nurses attend to a patient in 1947

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.

How Vietnam’s Railways Looked in 1927

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The 4-6-0 “Ten wheel” locomotive, which could haul trains of 300 tonnes at up to 40kph, or trains of 370 tonnes at 20-25kph

As Vietnam Railways draws up plans for a major upgrade of its network, let’s see how that network looked 88 years ago, as described in the February 1927 article “Quelques données techniques sur les chemins de fer de l’Indochine” (Some technical data on the railways of Indochina), published in the Bulletin de l’Agence générale des colonies.

The railway network in Indochina is equipped with 1m gauge track; the width of the track bed is 4.4m, a measurement which was set in anticipation of rolling stock with a body width of 2.8m.

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Floods on the Lạng Sơn line in August 1904

The minimum curve radius is 100m and the maximum gradient is generally 15mm/m, except on some portions of the Saigon-Mytho line, and on the cog rail sections of the line from Krongpha to Dalat. Substantial portions of the line from Lao-Kay to Yunnan-fu have gradients which reach 25mm/m.

In general, small structures such as culvert bridges with openings of less than 6m are built using ordinary masonry. Major bridges have metal decks, because they usually provide passage not only for railway trains, but also for road traffic.

On the lines currently under construction, reinforced concrete is widely used, facilitating bridge spans of up to 15m on the Vinh to Dong-Ha section. The maximum bridge span will be increased to 25m on the new Tan-Ap-Thakhek line and other railways currently under development.

a) Track

The rails are laid on ballast made of crushed stones, 0.50m thick with a 2.40m base width. They are of the flat-bottomed “Vignoles” type, made from steel of 20, 25 or 27kg/m, according to the line. They are laid in sections of 8-12m.

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Dĩ An Station in the colonial era

The weight of the rails will be increased to 30kg/m on those parts of the Transindochinois [North-South line] which remain to built, and this heavier rail will gradually replace the existing rails on other sections which have already been completed.

Fishplates are of a standard type, ranging from 5.5-6kg in weight. They are used to connect two sections of rail by means of four bolts positioned laterally.

Metal sleepers are employed throughout the Yunnan network and on most of the other lines. They have been very successful, although it is still impossible to indicate what their duration may be. Two types of metal sleeper have been used:

(i) Ménélik sleepers, made from soft steel, straight with curved ends: the rails are secured using steel crapauds, sleeper clips, nuts and bolts.

(ii) Micheville sleepers, also made from soft steel: housings to accommodate the rails are welded to their upper surface.

The weight of a sleeper, including accessories, is 40kg, and 1,250 of them may be laid per km of track.

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A train runs along the Gianh River in Quảng Bình Province in the 1920s

In forest areas, wooden sleepers were preferred to metal sleepers because of the lower cost of purchase at the time the lines were constructed. They are made from dense and hard woods (cay nghien, cay sao) and are generally 1.80m long, 0.18m wide and 0.12m high.

However, the increasing difficulty of supplying wooden sleepers and the obvious superiority of metal sleepers have led to a gradual decrease in the use of wooden ones.

(b) Buildings

Most stations and halts are small, comprising only one building with facilities for both passengers and freight. Larger, more important stations have a variety of buildings and outbuildings of different types, including the lodgings of European or indigenous staff.

Workshops and depots are distributed throughout different parts of each network according to need. No construction workshop in the proper sense exists in Indochina. Rolling stock parts usually arrive ready-manufactured from Europe, leaving just the assembly, carpentry and interior work to be carried out in the colony.

Gia Lâm - Chaudronnerie, montage d'une chaudière à l'aide du pont roulant ETHBIB Bildarchiv

Gia Lâm Works in the colonial era (ETHBIB Bildarchiv)

Some small guard huts have been built at level crossings, especially in built-up areas and at entrances to combined road and railway bridges and passing loops.

(c) Fixed equipment

The supply of water has not, in most cases, caused any difficulty. Facilities for the supply of water by gravity are limited and water pumps are used almost everywhere. Tanks, pipes and water cranes are of the current type.

It is the same with swing bridges and weighbridges. However, signalling apparatus is still rather limited: a general modification of signalling, necessitated by the steady increase in traffic, is currently being studied.

(d) Rolling stock

The most commonly-used type of locomotive has three pairs of coupled driving wheels, an adhesion weight of 30 tonnes and can haul trains of 300 tonnes at up to 40kph, or trains of 370 tonnes at 20-25kph.

More powerful locomotives (four pairs of coupled driving wheels with 40 tonnes adhesion weight) are used on the long 25mm/m gradients of the Yunnan railway. The section of the Langbian railway currently under construction will make use of special mixed adhesion and cog rail locomotives.

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One of the second-generation superheated 4-6-0 “Ten wheel” locomotives delivered in the 1920s

Coal firing is used exclusively in Tonkin and in Yunnan, where this fuel is abundant.

In contrast, the Southern and Annam-Central networks burn wood, which is more economical for them.

On all of the various networks, travellers are divided into four classes.

For the first three classes, the carriages in service are usually mixed, with two 1st-class compartments, two 2nd-class compartments and four 3rd-class compartments. The carriages have gangways between the compartments. There are also cars comprising only 3rd-class compartments.

The 4th class is used almost exclusively by indigenous people. The carriages in this class have benches along the side walls, while the central area is kept free for transporting the passengers’ luggage, which is not allowed in the freight vans.

All passenger carriages have two bogies and a weight of around 16 tonnes.

Freight rolling stock includes covered wagons, gondola wagons and flat wagons; this rolling stock is of the current type for 1m gauge railways.

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The interior of a 4th-class railway carriage in the 1920s

Covered wagons of 5 tonnes, 10 tonnes and 20 tonnes are currently in use.

The vehicles currently in service on the networks of the colony have simple vacuum brakes, which do not give sufficient security in the event of one of the hoses connecting the vehicles becoming displaced or broken. As these vehicles are used on some sections of track where the gradient is severe, prudence requires the adoption of automatic vacuum brakes. The current brakes must therefore be replaced with automatic brakes.

Signalling is almost non-existent at the moment. However, the increase in the circulation of trains necessitates the installation of protection discs some 500 to 800m before the points of restriction, at least on those parts of line where traffic is highest.

The installation of these disc signals would be most useful on the lines between Phu-Lang-Thuong and Vinh on the Northern network and between Saigon and Muong-Man on the Southern network. On other sections of line, their installation can be temporarily deferred.

The more intense traffic and the use of heavier trains also demands the reinforcement of existing rails. Renewals will be made annually, according to resources, with rails of the 30kg/m type being used for those sections of Transindochinois which remain to be built.

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Freight being loaded at Bắc Lệ Station

Metal sleepers will also be substituted for the wooden ones which are still in use on major routes in the Northern and Southern networks as soon as the latter need replacing.

Finally, various complementary works, such as creating or lengthening loop lines and sidings and improving water supplies, will be carried out at various stations.

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

A Relic of the Steam Railway Age in Da Nang
By Tram to Hoi An
Date with the Wrecking Ball – Vietnam Railways Building
Derailing Saigon’s 1966 Monorail Dream
Dong Nai Forestry Tramway
Full Steam Ahead on Cambodia’s Toll Royal Railway
Goodbye to Steam at Thai Nguyen Steel Works
Ha Noi Tramway Network
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.

Tourism for American Servicemen – A 1963 USO Guide to Saigon

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The USO Club of Saigon in 1965 by Bruce Baumler

In 1963, the USO Club of Saigon issued a leaflet promoting its services and suggesting the following tourist itinerary around the city for US military personnel and their dependents.

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Lê Lợi boulevard in 1964, photographer unknown

The newcomer to Saigon is often agog with the myriad of signs on all sides of him, brightly painted in a multitude of colors, proclaiming the fascinating sights to be seen here; the countless shops, row upon row, pressed in so closely together; and here and there, unexpectedly, a truly unusual temple or a very modern building can be seen among the great masses of people hurrying along Saigon’s busy streets.

In an effort to give a little aid to the military personnel and their dependents who are interested in visiting as many of these places as their time allows, the USO has compiled a list of the locations and other available information concerning the most popular points of interest.

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“Construction of new government building in 1963,” photographer unknown

Perhaps you might start your tour by driving or walking by the Independence Palace, which, until November 11 1962, was the residence of President Ngo-Dinh-Diem. This once beautiful palace is now in the process of being completely rebuilt after a bombing destroyed it. It is expected that it will be finished and ready for President Diem’s occupancy in 1964.

How about a ride in one of the city’s many cyclos? It is an exciting experience and the next stop on our tour might be Our Lady’s Basilica in Hoa-Binh Square, one of the oldest buildings in Saigon. Mass is said here in French and Vietnamese. Everyone is welcome to this lovely old church.

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Saigon Post Office in 1960, photographer unknown

As we swing around the square, we notice on our left the large clock on the PTT Building (Post Telegrams and Telephones). The commercial post office is located here and all postal services are available. It is also possible to place long distance calls from here. The PTT building is open from 7.30am until 8pm. This includes Holidays but not Sundays.

Continuing down Tu Do Street, we are headed toward the river. On our left we pass a large white building which is the National Assembly Building. No one is allowed to visit unless they have been given special permission to go on official business. Here the government has a meeting hall and offices for the various government officials. Policemen in white uniforms guard this building days and night.

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Saigon – the Trung Sisters statue, photographer unknown

If we cut over a block to the left, we will be on Hai Ba Trung, and turning right, headed for the river front. Right in front of us is the Memorial to the Trung Sisters. These ladies were the heroines of the Vietnamese Struggle for Independence in 40AD. If you look very closely, we’ve been told that you will see a strong resemblance between the Trung Sisters’ faces and Madame Nhu, the President’s sister-in-law, and the first lady of the Republic of Viet-Nam!

Along this river, which joins the China Sea and has piers for loading and unloading ships for long-range or short-range trips, there are many interesting sights.

Time for lunch? There are many restaurants featuring French and Chinese as well as Vietnamese foods located all over the city, and one can have fun just trying them out, as they have good food and lots of local color. But at the USO, a good old American sandwich and a milk shake tastes pretty good too!

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Lê Văn Duyệt Mausoleum, photographer unknown

In this fascinating city of the Far East, the old temples and pagodas are especially interesting to someone from the western world. One such temple is the Tomb of Marshal Le-Van-Duyet, military hero under the Gia-Long dynasty. He was called the Unifier of Viet-Nam in the 19th Century. It is a very impressive place to visit, and also noteworthy that if you can get a little assistance from a Vietnamese person, you can have your fortune told right here! This temple is located all the way out Hai Ba Trung, where it intersects with Chi Lang.

There are other Buddhist temples and pagodas throughout the city. The Xa-Loi Temple is located at Ba Huyen Thanh Quan Street. Here, a statue of Buddha can be seen in a golden case which came all the way from India.

American girls say goodbye to beautiful Xa Loi Pagoda US Pocket Guide

“American girls say goodbye to the beautiful Xa Loi Pagoda,” from the US Pocket Guide, 1962

By the way, a Temple is where Buddhists worship many heroes and heroines but a Pagoda is where many men worship Buddha. There is a Hindu Temple at Ton That Thiep Street, and this the meeting place for the thousands of people from India who own many of the city’s shops. Visitors are welcome here too, but it is customary to remove your shoes before entering.

There are so many other Temples and Pagodas that they are too numerous to mention here, but a little investigating will be all you need to find a different experience in store for you, in quite a few of them.

The National Museum and War Memorial Monument are located at Thong Nhat. The Zoo and Botanical Gardens are also here. The grounds are open every day and admission is 2$ for adults and 1$ for children (except on Thursdays when the admission is free).

SAIGON 1965 - National Museum - Photo by Robert Gauthier

The National Museum in 1965 by Robert Gauthier

In the National Museum there are many exhibits of Vietnamese pottery and the costumes of ancient Kings. Some examples of traditional Vietnamese furniture are on display, along with the cut crystal vase presented to President Diem by our Past-President, Eisenhower.

In the Zoo and Botanical Gardens there are several unusual species of birds and animals, as well as an elephant which will pray for you if you give him a piece of sugar cane.

If we go out Le Loi Street, we will pass the Central Market of Saigon, and we must stop for a while and visit the multitude of tiny stalls, where all kinds of beautiful material can be purchased, as well as many, many other items, such as the lovely lacquerware of Viet-Nam, and anything else you may need, from food to the pots in which to cook it.

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The Saigon Cemtral Market, photographer unknown

The merchants speak French or Vietnamese, but don’t let it stop you if you do not speak these languages! Just take along a pencil and paper and show that you want them to write down the price for you, and they will find someone to do that. Then, let’s see how good a bargainer you are!

If we continue in this direction, the street will become Tran Hung-Dao and we will be on our way to Cholon, the Chinese section of Saigon. Here, the shops are very numerous, and there is another large market. Cholon has many excellent restaurants, also. At night, the visitor is treated to a bright display of neon signs almost rivalling the cities in the United States.

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A side canal off the Ben Nghe Creek, in 1965 by Thomas W Johnson.

Since our space is limited here, we will end the tour in Cholon (just take one of the hundreds of tiny taxis back to the center of the city). However, there are many more interesting things to see in this unusual place and we, at the USO, will be more than happy to supply the information you may need in locating these places, or we will find someone for you who can! Be sure to stop in often to see us and say “Hi” (we all speak English!).

Located at 119 Nguyễn Huệ, the USO Club of Saigon was advertised as “a home away from home for American military personnel and associated civilians.” Run by a federation of six civilian agencies (YMCA, YWCA, Salvation Army, National Catholic Community Service, National Jewish Welfare Board and National Travelers’ Aid Association), the USO Club was “an overseas operation administered by USO, through which the American people serve the spiritual, welfare and educational needs of the men and women in the Armed Forces.” It was open every day from 9am to 11pm and contained an information and resource office for US servicemen, a restaurant, a bar and a games hall.

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 – Saigon Municipal Theatre, 1900

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The Théâtre de Saïgon in the early 20th century

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

Built by the French at the mid-point of historic rue Catinat, the Municipal Theatre is one of Saigon’s most iconic landmarks.

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From 1862-1872, performances by visiting French theatre troupes were held regularly in the Salle de spectacles of the first Governor’s Palace

Western theatre was popular in Saigon from the earliest years of the French colony. For more than a decade after the arrival of the first European settlers, performances by visiting French troupes were held regularly in the Salle de spectacles of the first Governor’s Palace, a series of wooden buildings which had been purchased in kit form from Singapore and assembled in 1861-1862 for Admiral-Governor Bonard.

The first purpose-built city theatre was constructed in 1872 on the site of today’s Caravelle Hotel. According to an article of 3 June 1880 in the Courrier de l’Indochine, this first Saigon theatre specialised not in the operas of Gluck or Mozart, but rather in “the works of Offenbach, Lecocq and other geniuses of the comic genre.”

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The location of the second Théâtre de Saïgon on the site of today’s Caravelle Hotel is indicated clearly on this 1893 map

Unfortunately, the first Saigon theatre was built from wood, and in 1881 it was destroyed by fire. However, it was rebuilt in the following year, using more durable materials. Describing this second theatre in 1887, Le Figaro newspaper commented: “it is simple and the architecture is very primitive – but it is impossible to burn down!”

Writing in August 1893, La Revue hebdomadaire was more flattering. “It’s so pretty, our Saïgon theatre, with its boxes decorated with hanging plants and its wide verandahs filled with flowers! What more wonderful setting could there be in which to meet pretty ladies wearing the latest fashions, officers in uniforms embroidered in gold, elegant gentlemen, and mandarins dressed in rich silk costumes?”

The second Théâtre de Saïgon, which stood on the site of today’s Caravelle Hotel (photo: L’Association des Amis du Vieux Huế)

Two decades later, George Dürrwell would write nostalgically about the former theatre, which he described as “so small and so simply decorated, yet so cosy and intimate, surrounded by lawns and shaded by large trees.”

As early as 1893, the powers-that-be decided that Saigon needed a larger and more impressive theatre building, one which better reflected the perceived glories of the French empire.

In 1895, a design competition was organised and the submissions of three architects – Ferret, Genet and Berger – were shortlisted. Eventually, the judges selected the design of Eugène Ferret, who reportedly had taken his inspiration from the Petit Palais in Paris. Early in the following year, Ferret’s winning plans for the new 800-seat “Grand-Théâtre de Saigon” were placed on display at the 1896 Exposition du théâtre et de la musique in Paris.

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Another photograph of the Théâtre de Saïgon in the early 20th century

Work began in late 1896, and Saigon’s third and current theatre was completed in late 1899. It was inaugurated on 15 January 1900, in the presence of Saigon mayor Paul Blanchy and Prince Waldemar of Denmark, who was then making a state visit to Indochina. The inaugural performance featured the Asian premiere of Jules Massenet’s opera La Navarraise.

Ferret’s design was widely praised. The arts correspondent for Le Monde (13 January 1901) described the theatre as “an architectural marvel,” while L’Indo-Chine 1906, by Joseph Ferrière, Georges Garros, Alfred Meynard and Alfred Raquez, commented: “The monument is very fine, indeed, almost luxurious, and cleverly laid out for the needs of the theatrical arts in quite irreconcilable climatic conditions.”

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A “colorised” photograph of the Théâtre de Saïgon in the early 20th century

However, at the outset, the theatre’s substantial construction cost – over 2.5 million francs – attracted much criticism, both in the colony and in France, from those who believed that the money would have been better spent on building a replacement Central Market, or upgrading the city’s inadequate utilities.

Securing enough annual funding to run the new venue proved to be an even bigger headache.

As early as the 1870s, the city decided to engage the services of a director-impresario to run the Saigon theatre and to ship out performing companies from France to perform in it. Before the inauguration of the Grand-Théâtre de Saigon, the colonial records afford us only occasional glimpses of the work of these early director-impresarios, larger-than-life characters such as Emile Pontet and Louis Achard, who constantly fought their corner at municipal council meetings in order to secure an adequate annual subvention.

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An aerial photograph of the Théâtre de Saïgon in the 1940s

In advance of the opening of the new “Grand Théâtre Municipal de Saigon,” the authorities announced with great fanfare the appointment of Messrs Boyer, Baroche and Compile as director-impresarios to run the new venue. The decision to overlook the incumbent theatre director Paul Maurel was a controversial one, and must have been very hurtful for Maurel himself, particularly since senior partner Aristide Boyer had worked under him for several years as the previous theatre’s secretary general.

After considerable debate, the new theatre was awarded a 200,000 franc annual operating subsidy, out of which 120,000 francs was to be paid by monthly allowance of 20,000 francs to director-impresarios Boyer, Baroche and Compile, and 70,000 francs was allocated for company travel. Just 10,000 francs was provided annually for renewal or maintenance of theatre equipment. It should be remembered that initially, because of the heat, the theatre only functioned for four months of the year (October-January). By 1910, Saigon’s “theatre season” had been extended by two months until April.

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The Théâtre de Saïgon in the late 1940s after the façade was modified

However, within just five months of the opening of the new theatre, Boyer, Baroche and Compile had “accumulated a considerable amount of debts” and resigned their position. Thereafter, the municipal authorities decided to engage their director-impresarios on an annual basis – but not before contrite council members had invited Paul Maurel back to clean up the financial mess left by his predecessors.

The Théâtre de Saigon continued to receive a large annual subsidy for the presentation of “opera, comic opera, operetta and comedy by visiting French theatre companies” until the late 1920s. Then, against a background of economic downturn and increased competition from other places of entertainment, the municipal government pulled the plug. During the later colonial period it was almost exclusively rented out for amateur events and the occasional gala performances.

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The Municipal Theatre in July 1972, functioning as the Lower House of the National Assembly, photo by Kemper

During the Japanese occupation of Indochina (1940-1945), the French Vichy authorities moved to eliminate visible symbols of the now moribund Third Republic. and the façade of the theatre was completely remodelled. Then in 1944, it was seriously damaged by Allied bombing.

Following basic repairs in the early 1950s, the theatre was used in the wake of the Geneva Agreement of 1954 as temporary accommodation for homeless migrants from the north.

After 1955, the theatre building was completely refurbished and transformed into a National Assembly building. When the constitution of the Republic of Việt Nam was revised in 1967, creating a bicameral parliament, it became the Lower House (Hạ Nghị viện) of the National Assembly, while the Diên Hồng Hall (the former Chambre de commerce) became the Upper House (Thượng Nghị viện) or Senate.

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The Municipal Theatre in 1991

Reopened as a theatre in 1979, it was completely refurbished in 1995-1998 with French assistance to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the city of Saigon. As part of this project, the Municipal Theatre was provided with state-of-the-art electrical equipment, air-conditioning, lighting and sound systems and fire and safety equipment. Many of its original architectural and decorative features were also reinstated at this time, including the stone veranda and white stone statues at the entrance, granite tiled floors, chandeliers, bronze statues in front of the lobby stairs and auditorium arch and wall bas-reliefs.

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The Municipal Theatre today

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 – St Paul’s Convent, 1863

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The exterior of St Paul’s Convent Chapel

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

Occupying a large, leafy compound on Tôn Đức Thắng street in District 1, the Convent of Saint-Paul de Chartres is another rarely-visited haven of peace in busy Hồ Chí Minh City.

Faced immediately after the conquest with an urgent need for education, healthcare and welfare facilities in their new colony, the French turned to the religious orders for support.

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Reverend Mother Superior Benjamin (1821-1883)

In March 1860, at the invitation of Bishop Dominique Lefèbvre, the Congregation of the Sisters of Saint-Paul de Chartres sent two Sisters to Saigon, where they set up a Sainte-Enfance or “Holy Childhood” orphanage for local street children in temporary premises close to the first bishop’s palace on modern Nguyễn Công Trứ street (District 1). In the following year, the Reverend Mother Superior Benjamin arrived from Hong Kong to manage this establishment.

In 1862, Admiral-Governor Bonard responded to a request by the Reverend Mother Superior for larger premises by granting the Sisters a large plot of land on boulevard de la Citadelle (modern Tôn Đức Thắng street), between the St Joseph’s Seminary and the naval shipyard. Nguyễn Trường Tộ was appointed as architect, and in May 1864 the École de Sainte-Enfance complex – comprising Orphanage, Convent and Convent Chapel – was inaugurated.

La Sainte Enfance par Emile Gsell (ca.1866)

Emile Gsell’s 1866 photograph of Nguyễn Trường Tộ’s original Sainte Enfance compound

Over the following decade, as many young Vietnamese women chose to enter the order, the Sisters were able to expand their operations throughout the south. They opened schools and orphanages in Tân Định, Thị Nghè, Biên Hòa, Mỹ Tho and Vĩnh Long; they founded and ran the Chợ Quán Hospital and the Hôpital indigène in Thị Nghè; and they supplied nursing staff to the Hôpitaux militaires (Military Hospitals) in Saigon and Mỹ Tho and the Hôpitaux indigènes (local people’s hospitals) in Mỹ Tho and Biên Hòa. Then in 1883, after the French had established a foothold in the north, the Sisters opened orphanages and hospitals in both Hà Nội and Hải Phòng.

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St Paul’s Convent in the early 20th century

Unfortunately, since their original Saigon headquarters buildings had been constructed largely from wood, termite damage and dry rot quickly took its toll, and by the 1880s the Sisters were obliged to carry out a costly rebuild. This time they turned to Father Charles Boutier of the Société des Missions Étrangères de Paris (Society of Foreign Missions of Paris, MEP), an architect of considerable merit who had previously designed the Thủ Đức Church. The new complex was inaugurated in 1895.

In 1924, the name of the compound was officially changed from Saint-Enfance to Couvent St Paul de Chartres (St Paul’s Convent).

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In 1945, the Convent was accidentally hit by more than 30 Allied bombs, causing serious damage to many of the buildings

Being so close to the naval port, the Convent was accidentally hit in 1945 by more than 30 Allied bombs, which caused serious damage to many of the buildings. They were extensively reconstructed in the period 1946-1952. In 2009, the entire compound was completely refurbished.

After 1975, the various educational and medical facilities run by the Sisters were brought under government control. Since that time, St Paul’s has continued to function as a Christian community under monastic vows, although it no longer occupies the whole of the original compound.

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The former convent building used to depict the Pensionnat Lyautey in Jean-Jacques Annaud’s 1992 film version of Marguerite Duras’ The Lover)

The section which from 1908-1939 housed the Clinique du Docteur Angier now functions as a kindergarten, while the building which sits on the Tôn Đức Thắng-Nguyễn Hữu Cảnh street junction (used to depict the Pensionnat Lyautey in Jean-Jacques Annaud’s 1992 film version of Marguerite Duras’ The Lover) was taken over by the government after 1975 and now functions as Saigon University’s Nursery School Teacher Training Faculty.

Today, the centre piece of the compound is still the Convent Chapel, a Gothic structure dating from 1895 which was extensively rebuilt after sustaining bomb damage in 1945. Accessed by a side stairway, it comprises a tall vaulted nave flanked by vaulted aisles and side corridors.

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Another early 20th century image of St Paul’s Convent

On the ground floor immediately behind the Convent Chapel is a Heritage House (Nhà Truyền thống), which may be visited on request. Set up like a small museum, it recounts the history of the Congregation of the Sisters of Saint-Paul de Chartres in their native France, and the establishment and development of St Paul’s Convent in Saigon, a large model of which dominates the display area. The Heritage House also introduces other aspects of the order’s charitable work throughout the region.

Getting there
Address: Tu viện Phaolô, 4 Bis Nguyễn Trung Ngạn, Phường Bến Nghé, Quận 1, Thành Phố Hồ Chí Minh
Telephone: 84 (0) 8 3822 3387, 84 (0) 8 3910 4454 (Vietnamese language only)
E-mail: info@saintpaulsg.com
Opening hours: On request 7am-12pm, 2pm-5pm daily

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A cartoon depicting the charitable work of the Sisters

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Another view of the exterior of St Paul’s Convent Chapel

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The interior of St Paul’s Convent Chapel

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The interior of the St Paul’s Convent Heritage House

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 Canal Bonard, 1893

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The canal Bonard, viewed from the Palikao Bridge in the late colonial period, with the Bình Tây market in the background

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

Though now little more than a rat-infested sewer, the former canal Bonard was once a busy waterway which made an immense contribution to the economic prosperity of Chợ Lớn. As work begins to restore this sole surviving inner-city canal to its former glory, we take a look at its history.

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The easternmost section of the canal Bonard existed before 1874

A map of Chợ Lớn dated 1874 suggests that the easternmost section of the canal Bonard was dug at an early date as a branch of the Quới Đước creek, perhaps by the French Navy as part of a network of military waterways in the west of the city.

However, by the 1880s, with water traffic on the increase and the upper reaches of the Lò Gốm creek becoming silted up, the authorities realised the need to extend the canal westward.

In November 1888, 17 hectares of land was granted to the Chợ Lớn Municipal Council to turn the existing waterway into a 1.5km canal connecting the Quới Đước and southern Lò Gốm creeks. This was followed in June 1889 by an Ordinance instructing the Council to commence work on the canal, the quays alongside it and the roads leading up to them. The project also included the construction of a 55,000m³ boat-building basin (the bassin de Lanessan) containing “dry docks for the repair and construction of junks.”

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The completed canal Bonard and the bassin de Lanessan boat repair and construction yard are depicted on this 1893 map of western Chợ Lớn

However due to finance and land clearance issues, the project suffered significant delays and the canal was not completed until 1893.

Although the name canal Bonard was chosen at the outset of the project, it was decided in 1893 to change the name to canal Fourès, in honour of Lieutenant Governor Augustin Julien Fourès (21 May 1889–9 Aug 1889, 11 Sep 1892–25 Mar 1894), who championed the project and pushed it through to fruition.

However, it seems that his contribution was quickly forgotten, since by 1907 the canal had reverted to its original name, canal Bonard.

To add to the confusion, it also seems to have been known throughout the colonial period by the alternative name “canal de la Distillerie,” in reference to the Distillerie de Cholon, a large rice alcohol factory which opened next to the waterway in 1892.

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The “canal Fourès” – the name by which the canal Bonard was known until the early 20th century

By the early 20th century, five large road bridges had been constructed over the canal Bonard, carrying the rue de Minh-Phung (modern Minh Phụng), the rue Danel (after 1928 a joint rail-tramway bridge, now Phạm Đình Hổ), the rue de Palikao (modern Ngô Nhân Tịnh) and the rue de Go-Cong (now Gò Công) respectively.

However, perhaps the canal’s best-known bridge was the one which spanned its easternmost end at the “T junction” with the Quới Đước creek. This was the famous Pont des trois arches (Three-arch bridge), a pedestrian structure built in the 1920s by the Société d’exploitation des établissements Brossard et Mopin, and reportedly funded by nationalist journalist Nguyễn Văn Sâm and his wife, the younger sister of Chợ Lớn businessman Trương Văn Bền. In 1958, this unusual bridge was used as the backdrop for the murder scene in Joseph L Mankiewicz’s 1958 film version of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. It survived until the late 1990s.

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Quách Đàm (郭琰 Guō Yǎn), family photograph reproduced by courtesy of his great grandson, Mr Harrison W Lau

It was during the 1920s that the canal Bonard really came into its own. By that time, the old Chợ Lớn Central Market (located on the site of today’s Chợ Lớn Post Office) had become too small to cope with the number of traders. The filling of Chợ Lớn’s inner-city waterways in 1923-1926 hastened its demise by making it impossible for ship-owning merchants to access the market by boat.

Significantly, the canal Bonard and the lower section of the Quới Đước creek which connected it to the Bến Nghé creek were the only inner-city waterways to be excluded from the government’s 1923 waterway-filling scheme. Recognising how crucial it was to guarantee the merchants waterway access to the city market, wealthy businessman and philanthropist Quách Đàm (Guō Yǎn, 郭琰, 1863-1927) offered to pay for the construction of a brand new market on the north bank of the canal Bonard, where he owned large tracts of land.

The site he chose was the bassin de Lanessan, which had to be filled before construction began in 1926. The Bình Tây Market opened to the public in September 1928.

Saigon Slums 1963 - Rạch Bãi Sậy (kinh Hàng Bàng) phía sau Chợ Bình Tây

“Saigon slums 1963” (unknown photographer)

Known after 1955 as the Hàng Bàng (or Bãi Sậy) canal, the old canal Bonard remained one of the city’s busiest waterways until the mid 1960s, when war began to impact negatively on agricultural production in the Mekong Delta. By the end of that decade, the canal had fallen into disuse and temporary housing had been built along its banks, turning it into an open sewer.

In 2000, the western section of the canal from the Lò Gốm creek to Ngô Nhân Tịnh street was filled and houses were built over it. Today, all that remains is the severely-polluted eastern section, connected to the Bến Nghé creek by the Quới Đước creek.

In 2015, work began on a US$100 million project to reinstate this historic canal in its entirety, with the aims of reducing environmental pollution, improving public health and reducing chronic flooding. Temporary housing will be relocated and the quaysides – which still contain a number of important heritage buildings – will be landscaped for both visitors and residents to enjoy.

See also The lost inner-city waterways of Saigon and Cho Lon – Part 2: Cho Lon

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The Canal Bonard viewed from the Gò Công Bridge in the 1930s

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The loading area at the rear of the Bình Tây Market in the 1940s

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An aerial view of the canal Bonard in the 1940s

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Another view of the Canal Bonard in the late colonial period

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The Pont des trois arches (Three-arch bridge), which spanned the junction of the canal Bonard with the Quới Đước creek

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A late colonial era view of the canal Bonard looking through the Pont des trois arches (Three-arch bridge)

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The Pont des trois arches was used as a location for the murder scene in Joseph L Mankiewicz’s 1958 film version of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American

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The Quới Đước creek, which connects the Hàng Bàng canal (formerly the canal Bonard) with the main Tàu Hú (Bến Nghé) creek, pictured in 1965 (unknown photographer)

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The Hàng Bàng canal (formerly the canal Bonard) pictured in 1965 (James Kidd Collection, Vietnam Center and Archive)

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The Hàng Bàng canal (formerly the canal Bonard) today

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The Hàng Bàng canal (formerly the canal Bonard) today

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.