In Search of Saigon’s American War Vestiges

The second US Embassy building at 4 Thống Nhất (Lê Duẩn) in 1974 (photographer unknown)

This article was published previously in Saigoneer

As the international media descends on the city for the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, travel companies report a growing demand from returning American veterans for tours which point out the buildings and installations they once occupied.

Over the past few weeks, tour companies in Hồ Chí Minh City have reported an ever-increasing number of requests by former US military and civilian personnel for bespoke city tours taking in the offices and bases in which they once worked.

A typical starting point for most “US Vestiges tours” is a drive along Lê Duẩn (the former Thống Nhất) boulevard past the United States Consulate, which was built in 1998-1999 on the site of the historic 1967 American Embassy. In fact, the American diplomatic presence in Saigon may be traced back over 100 years, and several of the older US mission buildings still stand today.

The Catinat building at 26 Lý Tự Trọng, once home to an American Consulate which was car bombed by “Japanese gendarmerie” on 23 November 1941

As early as 1907, a US Consulate could be found operating out of the old Denis Frères trading company headquarters at 4 rue Catinat (4 Đồng Khởi). Sadly, that old colonial edifice was demolished in 1985, but later US consulate buildings at 25 rue Taberd (25 Nguyễn Du, behind the Hotel Sofitel Saigon Plaza) and 26 rue de La Grandière (the Catinat building at 26 Lý Tự Trọng) may still be viewed today. On 23 November 1941, the latter became the target of a devastating bomb attack – said to have been perpetrated by “Japanese gendarmerie” – which caused extensive damage to the Catinat Building. Just over two weeks later, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and all US diplomats were expelled from Indochina. When the Americans returned in 1945, the US Consulate relocated yet again to 4 rue Guynemer (now 4 Hồ Tùng Mậu), before the opening of the first purpose-built US Embassy on boulevard de la Somme (Hàm Nghi boulevard) in 1950.

The first US Embassy building at 39 Hàm Nghi, bombed on 30 March 1965

The first US Embassy building at 39 Hàm Nghi was the model for the “American Legation” where CIA agent Alden Pyle worked in Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. On 30 March 1965, it became the target of another car bomb attack, this time by NLF Special Forces Team F21, which killed 22 and injured 183, prompting the relocation of the US Embassy in 1967 to a more secure location at 4 Thống Nhất (now Lê Duẩn) boulevard. Today, the building at 39 Hàm Nghi houses the Hồ Chí Minh City Banking University.

The second US Embassy building at 4 Thống Nhất (now the site of today’s US Consulate General at 4 Lê Duẩn) – a US$2.6 million fortress opened on 23 September 1967 – was famously breached in the early hours of 31 January 1968 by NLF Special Forces Team 11, as part of the wider Tết Offensive which involved attacks on over 100 towns and cities. A monument to this attack still stands today on the sidewalk outside the US Consulate compound.

“Last day of Vietnam War: Evacuees mount a staircase to board an American helicopter near the American Embassy in Saigon” (Hubert van Es/AFP/Getty Images). Hubert van Es’s iconic image of people scrambling up a rooftop ladder to a helicopter at 22 Gia Long (now 22 Lý Tự Trọng)

Images of the second US Embassy were once more beamed around the world on 30 April 1975, when the destruction of the Tân Sơn Nhất Air Base runways by the approaching People’s Army obliged Ambassador Graham Martin to order a helicopter evacuation, and would-be escapees began thronging outside its gates trying to get in.

However, contrary to popular belief, the iconic image by Dutch photographer Hubert van Es of people scrambling up a rooftop ladder to a helicopter was taken not of the Embassy, but rather of the CIA’s “Pittman Apartments” at 22 Gia Long (now 22 Lý Tự Trọng).

Apart from the locations of former consulates and embassies, other extant former US installations in Hồ Chí Minh City include the headquarters buildings of the Military Assistance Command Việt Nam (MACV or “Macvee”) and its predecessor, the Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG).

The former SAMIPIC villa at 606 Trần Hưng Đạo, which served successively as MAAG, MACV and Korean Forces HQ

Before 1962, the US military advisory effort in Việt Nam was co-ordinated by MAAG, which initially occupied the former SAMIPIC villa at 606 Trần Hưng Đạo in District 5. In February 1962, following the arrival of the first US Army aviation units, MAAG became part of the Military Assistance Command Việt Nam (MACV), which was set up to provide a more integrated command structure with full responsibility for all US military activities and operations in Việt Nam. MAAG survived until May 1964, when its functions were fully integrated into MACV. In May 1962, when MACV relocated to larger premises, the villa at 606 Trần Hưng Đạo became known as MACV II. Then in 1966, following the transfer of MACV operations to Tân Sơn Nhất Air Base, it was vacated by the Americans and became the headquarters of Republic of Korea Forces Vietnam, which remained there until the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in 1973. Today, 606 Trần Hưng Đạo is home to a number of local businesses, but the old villa is currently under threat of redevelopment – see Date with the Wrecker’s Ball: 606 Trần Hưng Đạo.

The second MACV headquarters at 137 Pasteur

The second MACV headquarters in Saigon – an unassuming three-storey apartment building at 137 Pasteur in District 3 – has an interesting history. Before being taken over by the US military in May 1962, it served from 1955 to 1959 as the headquarters of the Michigan State University Group (MSUG), which was controversially engaged to advise President Ngô Đình Diệm on the reorganisation of his feared secret police. By 1966, MACV had outgrown this building too, so on 2 July 1966 it was relocated to the new purpose-built “Pentagon East” complex, adjacent to Tân Sơn Nhất Air Base. Between 1966 and 1972, 137 Pasteur functioned as the headquarters of the MACV’s Studies and Observations Group (MACV-SOG), a special operations unit tasked with covert warfare operations. When the last active-service US military units departed in 1972, all MACV operations in the south, including MACV-SOG, were subsumed within the Defense Attaché’s Office (DAO), a branch of the US Embassy. In the following year all DAO operations were transferred to the “Pentagon East” complex and 137 Pasteur was returned to civilian use.

The former Dodge City Bachelor Enlisted Quarters (BEQ) and a surviving building of the MACV Annex near Tân Sơn Nhất International Airport

Nothing now remains of the huge “Pentagon East” complex, which was formerly situated on the east side of modern Trường Sơn boulevard (the Tân Sơn Nhất International Airport approach road), between the Cửu Long and Hồng Hà street junctions. In its place today stand the CT Plaza Tân Sơn Nhất shopping mall and cinema complex, and next to it a very large building site. However, on nearby Hồng Hà street, visitors can still see the former Dodge City Bachelor Enlisted Quarters (BEQ) and one surviving building of the MACV Annex, both currently used by the Southern Airport Services Company (SASCO).

In addition to the former MAAG and MACV buildings, the Saigon residences of the US generals who ran these two organisations have also survived intact.

The villa at 60 Võ Văn Tần (known before 1975 as 60 Trần Quý Cáp) in District 3 is said to have been built originally for a wealthy French wine importer, but it was later acquired by Prince Nguyễn Phúc Ưng Thi (1913-2001), founder of Vikimco Steel, who also built the Rex Hotel. In the late 1950s, he made the villa available to the United States of America to house its military commanders-in-chief.

The MACV chiefs’ villa at 60 Võ Văn Tần

Thereafter it became the residence of two consecutive MAAG Chiefs – Lieutenant General Samuel T Williams (November 1955-September 1960) and Lieutenant General Lionel C McGarr (September 1960-July 1962). In 1962, when MAAG was integrated into MACV, the head of MAAG was found new lodgings at 121 Trương Định (see below), while 60 Trần Quý Cáp became home to successive MACV Chiefs, including General Paul D Harkins (February 1962-June 1964), General William C Westmoreland (June 1964-July 1968), General Creighton Abrams (July 1968-June 1972) and latterly General Frederick C Weyand (June 1972-March 1973).

After MACV took over the mansion at 60 Võ Văn Tần/Trần Quý Cáp, the last MAAG Chief, Major General Charles J Timmes (July 1962-May 1964) was rehoused in another grand old colonial pile, just up the road at 121 Trương Định. Originally constructed as a managerial residence for the Diethelm import-export company, this building is now in poor condition, but it is still in use as the Hoa Mai Kindergarten (Trường mầm non Hoa Mai).

The former at US Naval Support Activity Saigon (NSAS) building at 218 Nguyễn Đình Chiểu

Midway between those two former residences, on the east side of the Trương Định/Nguyễn Đình Chiểu street junction, stands another relic of the US presence. In the late 1960s, the down-at-heel apartment building at 218 Nguyễn Đình Chiểu (formerly 218 Phan Đình Phùng) briefly functioned as the headquarters of US Naval Support Activity Saigon (NSAS). Unfortunately its close neighbour, the former Naval Forces Việt Nam (NAVFORV) building at 117 Nguyễn Đình Chiểu, didn’t fare quite so well – it was demolished a few years back to make way for a luxury apartment block.

At the outset, the United States devoted considerable resources to information and culture programs in South Việt Nam, and by the late 1950s the United States Information Service (USIS) Saigon office was one of the largest posts of its kind in the world. From 1956 to 1962, USIS Saigon was housed in the large grey building which still stands on the eastern corner of the Hai Bà Trưng/Lý Tự Trọng intersection, originally 82 Hai Bà Trưng but now designated as 37 Lý Tự Trọng.

The former USIS building at 37 Lý Tự Trọng

According to an American report of 1956, “The USIS occupies excellent, roomy quarters in three floors of a street corner building at a prime location in downtown Saigon, about a mile from the Embassy. It is completely air-conditioned. The facilities include a library (ground floor); 150-seat auditorium; radio studios; and film editing and recording rooms. The square footage totals 33,454.”

In 1962, the USIS expanded its operations, moving its administrative offices and Abraham Lincoln Library into the new Rex complex and transforming the building at 82 Hai Bà Trưng into an annex.

Built by Prince Nguyễn Phúc Ưng Thi (see above) in 1959, the Rex Hotel Complex at 141 Nguyễn Huệ was snapped up on completion by the American government. Down to 1964, it not only housed the USIS offices and Abraham Lincoln Library, but also provided hotel accommodation for many US military advisers. During this period it was also home to the first broadcasting studio of Armed Forces Radio Vietnam (AFRVN), which went on air for the first time at 6am on 15 August 1962. Two years later, AFRVN was found larger facilities at the nearby Brink Bachelor Officers’ Quarters (BOQ, see below).

The Rex Hotel

As the insurgency got under way and it became clear that US culture and information programs had failed to win widespread support for the Ngô Đình Diệm regime, the United States began to switch to a primarily military strategy. By 1964, the Abraham Lincoln Library had been relocated to a quiet villa at 8 Lê Quý Đôn (demolished in 2010), and in the following year, as the first US combat troops set foot on Vietnamese soil, the USIS operation at the Rex was subsumed into the Joint US Public Affairs Office (JUSPAO, also incorporating the Communications Media Division of USAID Việt Nam). The annex at 82 Hai Bà Trưng was then redesignated “JUSPAO 2.” Meanwhile the Rex Hotel became a BOQ for US military personnel.

At its height in the late 1960s, the Rex complex had around 600 employees and was frequented regularly by over 450 international journalists covering the US war effort.

The Caravelle Hotel

Between 1965 and 1972, JUSPAO and the MACV Information Office jointly hosted daily press briefings for foreign correspondents, which became known as the “Five O’Clock Follies” because, according to one cynical reporter, “they seldom bore any resemblance to the facts in the field.” Initially held in a 200-seat conference room on the ground floor of the Rex, these press briefings were moved in 1969 to the National Press Center building at 15 Lê Lợi (since redeveloped as the Opera View complex) opposite the Caravelle.

During the same period, the Caravelle Hotel, also opened in 1959, became the hostelry of choice for the US media. By the late 1960s it was home to the Saigon bureaux of numerous American news agencies, including NBC, ABC, CBS, the Washington Post and the New York Times, while its rooftop bar (now Saigon Saigon Bar) famously became an unofficial “press club” to which journalists such as Walter Cronkite, Neil Sheehan and Peter Arnett would retreat in the evenings.

A monument outside the Park Hyatt Hotel commemorates the car bombing of the Brink residence by NLF Special Forces on Christmas Eve 1964

The Park Hyatt Saigon Hotel, located behind the Municipal Theatre, also stands on a site of historical interest. An earlier hotel, constructed on this site in the late 1950s, was acquired by the American military and later transformed into the Brink BOQ at 103 Hai Bà Trưng. A residential block for US army officers with its own mess hall and in-house bakery, Brink also became home to the studios of AFRVN from 1964 to 1967. While the BOQ building no longer exists today, a monument on the corner outside the Park Hyatt Hotel commemorates the car bombing of the Brink residence by NLF Special Forces on Christmas Eve 1964, an event which killed two and injured around 60. The Brink BOQ and its radio station were subsequently repaired, and it was from here in 1965-1966 that the real Adrian Cronauer – immortalised by Robin Williams in the Hollywood film “Good Morning, Vietnam!” – broadcast his radio programmes to American troops.

The Kỳ Hoà Hotel at 238 Ba Tháng Hai in District 10, once the headquarters of the Free World Military Assistance Organization (FWMAO)

The Kỳ Hoà Hotel at 238 Ba Tháng Hai (formerly 12 Trần Quốc Toản) in District 10 is another building with a fascinating story to tell. In the 1960s and early 1970s, it served as the headquarters of the Free World Military Assistance Organization (FWMAO), which housed the various country liaison offices for allied operations during the Việt Nam War. In addition to co-ordinating the activities of military personnel sent to Việt Nam by Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, the Philippines and Thailand, FWMAO also managed the flow of non-military (medical, transportation, construction, agriculture) support by a variety of other nations. All of the “Free World Forces” received logistical support and operational guidance from the United States Military Assistance Command Việt Nam (MACV).

For foreigners who lived and worked here before 1975, the streets of Saigon remain a treasure trove of faded reminders of the American presence – from the old USAID buildings at District 1’s Cách mạng Tháng 8 and Nguyễn Khắc Nhu streets and District 3’s Ngô Thời Nhiệm street, to the former Pershing Field Ball Park (now the Military Zone 7 Stadium) near Tân Sơn Nhất International Airport, the so-called “Thieves’ Market” on Tôn Thất Đàm street and the numerous former BOQ and BEQ buildings dotted all over the city.

Many veterans have spent years trying to forget the horror and futility of the Việt Nam War, but tour guides report that those who have made the effort to return have found great solace in seeing for themselves just how much the country and its people have recovered and grown in the intervening years.

You may also be interested to read these articles:

American War Vestiges in Saigon – 60 Vo Van Tan
American War Vestiges in Saigon – 606 Tran Hung Dao
American War Vestiges in Saigon – 137 Pasteur
American War Vestiges in Saigon – Former “Free World” HQ
American War Vestiges in Saigon – Former USIS Headquarters

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 Story of Saigon’s “Jardin d’Espagne”

The former “Jardin d’Espagne,” now the Lý Tự Trọng Park

In 1927, after being abandoned for more than 60 years by its Spanish owners, the “Jardin d’Espagne” (today’s Lý Tự Trọng Park) seemed set to become the new home of the British Consulate General in Saigon… but it was not to be.

The participation of Spanish naval forces in the 1859 French conquest of Cochinchina is well documented. The event which had triggered the expedition was the execution on 20 July 1857 of the Spanish bishop of Tonkin, Monsignor José Sanjurjo Diaz, and in response, the invasion fleet incorporated a large contingent of Spanish troops drawn largely from the Philippines.

Saigon 1923

The “Jardin d’Espagne” on a 1923 map of Saigon

In the aftermath of the conquest, several streets in Saigon were named in honour of Spain, including rues Isabella, Isabella II and Palanca.

The French authorities also granted the Spanish government a plot of land on which to build a consulate. According to the Colonial Council minutes dated 8 November 1928, the Conventions of 15 May 1864 signed by Spanish Acting Consul Manuel M Caballero, and of 31 January 1866 signed by his successor Fédérico Taque, ceded to the Spanish government “a 3,000m² plot of land on the north side of the junction between rues Lagrandière and Mac-Mahon [now Lý Tự Trọng and Nam Kỳ Khởi Nghĩa].” The concession of this land, now part of Lý Tự Trọng Park, was “made free of charge, but under the provision that the land is allocated solely for installation of a Spanish consulate and cannot be used for any other purpose.”

For a short while, an “old Annamite house” on the site was occupied by a group of Spanish naval officers. However, when the Spanish delegation eventually departed from Saigon, it had “failed to take effective possession of this land and abandoned the project of constructing a consulate in Saigon.” Thereafter, Spanish diplomatic affairs in Cochinchina were handled through the Consular Agent of Portugal.

The “Jardin d’Espagne” may be seen on the right of this early 20th century postcard of the Lieutenant Governor’s Palace

Over the next half-century, as the surrounding streets were transformed into the so-called “Triangle of Power” (comprising the Law Courts, the Central Prison and the Palace of the Lieutenant Governor), this little piece of Spanish territory was christened the “Jardin d’Espagne.” During this period, it was looked after carefully by the staff of the Botanical and Zoological Gardens, who installed lawns and flowerbeds and took great care of its ancient banyan tree.

By 1919, the Consulate-General of Great Britain had outgrown its premises at 4 rue Georges-Guynemer [Hồ Tùng Mậu], and the search began for a suitable plot of land on which to build a larger diplomatic mission. The Jardin d’Espagne seemed to fit the bill perfectly, and later that year the British Consul-General wrote to the Director of Local Administration asking if the French government “would be disposed to give its consent to the cession of this land from the Spanish government to the British government, which proposes to build a consulate there.”

The three-way negotiations between France, Spain and Great Britain continued for another eight years, but finally on 10 November 1927, “the Consular Agent of Portugal, M Brodeur, in the name of the Spanish government, ceded and abandoned to the Consulate General of Great Britain represented by Mr F Grosvenor Gorton, its rights to the Jardin d’Espagne.”

The “Jardin d’Espagne” may be seen on the left of this early 20th century postcard of the Lieutenant Governor’s Palace

For its part, the Cochinchina government agreed that Great Britain would be substituted for Spain in the conditional rights to the land, which were once again linked exclusively to the construction of a consulate.

Had things proceeded as planned, the British Consulate in Hồ Chí Minh City might now be in a very different location and Saigon would have lost a valuable green space to redevelopment. But that wasn’t quite the end of the story.

After commissioning a long-overdue survey of the Jardin d’Espagne in December 1927, the British “encountered problems and communicated these to the Cochinchina authorities.” On 21 January 1928, Cochinchina Governor Paul Blanchard de la Brosse wrote to Grosvenor Gorton: “On the occasion of the transfer, you pointed out to me the inadequacy of the said land area with regard to its function, which is the construction of your consulate, and informed me that you would consider favorably the principle of exchange against another city lot administered through the Domaine locale.”

A subsequent report to the Colonial Council by Blanchard de la Brosse sheds further light on the problems encountered, and also reveals the alternative lot which had been identified:

A plan of the 3,548m² Lot 7 on boulevard Norodom, which the British Consulate General was granted in exchange for the “Jardin d’Espagne”

“The Consul General of Great Britain has noted that the area of this land is too small for construction of a [consulate] building, and secondly that the Jardin d’Espagne does not seem favorable for the installation of a consulate. For our part, the local administration believes that there is interest in maintaining the current function of the Jardin as a convenient square for walkers and children’s games in the very central area where it is located. Therefore, the principle of exchange of this land against Lot 7 of the subdivision plan of boulevard Norodom is being considered. This latter terrain, situated between boulevard Norodom [Lê Duẩn] and the rues de Massiges [Mạc Đĩnh Chi] and Lucien Mossard [Nguyễn Du], has an area of 3,548m² and its market value is equal to that of the land known as the Jardin d’Espagne.”

A formal offer was made, and on 25 April 1928, British Consul General F Grosvenor Gorton wrote to the Governor accepting the substituted plot on boulevard Norodom. This undoubtedly pleased the French – another report dated 26 November 1928 says of the Jardin d’Espagne that “its situation right in front of the Governor of Cochinchina’s Palace, from which it is separated only by the rue Lagrandière, is not appropriate for the installation of a consulate.”

“Saigon – Perspective du Boulevard Norodom”

On 6 October 1928 Les Annales coloniales carried an article entitled “The future British Consulate in Saigon,” reporting the exchange of the Jardin d’Espagne for the new plot on boulevard Norodom, and explaining that “the plans, drawn up in London, will be executed in Saigon under the supervision of one or more architects who will come all the way from England. The design will be a reproduction of those buildings already constructed to serve the same purpose in Bangkok and some major cities in China; or rather, it will be a ‘Cochinchina adaptation’ of the commonly adopted type.”

The replacement lot was formally ceded by the Domaine locale on 21 December 1928, but the new British Consulate General at 21 boulevard Norodom [now 25 Lê Duẩn] took several years to construct and was not inaugurated until 1934. Sadly, no photographs have survived of this building, which in the 1950s became the British Embassy to the State of Việt Nam and then briefly to the Republic of Việt Nam. It was demolished and rebuilt in its current form in 1958-1959.

The 1958-1959 British Embassy building, now the British Consulate General in Hồ Chí Minh City

Crucially, the land exchange of 1928 returned the Jardin d’Espagne to the Domaine locale and it became a small municipal park.

After 1955 it was renamed Công Vien Liên Hiệp (Union Park) and after 1975 Công Vien Lý Tự Trọng. Then in the early 1980s, the buildings which had stood on the adjacent plot of land were demolished and the park was doubled in size, so that today it stretches the entire length of the block between Nam Kỳ Khởi Nghĩa and Pasteur streets.

Abandoned by the Spanish and rejected by the British, the Jardin d’Espagne was eventually transformed into one of Saigon’s best-loved parks.

In the early 1980s, the buildings which had stood on the adjacent plot of land were demolished and the park was doubled in size, so that today it stretches the entire length of the block between Nam Kỳ Khởi Nghĩa and Pasteur streets

The view of the former Lieutenant Governor’s Palace, now the Hồ Chí Minh City Museum, from Lý Tự Trọng Park. Note the ancient banyan tree.

Lý Tự Trọng Park marked on the modern city map

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 Future for Petrus Ky’s Mausoleum and Memorial House?

The Pétrus Ký Mausoleum

This article was published previously in Saigoneer

Not yet recognised as a heritage site, the Mausoleum and Memorial House of Pétrus Ký, one of Việt Nam’s greatest intellects, has fallen into a state of disrepair.

Jean-Baptiste Pétrus Trương Vĩnh Ký (1837-1898)

Jean-Baptiste Pétrus Trương Vĩnh Ký (1837-1898) is widely recognised as one of the greatest Vietnamese scholars of the 19th century.

Having initially trained for the priesthood, Ký was employed in the early 1860s as an interpreter by the Société des Missions Étrangères de Paris (MEP). He later entered colonial service, becoming professor of oriental languages at the Collège des Interprètes, the École normale and the Collège des administrateurs stagiaires in Saigon.

Said to be fluent in at least 10 languages, Pétrus Ký left a remarkable legacy of over 100 works of literature, history and geography, as well as various dictionaries and translated works. He also wrote grammar study books on a wide range of oriental languages, including Chinese, Khmer, Lao, Malay, Siamese (Thai), Cham, Burmese, Tamil and Hindustani. As early as 1873-1874, Ký was cited by the Grand Larousse du XIXe siècle encyclopaedic dictionary as one of 18 world-famous writers of the 19th century.

Pétrus Ký’s house in Chợ Quàn, drawn in 1889

Ký was the editor of the academic journal Miscellanées and helped lay the foundations for the development of Vietnamese-language newspaper journalism.

After his death, Pétrus Ký was buried in the garden of his wooden-framed house in Chợ Quán which he had built in 1861.

In 1927, a bronze statue of Pétrus Ký by French sculptor Constant Roux was unveiled in the park behind the Saigon Cathedral. Then in 1935-1937, as the centenary of his birth approached, the Société d’enseignement mutuel de la Cochinchine built a western classical-style Mausoleum in Ký’s honour, enclosing his grave. During this period, his old wooden residence was restored and transformed into a Memorial House – for more details see Petrus Ky Mausoleum and Memorial House.

The same view of Pétrus Ký’s house in Chợ Quàn today, with a café blocking the view

Since 1975, the Memorial House has been occupied by two families, and in recent years a café has been installed in the Mausoleum grounds.

After Reunification, the Pétrus Ký statue behind the Cathedral was removed, but it has survived intact and currently stands in the rear compound of the Hồ Chí Minh City Fine Art Museum. The remains of its plinth, which suffered extensive damage during removal, are now stored in the front garden of the Hồ Chí Minh City Museum.

Over the past few years, the Pétrus Ký Mausoleum and Memorial House has become an increasingly popular destination for foreign visitors, due to its historical significance and the quality of its ancient architecture. In particular, the 154-year-old Memorial House is now one of the oldest surviving traditional-style houses in southern Việt Nam. However, the site has not yet been recognised by the Vietnamese authorities as Municipal or National Heritage and is currently in poor condition.

The Mausoleum and Memorial House roofs have both suffered serious damage from moisture and mould

Speaking for one branch of Pétrus Ký’s family, great grandson Richard Trương Vĩnh Tông, who lives in France, pointed out that the wooden frame of the Memorial House and the roofs of both buildings have suffered serious damage from moisture and mould and are in urgent need of repair. Many antique tiles have been broken or displaced, encouraging further water infiltration. The walls of both buildings and the outer wall of the compound also require urgent maintenance.

Legal documents passed down by Richard Trương’s grandfather Nicolas Trương Vĩnh Tông (the youngest of Ký’s nine children, who died in France in 1974) show that the “usufruct” rights to this site were granted to family members only for hương hoa (ceremonial offerings for the purposes of ancestor worship), and not for the purpose of residence.

“The Pétrus Ký Mausoleum and Memorial House should be preserved only as a place of tranquility, memory and respect.” (Pétrus Ký’s great grandson Richard Trương Vĩnh Tông)

“The café and adjacent motor cycle parking area, with all their associated detritus, are unsightly and noisy,” he said. “They contribute to the ongoing problem of deterioration and degredation. The Pétrus Ký Mausoleum and Memorial House should be preserved only as a place of tranquility, memory and respect.”

Over the years, overseas family members have contributed generously to the upkeep and repair of the compound, but its current lack of heritage status makes it difficult to prevent inappropriate usage. Richard Trương believes that recognition of the compound as a Municipal or National Heritage Site could not only afford legal protection but also make it possible to develop the Mausoleum and Memorial House as a visitors’ centre where cultural tourists can learn about the life and works of Pétrus Ký. Such a scheme could include the relocation of the 1927 bronze statue of Ký to the Chợ Quán compound.

Pétrus Ký made an important contribution to Vietnamese scholarship. It is to be hoped that a way can be found to preserve his Mausoleum and Memorial House as a heritage site for future generations to appreciate.

For other articles relating to Petrus Ky, see:
“A Visit to Petrus-Ky,” from En Indo-Chine 1894-1895
Old Saigon Building of the Week – Petrus Ky Mausoleum and Memorial House, 1937
Petrus Ky – Historical Memories of Saigon and its Environs, 1885, Part 1
Petrus Ky – Historical Memories of Saigon and its Environs, 1885, Part 2
Petrus Ky – Historical Memories of Saigon and its Environs, 1885, Part 3

A large part of the compound is used for motorcycle parking

Moisture and mould has damaged the wooden house frame

This official nomination (sắc phong) of King Bảo Đại consecrating the mausoleum and memorial house is in poor condition

The Mausoleum and Memorial House roofs have both suffered serious damage from moisture and mould

The damaged plinth of the Pétrus Ký statue is currently stored in the front garden of the Hồ Chí Minh City Museum.

The Pétrus Ký statue, currently located in the rear compound of the Hồ Chí Minh City Fine Art Museum

The interior of the Pétrus Ký Memorial House

The interior of the Pétrus Ký Mausoleum

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.

Historical Note on Saigon, 1917

Plan of the city of Saigon, 1790

Published in 1917 by the Saigon municipal government, Notice historique, administrative et politique sur la ville de Saïgon includes this colonial perspective on the history of Saigon.

Writers do not agree on the origins of the name “Saigon.” Some say that the name comes from the two words “Sai,” the Chinese character that means wood, and “Gon,” the Annamite word for cotton. “This name,” wrote Pétrus Ky, “comes from the quantity of cotton which the Cambodians planted around their ancient earthworks, traces of which still remain in the vicinity of the Cay-Mai pagoda.”

A Vietnamese farm outside Saigon

According to others, Saigon is derived from the term “Tai-Ngon,” the name given by Chinese settlers from My-Tho to the city later known as Cholon, which they founded on the arroyo-Chinois in around 1775, when, frightened by the depredations and cruelties of the Tay-Son, they thought it prudent to live closer to the capital “Ben Nghe” (current Saigon), where they would be safer.

Nevertheless, all agree – and we should note this in order to avoid confusion – that until the Franco-Spanish expedition to Cochinchina, the name “Saigon” designated the Chinese city (now Cholon), while the current city of Saigon was known as Ben-Nghe, “after the rach Ben-Nghe which the French named the arroyo-Chinois, having noticed that this arroyo led to the city of Cholon whose most numerous inhabitants were Chinese traders.” (Pétrus Ky).

The name Ben Nghe-applied to the area between the arroyo-de-l’Avalanche [Thị Nghè creek], the Saigon river and the current arroyo-Chinois [Bến Nghé creek]. It was also called Gia-Dinh, a name which, by extension, also served for a time to designate the entire eastern part of Lower Cochinchina.

Pétrus Ký

According to Pétrus Ky, before the reign of Gia-Long, Saigon was nothing more than a Cambodian village. However, it must have been quite an important centre, for history relates that towards the end of the 17th century, and during the course of the 18th century, it was the residence of the Second King of Cambodia.

Indeed, until 1684, Lower Cochinchina, which was part of the Khmer kingdom, was governed by its second king, while the first king resided in Udong, which had become the capital of the kingdom.

At that time, civil war broke out in Lower Cochinchina. The king of Annam, at the request of the second king of Cambodia, who, as we have said, lived in Ben-Nghe (Saigon), became the arbiter of the dispute between the Cambodian sovereign and the Chinese settlers in My-Tho and Bien-Hoa. He dispatched to the area the Annamite Governor of Khanh-Hoa, who, after defeating the Chinese at My-Tho, concluded a treaty with the king of Cambodia. However, when the latter was unfaithful to the treaty, the king of Hue sent the mandarin Nguyen-Huu-Hao to Lower Cochinchina to bring him to justice.

The campaign did not last long. The first king of Cambodia was taken prisoner and died shortly after his arrival in Saigon. The second king, gripped by fear, killed himself.

A two-masted Chinese junk, from the Tiangong Kaiwu of Song Yingxing (1637)

Before his death, the king of Cambodia had to accept the overlordship of the court of Hue, and also lost his nominal sovereignty over Lower Cochinchina, which was later (1689) definitively taken from him.

In the meantime, eager to escape the Manchu domination, three Chinese generals of the imperial Ming army, followed by several thousand soldiers, asked to settle in Cochinchina in order to exploit its vast uncultivated lands. In fact, they came with the approval of the court of Hue, with the hidden intention to conquer the country on behalf of the king of Annam. They settled in the provinces of Bien-Hoa and My-Tho, where they wasted no time driving out the indigenous population in concert with the Annamite infiltrators. Another Chinese, the adventurer Mac Cuu, seized the country of Ha-Tien, simultaneously paying homage to the emperor of Annam.

Thus was formed the Annamite colony of Lower Cochinchina, its population bolstered by the mass transportation of all the vagabonds of the kingdom. At the head of its administration was placed a kinh-luoc (viceroy), who established his residence in Ben-Nghe (Saigon), from which the Cambodian community were expelled.

Pigneau de Béhaine, Bishop of Adran

During the Tay-Son war, Saigon was taken and retaken several times, sometimes by Nguyen-Anh, legitimate heir of the Nguyen, and sometimes by the Tay-Son. Eventually, thanks to the support of Bishop Pigneau de Béhaine and the brave French officers who came after him, the chua (lord) of Cochinchina could definitively chase out the usurpers and consolidate his power over all of Lower Cochinchina (1790).

Nguyen-Anh – who later proclaimed himself emperor of Annam under the name Gia-Long – chose Saigon as his imperial residence until 1811, when he left to settle in Hue, leaving as governor of Cochinchina the ta-quan (left marshal) Lè-Van-Duyet, a grand dignitary of the court of Annam, known to history as the “great eunuch.” It was also in Saigon that Le-Van-Duyet established his residence.

Saigon under Gia-Long

“The city was laid out and fortified in 1790 by Colonel Victor Olivier. It stretched, as today, from the right bank of the river, between the rach Ben-Nghe and the rach Thi-Nghe (which we named the arroyo-Chinois and the arroyo-de-l’Avalanche). Laid out regularly, there were over forty straight roads, 15 to 20 metres wide and generally perpendicular or parallel to the riverbank. Two canals advanced into the heart of the city, and naturally, there were some wetlands, particularly in the terrain which later became rue de Canton, and also between the old route de Cholon and the arroyo-Chinois (the marais Boresse).

Plan of Saigon, 1793

In the centre was the citadel, a huge square bastion with a perimeter of 2,500 metres. Access was gained through two gates on each side, and the main axis of the structure was in line with the present-day road leading to the Third Avalanche bridge, the rue Paul Blanchy [Hai Bà Trưng].

The citadel walls enclosed many buildings. In the middle was the royal palace, and in front of that were the military parade ground and the field artillery park. A monumental flagpole stood in the centre of the bastion, looking out towards the river. On the left of the royal palace was the residence of the crown prince. At its rear was the residence of the queen. On the right of the royal palace were the arsenal, the forges and ten workshop buildings. The bastions at the centre of the northeast, northwest and southwest faces contained the powder magazines. Between the residence of the queen and the northwest powder magazine was the hospital. On the left, behind the royal palace and the residence of the crown prince, were the army stores (nine buildings).

With its ramparts, ditches and glacis [earthen banks], the citadel covered an area of about 65 hectares; moreover, on the northwest side, at the foot of the glacis, were barracks, straddling the road to the Third Avalanche bridge [the Kiệu bridge].

Plan of the 1790 citadel

The city itself was also encircled by a fortified wall – probably an earthen embankment – with forts at regular intervals. Facing the Plain of Tombs, it ran from the Second Avalanche bridge [the Bông bridge], following the right bank of the river and then heading west, intersecting the route de Thuan-Kieu and continuing to Cholon.

Down river from Saigon, on both banks, stood strong bastions which we called the “fort du Sud” (on the right bank), and the “fort du Nord” (on the left bank) – the second more important than the first – which defended the approaches to the city.

On the bank of the arroyo-de-l’Avalanche, before reaching the First Avalanche bridge [Thị Nghè bridge], were the shipbuilding yards. It was lower down from here, on the Saigon river, that after our arrival we set up the naval barracks and artillery. Among the workshops on the arroyo-de-l’Avalanche we installed a dry dock.

Towards the location of the current central prison was the royal treasury. It was on the site of the royal brick kilns that we built our market, which will soon be abandoned. The food stores were in Cho-Quan.

The Pigneau de Béhaine mausoleum, demolished in 1983

Since we are trying to describe the Saigon of Gia-Long and Victor Ollivier – the Saigon which saw the uprising of Khoi and the subsequent destruction by Minh Mang, just a dozen years after the death of Gia-Long – we may be permitted to add a few more interesting details for those who are concerned about the past of our Indochina.

This Gia-Dinh (Saigon) had about 50,000 souls, living in forty villages or hamlets clustered around the citadel, in the territory that extended as far as Cholon (big market). Between the northeast face of the Citadel and the arroyo-de-l’Avalanche there was a community of native Christians, clustered around the house of the bishop of Adran; this community was located around 200 metres beyond the glacis, not far from the land on which our first general food stores were later built. It was to here in 1799 that the coffin of Pigneau de Béhaine was brought to be placed on view, and it was from here that the funeral procession, with Gia-Long at its head, processed along the northeast and northwest sides of the citadel to the place of burial, now the national monument that we all know [see Lăng Cha Cả – from mausoleum…. to roundabout!].

Marshal Lê Văn Duyệt

After the recapture of Saigon by the troops of Minh-Mang, the Christian community and the house of the Bishop of Adran were destroyed and the Christians were driven across to the left bank of rach Thi-Nghe, where there is now a hospital of the Sisters of the Sainte-Enfance.” (Extract from Revue Indochinoise: “l’Insurrection de Giadinh,” by M J Silvestre).

Saigon under Minh-Mang, Thieu-Tri and Tu-Duc

On the death of Gia Long (1820). Le-Van-Duyet, who was then still the governor general of Lower Cochinchina, went to Hue for the coronation celebrations. Minh Mang thought to get rid of Le-Van-Duyet because his actions thwarted the accomplishment of the king’s designs, and especially because he knew Le-Van-Duyet to be favourable to the French and the Christians. Having failed in his criminal enterprise, he let him go back to Saigon. But when he learned of his death, the Emperor abolished his charge and divided Lower Cochinchina into six provinces, with as many Governors. That of Saigon (Gia-Dinh) instituted a court under the king’s presidency for the posthumous trial of the deceased.

This outrage deeply wounded the officers of the old marshal. In addition, the governor of Gia-Dinh accused one of those officers, Pho-Ve-Huy (Lieutenant Colonel) Le-Huu-Khoi, of having exploited the forests for his own use, and demoted him. This was the signal for revolt.

King Minh Mạng

Minh-Mang sent troops by land and sea to fight the rebellion, and on 8 September 1835, the imperial army took by storm the citadel of Saigon, where the besieged were entrenched. The repression was terrible. More than a thousand people were massacred, with the exception of the five main leaders and the French missionary Father Marchand, who, found in the citadel, was considered to be an accomplice of the rebels.

These six prisoners were locked in cages and sent to Hue, where they were tried. After enduring torture, they were sentenced to the “execution of one hundred cuts.”

“The taking of the citadel of Gia Long, called Phan-Yen, had been very difficult and the siege had lasted two years. Afterwards it was razed to the ground by order of Minh Mang, and in its place was built the fortress of lesser dimensions which we captured when we took Saigon in 1859.

In 1879, one could still see the remains of ditches behind the old Camp des lettrés, close to the rue Chasseloup-Laubat, and by marking the location of these half-filled ditches, one could trace the footprint of Gia-Long’s huge 1790 citadel. One of its faces, starting from a point located to the northeast of the Pagode Barbé and descending southeastward to the residence of the Director of Engineering, measured approximately 900 metres in a straight line. The northwest bastion extended outwards from the spot which today forms the intersection of rue Chasseloup-Laubat [Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai] and rue Pellerin [Pasteur].

The Franco-Spanish fleet in Tourane, 1859

During the construction of the Saigon Cathedral, we had to remove a considerable amount of rubble to lay the foundations for that monument, and when we did so, we discovered a layer of ash and charred debris, thirty centimetres thick. This was probably the remains of Khoi’s supplies stores, burned to the ground when the citadel fell. Amongst this debris, we found masses of copper coins, welded together by the heat, plus large quantities of iron and stone cannon balls, as well as the bodies of children buried in sealed jars. In fact, the Cathedral site is located in the area between the south and west bastions of the ancient citadel, close to the southwest face.” (M J Silvestre).

Saigon from conquest to the present day

Under the Emperors Minh-Mang, Thieu-Tri and Tu-Duc, foreigners were systematically rebuffed and Christians persecuted. “After the murder of Spanish bishop Monsignor Diaz and the outrageous reception prepared for the French ship Catinat in the Bay of Tourane, France and Spain decided to act in a forceful way.” (Géographie générale de l’Indochine by P. Alinot).

The capture of the second Gia Định Citadel in 1859

An expedition entrusted to Admiral Rigault de Genouilly was sent to Cochinchina (1857). After occupying Tourane (1858), the Admiral, at the head of a naval division, went to Lower Cochinchina and arrived on 15 February 1859 in the city of Saigon. The citadel, which was taken on 17 February, gave us possession of considerable matériel.

The following 1 November, Admiral de Genouilly, recalled to France at his own request, was replaced by Rear Admiral Page. Sent shortly after to China, he left in Saigon a garrison of 800 men, including 200 Spanish Tagals and a small fleet of two corvettes and four sloops. The command was given to Captain Ariès, supported by Spanish Colonel Palanca Guittierez.

The Annamites, profiting from our numerical weakness, tried by incessant skirmishes to tire the expeditionary force. It was besieged in Saigon and not until the end of the China campaign could we resume operations with vigour.

Vice Admiral Charner arrived in Saigon on 7 February 1861, and a few days later, after brilliant feats of arms by his soldiers, he took the famous “Lines of Ky-Hoa,” where the Annamites had been entrenched.

The capture of the “Lines of Ky-Hoa” in 1862

The siege of Saigon finally raised, we could devote attention to the organisation of the conquest.

“The retail trade and the mooring of large junks gave a certain significance to our Saigon: many shops were established in Ben-Nghe and in Cho-Moi. At that time, along the banks of the Saigon river and the arroyo-Chinois, there existed two long streets lined with houses with tiled roofs. Today these buildings have disappeared and the country certainly has no reason to complain. We made a clean sweep of the old town and its location. Everything has changed: we levelled heights and filled ponds, dug canals, and replaced the waterside huts with large forty metre quays. European houses gradually succeeded the old Annamite huts. Today, the beautiful trees planted along our main streets make us forget the verdant groves of areca which were slaughtered for the purpose of building and sanitation. Soon, iron bridges will replace the old wooden ones.

Saigon port in the early 20th century

Although only five years separate us from the era when this transformation began, it would be very difficult today, even for those who have not left the colony since 1861, to find traces of the ancient city, to recognise the terrain and to replicate exactly the original look of the place.” (M H Blaquière, writing in the Courrier Saigonnais on 20 January 1868).

These lines were written, nearly fifty years ago. How many more changes have taken place since then?

M H Blaquière continues: “Fifty years ago, the Saigon area was a muddy plain, crossed by meandering arroyos, the natural result of the Boresse marsh, and dominated by an Annamite citadel enclosed by walls of earth and foul ditches.”

“Today,” add the Annales coloniales, “Saigon is the ‘Pearl of the Far East,’ with many roads leading to other pretty towns such as Bien-Hoa, Cholon, My-Tho, Baria, etc. If we take into account the relatively short time of our occupation compared to the neighbouring British colonies which date back more than a century, or the Dutch colonies which have already celebrated their tercentenary, one will be amazed at the progress that our ancestors have achieved in a region once so unhealthy, where every task was the task of Titan.”

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 – Ba Son Shipyard, 1790


Ba Sơn Shipyard, photograph kindly supplied by Alexandre Garel

This article was published previously in Saigoneer

According to a recent article in Thanh Niên newspaper, the Ba Son Shipyard – Saigon’s oldest and most important maritime heritage site, recognised by the Ministry of Culture and Information in 1993 as a National Historic Monument (Decision 1034-QĐ/BT) – is likely to be sold off to a South Korean investor for redevelopment.

Nguyễn Phúc Ánh, founder of the Chu Sư royal naval workshop in Bến Nghé (Saigon)

The site, which has been under threat for many years and has already been partially demolished to make way for the new Thủ Thiêm Bridge, was described in the book Di Tích Lịch Sử-Văn Hóa Thành Phố Hồ Chí Minh (Nhà Xuất Bản Trẻ, 1998) as “an important vestige of one of Saigon’s earliest industries and the cradle of the working class struggle movement in Saigon.”

The shipyard’s founder was Nguyễn Phúc Ánh who, after reoccupying Gia Định in 1790, established the Chu Sư royal naval workshop in Bến Nghé (Saigon) to assemble a fleet of modern warships. Military mandarin and local hero Võ Di Nguy (1745-1801) is believed to have presided over its early development and masterminded the subsequent successful Nguyễn naval campaigns against the Tây Sơn, which paved the way for the final victory of 1801.

After Nguyễn Phúc Ánh ascended to the throne as King Gia Long (1802-1820), Chu Sư was expanded into a large shipbuilding facility and cannon foundry, which at its height employed several thousand workers of various professions.

“Xưởng Thủy” (Naval Workshop) was marked prominently on this 1815 map by Trần Văn Học

In his Geography of Gia Định (Gia Định thành thông chí, 嘉定城通志), penned during the final years of Gia Long’s reign, Trịnh Hoài Đức wrote:

“The Chu Sư workshop, located approximately 1 li [c 500m] east of the Citadel along the Tân Bình [Saigon] river, next to the Bình Trị river [Thị Nghè creek], is a factory which makes seagoing ships of the navy, a military workshop 3 li in length.”

During this same period, the “Xưởng Thủy” (Naval Workshop) was marked prominently on an 1815 map by Trần Văn Học.

Visiting Gia Định in 1819, American mariner John White was so impressed by the facilities of the royal shipyard that he “made frequent visits” and devoted considerable space to it in his memoirs, A Voyage to Cochinchina (1824):

An early Nguyễn dynasty warship

“In the north-eastern part of the city, on the banks of a deep creek, is the navy yard and naval arsenal, where, in the time of rebellion, some large war-junks were built; and two frigates of European construction, under the superintendance of French officers. This establishment does more honour to the Annamites than any other object in their country; indeed, it may vie with many of the naval establishments in Europe. There were no large vessels built, or building, but there were simple materials of the most excellent kind, for several frigates. The ship-timber and planks excelled anything I had ever seen….
There were about one hundred and fifty galleys, of most beautiful construction, hauled up under sheds; they were from forty to one hundred feet long, some of them mounting sixteen guns of three pounds calibre. Others mounted four or six guns each, from four to twelve pounds calibre, all brass, and most beautiful pieces. There were besides these about forty other galleys afloat, preparing for an excursion that the viceroy [Le Văn Duyệt] was to make up the river on his return from Hue…

The right bank of the Saigon river

The Annamites are certainly most skilful naval architects, and finish their works with great neatness…
Cochin China is perhaps, of all the powers in Asia, the best adapted to maritime adventure; from her local situation in respect to other powers; from her facilities towards the production of a powerful navy to protect her commerce; from the excellence of her harbors; and from the aquatic nature of her population on the seaboard, the Annamites rivalling even the Chinese as sailors.”

However, the fact that the French were able to sail up the Sài Gòn river in 1859 and capture the town with little resistance has led some scholars to conclude that after 1820, under the centralising policies of Gia Long’s successors, there was a slow deterioration in the condition of both the Chu Sư arsenal and the naval fleet stationed there.

Soon after the arrival of the French in 1859, Chu Sư was upgraded. As early as 1861, Admiral-Governor Bonard ordered the construction of a 72m dry dock facility, but because of difficulties encountered (due to the nature of the soil), it was not completed until 6 April 1864.

l'Arsenal, vue générale

A view of the Arsenal in the late 19th century

On 28 April 1864, the French formally established the “Arsenal de Saigon” which, according to P Cultru’s Histoire de la Cochinchine française des origines à 1883 (1910), initially incorporated a metal workshop, a rope-making atelier, a kiln, a carpentry workshop and a boat repair dock. The nearby Naval Artillery supplied a 10-tonne crane and set up a machine centre and forge.

On 16 August 1866, in order to cope with increasing demand from the French navy, the Arsenal acquired a floating dry dock made from iron and measuring 91.44m L x 28.65m W. It was supplied by Randolph Elder and Co of Glasgow, which had just delivered a similar one to the Dutch arsenal in Surabaya. Embarrassingly, according to Leon Caubert (Souvenirs chinois, 1891), this installation sank on 1 September 1881.

For many years, in the absence of a dry dock large enough to accommodate its heavy cruisers and battleships, the French navy in the Far East was obliged to rely on the British Navy’s facilities in Singapore and Hong Kong.

The dry dock under construction in 1886

Finally in May 1884, additional land “between the jardin Botanique and the route de Bien-Hoa” was ceded, in order that a new dry dock facility could be built. It took nearly four years to construct and was inaugurated on 3 January 1888.

According to Eugène Bonhoure (Indo-Chine, 1900), “The dry dock is 168 metres long and can receive the largest ships of war, ensuring our squadrons a perfectly safe and convenient refuelling and rehabilitation point.” The French name for dry dock, “bassin de radoub,” is said to have given rise to the Arsenal’s Vietnamese name, “Ba Son.”

From the mid 1880s onwards, the Arsenal’s workshop facilities were completely rebuilt and re-equipped. In the words of Bonhoure: “The Arsenal has all the tools necessary for the most difficult repairs – there is a power hammer of two tonnes which can even forge a propellor shaft…. The new work that has been implemented significantly increases the defensive value of this installation.”

The École des mécaniciens Asiatiques, opened on 20 February 1906

Further expansion followed the reorganisation of the French navy in 1902, which created the “Naval Forces of the Oriental Seas” under the control of a Vice Admiral, comprising 38 vessels, 183 officers and 3,630 troops. In 1904-1906, the Arsenal “received many improvements,” including new facilities for the construction of S-type destroyers and a replacement floating dock, rendering it “able to meet all the demands of the full squadron of the Far East” (Situation de l’Indo-Chine de 1902 à 1907, ed Imprimerie M. Rey).

In 1906 the School of Asian Mechanics (École des mécaniciens Asiatiques, now the Cao Thắng Technical College) was set up to train its staff.

By 1913, the Arsenal was even being promoted as a “place of interest” in the Madrolle tourist guidebook:

An aerial view of the Arsenal de Saigon in the early 20th century

“The Naval Arsenal stands at the confluence of the arroyo-de-l’Avalanche [Thị Nghè creek] 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 168 metre dry dock.
The workshops, forges and power-hammers here are used to perform major repairs and even to build destroyers. Its employees include 1,500 Annamite and Chinese workers under the supervision of specialist foremen. On the river, several warships are anchored.” (Claudius Madrolle, Vers Angkor. Saïgon. Phnom-penh, 1913)

Yet another major upgrade was carried out 1918, enabling the Arsenal to build ships of up to 3,500 tonnes. The first of these “giants of the sea,” the Albert Sarraut, was launched with great fanfare in April 1921.

However, plans for the construction of a second large dry dock facility never materialised, and after the French government signed the “Pacific Pact” in 1922 (the Washington Naval Treaty, which limited the construction of battleships, battle cruisers and aircraft carriers by the signatories), the steady reduction in the French Far East fleet and increasing concerns about the Arsenal’s cost (by 1920 it was incurring an annual deficit of around 280,000 piastres) marked the start of a long period of decline. In the late 1920s, several attempts were made to privatise the Arsenal, but these failed, and in subsequent years, lacking investment, it became increasingly run-down.

The launch of the Albert Sarraut (85 metres) in 1921

However, the 1920s were a period of increased activity among the growing Vietnamese working class, and it was at the Arsenal de Saigon, from August-November 1925, that naval mechanic and revolutionary activist Tôn Đức Thắng (1888-1980) organised a major strike which delayed the repair of the French flagship Jules Michelet, then on its way to China.

According to the book Di Tích Lịch Sử-Văn Hóa Thành Phố Hồ Chí Minh (Nhà Xuất Bản Trẻ, 1998), “The mechanical workshop at 323 road 12 in the Ba Son compound was the workplace of mechanic Tôn Đức Thắng (later President of Việt Nam from 1969 to 30 August 1980), who took part in the Revolution during the years 1915-1928.”

Tôn Đức Thắng subsequently made a crucial contribution to the Revolution in the south by founding the Southern Executive Committee of the Việt Nam Revolutionary Youth League (Ủy viên Ban Chấp hành Kỳ bộ Nam Kỳ) in 1926-1927.

An aerial reconnaissance photograph taken in advance of the 1944-1945 Allied bombing campaign

Parts of the Arsenal de Saigon suffered damage during the Allied bombing campaign of 1944-1945, but repairs were carried out in 1948-1949.

In the wake of the Geneva Convention of 1954, the French fleet withdrew from Sài Gòn, and on 12 September 1956, the Arsenal de Saigon was transferred to the Republic of Việt Nam Ministry of National Defence. After Reunification in 1975 it was renamed the “Ba Son Federated Enterprise” (Xí nghiệp Liên hiệp Ba Son). However, over the past few years, ship repair and construction has been gradually relocated to Thị Vải (Bà Rịa-Vũng Tàu).

Today, the Ba Son Naval Arsenal preserves many original French workshop buildings, including several excellent examples of industrial architecture dating from the 1880s. On 12 August 1993, because of its historical, architectural and revolutionary importance, it was recognised as a national historic monument by the Ministry of Culture and Information in accordance with Decision 1034-QĐ/BT.

The Ba Son Naval Arsenal Heritage Centre, set up in the 1990s and closed in around 2005

In the 1990s, the Ba Son Naval Arsenal Heritage Centre (Nhà truyền thống Hải quân công xưởng Ba Son) was set up outside the compound to document the history of the shipyard and its association with the young revolutionary Tôn Đức Thắng. However it was closed in around 2005 and all of its contents have since been relocated to the Tôn Đức Thắng Museum at 5 Tôn Đức Thắng.

In recent years, several travel and tourism experts have expressed the hope that the old buildings of the Ba Son naval shipyard might one day be transformed into an important leisure and heritage complex, along the lines of New York’s South Street Seaport. The latest news appears to dash all hopes that this will happen.

Tim Russell, former Việt Nam tour operator and Thailand-based Marketing Director for luxury Asia travel specialist Remote Lands, gave his reaction to the news that the site would be completely redeveloped:

“I’ve been saying for years that Ba Son shipyard would make a perfect heritage zone for Saigon. The city lacks a dedicated entertainment district, and Ba Son would be perfect – colonial buildings ideal for converting into bars, restaurants, shops and cafes; city centre/riverside location; and a fully-enclosed area perfect for pedestrianisation.

The main entrance to the Ba Son Shipyard today

It would also be the perfect location for exhibits on the city’s history, which is in danger of being completely forgotten in the insane rush to modernise. Sadly, none of the above is likely to happen – as usual, money will talk, the old shipyard buildings will be demolished, and we’ll get more high-rise office buildings and empty shopping malls, and one of the last few drops of Saigon’s charm will disappear into the river…”

Mark Bowyer, founder of respected independent travel website Rusty Compass, added:

“Ba Son shipyard is the last opportunity Saigon’s leaders have to create a downtown space of scale with a strong heritage sensibility and strong public amenity. But this isn’t just a heritage issue, it’s an economic issue. Saigon’s reckless heritage destruction hurts tourism – but even worse, it hurts the city’s liveability, its global brand and in turn, its long term economic interests. Heritage is no longer a niche interest for foreigners in Vietnam. Vietnamese people are now very concerned about the destruction of their city. The next generation will rue these decisions.”

Time is now running out for this historic site. According to Thanh Niên, the city authorities are awaiting the state government’s opinion on the US$5 billion project proposed by South Korean developers, who hope to begin work on 2 September 2015.


The main gate of the Arsenal de Saigon in the early 20th century

Another view of the main gate of the Arsenal de Saigon in the early 20th century

The Arsenal de Saigon viewed from the river in the early 20th century

Construction of a torpedo boat in 1906

The dry dock at the Arsenal de Saigon in the early 20th century

The Albert Sarraut, built at the Arsenal de Saigon in 1920-1921

A ship under repair in the dry dock at the Arsenal de Saigon in 1931

A ship entering the dry dock at the Arsenal de Saigon in the 1930s

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.