“Cochinchina – Principal Centres of Population” from Notices coloniales, Antwerp World Fair, 1885

Saigon – the Botanical Gardens

Published on 3 June 1885 to coincide with the Antwerp World Fair (2 May-2 November 1885), Notices coloniales, publiées à l’occasion de l’Exposition universelle d’Anvers en 1885 contains the following description of Saigon, Chợ Lớn and other principal centres of population in French Cochinchina.

1. Saïgon

The city of Saigon is enclosed by an irregular trapezoid formed by the Saigon river to the east, the arroyo Chinois [Bến Nghé creek] to the south, the arroyo de l’Avalanche [Thị Nghè creek] to the north and the belt canal (canal de Ceinture) to the west.

The Grand Canal (now Nguyễn Huệ boulevard), pictured in 1882

Our conquest destroyed the old Saigon. The ambitious plan for the new city was more than just a resurrection; to realise this new creation, it was necessary to reduce the size of the plateau which dominated the settlement and to fill marshes which surrounded it, laying streets and building houses on shaky ground. This great work took several years.

The first street we created was the rue Catinat [Đồng Khởi], which was established on the path of an ancient Annamite street leading from the river to the citadel; all other major arteries run parallel to it. To the left of this street is the Grand Canal [Nguyễn Huệ], which permits boats loaded with freight to dock right in front of the main City Market. That market consists of eight large covered halls whose appearance would not look out of place in a large European city; here also, either side of the canal, are the quay Charner and the quay Rigault de Genouilly, which both extend as far as the rue d’Espagne [Lê Thánh Tôn]; and at the top of the canal we planted a lovely square on which a granite monument was erected to the memory of commandant de la Grée, leader of the Mekong expedition.

The City Market pictured in the 1880s before the filling of the Grand Canal

To the right of the rue Catinat is the rue Nationale [Hai Bà Trưng], a pleasant thoroughfare 20m in width, which departs from the Rond-point [Mê Linh square] and runs through the entire length of the city. A square has been built on the Rond-point, where five streets converge.

The boulevard de l’Hôpital [Thái Văn Lung] and the boulevard de la Citadelle [Tôn Đức Thắng] also lead from the quayside, running parallel to the rue Catinat. The boulevard de l’Hôpital stops at the rue d’Espagne, while the boulevard de la Citadelle continues as far as the arroyo de l’Avalanche, whence another avenue leads to Binh-Hoa [later Gia Định], seat of the Inspection of Saigon.

All of these roads run from southeast to northwest. They are intersected perpendicularly by many streets, whose direction is southwest-northeast.

The rue Pellerin (now Pasteur street), pictured in the late 19th century

The most important of these are, starting from the quayside: rue Vannier [Ngô Đức Kế], rue de l’Église [Tôn Thất Thiệp], boulevard Bonard [Lê Lợi], a thoroughfare 50m wide, rue d’Espagne, rue de La Grandière [Lý Tự Trọng], the starting point of the “High Road” to Cholon, rue Tabert [Nguyễn Du], boulevard Norodom [Lê Duẩn], in front of the Palace of the Government, and finally the rue Chasseloup-Laubat [Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai].

Wide streets also lead north from the arroyo Chinois to the Plain of Tombs (plaine des Tombeaux). These are rue Ollivier [Pasteur], rue Pellerin [Pasteur], rue Mac-Mahon [Nam Kỳ Khởi Nghĩa], which at its extremity runs in front of the Palace of the Government, and rue Boresse [Yersin]. In one section of the latter street, which borders the arroyo Chinois, we recently built a petrol store which holds the colony’s entire supply of petrol for two years; behind this store is the city abbatoir.

Saigon – the new quays and docks

All these streets are lined with beautiful sidewalks which cover the vast masonry sewers and have been shaded by the planting of various trees of remarkable vigour, such as tamarind, mango, sao, banana and teak.

The ships of the Messageries maritimes are moored at the entrance of the city, opposite the agent’s headquarters and other important buildings constructed by that company, with the aim of making Saigon the Southeast Asian shipping hub for China and Japan. A beautiful bridge over the arroyo Chinois [Eiffel’s pont des Messageries maritimes or cầu Mống] connects the Messageries to the city, in line with the rue Pellerin.

In front of the Messageries, at the junction of the Saigon river and the arroyo Chinois, are the Signal Mast and the terminus for the steam tramway which runs between Saigon and Cholon. From here, walking north along the quayside, one passes the offices of the Commercial Port Directorate and the Maison Wang-Tai, a massive construction raised by a wealthy Chinese, which now belongs to the Customs and Excise administration.

The main entrance to the Naval Artillery, pictured in the late 19th century

Beyond the entrance to the Grand Canal are many cafés, the headquarters of the Compagnie des Messageries de Cochinchine, the Port of War Directorate, and the shipyards and other facilities of the Marine Artillery. Then on the right, one passes the Naval Wharf and the Admiral’s flagship, the Tilsit, the Indochina station Manning Pool [naval barracks], and finally the Arsenal, which interrupts the flow of quays and continues as far north as the entrance to the arroyo de l’Avalanche.

Between the Signal Mast and the commercial port is the Saigon Railway Station, installed by the company which will soon launch a new rail service between Saigon and My-Tho.

The Saigon Arsenal occupies an area of 22 hectares and measures no less than 950m at its greatest length. This is an establishment of the premier order, which employs more than 600 Chinese and Annamite workers.

The Sainte-Enfance (Holy Childhood) complex, run by the Sisters of Saint-Paul de Chartres, pictured in 1866

Behind the Arsenal are the Botanical Gardens, which house the pavilion of the director, an aviary containing specimens of all the birds of Cochinchina, enclosures housing herds of deer and buffalo, and ponds where many water birds frolic.

In front of the Botanical Gardens, on the rue de Tay-Ninh [Nguyễn Bỉnh Khiêm], is the collège d’Adran. Behind it, with their entrances on the boulevard de la Citadelle, are the Seminary of the Mission, the elaborate façade of which catches the eye, and the Sainte-Enfance [Holy Childhood], a vast and beautiful establishment run by the Sisters of Saint-Paul de Chartres. This is a building of mixed design, ornamented in indigenous style and flanked by a Gothic chapel, whose slender and graceful spire dominates the landscape and may be seen from afar. Opposite the Sainte-Enfance, on the boulevard de la Citadelle, is a convent of European and indigenous Carmelite nuns.

The Citadel is a large earthwork with bastions at each corner, measuring 870m on each side and now intersected by the modern rue Chasseloup-Laubat and boulevard de la Citadelle.

One of the Colonial Infantry Barracks buildings

At the time of our taking Saigon, the Citadel contained huge stores full of rice, which the necessities of war forced us to burn. Within the enclosure, our military engineering corps constructed two magnificent barracks buildings, built of iron and brick and each housing 800 men. These premises, destined for troops of the Naval Infantry, leave nothing to be desired in terms of hygiene and amenities.

The Military [later Grall] Hospital, built to the same architectural design as that of the barracks, with its main entrance on the rue de La Grandière, is a huge facility which consists of a series of large pavilions supported by cast iron frames, connected by covered corridors.

If, on leaving the Citadel, one travels from northeast to southwest, following the rue Chasseloup-Laubat, one passes on the left the old camp des Lettrés [Camp of the literati or Trường Thi, where royal mandarin examinations were once held], which has long served as barracks, and on the right, the Water Tower (Château d’eau) and supply basins. A little further along is the collège Chasseloup-Laubat or École normale supérieure indigene [Lê Quý Đôn High School], a vast building housing 300 students.

The Barbé Pagoda

Just behind it is the Barbé Pagoda [on the site now occupied by the War Remnants’ Museum], named after the captain who was killed there in an Annamite ambush. It was here that Minh Mang, son of Gia Long, was born; and it was Minh-Mang who originally built this pagoda in memory of his birth.

The Park of the Palace of the Government [later the Norodom Palace] and the City Park [Tao Đàn Park], located next to each other, border rue Chasseloup-Laubat opposite the collège Chasseloup-Laubat.

The front façade of the Palace of the Government measures no less than 80m in length. It consists of two pavilions at both ends and a central portion with a dome and covered access ramp. The ground floor, raised over a basement where the kitchens and other service departments are located, contains: on the right, the offices, including the Office of the Governor; on the left, the council meeting room; and in the middle, the dining room, telegraph office and privy council secretariat. Also in the middle is a magnificent vestibule, from which a double width marble staircase leads up to the first floor apartments. Beyond the vestibule is the beautiful and richly decorated events hall (salle des fêtes), which lies perpendicular to the rear façade of the palace and is easily capable of accommodating 800 guests.

The Palace of the Government, soon after its completion in 1872

Leaving the Palace of the Government by the boulevard Norodom, which extends in line with the central axis of the palace, one finds the Bishop’s Palace [on the site now occupied by the Department of Foreign Affairs], the Cathedral and the Cercle des officiers [now occupied by the District 1 People’s Committee], which serves as mess for the marine infantry. The latter is a vast and beautiful property which was established thanks to the solicitude of Admiral-Governor Duperré.

The Cathedral forms the centre of a huge square, in line with the axis of the rue Catinat. The upper part of the rue Catinat, the busiest street in Saigon, along with neighbouring parts of the streets it crosses, are home to all of the main government services. It is at the top end of this street that one may find the Treasury, the Post Office, the Secretariat General, the Land Registry and Mapping Office, the Directorate of the Interior and the City Hall. On the rue de La Grandière are located the Council of War, the Observatory, the Municipal Institution, the Central Telegraph Office, the Police Barracks, the Attorney General’s Office, the Law Courts and, a bit further along, the Prison.

Chettyar (Tamil) money changers in Saigon

The appearance of the streets of Saigon is very lively and curious; here live mixed populations from a range of different civilisations; French and other Europeans, Annamites, Chinese, Malays, Tagals and Indians – most of whom come from Pondicherry and Karaikal on the Coromandel coast – all elbow each other on the streets.

The indigenous population occupies the large suburbs, where it lives at will, building huts along the river, around the markets, or in the middle of small gardens with fruit trees. The Chinese, by preference, live in the lower part of the city, in the commercial areas, and most notably around the main market. The Indians are particularly fond of the areas surrounding the “High Road” to Cholon, the prison and the lower end of the route de Tongkéou [Cách mạng Tháng 8].

European traders are obliged to set up their shops and stores on the quayside or in the surrounding streets. As for government officials, they live mostly on the plateau which overlooks the Saigon river from a height of around 10m, in houses typically built with a front courtyard and a rear garden. The population of Saigon and its suburbs, including soldiers and sailors, government officials and the floating population, may be estimated at 65,000 to 70,000 souls.

Gò Vấp Market in the late 19th century

The areas around Saigon offer the population many beautiful walks and pretty roads which, from 5pm each day, are lined with carriages; this is the time when one can go out without fear of sunstroke. Among the most popular are the roads to Cholon and to the big market at Go-Vap. The neighborhoods en route are populated largely by indigenous people who, having thrown their lot in with us from the beginning and having undergone the vicissitudes of conquest since the evacuation of Tourane, received a concession on the banks of the arroyo de l’Avalanche, between the second and third Avalanche bridges. On the left bank of the arroyo are large and rich villages such as Phu-Hoa and Hiep-Hoa, which provide Saigon with fruits and vegetables.

Leaving the market at Go-Vap and heading south, roughly parallel to the arroyo de l’Avalanche, one follows a magnificent route which, after the first Avalanche bridge, passes the buildings of the Inspection of Binh-Hoa, crosses the road to Hocmon, above the third Avalanche bridge, and continues as far as the route de Tongkéou, passing the tomb of Pigneau de Béhaine, the famous Bishop of Adran, author of the treaty of 1787 between France and Annam and advisor and friend to the Emperor Gia Long.

The Tomb of the Bishop of Adran in 1867

It was to this place, after the pacification of the country, that the bishop of Adran retired and cultivated a garden where he successfully grew the mangosteens he had brought from the islands of the Gulf of Siam. When Pigneau died in 1799, Gia Long gave him a magnificent funeral and ordered the construction, in the middle of Pigneau’s garden, of a funeral monument designed by a French architect in the style of a Cochinchinese pagoda. The tomb has always been respected by the local people, even when Annamite troops occupied the plain of Ky-Hoa in 1861. Later that same year, Admiral Charner declared the tomb to be national heritage.

One returns from the Tomb of the Bishop to Saigon [around 6km] by the route de Tongkéou, which crosses the Belt Canal, the famous lignes de Ky-Hoa, removed after the bloody struggle in 1861, and the arid and dusty Plain of Tombs.

2. Cholon

The city of Cholon is, after Saigon, the most important centre of the colony.

A street in Chợ Lớn

In 1778, a group of Chinese settlers, driven from My-Tho and Bien-Hoa by the invasion of the Tay-Son, came up the Tan-Binh river and founded, on a beautifully selected site, the city to which they gave the name Tai-Ngon. Through the activity and perseverance of the people, this soon became the most important commercial centre of the six provinces of Lower Cochinchina. The Annamites gave it the name Cholon, meaning “Big Market”.

The subsequent ban by the Annamite court on the export of all commodities other than rice, the edict which limited the number of Chinese, and the sumptuary laws which were applied to them, discouraged neither the skill nor the commercial genius of those hardy traders. These vexatious measures did not prevent them from building, at their own expense, stone piers over a length of several kilometres, and making a major contribution towards the upgrading of the canal connecting the Binh-Duong or Vam-Buc-Nghe [Bến Nghé creek] with the Ruot-Ngua which led to Rach-Cat [1819]. The Ruot-Ngua itself had been dug in 1772. At the same time, they completed the work of the arroyo de la Poste [Bảo Định canal], which was dug from 1755. From around 1820, Cholon became the necessary warehouse for all commodities of this rich region.

The Chợ Lớn creek (mislabelled “arroyo Chinois”)

The French occupation initially caused some apprehension among the Chinese merchants of Cholon, but the latter soon realised that it gave them more guarantees for the safety of their business, that they could forever be rid of the abuses of the authorities, and that it promised them the safeguard of equal law for all. Within a few years, the sphere of their transactions had increased tenfold.

Cholon is located 5km from Saigon at the crossroads of an ancient waterway, the Lo-Gom, and the canal which drains it into the arroyo Chinois. The city, regularly embellished and almost entirely rebuilt since our conquest, has quays of several kilometres in length, lined with houses of a beautiful appearance. Many bridges, raised high above the level of the quays to permit the junks and barges free circulation along the canals at any tide, give a unique aspect to this bustling city.

It is through the depot shops of Cholon that pass every year between 4 and 5 million piculs of rice for export; it is here that they are processed and placed in sacks to be taken to Saigon, so that steamships may convey them to China, Japan, Java, Singapore and Manila.

Junks on the arroyo Chinois in Chợ Lớn

Nothing could be more animated than the scenery to be enjoyed from the pont du Jaccaréo [once located near the modern Võ Văn Kiệt-Hải Thượng Lãn Ông junction]. The influx of junks, barges, sampans; in the background, the curtain of greenery around the Cây-Mai pagoda military post; and the docks where we see rushing and fussing labourers, compradors, dealers, store clerks and small merchants; all forming a striking ensemble on which those who still doubt the future of Cochinchina should reflect.

Out in the countryside, the aspect changes: there are retail stores, held by the Chinese if trade is important, and by Annamite women if the business is small. Among the shops belonging to grocers, fancy goods sellers, goldsmiths, restorers, pharmacists, tailors and food merchants, even those of the funeral directors and coffin manufacturers are no less pretty and elegant. Each store has at its door a sign with the merchant’s name in Chinese characters, artistically painted in black, red, blue or gold, according to the fortune or the whim of the master of the establishment.

The Fujianese Theatre in Chợ Lớn

At night, the shops of Cholon stay open. The streets, equipped with lamps which are lit by the municipality, are further illuminated by Chinese lanterns of the most varied shapes and colours, which bear in transparent letters the signs of the merchant. By this time, the hours of labour have ceased, making way for the hours of pleasure; crowds gather at the doors of Chinese theatres, and they all cram inside to attend the endless dramas that are the delight of this race, as eager for amusement as it is active and industrious.

Cholon has a population of at least 40,000 souls. The Chinese here are more numerous; the Annamite population seems to fear being absorbed by them, and tends to live far away from the noisy streets where traffic is too active. The city is regularly intersected by roads, all very neatly kept, and the French police have made the Chinese yield to our habits.

A beautiful market, paved in granite, occupies the centre of the city. One also notes nearby the very fine building constructed for the administrators of Indigenous Affairs.

The Chinese have numerous very curious pagodas, among them that of the warrior gods and the Kouan-Chin-Whay, built by the congregation of Canton to the goddess Apho.

The “Pagoda of the Seven Congregations” in Chợ Lớn

The Chinese population of Cholon is divided between seven congregations which represent the different regions of China from which the Chinese settlers originate, each having its own customs and dialects. However, they agree among themselves, because they have adopted Annamite as their common language, and because ideographic writing is common to both the Annamites and the Chinese. A council of notables, chosen from various nationalities, operates under the direction of the first administrator, dealing with everything related to municipal interests. Cholon has a church, a pawn shop, an important school and a charity office.

There are two roads connecting Saigon with Cholon.

The first is the “Low Road” [route basse] or waterfront road, which follows the arroyo Chinois along its entire length. Half way along is the Choquan Hospital. The Low Road is intersected by several bridges, all in good condition, and offers throughout its course a most picturesque view of the arroyo. At high tide, the latter is covered by an infinity of vessels of all sizes – junks, barges, sampans and even canoes, the occupants of which row with equal quantities of animation and ardour.

The opening of the Saigon-Chợ Lớn “High Road” tramway line in 1881

The second route, the route stratégique, is bordered, as it leaves Saigon, by European gardens, Chinese vegetable gardens and ancient Annamite gardens. It then passes the experimental farm known as the ferme des Mares, where one may see the remains of a royal pagoda, intended to perpetuate the memory of the illustrious men of the country. The route then continues to Cholon via the Plain of Tombs, the burial place of ancient Saigon. This plain is covered, over a distance of several kilometres, with brick or stone mounds; among them are some very remarkable monuments surrounded by high walls.

Cholon is also connected with Saigon by a steam tramway, which follows the old route stratégique and two paved roads.

3. My-Tho

My-Tho, capital of the district of the same name, and former capital of the Annamite province of Dinh-Tuong, is a very important town, both politically and commercially. It is located on the left bank of the northern branch of the Cambodian river, at the junction with the arroyo de la Poste. Formed from the two villages of Dieu-Hô and Dinh-Tao, My-Tho is located around 23 nautical miles by boat and 90km by land from Saigon, to which it will soon be connected by a railway line.

Mỹ Tho – boulevard Bourdais and the Inspection

My-Tho is the seat of an administrator of Indigenous Affairs and also has a courthouse. Its large Annamite citadel was transformed into a military barracks in 1877. Among the straw huts which line the quayside, one may also see many brick houses with tiled roofs.

The town also boasts a beautiful Catholic church, a first class medical clinic, a post and telegraph office, a treasury, a college, and a hospital for indigenous people. My-Tho has around 6,000 inhabitants.

4. Vinh-Long

Vinh-Long is the capital of the former province of the same name; the Annamites call it the “Garden of Cochinchina.” Vinh-Long is situated 26 nautical miles from My-Tho and occupies the angle formed by the Cochien and the Long-Ho, thus controlling the four arms of the Cambodian river.

Vĩnh Long – the quays

It is the place of residence of an administrator and the seat of a court; it also has a huge market and its port is frequented by many Annamite boats.

The city has a citadel, a military clinic, a post and telegraph office, a treasury and several important schools. Vinh-Long has around 5,000 inhabitants.

5. Chaudoc

Chaudoc is the capital of the district of the same name; it is the capital of the former Annamite province of An-Giang, and its citadel monitors the Cambodian border. Chaudoc communicates with Hatien by the Vinh-Te Canal and with the Mekong river by the Vinh-An Canal.

Châu Đốc – the creek at the foot of the mountain

It has a large market, an important military post, a citadel, an administrator’s residence, a courthouse, a post and telegraph office, a treasury and a clinic. Chau-doc has about 4,500 inhabitants.

6. Other Centres of Population

Most of Cochinchina’s other centres of population are the capitals of the various districts: Tay-Ninh, Thudaumot, Baria, Bien-Hoa, Tanan, Gocong, Bentré, Sadec, Long-Xuyen, Cantho, Hatien, Rach-Gia, Baclieu, Soctrang. Many date from the conquest and they are all expected to become more and more important in future.

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 – Thu Thiem Parish Church and Lovers of the Holy Cross Convent

The 1875 rectory of Thủ Thiêm Parish Church is an unusually late example of the so-called “early vernacular” style of French colonial architecture

This article was published previously in Saigoneer.

Two of Saigon’s oldest Roman Catholic institutions, located across the river in Thủ Thiêm, may soon be gone.

The Thũ Thiêm New Urban Zone project

It’s been reported that in recent years over 14,000 households have been relocated and scores of old buildings demolished in preparation for the ambitious Thũ Thiêm New Urban Zone project.

Among the few noteworthy historic sites which remain are two of the city’s oldest religious institutions, the Thủ Thiêm Parish Church and the Lovers of the Holy Cross Convent. However, the future of both establishments is currently in the balance.

Originally named Thổ Thêm (literally “additional earth”), because its land mass was constantly built up by silt from the Saigon river, Thủ Thiêm was known right down to the 19th century as an area of dense jungle inhabited by many wild animals. As a result, its earliest settlement was concentrated along the banks of the Saigon river, opposite modern District 1.

A sampan on a creek leading off the Saigon river

According to late 19th century scholar Pétrus Ký, this part of Thủ Thiêm was initially home to the Xóm Tàu Ô or “Hamlet of the Black Junks,” which during the reign of King Gia Long (1801-1820) was “assigned as the home of Chinese pirates, whose small sea junks were painted black.”… “When they offered their services to Gia Long, the king received them, and installed them with him under the name of Tuần hải Đô dinh, placing them under the command of their chief, General Xiền (Tướng Quân Xiền). They were commissioned to go and supervise the coast. Those who remained were employed in caulking [sealing the undersides of] boats in the fleet of the king.” (Pétrus Ký, Souvenirs historiques sur Saïgon et ses environs, 1885)

MEP missionary Pierre Lambert de la Motte (1624-1679), founder of the Congregation of the Lovers of the Holy Cross

In the mid 1830s, the arrival of nuns from Việt Nam’s oldest female Roman Catholic order, the Congregation of the Lovers of the Holy Cross (Congrégation des Amantes de la Croix de Jésus-Christ or Hội Dòng Mến Thánh Giá), began to transform the Hamlet of the Black Junks into a Roman Catholic enclave. Originally founded in the north in 1670 by MEP missionary Pierre Lambert de la Motte (1624-1679), the Congregation established its first southern branches in the late 1820s in Biên Hòa and Lái Thiêu.

However, the persecution of Roman Catholics which followed the suppression of the Lê Văn Khôi Uprising (1832-1835) obliged the nuns to flee to Thủ Thiêm, where they built a makeshift wooden residence next to a large tamarind tree. Today that tree still stands in the convent grounds.

The Thủ Thiêm Congregation of the Lovers of the Holy Cross was formally established in 1840 by Jean-Louis Tabert, Vicar Apostolic of Cochinchina. At that time, it comprised 24 “Annamite sisters” – 10 nuns, five novices and nine postulants under the direction of Mother Superior Maria Phước.

The main gate of the Congregation of the Lovers of the Holy Cross, Thủ Thiêm

Immediately after the arrival of the French in 1859, Father Gabriel Nguyễn Khắc Thành was charged with the construction of the first Thủ Thiêm Church, right next door to the convent.

Thereafter, many Roman Catholics came to settle in the area. In 1869, Charles Lemire described the village of Thu-Thiem, later known as An-Loi-Xa, as being “formed entirely of Catholic Annamites.” (Cochinchine française et royaume de Cambodge, 1869)

From the outset, church and convent worked closely together to propagate Catholicism and contribute to the development of Saigon’s schools, hospitals and clinics.

In addition to assisting with the work of the diocese, nuns from Thủ Thiêm are known to have worked as nurses in the Military (later Grall) Hospital, the Thị Nghè clinic and Chợ Quán Hospital of the Sisters of Saint-Paul de Chartres, and later the Polyclinique Dejean de la Bâtie (modern Saigon Hospital).

Saint Anna School, Thủ Thiêm in the 1960s

Many of the nuns also trained to work as primary teachers, and in 1874-1875, Father Louis Philippe Montmayeur (Father Minh) of Thủ Thiêm Church oversaw the construction of two (boys’ and girls’) primary schools, which were entrusted to the management of the Congregation of the Lovers of the Holy Cross. In 1955, the RVN Ministry of Education approved the establishment by the Congregation of the Saint Anna School (Trường Thánh Anna), which by the early 1960s offered both primary and secondary training. In 1962, Phan Phát Huồn (Việt Nam Giáo Sử, Cứu Thế Tùng Thư) commented that, since their arrival in Saigon, the nuns of the Thủ Thiêm Congregation of the Lovers of the Holy Cross had taught over 8,500 children.

The Congregation of the Lovers of the Holy Cross grew from just 23 nuns in 1840 to 170 by 1933 and 340 by 1960.

The chapel of the Congregation of the Lovers of the Holy Cross, Thủ Thiêm, built in 1957

After 1975, the Congregation’s schools became state schools and the order diminished in size, but in recent decades it has continued to offer a range of community services, including programmes for the elderly, a children’s nursery and an acupuncture clinic.

Over the years, both church and convent buildings have been reconstructed many times, and most of those standing today date from no earlier than the 1950s.

However, one particular structure – the rectory of the Thủ Thiêm Parish Church, dating from 1875 – is a building of significant heritage value, representing as it does an unusually late example of the early “vernacular” style of French colonial architecture.

An aerial shot of Thủ Thiêm Parish Church (www.panoramio.com)

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

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

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

Saigon Through the Eyes of Early Travellers – Eugene Lagrilliere-Beauclerc in 1899

Cochinchine – the arroyo Chinois in Saïgon by Gillot

Journalist and travel writer Eugène-Claude Lagrillière-Beauclerc visited Cochinchina in 1899. Here is his description of Saigon and Chợ Lớn, published in Voyages pittoresques à travers le monde: de Marseille aux frontières de Chine (1900).

Since seven this morning, we have been following the coasts of the Poulo-Condor islands, a place of exile for the condemned of Indochina. The pitching motion has subsided. The sea still swells a little, but we manage to run at 14 knots per hour.

Cap Saint-Jacques beach – fishermen

Tonight we will be in view of cap Saint-Jacques, at the entrance of the Saigon River, and by two in the morning we will be in Saigon. Tomorrow, out of the 750 passengers who boarded the ship in Marseille, only 10 will remain on board; all of the military will get off and head for Tonkin, while most officials and traders will stop in Cochinchina.

At 10am on 10 February, after four hours of navigation along the branch of the river leading from cap Saint-Jacques to Saïgon, we approach the wharf of the Messageries maritimes.

Saigon has 20,000 inhabitants, of which around 2,000 are Europeans. The city is also home to more than 10,000 Chinese; Annamites [Vietnamese] come barely third out of the total number of the population.

A sampan at the wharf of the Compagnie des Messageries maritimes

What strikes us when landing is the modern aspect of this city; the streets are wide and lined with beautiful sidewalks. Plantations of trees in dense foliage pleasantly shade the main avenues. It is a curious thing, this motley population made up of Europeans, Chinese, Annamites and foreigners from all over the world, flowing through the streets of this city of the Far East, the general character of which reveals the imprint of the most modern Western civilisation.

In the harbour, we see ships from all nations. These are mostly commercial vessels, the inscriptions on which reveal their places of origin: Marseille, Dunkirk, Le Havre, Singapore, Bombay, Haïphong, Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Manila, Yokohama. It seems that this part of the Far East is a meeting place for all the peoples of the world.

The Grand-Hôtel Continental in 1902

Monsieur Boniface Bollard tells me that he plans to stay at the Grand-Hôtel de Saïgon [the Continental Hotel], opposite the Theatre. I have no preference, so of course, I decide to take a room in the same hotel, in order to stay in the company of our scientist, whose jovial character and profound erudition I greatly appreciate.

My room is large and airy, but furnished in a rather crude manner.

The bed, comprising a mattress with the thickness of a doormat, is surrounded by a rectangular framed gauze veil: it’s the mosquito net, protective shell, beneficent guardian of sleep for every human being in the intertropical regions. Two rattan chairs, a dresser with drawers which have long refused to open and which persist in their resistance to any effort, an en-suite shower room which also serves as a toilet… that’s what the furnishing looks like in one of Saigon’s premier hotels.

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The Palace of the Government, Saigon

Detail to mention: there is no fireplace in the rooms, and this is easily explained. Throughout the whole extent of Cochinchina, it is never necessary to heat rooms. The thermometer rarely dips below 16° centigrade. During the normal season, the temperature oscillates between 20° and 30°, going up to 36° or 37° in May and June, the hottest days of the year.

After unpacking a few possessions – my stay will be short-lived, because my desire is to travel for a few days in Cambodia – I decide to go and present my respects to the Governor-General of Indochina, whom I had met some months before in Paris, in the cabinet of the Minister of Colonies.

MD, apprised of the study mission with which I have been charged by the government, invites me to lunch and offers me excellent advice on how I should plan my journey.

A festival day in Saigon at the turn of the century

He urges me to go first to Cambodia, then to descend into Cochinchina. After that, I must go up to Annam and Tonkin.

This is the programme which I will follow, and as it happens, this route corresponds closely with the one proposed by M. Bollard, who also attends the luncheon with the Governor-General. I have the deep satisfaction to learn that, over a period of several long months, I’ll have for a companion the most jolly man in France – and one of the most learned.

During these three days it is the festival of Tet, the Annamite New Year.

Outside the houses, masts have been installed, each with betel, areca and lime attached at the top. These are offerings to the air spirits and ancestors. My friend Bollard, who knows everything, gave me the following information:

Many religious systems are practised in Indochina.

Saigon – evening on the arroyo Chinois

There is Buddhism, the doctrine of Confucius, ancestor worship, and the worship of genies and spirits.

The Catholic missions have also implanted Christianity in these regions, and currently the proportion of Catholics is 1 out of 28. Brahmanism, very widespread in India, is becoming increasingly rare in Cochinchina, although some monks from the coasts of Coromandel strive to keep adherents to the Hindu trinity.

By adding a few Muslims, followers of Muhammad’s son-in-law Ali, one has more or less accounted for all of the religious varieties of Indochina.

However, amongst the Annamite people, the two cults practiced above all others are those of the ancestors and the genies.

A Vietnamese farm

By hooking betel quid to the top of those masts for the genies and spirits, popular naivety believes that it is possible to ward off bad luck.

In the mind of the natives, the spirits from beyond the grave seize every being who is born, and thus begins the fight between good and evil.

Ancestor worship is intended to obtain protection from the forbears against evil spirits. This cult is the natural continuation of the morality practiced in life by the Annamite people. They have deep respect for the family.

Walking through the streets of Saigon, we are greeted on every sidewalk by firecrackers, and the explosions follow one another in quick succession.

A Chinese restaurant in Saigon

Curiously, the streets are almost deserted. The Malabar carriages no longer run, because the Annamite drivers have been released for the holiday; commercial life is suspended, except in the taverns, where they play a game of chance called bacouan, which is permitted only at this time of year.

This game is very simple, and a few lines of description may help you understand it.

Around the table sit Chinese and Annamites, sometimes also Europeans. On the table is a square tablet, with the numbers 1 to 4 at its corners. Each player chooses a number and covers it with the money he wants to risk. But number four remains uncovered. It belongs to the croupier. The latter, always a Chinese who has paid the establishment for the right to hold the game, shakes in front of everyone a bag of sapèques (small zinc coins with a hole in the middle), and then reaches into the bag and removes a handful of these metal washers. He counts the sapèques coming out of the bag in fours, and when he arrives at the last ones, there remain just one, two or three copper coins. The winner is the player whose chosen figure on the table corresponds to the number of remaining coins. The croupier has 25 chances out of 100 to win without risking anything.

A Malabar four-wheel carriage

In fact, this game is no more immoral than roulette, and it is significantly less disadvantageous for the players than the game of ludo, where the proportion of opportunity for the croupier exceeds 60%.

We exit one of the establishments, where, for three days during the Tet holiday, they are playing bacouan without interruption for up to 72 hours. We continue our walk through the city.

Most houses are sumptuously decorated; on their facades sway huge paper lanterns.

In the interiors, incense is burned in front of the altars of the ancestors.

We are able, with difficulty, to discover a Malabar (four wheel carriage) driven by an Annamite coachman who, in less than two hours, has lost all his savings playing bacouan.

Another Malabar carriage in Saigon

Our coachman says: “I go Cholon. Chinese play bacouan here all thieves; in Cholon they better. Come, Cholon, see beautiful city.”

As Cholon merits a visit, since it is the big market and the rice warehouse of all Cochinchina, we welcome our good coachman’s offer, and at seven in the evening we are on the road from Saïgon to Cholon.

Cholon, located 5 kilometres from Saïgon, is, by the size of its population, a city more important even than the capital of Cochinchina.

It has 40,000 inhabitants, including nearly 20,000 Chinese. The rest of the population is Annamite.

In Cholon, one can get a very exact idea of what a Chinese city is like.

A Cholon street

Because everything is Chinese: business and residential houses, customs and mores. Upon entering the town, we find that they celebrate Tet here with as much enthusiasm as they do in Saigon. All the doors are open and the interiors of the houses are brightly lit.

The colourful images on the huge lanterns are all symbolic and express wishes. In this way, most of the designs depict plants emerging from a horizontal line, symbolising the earth. When four or five plants are juxtaposed, that means four or five generations sprouting from the same primitive soil. Translation: the one who has this symbol at the entrance to his house expresses the desire to live long and to see four or five generations grow before his eyes.

On the doorsteps, children ignite fireworks, and it is in the midst of terrible backfiring and bursts of brilliant and joyous flares that our carriage slowly advances forward through the streets of Cholon. We stop at the door of an opium den.

An opium smoker

Imagine a darkened room, around which extend a series of low cots. A dozen Chinese lie in elongated or curled attitudes. Next to each burns a small lamp filled with coconut oil. It’s over the flame of this lamp that they heat a big ball of opium, turning it on the tip of an iron needle. And from that they absorb the smoke by a single aspiration, while the opium is boiling. An opium pipe may be smoked in just two seconds. Heavy smokers may thus prepare up to a hundred pipes in an evening.

We see clients of the den. They have an air of extreme bliss, and it is while closing their eyes at length that they take deep breaths of the opium smoke.

We ask the manager of the den to prepare a pipe for us, but he refuses, smiling. It seems that this kind of exercise is prohibited by European regulations applying to public dens.

Rue de Canton, Cholon

Coming out of this cave, we resume our walk through Cholon, and the show goes on, uniform, without the least variety, from one street to another.

Everywhere the game of bacouan, everywhere fireworks, and it will last until the morning, we are told.

This Tet is the most important festival of the year, and even the poorest people like to celebrate it.

We return to the Grand-Hôtel de Saïgon and retire to our rooms, where we are quickly devoured by some creatures which have discovered how to slip through the nets which surround our beds from base to top.

The next day, accompanied by Dr Blin, doctor of the colonies, we take the train to Govap, half an hour from Saigon. We have been told about the Pagode des présages [Pagoda of omens] in this place, a Chinese pagoda where Confucius is worshipped.

Gò Vấp Station

The monks welcome us in a hospitable manner, and we admire the ornamentation of the pagoda, in which there is no representation of the human figure. At the foot of the shrine, placed in saucers, all the condiments of Chinese menus are lined up in honour of deceased ancestors, who can, we are told, breath in the aromas.

They offer us a book written in Chinese. We accept gladly, relying on a friend to give us a sense of its meaning, because Chinese is as unknown to us as the Annamite language.

Hardly have we left the pagoda than the gong sounds and the lights glow in the rear hall. It appears that they are cleansing the sanctuary, the presence of a heretic making this operation essential.

The interior of a Chinese temple

We cannot but recognise the perfect courtesy of the monks, so welcoming to outsiders, whose presence in this pagoda is enough to disturb the spirits of ancestors sleeping the eternal sleep.

Leaving the pagoda at Govap, we enter some Chinese shops. In one of them, we are offered a remedy against migraine, some beer made in Saigon, cigarettes and perfumes.

The beer being execrable, we ask to taste the milk of a coconut as large as a melon, which a boy has just bought in the market.

Our Chinese guide, who speaks some French, acquiesces to our request and opens the coconut with an axe. We then pour the contents (around half a litre) into a bowl.

A coconut seller

We taste it. It’s warm, bland, slightly sweet and rather unpleasant. This kind of liquid has little chance of attracting our clientele.

To thank our Chinese guide, we buy him an almanac written in the Mandarin language, plus a card game and instructions on how to play it.

All these chinoiserie cost us 20 cents, about 0.50 francs in our French currency.

We reboard the train to Saigon. On the journey, we admire the beautiful vegetation that unfolds before our eyes.

Everywhere there are guava trees, banana trees, palm trees laden with fruit, and areca palms whose nuts sway in the slight breeze. We know that the areca nut is the basis of betel quid, which is chewed by many Annamite woman.

An areca plantation

The quid consists of a piece of areca nut and a little lime tinged in red, all wrapped in a betel leaf. Salivation produced by this chemical combination is reddish. Annamite women constantly chew betel, and their teeth gradually assume a beautiful black colour, one of the special characteristics of Indochinese dentition.

On this subject, we were told an amusing story.

Recently, a dentist in Saigon placed in his surgery window a beautiful set of false teeth, all the colour of black ink. Many Annamites stopped, ecstatic before this jewel, wondering to whom could belong these beautiful teeth blackened like Chinese ink, waxed, polished and shiny as jet.

It seems that the false teeth were commissioned by H M King Norodom of Cambodia, who had the stumps extracted from his royal mouth in order to adorn it with these thirty-two ebony gems.

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 Gambetta Monument

Cochinchine – Saigon – Monument Gambetta

This article was published previously in Saigoneer.

This week we trace the saga of colonial Saigon’s monument to French republican statesman Léon Gambetta (2 April 1838-31 December 1882) – which was commissioned twice by mistake and then installed in three successive locations before its final disappearance in 1955!

Léon Gambetta (2 April 1838-31 December 1882) by Alphonse Legros, 1875

Best remembered for his heroic efforts to defend France during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, French statesman Léon Gambetta played a pivotal role in the founding of the Third Republic (1870-1940) and helped to transform it into a régime based on parliamentary supremacy. He also served briefly as France’s first minister (President of “Le Grand Ministère”) from 14 November 1881 to 16 January 1882.

Gambetta’s premature death in December 1882 inspired genuine public mourning in France, and two years later a grand monument to the great man – comprising bronze statuary by sculptor Alexandre Falguières (1831-1900) and a decorative pedestal by architect Paul Pujol (1848-1926) – was raised in his home town of Cahors. The monument featured a large bronze statue of Gambetta dressed in a fur coat and addressing a crowd, flanked at its base by the figures of a sailor and a mortally wounded naval infantryman, recalling the glorious role played by Gambetta in the defence of his country.

In subsequent years, streets and squares all over the French empire were named after Gambetta, but the government of Cochinchina decided to go one step further by commissioning a replica of the Cahors monument, right here in Saigon.

The original Alexandre Falguières-Paul Pujol monument to Gambetta in Cahors

In the mid 1880s, it was decided that 5 May 1889 – the 100th anniversary of the meeting of the Estates General which set in motion the events leading to the French Revolution – should be celebrated as the Centenary Festival of the Revolution (Fête du centenaire de la Révolution). Accordingly in April 1889, all French colonial governors were informed by Eugène Étienne, Assistant Secretary of State for the Navy and Colonies, that on 5 May, every public monument in every colonial capital must be illuminated and decorated with flags and bunting. He also “authorised the Governor-General of Indochina on that day to inaugurate the statue of Gambetta in Saigon” (Gil Blas, 22 April 1889).

In the event, the Gambetta statue was solemnly inaugurated at the intersection of boulevard Norodom [Lê Duẩn] and rue Pellerin [Pasteur] a day earlier than originally planned – 4 May 1889 – in the presence of Governor General Étienne Richaud and Saigon Mayor Roch Carabelli.

Boulevard Norodom, Saigon (before 1914)

In subsequent years, reaction to the new monument was not entirely favourable. Gerrit Verschuur, in his book Aux colonies d’Asie et dans l’Océan Indien (1900), remarked: “What that great orator ever did for Saïgon, nobody knows.”

However, it was the incongruity of the statue’s heavy winter clothing in tropical Saigon which was singled out for the greatest criticism.

George Durrwell, in his book Ma chère Cochinchine, trente années d’impressions et de souvenirs, février 1881-1910 (1911), described Gambetta’s attire as “somewhat inappropriate in our sunny Cochinchina.” Writing two years later, A Maufroid commented less diplomatically in his 1913 book De Java au Japon par l’Indochine, la Chine et la Corée that the statue “seems almost to menace the Governor General’s official residence with his vehement gestures: a bronze Gambetta, who struggles under a thick coat, like a North Pole explorer. The natives, who sweat all year topless, gaze with amazement at his incomprehensible clothing.”

Saigon – Statue de Gambetta (before 1914)

It was Durrwell in 1911 who revealed the intriguing back-story of the commissioning of the Gambetta monument:

“The Gambetta monument… has a history which could serve as a theme for some amusing production in the Théâtre du Palais-Royal. Here it is in a nutshell:
In response to the premature death of Gambetta, seeking to interpret faithfully the common sentiment, our local assembly decided to perpetuate his memory by raising a dignified statue to him in one of our Saigon squares. The funds were voted by acclamation, and one of our honourables, then on leave in Paris, was charged with commissioning the work.
Our man, thus given a mandate, made his choice among the great artists of the capital, and that choice was good; a few months later, the desired monument arrived safely. Everything was going well.
But we had reckoned without the patriotic zeal of our deputy. The confusion resulting from his informal intervention was not long in coming. One morning, the Mayor was informed that another large box labelled “statue – fragile” had just arrived at his address. A duplicate statue had been mistakenly produced and delivered to Saigon! The excitement was great, but so was the embarrassment, because a large monumental statue is rather more difficult to refuse than a simple parcel sent cash on delivery.

Saigon – Place Gambetta, vue du Café de la Terrace (1914-1925)

The Mayor had a good practical solution: the duplicate was given to the deputy who had rashly ordered it, and he was obliged to pay for it. It was cruel but logical, and in our good Cochinchina, where money comes easy, a compromise solution was not even offered. In this way, Saigon is even now in possession of two Gambetta statues. The one we all know is proudly located in the sunlight of boulevard Norodom, while the other is stored and long forgotten, buried for years in the white wooden coffin in which it once made its long and unnecessary trip to our overseas territories.”

The Gambetta monument remained at the intersection of boulevard Norodom and rue Pellerin until 1914. In that year, the new Halles centrales (Bến Thành Market) was inaugurated and the old city market on boulevard Charner was demolished. In place of the old market, a large open square named place Gambetta was laid out, and the monument was painstakingly moved eight blocks southeast and installed at its centre.

Saïgon – Parc Maurice Long, statue de Gambetta (1940s)

However, this would not be its last resting place. Less than 10 years after the monument’s installation on place Gambetta, it was decided to redevelop the square, with a brand new General Treasury (the Trésor general of 1925, designed and built by Brossard et Mopin) overlooking boulevard Charner. To facilitate this, the Gambetta monument had to be relocated again, this time 10 blocks west to a central location in the Jardin de ville (later the Parc Maurice Long, now Tao Đàn Park). It would remain there until 1955, when it was removed to facilitate the extension of Trương Công Định street (modern Trương Định street) through the middle of the park.

To this day, the ultimate fate of the itinerant Gambetta monument and its unfortunate twin remain a complete mystery.

Cochinchine – Saigon, place et statue Gambetta


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.

“Pacific Type Locomotives Built for Indochina,” 1939

231-501, the first 4-6-2 “Super Pacific” built for CFI by SACM-Graffenstaden in 1939, now preserved in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

The Minister of the Colonies, in accordance with the plan of the Central office of the Construction et d’Étude du Matériel ferroviaire (OCEM), has instructed the Société Alsacienne de Constructions Métalliques (SACM) to build for the non-conceded networks of Indochina [Chemins de fer de l’Indochine, CFI], 15 new steam locomotives of the “Pacific” type, 15 tenders and related replacement parts.

SACM-Graffenstaden Locomotive Works

These machines will have a boiler pressure of 16 hpz/bar.

Their coupled driving wheels will be 1.400m in diameter. Their total operating weight will reach 60.200kg, and their adhesive weight 39.000kg, or 13.000kg per axle. But it will be reduced to 11.000kg per axle. The two front bogie axles will carry 6.7 tonnes, and the rear bogie axle 7.8 tonnes.

The tenders will have twin two-axle bogies; their gross weight in service will be 36.400kg and their capacity will be 16 cubic meters of water and 6,000kg of fuel.

The coupling between locomotive and tender will be of the Eastern type, with central bar and spherical ball-joint.

The locomotives will be able to haul trains on flat, level areas of track at a speed of 55km per hour.

An unidentified SACM-Graffenstaden 4-6-2 “Super Pacific” in Saigon in the 1940s

They will normally be able to reach and sustain, while hauling a passenger train of 250 tonnes on flat, level areas of track or on gradients of up to 3m per 1000m, the maximum speed permitted on the CFI network of 90km per hour.

The magazine Les Chemins de fer et les Tramways believes that the commissioning of these machines will probably accelerate services on the 1729 km Transindochinois route from Hanoï to Saïgon, a route which currently takes 40 hours and 20 minutes at a speed of 43 km, the 97km stretch from Thuan-Ly to Dông-Ha being covered in either direction without stopping in 1 hour 46 minutes at a speed of 55km.

Translated from L’Homme libre: journal quotidien du matin, 2 May 1939

Hà Nội Railway Station yard in the colonial era

Saigon Railway Station in the colonial era

231-510, one of the 4-6-2 “Super Pacifics” built for CFI by SACM-Graffenstaden in 1939, pictured in Cambodia in the early 1990s, from Chemins de fer regionaux et urbains No 293, April 1993

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
How Vietnam’s Railways Looked in 1927
Indochina Railways in 1928
“It Seems that One Network is being Stripped to Re-equip Another” – The Controversial CFI Locomotive Exchange of 1935-1936
Phu Ninh Giang-Cam Giang Tramway
Saigon Tramway Network
Saigon’s Rubber Line
The Changing Faces of Sai Gon Railway Station, 1885-1983
The Langbian Cog Railway
The Long Bien Bridge – “A Misshapen but Essential Component of Ha Noi’s Heritage”
The Lost Railway Works of Truong Thi
The Mysterious Khon Island Portage Railway
The Railway which Became an Aerial Tramway
The Saigon-My Tho Railway Line

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

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

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

Phu-Quoc Island by Pierre Rev, 1907

Ile de Phu Quoc – Le village des pêcheurs

A translation of Pierre Rev’s description of Phú Quốc island, from his 1907 book, Dans le Golfe de Siam.

The island of Phu-Quoc is around 50km long by 15km wide.

Dans la forêt

The road from Ham-Ninh to Duong-Dong, which links the east and west coasts, is nothing more than a bad forest track running through ravines, climbing hills, and littered with deep ruts which give the wheels of rushing ox carts appalling jolts. It sneaks under the dark canopies of vines, zigzags through the darkness, and, at times, emerges into large clearings.

The forest does not suddenly give up its beauty when we arrive in Ham-Ninh; the trees are still of medium height, while countless low creepers form arches over the trail, permitting only a limited horizon. But the more hills you climb, the more the arch of greenery grows: in every clearing, the view extends over the billowing hills to the sea, where white sails abound.

Nothing is lacking in the charm of this road: immense trees packed with valuable or useful oils, yaos straight as pines, ficus trees sheltering the vegetation of the undergrowth with their crowns. Fresh streams jump over the rocks in the gorge; birds of all sizes flee among the branches, their wonderful colours shimmering in the sunshine.

Cochinchine – Buffles domestiques

Phu-Quoc’s forest has no ferocious animals, only a few wild buffalo, former farm animals abandoned for a very long time, which gradually recovered their life of freedom. There are also herds of wild boar, plus deer and monkeys in abundance.

By the time we have crossed two thirds of the forest and descend the last hill towards Duong-Dong, the vegetation clears. The Duong-Dong river, descending from the high valleys and verdant green summits of the island, runs alongside the road, then moves away and comes back again in capricious meanderings, bathing the trees along the roadside. It is a river of clear water, and, unlike the dirty arroyos of lowland Cochinchina, runs very fast under the rays of evening light, creating irridescent swirls which seem to whisper on the tips of the rocks.

The pepper orchards are located on hillsides; they do not lack elegance, these long correct lines of large green columns with innumerable branches lacing around in support. Sized carefully by the Chinese who engage in their culture, these plantations are clean and tidy, resembling carefully-kept gardens.

Dương Đông, Phú Quốc, by Nadal

After a pleasant three-kilometre walk through the fields and pepper orchards, the road reaches the island’s capital. Duong-Dong. This village is clustered around a bend of the river. It is a well-to-do village, with neat streets of wooden houses lined up along the river, and friendly people.

Were it not for the unbearable smell emanating from hundreds of tanks containing fermenting Nuoc-mam, that famous Far Eastern brine, one could really love this pretty and quiet town, including the pagoda which leans over the clear waters of the mountain river and lulls in the song of the waves thrown on its sandy beaches by the southwest monsoon.

It was to this place, during the numerous and painful wanderings which preceded his accession to the throne, that Gia Long came, a conquered and fugitive man, to meditate on his miseries and his future destiny; and it is near those wet rocks, under the casuarinas whose fine foliage gently sings in the wind, that the bishop of Adran spoke of France to his royal pupil. From there, he left on a similar junk to those in the harbour which now throw their great sails to the wind, to seek the help of the French (for more information, see Lang Cha Ca – From Mausoleum…. To Roundabout!)

And it was also from here that Gia Long himself later sailed back to his empire of Annam.

Lord Nguyễn Phúc Ánh, the future King Gia Long, and Monsignor Pierre Pigneau de Behaine, who met on Phú Quốc

Map of Phú Quốc, 1897

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 – The Customs Directorate Building, 2 Ham Nghi, 1887

The Hôtel des douanes in the early 1900s

This article was published previously in Saigoneer.

The Customs Directorate, one of the city’s best-loved colonial landmarks, is the latest in a series of government buildings to face the threat of redevelopment.

The facade of the Customs Directorate building today

According to a reliable source, the Hồ Chí Minh City Customs and Excise Department is currently seeking permission to demolish and rebuild its headquarters, the former Hôtel des douanes (Customs Directorate) at 21 Tôn Đức Thắng, which was built in 1885-1887 to a design by celebrated French architect Alfred Foulhoux. Like most of the city’s colonial buildings, the Customs Directorate building is not recognised as built heritage, and thus enjoys no legal protection.

The Customs Directorate building is in fact the second major civic building to be constructed on this site. Its forerunner was the grand three-storey brick residence of wealthy Cantonese merchant trader Wang Tai, who ran the Cochinchina opium monopoly between 1861 and 1881.

The Maison Wang-Tai in the 1870s

Inaugurated in 1867, and known popularly as the Maison Wang-Tai or Hôtel Wang-Tai, this building is said to have caused some embarrassment in the upper echelons of the colonial administration, because it was far grander than the first Admiral-Governor’s Palace – a series of three wooden buildings imported in kit form from Singapore!

Many of the rooms in the Maison Wang-Tai were rented out to tenants; most notable among the latter was the first Mairie (Town Hall), which in 1869 occupied a whole floor. Wang Tai later relocated all of his operations to Chợ Lớn, permitting the conversion of his building in 1874 into the Hôtel Cosmopolitan. Perhaps as a consequence, the alley behind it, known throughout the colonial period as the rue des Fleurs, subsequently became home to a large number of “houses of ill-repute.”

The Maison Wang-Tai in 1882 after it was converted into the headquarters of the Directorate of Customs and Excise

In 1881, the French authorities moved to break Wang Tai’s monopoly in the shipping and processing of opium. Then, in the following year, they purchased the Maison Wang-Tai outright for the sum of 200,000 Francs, and transformed it into the headquarters of their Directorate of Customs and Excise (Direction des Douanes et Régies) – ironically, the very same government agency which controlled the lucrative opium franchise.

However, they quickly found that the old building was not as capacious as they had envisaged. Surviving pictures of the original Maison Wang-Tai show that interior space was sacrificed to create wide open corridors behind the facade on all three floors. The Directorate of Customs and Excise needed more room, and accordingly in 1885, Cochinchina’s Chief Architect Marie-Alfred Foulhoux (1840-1892) was commissioned to rebuild the Maison Wang-Tai as the Hôtel des douanes – the building which stands today.

A side view of the Hôtel des douanes in the early 1900s

Foulhoux’s brief was simply to rebuild the earlier edifice in a way which made optimal use of space, and his design retained the floors and several walls of the original Maison Wang-Tai. Despite this, he succeeded in creating one of the city’s most attractive pieces of neo-classical architecture, grand in proportions and elegant in detail.

Of particular interest to many tourists is the decoration on the upper facade of the building. Writer, journalist and Indochina specialist Jules Boissière (1863-1897) pointed out that the badges between the third-floor windows feature opium poppies, by the 1880s one of the most important revenue streams for the Cochinchina government!

The opium poppy decoration on the upper facade of the Customs Directorate building today

Foulhoux’s Hôtel des douanes still functions today as a Customs Department, nearly 130 years after it was built. News of its threatened demise has been greeted with disbelief by conservationists, many of whom have voiced concern that such a major architectural work has not yet been recognised as heritage, and can apparently be destroyed at the whim of its occupants.

For information about other heritage buildings under threat of demolition, see also:

Date with the Wrecking Ball – Ba Son Shipyard, 1790
Date with the Wrecking Ball – Former Cercle des Officiers, 47 Le Duan, 1876
Date with the Wrecking Ball – Former Secretariat du Gouvernement Building, 59-61 Ly Tu Trong, 1888
Date with the Wrecking Ball – Vietnam Railways Building, 136 Ham Nghi, 1914
Date with the Wrecking Ball – Former Imprimerie de l’Union Building, 49-57 Nguyen Du, c 1920
Date with the Wrecking Ball – Saigon Tax Trade Centre, 1924
Date with the Wrecking Ball – Former College de Can-Tho, 1924
Date with the Wrecking Ball – Catinat Building, 26 Ly Tu Trong, 1927
Date with the Wrecking Ball – 213 Dong Khoi, 1930
Date with the Wrecking Ball – 606 Tran Hung Dao, 1932
Date with the Wrecking Ball – Former Maison du Combattant, 23 Le Duan, 1932
Date with the Wrecking Ball – Former Bot Catinat, 164 Dong Khoi, 1933
Date with the Wrecking Ball – Saigon Hospital, 125 Le Loi, Late 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.

Saigon’s Famous Streets and Squares – Thai Van Lung Street

A drinks stall on the Đồn Đất-Gia Long (modern Thái Văn Lung-Lý Tự Trọng) junction in 1965

This article was published previously in Saigoneer.

Another of the city’s oldest thoroughfares, the street we know today as Thái Văn Lung bore the name Pasteur street for over half a century.

The rue de l’Hôpital with “Junction Canal” bridge in 1863

When Admiral-Governor Louis-Adolphe Bonard (1805-1867) founded the Military Hospital (Hôpital Militaire) in 1862, the street we know today as Thái Văn Lung was laid out as the main road leading to the main hospital gate. It was known for more than 35 years as the rue de l’Hôpital.

In the early days, those taking the rue de l’Hôpital from the quayside to the Military Hospital had to cross the “Junction Canal,” which ran from northeast to southwest between the modern Nguyễn Siêu and Cao Bá Quát intersections. This canal was one of several city centre canals filled by 1868 for reasons of hygeine.

It was within the grounds of the Military Hospital that the first Pasteur Institute outside the métropole was established in 1891. Appropriately enough, in 1897, two years after the death of Louis Pasteur, the Municipal Council renamed the rue de l’Hôpital as rue Pasteur, a name which it retained right down to 1955.

The rue de l’Hôpital was renamed rue Pasteur in 1897

Located in the heart of Saigon’s Naval Port, the street bordered the main Marine Artillery and Naval Stores (Manutention) and was also home to numerous other naval offices, including the Port of War Directorate (Direction du Port de Guerre), the Office of Naval Administration (Bureau de l’Administration de la Marine), the Clerks and Workers of the Colonial Troops Section (Section des Commis et Ouvriers des Troupes colonials) and – at its northern end, on the site of the modern IDECAF – the Naval Health Service (Service de Santé Militaire and Direction de l’Intendance).

By the early 20th century, the street also incorporated several residential villas which became home to wealthy colonial settlers.

The rue Pasteur became đường Đồn Đất in 1955

In 1955, the street was renamed Đồn Đất (earthen fortress), in reference to a makeshift military fortification built by French forces in the area around the modern Thái Văn Lung-Lê Thánh Tôn junction, during the 1859 conquest of Saigon. Even today, many older Vietnamese people still refer to the Grall Hospital as “Nhà thương Đồn Đất.” In the same year, the name Pasteur was transferred to the street which had been known throughout the colonial period as rue Pellerin.

In 1995, the street was rechristened again, this time after lawyer and National Assembly member Thái Văn Lung (1916-1946), a native of Thủ Đức who took an active role in the revolutionary struggle to prevent the return of the French after World War II, leading to his capture and death by torture in a French jail.

The Viện Văn hóa Pháp tại Sài Gòn on the Đồn Đất-Gia Long junction in 1969 and the same view of the Institut d’Échanges Culturels avec la France (IDECAF) on the same Thái Văn Lung-Lý Tự Trọng junction today

Following the departure of the French, the former offices of the Military Health Service were demolished and a French cultural centre known as the Viện Văn hóa Pháp tại Sài Gòn was established on the site. In 1982 this became the Institut d’Échanges Culturels avec la France (IDECAF), today one of the city’s most active cultural institutions.

Since the early 2000s, hotel construction has severed Thái Văn Lung street from the Tôn Đức Thắng street quayside, turning it into a cul-de-sac.

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.