“Saigon’s New Dry Dock,” from La Science illustree journal, 21 April 1888

The new Saigon Dry Dock, inaugurated on 3 January 1888

Saigon’s new Dry Dock was inaugurated on 3 January 1888 with exceptional solemnity, and that is understandable, for this work, remarkable from a technical point of view, is of considerable importance for the future of our colony. It is clear that the facility it will give to large ships, not only to refuel, but also to undergo repairs in our large Far Eastern port, will help to establish Saigon as a commercial centre of the first order.

It must be recognised that this is a work on a grand scale, because the new Dry Dock was designed for ships of the largest tonnage. Indeed, while the dry dock in Toulon measures just 114m in length, that of Saigon is no less than 166m.

The RMS Etruria of the British & North American Royal Mail Packet Company (Cunard Line)

It may therefore receive the largest liner known, the Cunard Company’s Etruria, which is 158m long, as well as the four great liners just built for the Compagnie générale transatlantique, each of which are 155m in length.

This gigantic work is therefore one of national significance which represents the highest honour for M. Hersent, the entrepreneur who was charged with this difficult task, already made famous by the work he has done in Suez. Beside him, we must also mention M. Baruzzi, the engineer who led the work on site. Two plates of black marble, placed to the right and left of the main doors, bear the names of all those who contributed to this great project.

The execution of this immense work was conducted with extraordinary rapidity, taking just three and a half years, even though the specifications permitted the contractor four years to complete the task. Where major public works are concerned, this is a very rare occurence which merits particular attention.

Also of note is the fact that the work was accomplished by a team of overwhelmingly Annamite (Vietnamese) workers. They were led by a staff of 35 Europeans, including engineers, managers and foremen.

The Dry Dock under construction in 1887

One cannot over-praise the opening of this splendid new Dry Dock, the inception of which cannot fail to exert considerable influence on the development of our commerce. A few figures will not be out of place here.

In 1806, the movement of trade was as follows: Imports amounted to 39,332,375 francs, and exports to 39,390,000 francs. By 1870, imports had increased to 68,037,406 francs, and exports to 62,099,318 francs. The figures for 1879 applied only to movement within the Saigon port by European vessels, so in order to know the total commercial movement of Cochinchina, we must add the movement of Chinese junks, equivalent to 1,500,000 francs, and of Annamite boats, amounting to at least another 15,000,000 francs. So in 1879, the traffic of Saigon port generated over 146 million francs. Since 1879, there has been encouraging progress.

Unfortunately, what Cochinchina lacks most are colons. French traders still occupy a secondary place in Saigon, and much more trade is in foreign hands than in ours. Traffic between Saigon and Hong Kong, for example, is carried out much more by German and English ships than by French ships.

The Dry Dock in the early 20th century

“Cochinchina,” wrote M Leroy-Beaulieu in his book on colonisation, “may one day provide a vast market for our products, in exchange for which it will also provide us with abundant supplies of rice, tortoise shells, elephant tusks, silks, wood, salted fish, skins and oils. The capital of our colonial possessions, Saigon, though situated 60 nautical miles from the sea, is accessible to ships of the highest tonnage … It forms one of the main stops of our Messageries maritimes. It is to be hoped that we will extend to this franchise the same policies which brought about the grandeur of Singapore.”

There is also another very good reason to foster the development of Saigon: the piercing of the Isthmus of Tenasserim, which closes the peninsula of Malacca.

P. M.

The Dry Dock under construction in 1886

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 Future of Viet-Nam Railways, August 1954

Track repairs in the early 1950s (Life magazine)

In August 1954, following the devastation of World War II and the First Indochina War, the Régie des Chemins de fer du Viet-Nam (Hỏa Xa Việt Nam) issued this leaflet outlining its ambitious development plans.

On 20 July 1954, the Geneva Accords ended the hostilities in Vietnam. Without prejudging the sequence of events, we must recognise that this date was a watershed in the history of Viet-Nam. For their part, the railways turned a painful page in their epic story.

The banner heading of the HXVN leaflet issued in August 1954

Before we move forward, it would seem useful to analyse past experiences, as a way of mapping out a new path for the future.

1. History of Viet Nam Railways in the period prior to the events of 1946

The first railway line built in Viet-Nam was that from Saigon to My Tho (70kms), which was put into service on 20 July 1885. Other sections of the network were built between 1902 and 1936.

The years of opening of the various railway lines in Viet-Nam were as follows:

1901: Hanoi – Dong-Dang (162kms) – part of which, initially of 0.6m gauge, was regauged to 1m in 1901

1903: Ha Noi – Haiphong (102kms, run by the CIY), Hanoi – Vietri (73kms), Hanoi – Thanh-Hoa (175kms)

1905: Thanh-Hoa – Vinh (146kms), Saigon – Giaray (99kms)

Construction of the Babonneau Tunnel, Annam, north entrance, 25 November 1933 (Fonds Vallebelle)

1906: Vietri – Laokay (224kms, run by the CIY)

1908: Tourane – Dongha (171kms)

1912: Giaray – Nhatrang (316kms)

1921: Dong-Dang – Nacham (17kms)

1927: Vinh – Dongha (320kms)

1933: Saigon – Locninh (118kms), Tourcham – Dalat (85kms, including 16kms of cog rails), Tanap – Xomcuc – Banaphao (58kms, including 40kms of cable car from Xomcuc to Banaphao)

1936: Tourane – Nhatrang (533kms, marking the completion of the Transvietnamien from Saigon to Hanoi)

Thus from 1936, the Viet-Nam Railways network amounted to 2,569kms of track, equipped with an excellent 1m gauge whose infrastructure was planned for axle loads of 13 tonnes.

A south-central coastal stretch of the Transindochinois

The network was made up as follows: (i) 384kms (Hanoi-Haiphong-Laokay line) conceded to the CIY; and (ii) 2,185kms operated directly by the government, and comprising the so-called Réseaux non concédés (RNC).

In addition to local trains which served the different sections of line, a direct daily service in each direction ran between Hanoi and Saigon (1,729kms) in 40 hours.

The completion of the Transvietnamien [Transindochinois] in 1936, in addition to sealing the unity of Viet-Nam, also endowed it with an excellent means of communication which had already demonstrated its economic and demographic importance.

To illustrate this, one needs only to cite the annual traffic figures for the last “normal” year of that period, ie 1939.

In that year, the state network (RNC) served:
– 675 million passengers per kilometre; and
– 195 000 000 tonnes per kilometre of goods.

Bến Gỗ bridge near Quy Nhơn, destroyed by Allied bombing in 1943

2. The current situation of the Viet Nam Railway network

Between 1943 and 1945, during the Japanese occupation, Viet-Nam Railways suffered systematic Allied bombardment. Many bridges, large workshops (including Vinh) and an important quantity of traction and rolling stock were destroyed.

Then came the internal political and military events of 1945-1946, which completed the destruction. Between 1947 and July 1954, only the following line sections of railway line could be maintained in operation:

Conceded Railways (CIY)

Hanoi-Haiphong – 102kms

State Railways (RNC)

Hanoi-Vandien – 9kms

Tourane-Dongha – 171kms

Saigon-Ninhhoa – 463kms

Railway bridge sabotage by Việt Minh forces

Tourcham-Dalat – 84kms

Saigon-Locninh – 118kms

Saigon-Mytho – 70kms

TOTALS – 917kms

Despite the constant attacks and sabotage to which it was subjected right up until the cease-fire, Viet-Nam Railways continued to function courageously, assuring communications between the regions it travelled through.

Even on the various lines of the state network, despite the ongoing problems, the figures remained encouraging:

Year                Passenger kilometres                Tonnes-kilometres of freight
1947               21,000,000                                    21,000,000
1948               32,000,000                                    39,000,000
1949               23,000,000                                    46,000,000
1950               24,000,000                                    46,000,000
1951               45,000,000                                    73,000,000
1952               54,000,000                                    91,000,000
1953               71,000,000                                  100,000,000

The aftermath of the Baika Viaduct disaster of of 22 June 1953 – Việt Minh forces detonated a strong explosive charge just as a fifteen-coach passenger train double-headed by two brand-new“Mikado” 141-500 locomotives arrived at the Baika viaduct (km 761). The viaduct collapsed and the entire train plunged into a ravine, killing more than 100 passengers and crew.

Alas, in order to maintain a level of traffic of this magnitude, the Régie des Chemins de fer du Viet-Nam had to pay a heavy price. From 1946 to 1953, it recorded 1,968 sabotages and 391 attacks, which wounded 753 and killed 159, among them the cream of its staff.

However, through all of these vicissitudes, the Régie des Chemins de fer du Viet-Nam never lost faith in its mission, and far from reducing its operations, it continued to extend its activities, and even diversified into areas outside the railway sector.

For example, in early 1954, in order to liaise better between the different parts of its truncated network, Viet-Nam Railways acquired three cargo ships with a total cargo-carrying capacity of 6,000 tonnes, thus becoming the first Vietnamese ship owner.

3. The need for a reconstruction programme

The cease-fire has been in force since August 1954 in the whole territory of Viet-Nam.

153. The aftermath of the Baika

Another scene in the aftermath of the Baika Viaduct disaster of of 22 June 1953

The Régie des Chemins de fer du Viet-Nam has wasted no time repairing its lines, an immense task given that, in the almost complete absence of maintenance, this bruised network had suffered a state of abandonment for over 10 years.

It has dealt first with the most pressing issues: consolidation of damaged works, reinstatement of the worst areas of track, reconstruction of essential fixed installations, etc.

But the main activities of the Régie have been directed towards the reconstruction of the Transvietnamien. This is not so much a case of sentimental attachment to something old, but rather the reasoned will to reconstruct a fundamental economic tool for the future of Viet-Nam. The experience of the war years, and alas, the period of upset we faced in the immediate post-war years, showed that the railways, in spite of the multiple difficulties they encountered, remained a powerful and flexible means of transport, one which is always ready to serve.

Is it necessary to mention the current difficulties of evacuating and regrouping the armed forces, as set out by the Geneva Accords? When all other means of transport are overwhelmed, the railway always functions with ease, every time we call upon it, and that despite the shortage of equipment and the poor state of its track. We would have been really blessed if the original North-South line still existed in its entirety – everything and everyone would have used it!

The wreckage of La Hai bridge in Phú Yên province

Must one recall also that in October 1952, in the aftermath of a typhoon of exceptional violence, such that we have not seen in Viet-Nam for centuries, the railway, in record time, re-established its normal operations, while other means of transport were still paralysed, wondering where to begin the repairs?

Finally, can we imagine that, at the very moment when a democracy has been proclaimed, one would for a single instant lose sight of the fact that the railway, despite the evolution of other transport techniques, remains an essentially democratic institution, precisely because it’s so cheap?

The reconstruction of the Transvietnamien involves the relaying of around 1,200kms of track, some 500kms of which are situated south of the 17th parallel (the section from Ninhhoa to Tourane). The reconstruction of this southern part of the Transvietnamien will absorb, at an initial estimate, credit of around 700 million dollars and will be completed in two years, thanks to the state of destruction – extended, yes, but also mainly superficial, most large works remaining recoverable.

The Viet-Nam Railways network on 1 September 1954

Then in the longer term, after the reconstruction of the Transvietnamien, we might consider extending the network by building tributary lines to serve the rich inland areas whose exploitation is still very limited due to difficulties of access.

If we are limited only to new line projects south of the 17th parallel, the following should be mentioned:

– A line linking the provinces of Kontum, Pleiku and Bunmathuot to the Transvietnamien at Ninhhoa, the completion of which will benefit the economic and social development of the Highlands.

– And with the eventual rail connection to our southern neighbour, Cambodia, the extension of the Saigon-Locninh line as far as Kratie will give the products of the forests and plantations of this rich region easy access to the sea, the Mekong being difficult to navigate beyond Phnom Penh.

But before even thinking of extending the Viet-Nam Railways network, we must rebuild it and modernise its equipment, with the aim of better performance and greater circulation of trains.

Among these modernisation projects, some of which are already in the process of realisation, one should mention:

(i) “dieselisation” of motive power;

(ii) strengthening of certain works which are currently in weak condition, especially those of the former Laithieu-Bendongso tramway, to permit circulation of axle loads of 13 tonnes;

(iii) electrification of the Tourcham-Dalat and Saigon-Nha Trang routes, to be studied in connection with the hydroelectric projects at Danhim, near Dalat.

The arrival of a passenger train at Saigon Station in the 1950s

The completion of the programme briefly described here will require the mobilisation of considerable financial resources, public and private, domestic and foreign. However, after long years of war, our own immediate means are limited, and external aid remains sparse. It is therefore important not to waste such resources, but to use them wisely in the reconstruction of various means of communication, as part of a logically-coordinated plan.

In this plan, the railways will, we are sure, constitute a “key sector” whose priority reconstruction will facilitate the development of others, and whose modernisation must be a primary factor in the rebirth of Viet-Nam.

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

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

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

Old Saigon Building of the Week: The Lost Paris Foreign Missions Society Chapel

The interior of the MEP Chapel

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

Hidden behind the Department of Foreign Affairs building at 4-6 Alexandre de Rhodes is the last surviving relic of that neighbourhood’s long association with the Roman Catholic Church – an abandoned chapel of the Paris Foreign Missions Society.

Rue de l’Évêché (Bishopric street), now Alexandre de Rhodes street

The street known today as Alexandre de Rhodes first came into being in 1870, during the construction of the first Bishop’s Palace. Not surprisingly, its earliest name was rue de l’Évêché (Bishopric street).

Built between 1869 and 1877 at 6 rue de l’Évêché, that first Bishop’s Palace is said to have replaced a “confiscated Annamite mandarin’s house” on rue Lefèbvre (modern Nguyễn Công Trứ street), which had served as a temporary episcopal residence since the time of the French conquest.

On 28 January 1897, the rue de l’Évêché was renamed rue Colombert, after Monsignor Isidore Colombert, who served as Apostolic Vicar of Western Cochinchina from 1873 to 1894.

A 1920s view of the second episcopal residence – the current Archbishop’s Palace – at 180 rue Richaud

However, for reasons which remain a mystery, it was subsequently decided to relocate the Bishop’s Palace to what is now District 3. In 1911, a new episcopal residence – the current Archbishop’s Palace – was inaugurated at 180 rue Richaud (modern Nguyễn Đình Chiểu). As soon as the old building at 6 rue Colombert had been vacated, it was taken over by the Cochinchina government’s Political and Administrative Affairs Inspectorate (Inspection des Affaires politiques et administratives).

At around the same time as the diocesan administration vacated 6 rue Colombert, the Paris Foreign Missions Society (Société des Missions Étrangères de Paris, MEP) built a representative office (Procure des Missions Étrangères) right next door at 4 rue Colombert. The MEP would remain there for the rest of the colonial period.

A surviving photo of the former MEP building, taken in the late 1950s when it functioned as the National School of Public Administration (Trường Quốc gia Hành chánh)

It’s said that on the morning of 23 September 1945, the Provisional Executive Committee of the South under Trần Văn Giàu (1911-2010) met in its offices to plan a campaign of armed resistance against General Gracey’s British troops and the French prisoners of war they had released and rearmed.

Following the departure of the MEP from Saigon in 1954, its former headquarters building was taken over by the government of the Republic of Việt Nam and transformed into the National School of Public Administration (Trường Quốc gia Hành chánh), while the old episcopal residence next door became the ROV Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Bộ Ngoại giao).

Five years later, the School was relocated to 10 Trần Quốc Toản (now 3 Tháng 2), permitting the ROV Ministry of Foreign Affairs also to take possession of the old MEP building. Then in 1961, both of the old church buildings at 4 and 6 Alexandre de Rhodes were demolished and replaced by a single large modern one. Since 1975, this has served as the offices of the Hồ Chí Minh City Foreign Affairs Department (Sở Ngoại vụ Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh).

The 1961 Foreign Affairs Ministry (now Department) building which replaced the two church buildings at 4 and 6 Alexandre de Rhodes

Remarkably, one relic survived the demolition of the old MEP building, and this still stands today in the rear yard of the Foreign Affairs Department compound.

Used for many years as a storeroom, the former MEP chapel at 4-6 Alexandre de Rhodes is similar in style to the chapel which stands in the compound of the Children’s (former Grall) Hospital. Although it has not yet been formally dated, it is believed to have been built during the construction of the MEP compound in 1912.

Despite its diminutive size, the chapel incorporates a transept and a small rear balcony area, the latter accessed by a spiral staircase. Sadly, the original floor of the chapel has been lost and its stained glass windows have sustained some damage, but other interior decorative work remains intact.

It’s understood that the future of the chapel hinges on a decision regarding its ownership.

An external shot of the MEP Chapel

The lobby of the MEP Chapel

The view down the nave of the MEP Chapel

The apse of the MEP Chapel, which incorporates its largest stained glass window

Looking back towards the entrance the MEP Chapel – note the balcony, currently boarded up

One of two east transepts in the MEP Chapel

One of two west transepts in the MEP Chapel

Part of the ceiling of the MEP Chapel

Another external view of the MEP Chapel

The west side exterior of the MEP Chapel

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 Lippmann Affair

The place des Cocotiers (Petit Lac) tramway interchange in 1952

Demoted and then sacked by the Vichy authorities for being Jewish, Hanoi Tramways Company director Léo Lippmann spent several years trying to get his job back.

The anti-Semitic statutes passed by the French Vichy government were extended to Indochina through a series of laws promulgated by the colonial authorities in 1940-1941. At that time, around 1,000 Jewish people were said to be living in Indochina, where they were engaged in a variety of professions, ranging from the colonial armed forces and administration, to banking, insurance, advertising and commerce.

Le Matin newspaper, 2 October 1940

Though many are known to have lost their livelihood as a result of anti-Jewish legislation, only one dismissal – that of Hanoi Tramway Company Director Léo Lippmann in May 1942 – was high-profile enough to warrant intervention by the highest echelons of the colonial administration.

The anti-Semitic laws were repealed in January 1945, but government bureaucracy, coupled with the confusion surrounding the company’s inept interim management, delayed Lippmann’s reinstatement until March 1945. Léo Lippmann left the Hanoi Tramway Company in 1948.

The following two documents were found in the file of Paul Louis Gabriel Chauvet (23 August 1944-9 March 1945), Acting Résident-Supérieur of Tonkin.

Memo by Léo Lippmann to Résident-Supérieur Chauvet, 21 February 1945

On 18 December last, you called for me and indicated that you desired my opinion on the current exploitation of the tramways. It was thus that I was led to inform you that, for the last year, the affairs of that company have been so mismanaged that the Protectorate of Tonkin should expect, in a relatively short period, to see the people deprived of this convenient means of transport.

In support of my assertions, I give you the precise reasons for the fears which I have had for some time regarding the future of this public service, which rests under your close supervision.

The Hanoi tramway network was built in 1900. From the technical point of view, its construction was undertaken in conformity with the Agreement specifications and the diverse rules which were reproductions of texts then in use in the Metropole.

A share certificate of the Société des Tramways du Tonkin

Over 40 years, a number of these rules have been modified, repealed or replaced by others. In general, these modifications have primarily been intended to increase public safety (travellers, train circulation, neighbouring facilities, etc.).

In accordance with the rules laid down in these texts, there are certain types of modification which must be implemented immediately, while other types may be left until the occasion of a major replacement of a section of track. Bearing this in mind, it is appropriate to consider what has just happened.


The replacement of all of the Vignole rails on the Village du paper (làng Giấy) line has recently been carried out. However, not only did they ignore the procedures set out by the regulations for major works projects; in addition, they destroyed many of the improvements which had been carried out in recent years with the full agreement of the Directorate of Public Works Control Service, in order to satisfy certain decrees and ordinances currently in operation. The track was thus rebuilt in absolutely indefensible conditions and in violation of regulations, without due regard for safety. It does not take an expert to recognise that the rules of track laying – particularly those relating to curves and rail joints – have been ignored.

As a result, there is now a serious risk of accidents involving persons, as well as accidents involving rolling stock, which are expensive as well as being irreparable at present (axles, wheel rims, etc…).

Meanwhile, points – which should have been replaced as a matter of utmost emergency, since they are always the devices which present the greatest degree of wear – have still not been replaced.

Rolling stock

A Hà Nội Tramway map of 1931

The tramway was built to transport passengers. When one sees passing through the streets of Hanoi wagon loads of passengers at full volumetric capacity – that is to say overloaded – one shudders to think of the potential consequences of a serious accident, which is always possible in such cases. One must also ask what negative impact may ensue, both from a mechanical standpoint and from the point of view of good conservation of rolling stock, as a direct result of the overloads thus imposed on the tramway cars.

The recent modifications to the car access doors also constitute a serious hindrance to the rapidity of services. They reduce the safety of passengers and are absolutely incompatible with the current line capacities of the Hanoi network .

From all of the above, it appears that expensive work carried out recently has decreased public safety. This work was carried out in violation of regulations, and was completed to such a poor standard that both track and rolling stock will now be subject to premature wear … creating technical problems which it will be impossible to rectify for many years.


As you know, M. Résident-Supérieur, most of the company’s old staff, both European and Annamite, have been laid off, mostly without any reason of poor performance. I readily acknowledge the possibility that some of these officers did not have a thorough knowledge of their profession, and did not always exercise their duties with all the desirable professional conscience; especially the motormen, receivers and controllers. But has it been possible to replace them all with better staff?

A line 1 tram skirts the Petit Lac (Hoàn Kiếm Lake) in the 1950s

One particular issue which has been brought to your attention is the dismissal without cause of four of the five European agents who made up the management team of the Company.

One of these – a Foreman – had nine years of service; he worked under four successive directors and has consistently rendered to the Company such excellent service that in November 1943, the last director, M. Gauthier, awarded him a distinction. Another, a Chef-controleur who worked 10 to 12 hours each day, often going without lunch to monitor effectively the receipts from trains on every line, has also been laid off.

I am sure that you understand better than I, M. Résident-Superieur, how difficult it is to replace such excellent staff.

The result of these abusive measures, which came so quickly, is that at the present time there remains in this company only a single management staff member who has even the most elementary notion of how a conceded public service like this should be run.

In this connection, on 8 April 1944, Hanoi was bombed and the tramway network was damaged in several locations. Yet the Director chose this moment to take a short vacation at a resort, travelling there in the single automobile which is exclusively devoted to servicing the company. He was immediately made aware of the bombing, yet despite this, he continued with his holiday plans and did not return to Hanoi until three or four days later, depriving the network for several days of its automobile, which is indispensable in such circumstances. When he finally returned, he made only very brief (and late) morning appearances in areas not too close to the centre of the city, during the hours when aerial bombing was a possibility.

This same Director, during the Tet holiday in 1944 and again this year, was absent on each occasion for 10 consecutive days, once again taking the company automobile for his own use.

A line 2 train pictured on rue du Sucre (phố Hàng Đường) in the 1940s

In this connection, it should be noted that during the few days preceding and following the Tet holiday, the quantity of travellers using the tramway is far superior to that at any other time of year.

It is to say the least strange to see the head of a company abandon his post during the one short period of year when his business becomes overloaded with work. It is all the more strange since this is a public service, the director of which has no right to be idle.

To all the above, one should add other issues which are particularly serious, shameful and scandalous, and which it is impossible to tolerate in a public service falling under the control of the Administration. Two of those issues were the subject of my letters of 9 and 10 October 1944 to the Attorney General at the Courts of Appeal of Hanoi.

Then there is the famous case of the cement, which was the subject of my letter of 15 March 1944 to the Governor General, a letter to which I attached a telegram destined for my company’s head office in Paris, a telegram which at the time the Administration judged that it would not transmit.

Finally, there is the recent massive sale of metals, in conditions which would be rather unusual anywhere, let alone in a country which suffers a foreign occupation; this issue has been the talk of the city, because everyone knows the destination of most of those metallurgical products.

All of the preceding suggests gross professional incompetence from an operational point of view, not to mention a scandalous lack of morals where the cement affair and the sale of several hundreds of tonnes of metal are concerned.

I leave you to contemplate what might be the reaction of the Board of Directors of the Company in Paris when it will be possible for me to make it aware of this lamentable situation, which I shall not fail to do by the first post leaving for France.

A line 5 train pictured outside Hà Nội Station in 1960

It will certainly have not escaped your notice that, under the Convention on the one hand and the decree of 3 March 1936 and the ordinances which regulate this conceded public service on the other, you have the right to investigate the matter in depth. This monitoring should have been carried out by the company, but the present situation makes it materially impossible for the Board of Directors to act.

You have under your control the Public Works Department, and if some of the facts reported above were able to reach this service, which does not normally enter into questions of internal detail, there are competent individuals there who, even if they had not seen it for themselves (which seems to me impossible), would charge the Director with culpable negligence. In particular, the modifications to carriages and the replacement of the rails on the Village du papier line could not escape their notice.

1. My right to exercise the duties of Director were suspended in accordance with the Law of 2 June 1941.
2. I was subsequently instructed to retire without delay from the Société des Tramways by Letter No. 10419 of May 1942 from the Chief Engineer of the Circonscription of Tonkin, acting on the orders of M Résident-Supérieur of Tonkin.

This last decision constitutes a flagrant violation of the laws of 2 June and 17 November 1941.

Most recently, the ordinance of 11 January 1945 now “reports” that these laws never existed. By consequence, we cannot pretend today that the decisions taken in application of said laws continue in force.

The above-mentioned ordinance of 11 January 1945 has ended the suspension of the exercise of my directorial duties, with the result that since then I have been reinstated by the said ordinance (which incidentally has retroactive effect) in my functions as Director of the Société des Tramways. It is officially and in this capacity that I address you now.

A line 2 train comprising original 1900 stock heads north along rue de la Soie (phố Hàng Đào) in the early 1930s, photo by Charles Peyrin

This situation is all the more serious as my directorial powers were delivered to me by the Board of Directors of the company at its meeting of 24 November 1936, powers which my company took the precaution of never annulling.

Indeed, I am the only person in Indochina who is bound to the Société des Tramways by a contract approved by the Board of Directors at its meeting of 24 November 1936, a contract which not only has never been suspended, but was also extended until my return to France, with the option for me to renew at that time.

I will add that if at present, despite the letter that I addressed to you on 1 February 1945, I have not been able to resume my role as Director of the tramway company, this is a delay brought about by the Administration, which must bear full responsibility.

After being the victim of an interpretation of the Law of 2 June 1941, it seems that I am now a victim of absolutely unacceptable procrastination; I thus have every reason to suppose that I have been the subject of defamatory allegations on the part of my “successors” – this could be the only explanation for the persistence with which obstacles to my reintegration continue to multiply. I would like to know, M, Résident-Supérieur, whether you believe these defamations, or whether you wish instead to shine full light on what has really been happening at the Société des Tramways since my eviction.

I am naturally at your disposal to provide all the necessary clarifications and thus to wash off all the calumnies with which I have been covered.

I would add that when this matter is finally resolved, the scandal may appear even more serious when the incomprehensable delay occasioned by the authorities is revealed.

Hanoi, 21 February 1945
Hôtel Metropole, Hanoi

Note from the Head of the 1st Bureau to Résident-Supérieur Chauvet, 3 February 1945

A northbound line 2 train nears the Chateau d’eau (Đồn Thủy Water Tower on phố Hàng Đậu) in the 1940s

The repeal of the laws on the Jews raises the question of the reinstatement of M. LIPPMANN to his former post as Director of the Compagnie des Tramways, currently directed by M. PETOT (being substituted by M. JOUVELET)

Various points should be examined in turn:

1. Exclusion of M. LIPPMANN by the Compagnie des Tramways

The first law on the Jews, that of 3 October 1940, did not affect M LIPPMANN, who is the issue of two Catholic grandparents and was not married to a Jewish woman (although he had previously been married to a Jewish woman, he was subsequently divorced).

The following law, that of 2 June 1941, affected M. LIPPMANN, because he was the issue of two Jewish grandparents and could not prove that he had embraced a faith other than the Jewish faith.

Also, shortly after its release, the Board of Directors of the company decided, in order to remain within the law, to appoint M. BAUDOT as Director, while maintaining M. LIPPMANN as Ingenieur-Council (in effect, the new legislation only forbade Jews from occupying the positions of directors of companies and conceded public services).

At the end of April 1942, M. BAUDOT was replaced as Director by M. GAUTHIER.

Almost immediately, in May 1943, the Administration decided to expel M. LIPPMANN from his position of Ingenieur-Conseil with the Compagnie des Tramways. For that dismissal, it cited a new law, that of 17 November 1941, which amended Article 5 of the Law of 2 June.

M. LIPPMANN argued that he did not fall under the application of the Law of 17 November. The question was then referred to the Governeur General, who responded (all too briefly, in my opinion) that M. LIPPMANN was affected by the new measures.

A line 2 tram service at the Village du papier (Giấy village) terminus in the 1930s

M. PIRIOU produced a telegram from France (Compagnie des Tramways de Marseille), which was favorable to the thesis of M. LIPPMANN.

But M. Résident Supérieur DELSALLE refused to challenge the Governor General, saying that “the intepretation of the Governor General is sufficient, and it’s a question of acting rather than quibbling.” Consequently, the Compagnie des Tramways was instructed to dismiss M. LIPPMANN.

Without getting into the detail of this legal discussion, we must recognise that the text used to justify the treatment of M. LIPPMANN (the Law of 17 November 1941) is far from clear, and that the Governor General could not have understood its spirit unless he consulted the legislator in Paris who had drafted it.

The opinion of the 1st Bureau has not varied since the day it suggested that the Resident Superieur should challenge the Secretariat of the Governor General on this issue, submitting a draft letter which was never signed.

The 1st Bureau believes that the way in which the Law of 17 November has been applied to M LIPPMANN is questionable. In any case, it is undeniable that we have failed to take account of the provisions of the Article of the Law of 2 June 1941 which permitted M. LIPPMANN to remain on the staff of the Tramways Company in a capacity other than that of Director (ie as Ingenieur-Conseil), by virtue of the fact that he was the holder of the Croix de Guerre, 1914-1918.

This mistake is likely to engage the pecuniary responsibility of the Administration, in respect of damages due not only to M. LIPPMANN, but also to the Compagnie des Tramways if the latter can one day demonstrate that the Governor-General’s decision precipitated a loss of income.

2. Appointment of M. PETOT

M. GAUTHIER, Director of the Compagnie des Tramways, died in Hanoi on 27 December 1943.

A line 1 tram passes in front of the Grand Magasins Réunis in the 1950s

M. LIPPMANN, who at that time was no longer an employee in the eyes of the Administration, but who retained the powers invested in him by his Head Office in Paris, was still concerned about the affairs of the company and had even officially given advice to M. GAUTHIER. He met M. BAYLIN, Director of the Bank of Indochina, and suggested that, in the interests of the company, the latter should urge the Board of Governors of the Compagnie des Tramways in Paris to offer the job temporarily to M. FOURNIER.

The Compagnie des Tramways answered that it had named M. LECUYER (of Haiphong Glass) as the new Director, and that, pending the arrival of the latter in Hanoi, it had empowered M. FOURNIER to act as company signatory. Messrs LIPPMANN and FOURNIER both received a telegram from the Head Office saying: “Board of Directors makes arrangements and trusts you.” This happened in the second half of January 1944.

A few weeks before, that is to say just after the death of M. GAUTHIER, someone other than M. LIPPMANN also intervened in the matter.

On 30 November (remember that M. GAUTHIER had died on 27 November) M. DALOZ charged M. PETOT with the job of directing the Compagnie des Tramways du Tonkin.

I do not know if M. DALOZ acted in agreement with the Head Office of the Compagnie des Tramways. M. DALOZ does not belong to that organisation, but is an employee of the Société Financière, which was once the parent company of the tramways company before it gave up its interests (in this case by selling all of its shares) in the Compagnie des Tramways. The only link between the tramway company and the Société Financière is that they have a common Administrator, M. BERNARD.

M. PETOT, busy with his stationery business in Bac-Ninh where he was resident, charged his cousin M. JOUVELET with the job of Director of the Compagnie des Tramways du Tonkin.

A packed tramcar in March 1973 by © Bettmann/CORBIS

In March 1943, M. LIPPMANN, assessing critically the management of the Compagnie des Tramways (particularly the cement affair), wished to alert his headquarters by cable about what had happened. However, the Government General refused to forward the telegram. Instead, on 26 April, they sent a telegram to our department, copy to the Inspection General of Public Works, asking us officially to appoint the new Director (then M. PETOT) and to give him regular powers. This telegram also mentioned their refusal to transmit M. LIPPMANN’s telegram to the President of the Board of the Compagnie des Tramways du Tonkin in Paris (M. TOCHE).

In response to this telegram, our department transmitted a telegram from M. BLANCHET, Notary in Paris, saying that the Compagnie des Tramways had confirmed the appointment of M. PETOT as Director in replacement of M. GAUTHIER, adding that powers had been give to M. PETOT by deliberation of a meeting of the Board held on 30 December 1943, and filed with the notary on 4 April 1944.

The Residence Superieur has not been kept informed of this exchange of correspondence, which I did not know about until three days ago.

Note that this date of 30 December 1943 is the date on which the effective management of the tramways by M. PETOT (appointed by M. DALOZ) commened.

It is difficult to explain how, only three days after the death of M. GAUTHIER, a Board meeting could be held in France in order to replace the deceased Director. One understands even less how the same Board was able, subsequent to this deliberation (in January 1944), to agree to another one which gave powers to a third person: M. LECUPER.

Neither M. LECUYER nor M. PETOT live in Hanoi, The first resides in Haiphong, while the second lives in Bac-Ninh.

3. Current situation

The place des Cocotiers (Petit Lac) tramway interchange in 1952

It is noted that the Board has never revoked the powers of M LIPPMANN. The latter still holds them. He has simply found it a legal impossibility to exercise them, due to the legislation on the Jews and the interpretation given to these texts by the Indochina administration.

Two people are currently holders of powers enabling them, legally, to direct the Compagnie des Tramways du Tonkin: Messrs PETOT and LIPPMANN.

The powers of M. LIPPMANN are of unquestionable regularity. Those of M. PETOT are perhaps also in order, but it seems that they were given him in conditions which require some clarification.

The preparation of laws against the Jews is the only reason why M. LIPPMANN vacated the post of Director of the Hanoi Tramways and, as a consequence, the only reason why M. PETOT was appointed to this position.

Now that this law is repealed, it is natural and logical that M. LIPPMANN should resume the place currently occupied by M. PETOT.

Other reasons militate in the same direction:

M. LIPPMANN occupied this post before; he undoubtedly has the confidence of his Head Office – that is clear from numerous documents (telegrams) in the dossier that we hold.

M. PETOT, on the other hand, does not seem known to the Head Office; he was appointed Director of Tramways as a result of the circumstances just reported. He does not live in Hanoi and does not actually run the company, having appointed his cousin M. JOUVENET to carry out his duties. The latter, in the view of the Control Service, does not have the required technical competence and is not surrounded by competent advisers.

Finally and above all, the morality and professional awareness of M. LIPPMANN has never given rise to criticism. M. le Resident Superieur can read the files in order to learn more fully about this subject.

Pont du Papier (Cầu Giấy) tramway terminus in the 1930s

In contrast, M. PETOT, a man of Italian origin, was reported by the Tonkin police (report of 13 June 1944) for failure to declare stock of 89 tonnes of cement “for which he was unable to provide legal documents, and which were acquired as a result of transactions with various private traders” – in other words, using good French, which came from the black market.

Résident-Supérieur HAELEWYN added the following in his letter to the Governor General. dated 24 June: “M. PETOT has all too frequently manifested a tendency to place his personal interests above the general interest.”

Just recently, on the subject of the Compagnie des Tramways, the Chief Engineer of Public Works (Control Service of the Tramways), which never had to complain about M. LIPPMANN’s management, formulated in a very alarming way its most express reservations on the management of M. PETOT. “I note with very particular concern the very poor technical management of the current leadership. It seems to be trying to generate all the piastres it can make, without concern for the durability of the rolling stock, the quality of services rendered, and the safety of travellers.”

“For example: The Jewish engineer, when questioning the real and dangerous errors he had observed in the laying of 25kg rails in place of 18kg ones, received the answer that the old equipment had to be changed as soon as the new arrived, and this as quickly as possible, any precaution and any comprehensive plan to be considered as superfluous and negligible against the fact that the company might expect to lose on the resale value of the deposited material. This indicates technical skill and professional conscience of a standard which I leave to the assessment of a superior, but it is certain that someone with such a notion of his duties will hardly encourage others to exercise good practice in the management of the company.”

The Mayor of the Municipal Government, after being given a similar account of the tramway’s technical services, could not remain indifferent. He said that, while he could not intervene in the Jewish question, it was necessary to remove M. PETOT forthwith from the Compagnie des Tramways.

Another line 1 tram skirts the Petit Lac (Hoàn Kiếm Lake) in the 1960s

The administration is doubly interested in ensuring that the tramways do not disappear, firstly because of the services they render to the public, now more than ever, and secondly because they are a conceded network of the railways and the administration must ensure its royalties on the revenue of the company.


Since it is not possible to correspond with the Head Office in France to ask it to relieve M. PETOT from the post of Director of Tramways, the only option left to the Administration is to relieve him itself.

M. Résident-Supérieur may, after obtaining the agreement of the Governor General, explain the situation to M. PETOT and instruct him to retire. In the case of M. PETOT offering resistance, he should be put on notice and forced to step down. This procedure is justified because of his poor management.

Alternatively, the Resident of the Civil Court could be asked to remove him on the grounds of the powers he has misused. The Resident is already of the opinion that the Jewish question should not be raised. Moreover, the case would then require a thorough review, which has not been carried out so far.

M. LIPPMANN could then be advised that nothing further prevents him from exercising the powers he was given by the Head Office in 1936, and could resume effective management of the Société des Tramways du Tonkin. The conditions of his service must be fixed in agreement with the Control Service of the Direction of Public Works.

In the event that M. le Resident Superieur shares this view, he should contact the Governor General and ask for his consent first, before acting.

Hanoi, 3 February 1945
Head of 1st Bureau

See also Hanoi Tramway Network

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

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

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

Old Saigon Building of the Week: Phuong Nam Mansion at 110-112 Vo Van Tan

A view of the Phương Nam Mansion from above – photo copyright Zing (see link below)

This article was published previously in Saigoneer.

After being sold at the astronomical price of US$ 35 million, it’s beginning to look like one of the city’s most exquisite works of colonial architecture has been saved for future generations

A front view of the Phương Nam Mansion – photo copyright Zing (see link below)

Located on a 2,800m² site at 110-112 Võ Văn Tần, with entrances on Võ Văn Tần, Bà Huyện Thanh Quan and Nguyễn Thị Diệu streets, the Phương Nam mansion is one of the largest colonial residences in the city.

Very little is known about its early history, but the mansion is believed to have been built in the period 1915-1925 by a wealthy Vietnamese businessman who originally made his fortune in precious metals and stones.

There is a story that the original owner of what was then 110-112 rue Testard subsequently transformed it into a casino, but in the absence of documentary evidence, it can only be said with certainty that by the late colonial period, the mansion was occupied by a variety of different tenants.

These included, in 1945 an office of the Commandement de l’Air en Extrême-Orient (CAEO, Far East Air Command), and in 1949 an office of the Fédération Française de Basket-ball (French Basketball Federation).

Nguyễn Văn Linh (1915-1998), one of the mansion’s former residents

After 1955 the mansion, now at 110-112 Trần Quý Cáp, was acquired by the patriarch of the family which recently sold the building. At the outset, although he used it as his residence, parts of the huge building continued to be rented to tenants.

One of these tenants was Nguyễn Văn Linh (1915-1998), later General Secretary of the Communist Party of Việt Nam, who lived here during the period 1955-1960 after coming south to assume the role of Secretary of the Sài Gòn-Gia Định Special Zone Committee (Đặc khu ủy Sài Gòn-Gia Định).

After the death of the family patriarch, the mansion passed to his seven daughters and was used exclusively as a family home. Two of those daughters lived at the mansion for half a century; one passed away recently, while the other, now in her eighties, was resident there until the building was sold last week.

The Phương Nam mansion has often been described as one of the city’s most magnificent heritage buildings. Its colonnaded façade, flanked at each corner by large balconies, features moulded trim and wrought iron balustrades. The ornamental cast iron roof ridges feature oriental motifs and the eaves are supported throughout by decorative wooden brackets and latticework.

Latticework on the eaves of the Phương Nam Mansion roof – photo copyright Zing (see link below)

The interior is no less impressive, featuring as it does an imposing central staircase with ornate wrought-iron balustrades, elegant ceiling mouldings and cornices, colourful stained glass windows, meticulously carved wooden doors and window frames, and at least four different designs of colonial floor tile.

In 2013, the mansion was placed on the market for US$ 47 million, but the price was subsequently reduced to US$ 35 million – that was the price at which it was finally sold in October 2015 to the Minerva joint stock company.

In September 2014, real estate specialist Anh Hồ Ngọc Lâm commented that US$ 35 million was an appropriate price for the prime piece of the land on which the mansion stands, adding: “if you buy this land, only by building a business centre or an office tower can you recover your investment.”

Corner balcony roof decoration of the Phương Nam Mansion – photo copyright Zing (see link below)

However, speaking immediately after the sale of the mansion, Mr Nguyễn Anh Tuấn, Deputy Director of the Centre of Architectural Research of the Department of Planning and Architecture, confirmed that the mansion was listed in the inventory of old villas in the city due for completion by the end of the year, and indicated that if they wished to make any modifications to its structure or design, the new owners would first have to seek permission from the People’s Committee.

At the time of going to press, Mr Lê Hoàng Châu, Chairman of the Hồ Chí Minh City Real Estate Association, has suggested that the new owner did not buy the mansion for business purposes, but rather as a reflection of prestige and status, and that his/her intention is to preserve this important piece of architectural heritage for future generations to enjoy. Many are hoping that he is correct.

All the photographs of Phương Nam Mansion used in this article are from Zing

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 – 606 Tran Hung Dao, 1932


The elegant colonial villa at 606 Trần Hưng Đạo, soon to be demolished

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

Permission was given recently to demolish another of the city’s old French buildings, the former SAMIPIC mansion at 606 Trần Hưng Đao.

In April 2015, it was reported that the authorities were considering an application to destroy the old mansion at 606 Trần Hưng Đạo in order to make way for a new tower block. It is understood that city leaders have now given the plan the green light and demolition is expected to commence very soon.

According to local historians, 606 Trần Hưng Đạo was once the site of an old Khmer pagoda, but by 1932 that had been demolished to make way for the current building, an elegant villa built for the state-franchised charity lottery company known as the Société pour l’amélioration morale, intellectuelle et physique des indigènes de Cochinchine (SAMIPIC).

83A 606 Tran Hung Dao

The MAAG headquarters at 606 Trần Hưng Đạo in 1962 (unknown photographer)

Set up by decree of the Governor of Cochinchina in October 1927 to administer a 600,000 piastre state lottery, SAMIPIC was run by a committee which “grouped together the élite of Annamite society” (Gazette coloniale, 1936). It sold 2-piastre lottery tickets to the public and then donated a substantial part of its income to charitable, health and educational causes in Cochinchina. It also “organised conferences, and every year offered a number of scholarships in France and in the colony to the most deserving students.”

SAMIPIC’s achievements included setting up the Maison des Associations Annamites in Saigon in 1929 and funding the construction of the “Maison indochinoise” at the Cité Universitaire de Paris, which was inaugurated on 22 March 1930 by French President Gaston Doumergue and the young King Bảo Đại.

SAMIPIC was housed initially in a small villa at 76 rue de Lagrandière [Lý Tự Trọng], but on 16 February 1933, La Croix newspaper reported the inauguration of its brand new headquarters at 96 boulevard Galliéni (now 606 Trần Hưng Đạo). The building was later described as “superb,” with “magnificent decor” (Écho annamite, 6 September 1941).

SAIGON 1963 - U.S. MAAG Building

Another view of the MAAG headquarters at 606 Trần Hưng Đạo from 1963 (unknown photographer)

After the departure of the French in 1954, the villa was acquired by the American government and became home to the Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG), which co-ordinated the supply of military hardware, training and assistance to the French and subsequently to the Republic of Việt Nam. Because of its high profile, the villa was one of three US installations in the city targeted by the National Liberation Front on 22 October 1957.

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.

At first, MACV staff shared the villa at 606 Trần Hưng Đạo with their MAAG colleagues, but in May 1962 they were given separate accommodation on Pasteur street (see 137 Pasteur). From that date until 1967, the villa at 606 Trần Hưng Đạo was known as “MACV II.” MAAG survived as a separate entity until May 1964, when its functions were fully integrated into MACV.

In August 1967, MACV vacated the villa, moving all of its operations to the new “Pentagon East” complex at Tân Sơn Nhất Air Base. 606 Trần Hưng Đạo subsequently became the headquarters of the Republic of Korea Forces Vietnam (ROKFV), which remained at the villa until the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in 1973.

Until recently, the villa at 606 Trần Hưng Đạo was home to several local businesses.

The Republic of Korea Forces Vietnam (ROKFV) headquarters building at 606 Trần Hưng Đạo in February 1969 (photograph via fold3.com)

MACV II Compound (606 Tran Hung Dao)

The MACV II headquarters at 606 Trần Hưng Đạo, pictured some time between 1962 and 1967 (unknown photographer)

The Republic of Korea Forces Vietnam (ROKFV) Headquarters. Feb 1969

The Republic of Korea Forces Vietnam (ROKFV) headquarters building at 606 Trần Hưng Đạo in February 1969 (photograph via fold3.com)

Bộ Tư lệnh Lực lượng ĐẠI HÀN tại Việt Nam (606 Trần Hưng Đạo Saigon)

The Republic of Korea Forces Vietnam (ROKFV) headquarters building at 606 Trần Hưng Đạo in the late 1960s (unknown photographer)

Saigon 1969 - Bộ chỉ huy QĐ Đại Hàn tại VN

The Republic of Korea Forces Vietnam (ROKFV) headquarters building at 606 Trần Hưng Đạo in 1969 (unknown photographer)

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.

“Anchorages on the Island of Phu-Quoc” by J Renoud, 1879-1880

A French gunboat on the Mekong

My mission to identify anchorages on Phu-Quoc was aimed at finding, along the coast of the island, a safe haven for small boats, and, thereby facilitating communications with Ha-Tien, permitting our gunboats to come here in almost any season. Years have passed without a boat from our naval station coming to Phu-Quoc; only at very long intervals could one see a small inspection craft from Ha-Tien, improperly equipped for a trip of several days.

Cochinchine française, Arrondissement d’Ha-Tien, Plan topographique de l’ile de Phu-Quoc, 1897

However, the inlet which separates Phu-Quoc from the coast of Cochinchina is sheltered from both the northeast monsoon and the southwest monsoon; the sea is often calm, and the distance is only 35 miles.

We can, in most seasons, count on at least a few hours of good weather to make the journey. When, through the deepening of Vinh-Te canal, our naval vessels will be able to access Ha-Tien all year long, travel to Phu-Quoc will become very easy – once we know where to find safe anchorage.

Accompanied by Lieutenant Pitout, I left Ha-Tien on 16 December in a small inspection craft. The breeze coming from the northeast brought us to the southern tip of Phu-Quoc. I decided to start our tour of the island there; that would be our first mooring, then we would head north along the west coast, sheltered from the monsoon, and finally, with a favourable wind, we would descend quickly from north to south along the east coast, which is constantly battered by the sea and offers no shelter.

Renaud’s sketch of the Appearance of the east coast of Phu-Quoc, 6 miles off the coast in the east, abeam from Ham-Ninh

Even before arriving in Phu-Quoc, one may recognise that this is a mountainous land. From a distance, its great plateaux with sharp precipices, seemingly an extension of the great Elephant Chain, contrast strongly with the granite peaks found in Cochinchina and all the southern islands of the Gulf of Siam. Their unique appearance suggests that we are looking at sandstone mountains with porphyritic rocks, terrain made up of sandy deposits which constitute the intermediate stage in geology which evolved from primitive land of purely igneous formation (see View 1: Appearance of the east coast of Phu-Quoc, 6 miles off the coast in the east, abeam from Ham-Ninh).

Bay-Cay-Dua – At nine o’clock, we anchored in the southern bay of Phu-Quoc; the sea was rough, but we found excellent shelter there.

The next day, the 17th, the northeast monsoon blew a real gale; despite the very heavy seas offshore, our bay remained perfectly sheltered and calm. The south coast of Phu-Quoc is completely deserted.

The southern tip of Phú Quốc, showing the Coconut Tree Bay, Plan topographique de l’ile de Phu-Quoc, 1897

The bay called Coconut Tree Bay has existed only for a few years. The great peninsula which encloses the bay on the eastern side (which I named Monkey Peninsula) is high, entirely wooded, and with a rounded tip, the rocky coasts leaving room for only two small beaches bordered by filao (Casuarina equisetifolia) trees. It is connected to the island only by a very narrow and very low strip of land, which, however, is not submerged at high tide, as shown on the English map.

The two islands of the west are entirely rocky, inaccessible, long and narrow, forming a good shelter against the winds and the southwest sea, which is already broken by the group of large southern islands.
The bay has a white sandy beach and there is also a small stream, where one may find fresh water.

It was on its shores that, in 1873, the plantation of M. Desgrois, then Attorney General in Saigon, was established; but today there is nothing left of what he called the “plantation Saint-Louis.” He had cleared the land and planted some coffee, of which I could find no trace.

A coffee plantation

The soil is sandy, forming, to a distance of one kilometre, a plain which rises gradually to the wooded hills running from east to west, crossing the island, connecting with the two southwestern and southeastern peninsulas and rounding into a great semicircle which completely shelters the bay from the winds emanating from the north.

The seabed is very regular; a 10m deep seabed runs parallel to the beach over a distance of half a mile; during the northeast monsoon, the sea is very calm, and there are anchorages everywhere; just a short distance from the coast, one may find a seabed of mud mixed with sand, which forms a good anchor-holding bottom.

In the interior, the low mass of the southern hills leads to a square summit on the west coast, while on the east coast there is a pointed summit, near Dam. A large plain divides the island into two parts, just south of Ham-Ninh. There, one may find a small stream, the mouth of which is called Cua-Lap, which alone interrupts the continuity of the beach between the square summit and the island’s capital of Duong-Dong. This is just an insignificant stream, and one can only travel along it in a small boat; even then, one is forced to stop a few kilometres from its mouth.

A Vietnamese house in the forest

The plains and hills inland are entirely wooded. Vegetation near the coast, constantly battered by the Gulf of Siam’s very fresh southwest monsoon, does not acquire its full development.

However, it becomes more beautiful as one penetrates deeper into the interior; sandy soil also becomes less pure. One only reaches the great forest after travelling some distance inland, as the hills begin to come into view. This part of the island is represented in the View No 2, taken within a mile of the mouth of the Cua-Lap.

Duong-Dong – At four o’clock we anchored in front of Duong-Dong, the capital of the island and the first inhabited place we had encountered on the coast. Duong-Dong is marked by a large black sandstone rock, visible from some distance, which lies at the entrance to the river and contrasts strongly with the white beach and the great cluster of filao trees. Viewed as a whole, the village offers a most pleasant appearance, with its houses hidden under coconut trees, and its fortress surrounded by a high fence. In front of it, next to the sea, is the former house of the administrator; at the entrance of the river, the large black rock is topped by a shrine, to which sailors and fishermen come, bringing offerings.

The area around the island’s capital, Đương Đông, Plan topographique de l’ile de Phu-Quoc, 1897

The river of transparent water which runs through Duong-Dong is lined with several rows of tall filao trees; behind it are three or four layers of wooded hills, leading to the highlands of the east coast (see View of Duong-Dong, taken 600m offshore, abeam from the Inspection).

The population of Duong-Dong numbers around 600 inhabitants; inside the fort resides the Huyen, who is the head of the island and has 17 militiamen under his command. The previous Inspection, built from wood, is in very poor condition; placed beside the beach, it can be a pleasant place to stay during the northeast monsoon when the sea is calm; but during the southwest monsoon it is not habitable. The Annamites never build next to the beach; all of their houses are on the river, sheltered by the first sandbank. I think that if one would like to restore the old Inspection, it would be appropriate to choose a new location.

The Annamite huts of the village, numbering around one hundred, are made from tree bark and do not have the miserable appearance of most of those of Cochinchina; the people here are all rich.

Fish sauce fermenting in tanks

The greatest resource of the country is nuoc mam or fish sauce; it is made with a small green and white fish, a few centimetres long, and nowhere is it encountered in such abundance as on Phu-Quoc. The nuoc mam of Phu-Quoc has a great reputation; it appears on the table of the King of Annam and in all the rich yamens of Canton. One makes nuoc mam by stacking the fish with salt in large tanks; after a few days, this produces a fermentation which results in a yellowish cloudy liquor, with a very strong odour, which is stored away from air and light; after 15 days, one gets the clear nuoc mam, almost odourless, which is sold in bottles. It can be stored indefinitely and does not have the repulsive smell of the fish sauce which is made in Cochinchina, notably in Phuoc-Tinh near Baria.

Fishing takes place during the northeast monsoon season; each house has a large shed where the tanks are stored; the finished product is sent to Saigon via Ha-Tien. Last year, the fish were abundant; this year, the fishing is not so good, so that the nuoc mam is more expensive. I was assured that the Annamites make, with nuoc mam, an income of around 3,000 to 4,000 ligatures each year. In 1878, the amount of nuoc mam exported to Saigon via Ha-Tien was 4,280 piculs.

Buffalos in the river

The people here do not cultivate the land and do not even have the idea of clearing space for a little garden; opposite the village is a small swamp where about 70-80 ligatures of rice are harvested each year.

Besides the nuoc mam, they also sell salted fish and turtles caught on the coast; a beautiful Hawksbill turtle may be sold for up to 40 dollars.

They also harvest resins and oils from trees in the forests.

Finally, they hunt; deer and wild boar may be found here in great abundance. Wild buffalo, from which the skin and horns are sold, abound here. In the great plain behind Phu-Quoc, the ground is literally ploughed up by their hooves. The wild buffalo of Phu-Quoc have a great reputation for wickedness; yet the danger is greatly exaggerated. At night, they travel in bands and come close to villages, where dogs utter terrible barks; they ravage all the crops, and this is one of the reasons invoked by the Annamites not to cultivate gardens. But by day, they retreat deep into the forests and are very difficult to find. Most live in herds and are not malicious; the only truly dangerous ones are the lone old buffalo; those have even been known to charge Annamites without being threatened, but happily they are few and far between.

South-central Phú Quốc, showing the fertile plain east of Dương Đông and the southeast coastal region where the Bay-Viam and Dam plantations were situated, Plan topographique de l’ile de Phu-Quoc, 1897

The danger of snakes on Phu-Quoc has also been greatly exaggerated; I was told that the Annamites dare not keep hunting dogs, because they would all be eaten by boas; in fact, this is not true, and accidents are rare. Caimans, which abound in some rivers, are much more dangerous for dogs.

The land which stretches behind Duong-Dong is a large sandy plain where the forest has been cleared; amid the bushes, and in clearings created during various ages, run many hunting trails traced by the Annamites; the over-permeable soil, formed from pure sand near the seashore, becomes very fertile in the interior, especially in the valley of the Duong-Dong river, where gardens are grown. Surrounded by high fences and each occupying an area of several hectares, these are maintained almost exclusively by Chinese and supply Duong-Dong with all of its fruit and vegetables. This is the richest area that I encountered on the island.

The river which runs into the sea at Duong-Dong is the most significant river on the island. The plan of the entry into this river was drawn up in 1874 by M. Bain de la Coquerie; it is exact in its essential parts. The narrowness of the river, and particularly the sharp bend which it forms around the sandy promontory in front of the fort, make entry very difficult.

Renaud’s “first alignment” for entering the Đương Đông river

The outer channel runs first between a large bank on the west side, which extends underwater, and a promontory covered with large filao trees on the east side, then between clusters of rocks which form a line parallel to it and lead up to the large black rock near the Inspection.

I determined the alignment to follow in order to hold to the middle of the channel, which, between the bank and rocks, measures no more than 50m. It runs from the flagstaff of the fort to the extremity of the rocks at the end of the beach. One must follow this alignment to its meeting with the second alignment, which runs from the end of the pier to a large isolated filao tree in the interior; it is necessary to pass the sandy point to reach the pier. I give in my first diagram the views I took of these two alignments.

The river is so narrow that, once you have entered, it is impossible to avoid the tide. Fortunately, the current is very weak, a few tenths of a knot at its maximum speed, and the only way to operate is to do all necessary manoeuvres while being moored.

Renaud’s “second alignment” for entering the Đương Đông river

I believe that, in order to choose the best position, one should first moor the boat near the pier. On the west bank, there is a big strong tree, to which a line from the stern of the boat should be attached. That line will run close to the pier on the west side. Meanwhile, the bow of the boat should be moored by a rope to one of the coconut trees or small jetties of the village on the east bank.

To get out of the river, the best way is to send a rope to a stake placed on the tongue of sand abeam from the boat and then to haul on the stake, turning the boat while the stern remains against the pier. The width of the river between the pier and the tongue of sand is around 55m, and the sandbank is very steep.

When penetrating deeper along the river, one must moor the gunboat to the large filao trees which may be found on the second bend; indeed, the only way to forestall free movement on the water here is to attach mooring ropes from both aft and stern to the filao trees. In this operation, the first bend is too abrupt to pass directly, so in order to pass it, you must also haul on ropes fixed ashore.

The estuary at Dương Đông (A Nadal)

These are the two best points where a boat may find shelter on the Duong-Dong river; the first sand dune, the big rock and the trees all offer sufficient shelter against the offshore wind. However, if, in theory, this is possible, in practice it is very difficult; space is so limited that the manoeuvre must be made with extreme precision, for to succeed, one cannot deviate in any given alignment or arrive at a jetty at speed. The captain of a boat, before engaging the channel, must first drop anchor close to the sandbank and go to check out the estuary and the alignments and points where the boat needs to moor. In following the first alignment, one must take great care not to pass its intersection with the second: otherwise one could easily be thrown onto the rocks at the entrance to the river.

In summary, I think that the entry manoeuvre is possible, but extremely difficult; in any case, it should only be attempted in calm weather. The operation would be facilitated if we extended the pier transversely along the red line that I marked on my diagram.

From Duong-Dong to Ham-Ninh and Bay-Viam – The next day, 22 December, we walked from Duong-Dong to Bay-Viam, crossing the island by its only road, which runs between Duong-Dong and Ham-Ninh. The road is well maintained, and one could easily pass along it on horseback or in a carriage – if there were any horses or carriages on Phu-Quoc! The distance is about 25km. Leaving the fort, the road skirts the village of Duong-Dong and follows the river valley, where we encountered Chinese gardens, several rice paddies, and later the remains of an old pepper plantation which had been abandoned for 20 years.

Deep in the forest

It was only after three quarters of an hour walking along this road that we finally entered the vast forest. It extends over a sandstone outcrop which, here as in all other countries, supports the development of trees; the richness of the forest floor in Phu-Quoc impresses all those who have visited the island.

The trees grow straight and tall here, slender without branches on the lower parts, their upward growth in the early years being exaggerated at the expense of their width. Here, one encounters every species of tree from our provinces of Cochinchina and Cambodia, all reaching their maximum development. The gomme-gutte (gambodge) tree is here in abundance; we shall see later what it can bring. I saw yao trees almost 100 feet high.

This beautiful forest covers almost the whole island; I also found here sandstone rocks, sometimes very ferruginous.

Half an hour before arriving in Ham-Ninh, we left the great woods to enter a field of small clearings and thickets. The soil near the east coast seems less rich; the plain is less expansive, the mountains leave little land between the coast and their very steep slopes. We encountered many tram trees [a variety of agarwood] of a very inferior oil quality, and the prairies were covered with horsetails and other plants of the equisetum family, which indicated poor soil.

Another Vietnamese house in the forest

The village of Ham-Ninh is located a few hundred metres from the coast; it consists of about 20 houses, each surrounded by a small garden cultivated with care. There must be around 100 inhabitants here; the small stream which runs through the village is only a few metres wide.

The main industry of Ham-Ninh is producing mam-rouc, a kind of nuoc-mam made with shrimp, highly esteemed by the Siamese, which is exported almost entirely to Bangkok or Kampot.

From Ham-Ninh to Bay-Viam, we follow the beach; the distance is about 7km. I find all along the coast traces of erosion; at every step, trees lie on the beach, uprooted, their trunks already far from the current high water mark. Since the start of the northeast monsoon this year, the sea has certainly advanced at least 3 or 4m.

The bay at Bay-Viam is only a temporary harbour with no shelter; one would need to anchor off the coast, because coral reefs and sandbanks obstruct the whole. It is bordered by a huge beach lined with filao trees.

It was at Bay-Viam that Messrs Girard and Coutel established their plantation, right by the sea, at the foot of the wooded hills which surround the bay. On the shore are a few workers’ houses and a small jetty just across the road from these dwellings.

A vanilla plantation

The plantation of M. Girard was the first attempt at crop-growing on a large scale in Phu-Quoc; as such, it is very interesting to visit; unfortunately, it is only 4 or 5 years old, and has thus not yet reached its full development. Only one part of the plantation is situated in Bay-Viam – the rest is located in Dam, a few kilometres further south, near the bay of the same name; the latter has roughly the same soil and topography. Messrs Girard and Coutel have planted a total of 55,000 feet of coffee trees – 35,000 in Bay-Viam and 20,000 in Dam. As yet, they are far from being in full fruit; most, it is true, have been planted for only two or three years and the harvest this year yielded only 250kg of coffee. The shrubs are planted every two metres, half sheltered from the sun under some large trees. At first glance, they seem healthy; however, unfortunately I found the presence of the “little worm” which wreaks havoc on so many of the coffee trees of Cochinchina – this is the pestilence which destroyed the plantation at Bien-Hoa, and for which we have not yet found a cure.

Next to the coffee trees sprout vanilla plants. These have still not produced anything, but they have a very beautiful appearance; At first they were given defective supports made from dead wood, onto which the stem of the vanilla stuck and was almost burned where it made contact with it. The current Annamite overseer has replaced them with small shrubs from Cambodia, planted in two rows, and whose branches formed a cradle to permit the vanilla flower to be fertilised directly.

A pepper plantation

Next to the vanilla plants, 300 pepper plants also seem healthy, but are still too young to give significant results.

Finally, over a period of five years, Messrs Girard and Coutel planted 17,000 coconut trees, but many of these died, so that now there are just 5,000 to 6,000. It is hoped that, in seven or eight years, these will have achieved their full development.

Last year, they made a test harvest of gomme-gutte or gamboge. The forests of Phu-Quoc are rich in gamboge trees, especially in the regions of Bay-Viam, Dam and also Cua-Kan on the west coast. They must be grown naturally and harvested when they reach maturity. The best size for gamboge shrubs is around 7-10cm. Harvesting is done in February; one makes two spiral grooves on the trunk which meet at the lower end, so that the sap may be channeled into a small bamboo pipe. Each tree can produce annually an average of 100gms; last year, the Girard and Coutel plantation only harvested 7kg, but this is a crop that could easily be grown in large proportions.

In summary, the plantation of Messrs Girard and Coutel has still produced little or nothing; but to be fair, it has not yet acquired its full development. It is neat and well maintained, and it is, in any case, a company which sees great merit in experimenting with new crops.

I will not comment on the considerations which led the growers to choose the locations of Bay-Viam and Dam. The mountains along the coast completely shelter the fields from the breeze for 7 or 8 months, and the climate is very unhealthy, even for the Annamites. The shore, lined with coral and sandbanks, is very difficult to access; there are no communications, no resources, and finally, perhaps the most important consideration,

Plantation labourers taking a break from their back-breaking work

I think that the soil is less fertile than in some other parts of the island, especially the river valley east of Duong-Dong, where the Chinese gardens may be found. That, in my opinion, is the location where a plantation should have been established; it enjoys the most favourable conditions, including climate, means of communication and richness of soil.

Personnel employed in the Girard and Coutel plantation total 32 labourers, who clear, irrigate, weed and maintain the plantation. They are paid 1 franc per day, plus a ration of half a picul of rice each month. While the Annamite overseer is very smart, and, having visited Bourbon, familiar with the French style of plantation, it is nonetheless regrettable that a property of this size is not monitored by a European, or at least inspected from time to time.

The only inhabitants of Bay-Viam are the plantation workers; in Dam, there is a village of about 150 inhabitants, where, as in Duong-Dong, they make nuoc mam. I had hoped to find a good anchorage there, seeing the well-closed bay surrounded by high peaks, but once again, coral reefs hardly permit a boat to enter, and there is no fresh water there.

On this part of the coast, I found many sandstone rocks, and, incidentally, porphyry and gneiss; in times gone by, they exploited jet mines here, which are now abandoned.

A path through the forest

On my return to Ham-Ninh, I did not take the same road. Instead, I followed a small path through the interior. This trail and the road from Ham-Ninh to Duong-Dong are the only roads which exist on the island of Phu-Quoc. One passes through clearings and forests of tram trees; the soil is formed of white sand; it is indeed one of the worst terrains on Phu-Quoc; trams and horsetails grow here at will.

Bounla – After returning to Duong-Dong, we got up soon after midnight next day to head further north. We followed the coast, cooled by a light breeze from the northeast; not until noon did we arrive in Bounla. There lie the ancient construction sites of M. François, who tried, three or four years ago, to exploit the wood of Phu-Quoc. Visiting the remains of his plantation, we found no more than two or three huts for storing large pieces of wood, abandoned and rotting; they were located about 40m from the coast, near a small stream where fresh water may be had. The rafts which he used initially to transport his wood were destroyed by the sea; later, the junks he hired capsized, being too heavily loaded. In the end, he abandoned everything, and his former workshops are now in ruins. It is said that, all told, the unfortunate M François lost around 2,000 piastres.

The problem of how to exploit the forests of Phu-Quoc could be solved by building a network of roads to transport heavy pieces of wood to the coast; and, if the operation is carried out on a large scale, it would also be advantageous to have in Ha-Tien a tugboat which would come in good weather, on one or the other side of the island according to the monsoon, to haul rafts laden with wood from Phu-Quoc to Ha-Tien and Chau-Doc.

Cua-Kan [Cửa Cạn] – From Bounla, we continued our journey north by sea to Cua-Kan, where we anchored at about 3pm. A river opens at the north end of the great beach, 30km in length, which runs all the way from the square summit; at high tide there is no more than a metre of water above the breakwater.

The area around Cua-Kan (Cửa Cạn), Plan topographique de l’ile de Phu-Quoc, 1897

The entrance to the river is very narrow, but it immediately widens into a deep basin. From there, a small waterway heads a few kilometers towards the north, while the main river runs due west. It is around 80m wide, and shallow. Around 1.5kms from its mouth, one arrives at the village of Cua-Kan; It has around 150 inhabitants, all manufacturers of nuoc mam and all rich. There is no trace of agriculture, apart from some poor gardens and the few coconut trees which shelter their huts. We noticed in Cua-Kan a special type of fishing boat, very well built and very elegant. As in Duong-Dong, the people here hunt buffalo and deer with packs of dogs.

We continued up the river as far as the point where it is reduced to a trickle; thereafter, trees crisscross the waterway and there is no way to pass. This small brook finds its source in the Saint-Byoot massif, and thus crosses almost the entire island.

All of the rivers on Phu-Quoc are alike: at their mouths, they have barriers that do not even permit junks to enter; their waters are transparent, with almost imperceptible currents; and they are initially wide and deep enough for navigation, but after a few kiometres they become tiny streams which cannot even be used to transport floating timber. So we must rely on the development of roads to exploit the forests.

All of the rivers of Phú Quốc are reduced to insignificant streams just a few kilometres from their mouths

Cua-Kan seems to be established on one of the worst terrains of Phu-Quoc, whose ground comprises hard ferruginous sandstone; trees grow poorly here; one encounters many trams and shrubs, at least in the part of the river on which I travelled.

Yet, as one advances, the ground seems to rise above the sandstone layer and the trees become larger.

Around 2km east of Cua-Kan, the river makes a very pronounced bend and heads southwest. Then, around 500-600m further on, it veers back towards the south-south-east, then east again.

By the time it reaches its last bend, about 4-5km from its mouth, it is no more than an insignificant stream.

The Ile de l’Eau (Water Island) and Ile de Milieu (Middle Island) – On the morning of 25 December, we set sail to visit the islands north of Phu-Quoc, having discovered that the entire northern part of the island is now deserted, and the ancient villages of Vuong-Bao et de Bay-Doi, though still on the map, no longer exist.

The small islands of Grands-Arbres, Clump and Chenal may be seen from afar; these should not be confused with the flat rock which sits a mile off the north end of the island, poorly visible, which it is prudent to watch out for. This part of Phu-Quoc, between Cua-Kan and the Ile de l’Eau, is where the local people fish for Hawksbill turtles. The breeze is very light, and some time later we arrive at the Ile de l’Eau. Several huts giving shelter to around 20 Annamite fishermen are located near the northeastern bay. This bay is very dangerous, full of rocks and corals, and there is no anchorage.

The Ile de l’Eau (Water Island) and Ile de Milieu (Middle Island), Plan topographique de l’ile de Phu-Quoc, 1897

Water Island is so-called because of the fresh water wells which may be found near the fishermen’s huts; their existence is explained by the fact that the lower layer is made from the same impermeable ferrous sandstone that I had seen in Cua-Kan, while the upper layer and the mountain on the island are made from very permeable sandstone and sand. I found pumice stone here; there are also some jet mines. As in Ham-Ninh, the inhabitants manufacture mam-rouc.

Beyond the Ile de l’Eau is the Ile de Milieu (Middle Island), which also belongs to us, and contains a few fishermen’s huts.

It’s at its northern end that the island of Phu-Quoc offers its most picturesque appearance; all of its wooded summits take many varied forms between northwestern tip of the island and the Kwala Cape, dominated by the highlands of the east, and creating a belt around the two large bays of Bay-Diem and Retram. From the left side of Cape Kwala, one may see as far as the mountains of Ha-Tien, the Kep promontory and the hills of Kampot.

To the east, the great Elephant Chain is entirely visible, while looking north, one can see the entire coast as far as the great estuary of Kompong-Som.

Bay-Diem – During the night, the breeze from the northeast lifted. We left our anchorage at Water Island and sailed to Bay-Diem, which sits in a bay, with an entrance to a river which is blocked by sand like all previous; near the mouth of that river, we found traces of an ancient village. We travelled up river as far as possible, but after just 3km it too became little more than a stream; it was full of fish; the soil seemed excellent and the trees healthy.

The northern coast of Phú Quốc, showing the Kwala Cape (Núi Chão), Plan topographique de l’ile de Phu-Quoc, 1897

The harbour of Bay-Diem, sheltered from the winds of the south, east and west, remains open to the north wind, having before it in that direction a body of water of over 20 miles, and when the northeast wind blows along the entire Elephant Chain, the sea here can be very rough.

Retram – Later the same day, we headed for Retram, located close to Bay-Diem on the other side of the Cape Kwala summit. The plan of the bay and the river drawn in 1868 by M Béhic is inexact. Firstly, he drew the river roughly twice the scale of the bay; there is little more to trust from him when one reaches the second bend, downstream from Retram. Furthermore the jet mine, which he claims is located close to the village and the river, no longer functions. To get there from Retram involves a further half-hour walk.

Retram harbour is even less sheltered from the winds of the north than that of Bay-Diem; filled with rocks and corals, it is, because of the north wind, a very bad anchorage. The Retram river is also blocked and is as narrow as that at Bay-Diem; at a distance of 1.5 miles from its mouth, we encountered traces of an old village.

Years ago, a mining operation here was granted to a Frenchman, who lost money and then abandoned it; the Annamites no longer have the right to mine for jet, and the village has disappeared.

As we reach the village, the portion of the river navigable for boats comes to an end. From there, we walk along a small path which leads to the old mine shafts, located 3km southwest of Retram. There we find four mines, flooded and abandoned; from one of them they removed anthracite. The rock in which the jet lode lies is sandstone, and right next to it I found porphyry. Jet appears in several places in Phu-Quoc; we have mined it in Bay-Doc, in Bay-Viam, in Duong-Dong, and on the Ile de l’Eau. It is highly valued by the Annamites, who use it to make bracelets and necklaces; one small jet bracelet costs 3 or 4 piastres.

An abandoned mineshaft

I brought back many samples of jet, still attached to its rock. However, I had great difficulty accessing the mineshafts, which were already overgrown with bushes and shrubs; in a few more years they will be completely inaccessible and forgotten.

Bay-Doc – We left Retram the next morning; the breeze was so light that we took 24 hours to round Cape Kwala, taking care to keep well clear of the rocks which line the northern coast of the island. South of Mount Kwala is a small stream of little importance.

To acess Bay-Doc from the sea, one must first get round the great sandbank which stretches nearly three nautical miles east from the village; only after having passed it can one turn back and enter the narrow channel which leads to the village. Even then, in a small vessel with a draft of no more than 1.5m, we had to anchor after no more than a mile.

Bay-Doc is surely the poorest village of Phu-Quoc; it sits beside the beach and is recognisable from afar by its many clumps of coconut palms. It is populated by around 100 people who produce neither nuoc-mam nor mam-ruoc. They make a living only from fishing, and the fish they catch – which includes swordfish and sharks – is mostly salted.

We arrived just as they were bringing ashore a huge swordfish, and they offered me the saw, which measured more than 1m long! The flesh of these big fish is cut into strips and dried in the sun on the wooden frames which line the beach; saws and fins are carefully stored and sold in the market at Duong-Dong.

A fishing village on Phú Quốc

Behind Bay-Doc are the highest mountains of the island, part of an entire chain which runs parallel to the coast from Mount Kwala to Ham-Ninh. The small plain that stretches west of Bay-Doc looks excellent for agriculture; but local people have not cleared even the slightest bit; they still claim that wild buffalo and deer ravage all plantations.

On the same day we left for Ham-Ninh, which we had already visited while crossing the island from Duong-Dong.

We then spent a very bad night; in the evening, the wind rose, and although we were anchored nearly a mile from the coast, the breakers were very close behind us. Fortunately, our anchors held fast, and by morning the wind had shifted to the southeast. One should abstain from anchoring for the night anywhere along the east coast of Phu-Quoc during the northeast monsoon; there is no shelter and it is dotted with dangerous reefs and rocks.

We passed again before Bay-Viam and Dam, unable to land because the sea was too rough; very soon, we found ourselves back at the southeast peninsula, our starting point. From there, we headed back to Ha-Tien, pushed by a gentle breeze from the southeast, and arriving on the morning of 31 December.

In summary, Phu-Quoc is a large, uncultivated island, apart from a few hectares of coffee plantation and the small gardens of Duong-Dong, covered throughout its whole extent by beautiful jungle which grows on a forest floor of exceptional richness and is exploitable, provided we build roads. Although its size is larger than that of Martinique, it has a total population of just one thousand inhabitants, divided amongst five villages. I did not see any Cambodians; in Duong-Dong there were a dozen Chinese involved in opium farming and garden culture. The Annamites are gentle, intelligent, very obliging, and we liked them very much.

The Customs and Excise vessel “Nam-Dinh” leaving Hà Tiên to patrol the Gulf of Siam

The people of Phu-Quoc gained a lot when we arrived in the western provinces of Cochinchina; previously they had faced the problems still experienced today by the populations along the coast of Annam, which are constantly subjected to exactions by pirates. Before we came, no junk was safe when its left Duong-Dong to go to Ha-Tien. Thanks to increased security, I was told that in the last five years the export of nuoc mam from Duong-Dong had increased tenfold, and all the producers had become rich.

However the population of this island is not increasing, since there are no newcomers; it seems that for most of the Annamites in Cochinchina, Phu-Quoc is still considered a land of exile, devoid of rice fields and fertile ground, a place where no-one would choose to go at any price.

In geological terms, the island of Phu-Quoc belongs to the class of intermediate terrain; its principal formation is sandstone, and incidentally there are also micaschistes, gneiss, porphyrys, variolites, sandy deposits, etc. Many of its rocks are ferruginous; I saw some traces of lead ore and copper, though in inappreciable quantities.

In some places, such as in the south, along the entire coastline behind Ham-Ninh in the east, and at the entry to Cua-Kan in the northwest, the terrain is made from porous sand, consisting of almost pure quartz or silica. In others, like the valleys east of Duong-Dong and near Bay-Diem, the soil looks excellent and very good for all kinds of crops.

Renaud’s sketch of the Coconut Tree Bay

During the northeast monsoon, the sea is calm on the west coast and one can anchor almost anywhere, at a small distance from land, but during the southwest monsoon, the sea can become very rough. Safe shelter cannot be guaranteed until the monsoon is well established and there is no further need to fear a change of wind.

The bay at Bay-Diem, perfectly sheltered from the winds of the south, is open to the winds from the north.

Cay-Dua Bay, of which I drew a map, seems best for mooring a small boat; it is completely sheltered from all winds, except for that from the southeast; and when the wind turns in that direction, one has the advantage of not being cornered at the bottom of the bay; the pass near the tip of the filao promontory permits us to exit the bay and seek shelter behind the two small islands of the west, which are situated behind the larger islands further south.

Practically the only river in Phu-Quoc which can be entered by a small boat is that of Duong-Dong; but access is difficult, and the manoeuvre demands such precision that it may only be attempted in very good weather and with a perfect knowledge of the area.

In these circumstances, it is certain that, if transportation was improved and the island became more heavily populated, Phu-Quoc would be covered with plantations. However, if roads are built to exploit its forests, it will also be necessary to create a proper port to which all of the island’s roads can lead. At present, there is not one inhabited point on the island to which a boat with a draft of 1.50m can come to shelter in any season.

Saigon, 16 January 1880
Engineer, Hydrographer of the Navy
Published in Excursions et reconnaissances, 1880

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.

Notice on Historic Tombs in the Province of Gia-Dinh, 1924

Around Saigon – the Tomb of a Mandarin

A translation of the Report of 21 June 1924 to the Administrator of Gia-Dinh regarding the ancient tombs in the province, found in the National Archives.

I. The Tomb of Le-Van-Duyet

“Tombeau du maréchal Lê-Van-Duyêt, vice-roi de la Basse-Cochinchine, premier mandarin de l’Empire (1763-1832)” 1921-1935

Le-Van-Duyet, better known to Europeans by the name “Great Eunuch,” was appointed by Minh-Mang in 1822 as Viceroy in charge of Cochinchina. The high position he occupied, and the great prestige which surrounded him, were due as much to memory of the glorious services he had rendered to Gia-Long during the wars against the Tay-Son, as to his deep sense of justice.

Duyet died in 1832, and today his tomb is located right opposite the Inspection of Gia-Dinh, on the land where he had his country house. His memory is greatly venerated; he was classed among the most powerful minds in the indigenous theogony. A pagoda was established next to his tomb, one of the largest ever to have been built, to which devotees come every day to offer sacrifices. It is also here that, in the assembled presence of village notables, and following fixed rites, the most solemn judicial oaths are taken.

This tomb is carefully maintained in its pristine state. The pagoda is currently being restored. This work is being directed with undisputed competence by Mr Diep-Van-Cuong, whose skills will save this monument of pure Annamite style from undergoing a shocking modern restoration.

II. The Tomb of Le-Van-Phong

A Tomb of an Annamite Mandarin

Le-Van-Phong was the brother of Le-Van-Duyet. His tomb is located in the village of Tan-Son-Nhat (canton of Duong-Hoa-Thuong), close to that of the Bishop of Adran.

This tomb is located on the rubber plantation of Mr Cravette. That colon offers free access to the tomb to local people, who are very grateful to him that they are able to celebrate the cult to the memory of the deceased. There is indeed an indigenous association for that purpose.

III. The Tomb of Vo-Thanh

Cochinchina – A Mandarin’s Tomb

Vo-Thanh, valiant Marshal of Gia-Long, has his tomb in the village of Phu-Nhuan (canton of Duong-Hoa-Thuong).

This imposing tomb is surrounded by several pine trees which were planted, it is said, on the orders of Gia-Long. An indigenous association has also been constituted here to observe the cult of his memory.

IV. The Tomb of Vo-Di-Nguy

Saigon – Tomb of a Mandarin

Vo-Di-Nguy was also a companion at arms of Gia-Long. His tomb, like that of Vo-Thanh, is located in the village of Phu-Nhuan (canton of Duong-Hoa-Thuong). It is situated behind a house belonging to Miss Therèse Vidal, and on her property.

Despite the merits of Vo-Di-Nguy, no indigenous group currently exists to honour his memory. The tomb is currently looked after by a few local people from the neighbourhood.

V. The Tomb of Nguyen-Van-Hoc

Souvenir of Cochinchina – Tomb of a Mandarin

Finally, one should note another tomb, located on the grounds of Captain Pham, near the Treasury of Gia-Dinh. Judging by its architecture, its imposing dimensions and its decorative motifs, the tomb must be that of a great dignitary.

After investigations and research by Doc-Phu [Governor] Phat, it seems that the tomb is that of Nguyen-Van-Hoc (?), Marshal of the Vanguard of Gia-Long and novice ordained by the Bishop of Adran.

See also Forgotten Nguyen Dynasty Tombs of Phu Nhuan.

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.