The Hanoi-Dong-Dang Railway, from Alfred Cunningham, The French in Tonkin and South China, 1902

A train waits to depart from Dap-Cau station in 1901

There are perhaps few British merchants practically interested in the commercial development of China who are actually aware of what France is doing in Tonkin and South China in the matter of railways. There are even fewer who consider seriously the ambitious programme which M. Doumer and his supporters have mapped out for the commercial and political conquest of the region.

Paul Doumer (1857-1932)

It may be admitted that there are Frenchmen who do not hesitate to publicly question M. Doumer’s schemes, but opposition apparently exercises no restraint on the carrying out of the programme. The administration of M. Beau, the new Governor-General in Tonkin, may or may not affect French ambitions in South China, but such possibilities can no longer be an excuse for British indifference, official and commercial, in regions which we have, from our geographical advantages, complacently regarded as our own.

The British Consular officials have hitherto failed to attach to the subject the importance it merits, for occasional references in their reports to French railway schemes impress the reader with the idea that our colonial neighbours have more money than wisdom in endeavouring by such means to secure trade from allegedly barren and unproductive districts.

This impression has been accentuated by a recent speech of Lord Curzon, who, as Viceroy of India, was reported to be opposed to spending money on extending Burma railways to Yunnan on the possibility of securing trade, when such capital might be well spent within their borders with the assurance of profitable results. Such a position is undoubtedly sound, and an assured percentage of profit on capital is to an administration preferable to speculation. What Lord Curzon’s ideas are, however, with regard to the duties of the British in Hongkong and South China, is another question, and we can only gather from his published works that he is of the opinion that in commercial enterprise, pioneering work and progressive administration, it will be an unfortunate day for the British when they allow themselves to be outstripped in these matters by their foreign rivals.

French Railways in East Asia map from Alfred Cunningham, The French in Tonkin and South China, 1902

Prince Henri d’Orleans wrote: “Why did why take Tonkin? In order to gain access into China!” The original idea of the French was to enter China by means of the Red River, but thanks to M. Doumer, that is a plan of the past: France will now enter by her railways.

It is to be hoped that the following pages and map will testify to the fact that French railway enterprise in Tonkin and South China is something more than visionary, and that although the French official may be the spendthrift that we with our commercial prejudices consider him to be, he is surely not unpractical nor unwise to squander millions of francs in simply demonstrating to the Asiatic mind the wonder of civilisation as revealed by locomotives.

M. Doumer may have had political objectives in exploiting Tonkin, and if so, judging from the results, he deserved to attain them. Curious enough, from his own remarks, it was the British railway system in Burma which served him as an example.

The first railway built in Tonkin was a small steam tramway running from the town of Phu-Lang-Thuong to Lang Son near the Kwangsi border. The gauge of the line was only 60 centimetres (23.6 inches) and the quaint little locomotives and small open passenger cars may still be seen in the sidings at Phu-Lang-Thuong.

A train stands at Lạng Sơn station during the time of the original 0.6m gauge Decauville military line

It was constructed by the Military to facilitate the transport of troops and commissariat during the campaign, the town of Phu-Lang-Thuong being then, as it is now, an important military centre. A few years ago it was decided to increase the narrow gauge to 1 metre; to connect the line from this town to Hanoi, the capital of Indo-China; and to extend the northern terminus from Langson to Dong-Dang on the Chinese frontier. This has been accomplished and the visitor is now enabled, by leaving Hanoi at 7 o’clock in the morning, to reach the Kwangsi border at 3 o’clock the same afternoon. A description of the journey may be of interest in showing one of the railways in operation.

Through the courtesy of Monsieur Broni, the Acting Governor-General, we were provided with a special pass and an open letter of introduction to the officers commanding the military districts; our departure was telegraphed ahead, and at one station a sergeant-major inquired for us and asked if we were comfortable.

Boats on the Red River

We left the hotel at 6.30am and reached the steam ferry, which took us across the river in time to catch the 7.30am train. The ferry was a wonderful object in appearance, and consisted of an ancient and very dilapidated steam-launch with two native boats fastened to it on each side, the boats being boarded over with a platform, with side rails for protection. These were reserved for natives and their goods, chattels, provisions, buffaloes, trucks, ponies, market baskets, fish, etc, whilst the fore part of the launch was allotted to Europeans and their baggage. In charge of the ferry were two Cantonese, who levied a toll of seven cents on each foreign passenger for the trip of about one mile.

We clambered up the steep path leading to the temporary station, forcing a passage with some difficulty though the crowd of natives and their belongings, and entered the train.

An eastbound train leaves Gia Lâm station in the early 1900s

The trains are made up of about eight cars, which are divided into 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th classes. The Europeans patronise the 1st and 2nd classes, which are very comfortable, the cars being built on the Pullman model, with central corridor. The seats are comfortable and well-upholstered, and there is a lavatory. An old carriage has been temporarily transformed into a dining car, with kitchen behind, and lunch is served to those who require it for the moderate sum of $1.50, inclusive of wines. The locomotives in use are tank engines, with small coupled driving wheels and outside cylinders, and appear to be very suitable for the purpose, as the speed required is not high. The average speed on the easy gradients is 35 kilometres (21.7 miles) an hour.

All the rolling stock, the locomotives and the bridges, are made in France. The French evidently believe in patronising home industries, as these French manufactures enter the colony free of duty. This is a very attractive policy, providing the prices are reasonable.

The Doumer Bridge, opened in 1902

The temporary station has now been dispensed with, for the trains now cross the magnificent new bridge over the Red River. Travellers to the new terminus in Hanoi are thus saved the inconvenient journey in the unpleasant ferry.

The new bridge at Hanoi, like the one at Fujiyama in Japan, overshadows everything. It is a splendid structure, built of steel, on columns of dressed Tonkin stone, which is a kind of grey limestone. Before passing over the river, the bridge traverses for a considerable distance flat, marshy country, and continues on the other side in a long stone viaduct.

It is one of the longest bridges in the world, its total length being 1,680 metres (5,505 feet). It is designed to carry a single line of rails, with a passage on either side for pedestrians. According to Doumer’s memoirs, the engineers who constructed it were Messrs Daydé et Pillé, Creil (Oise), and the superintendent engineer in charge of its erection informed us that his task had been very difficult owing to the subsidence of the soil and the bed of the river. The earthwork leading up to the bridge had sunk three times, to a total depth of three metres, but he thought that was final.

The entrance to the Doumer Bridge

The stone columns, 14 metres high, are built up on metal cylindrical piles, 30 metres deep, which are filled with cement. There are 20 stone columns. The total cost of the bridge was 6,000,000 francs ($2,608,695), and some idea of its dimensions may be gathered from the fact that it absorbed 80 tons of paint, costing 80,000 francs, and the total weight of the steel is 5,000 tons. The bridge was opened for traffic in April, 1902. It is a magnificent work of which the French Colonial Government may well be proud, as a feat of modern engineering skill, and as a colossal monument to their desire to improve the communications between the provinces and the capital.

Leaving the terminus, the first stations of importance are reached at Bac-Ninh and Dap-Cau. At 11am we arrived at Phu-Lang-Thuong, the former terminus of the line. This is full of relics of the previous Lilliputian railway, and possesses numerous sidings, an engine shed and repairing shops.

Dap-Cau Bridge

From Hanoi to some distance beyond Phu-Lang-Thuong, the country is very fertile, being one vast plain of paddy fields. As the train proceeds, the low-lying productive country is left behind and we soon reach the hills. The line has been constructed with the idea of avoiding tunnels, and consequently, once among the mountains, it is a succession of sharp curves and gradients, the train winding between the hills. The scenery is wild and beautiful. Solid rocks, hundreds of feet high, covered with foliage to the summit, rise in chains. Mountain streams overhung with trees, pretty glens, thickets of bamboo and dark woods are passed, as the little engine puffs and pants ahead, temporarily relieved when it rounds a rock and dashes down a gradient to a picturesque valley beneath. High above the surrounding uplands and valleys are built the military outstations, really miniature forts in appearance and actuality, from which float the tricolour. Overlooking and protecting every station is one of these small isolated strongholds, no doubt of great use in former days when piracy was rampant. Here and there are noticed curious large rocks, of stalactitic formation, and in numerous places are quarries worked by the Military, which supply stone for ballast and bridges on other lines in course of construction.

The “Blockhaus du Lang-Giai,” one of the French military posts guarding the line

As Langson is neared, the scenery changes slightly and the gigantic tree-covered rocks give place to hills almost devoid of verdure. The earth has a rich appearance and there are many indications, as in the hilly country previously passed, of former cultivation. Today, however, all is desolate. The country is practically depopulated, the inhabitants having apparently been killed or frightened away by deprivations of Chinese pirates on one hand and fear of the French on the other. Occasionally, small clusters of huts are seen, but even at the railway stations there are no villages of any size. It is said that the hills are more populated than their appearance betokens.

When Langson is in view, the country shows more signs of life and Tonkinese mingle with the Chinese, apparently on good terms. It is the ambition of the French to transport natives from other densely-occupied parts of the colony to the uninhabited hill districts, and to offer them inducements to settle.

Langson is a town of some importance, and the native population is chiefly made up of Chinese, whose quarters are on the northern side of the French settlement. The Songki-Kong River flows past Langson and enters China in the adjacent prefecture of Lung-Chow. It is crossed by a steel railway bridge 130m long.

A westbound train waits to depart from Lạng Sơn station in 1903, by Louis Salaun

Langson was a walled city with a citadel, when in Chinese hands, and then had a Chinese garrison, although nominally under an Annamite governor. There is a small French garrison stationed here. There is a good local trade done, and an aboriginal tribe called the Tho, who inhabit the adjacent western hills, sell here the course cotton material they weave. It is also the centre of the aniseed oil industry, in which a profitable business is done, the price reaching $300 a picul.

The town has been laid out in that spacious, effective way which characterises all French settlements; the roads are straight, wide and well-kept. The railway line runs through the central thoroughfare, bordered with attractive bungalows on either side. The Residency is a large, handsome edifice, and there is a spacious and well-constructed market. The railway station is an important building, with yards, sidings and outhouses, and, on the whole, Langson presents the appearance of a flourishing settlement.

Accommodation is provided at the Hôtel de Langson, and it is no exaggeration to state that we partook of one of the best dinners we had in Tonkin at the modest little hotel and cafe which overlooks the railway. After dinner the cafe presents the customary appearance, the tables being occupied by officers and the few civilians, gossiping and playing cards.

Đồng Đăng station

From Langson, the journey may be resumed to Dong-Dang, a settlement distant about 30 miles, where the present service of trains terminates. There is a garrison here of French and Tonkinese troops, who are quartered in barracks built on a hill overlooking the station. From Dong-Dang, the line has been continued to the “gate of China,” a few miles further on. A trolley was kindly placed at our disposal and we thus reached the end of the line and the limit of French territory.

A loopholed wall, connecting a chain of Chinese forts situated on lofty hills, marks the boundary, and the view is very picturesque. Hills are on every side, on top of several of which stand out clearly the grey stone forts of the Chinese, whilst a little French military station built on a smaller hill keeps watch and wards against invasion by Chinese rebel, pirate or imperialist.

The French have a concession by which the Langson line can be extended to Lungchow-fu, the largest town on the Kwangsi border, and to Nanning-fu on the West River, and they are now commencing to build the extension to those places.

End of the line – the frontier at Nam Quan

The cost of transforming the Phu-Lang-Thuong-Langson line in 1897 from a gauge of 0.6 metres to 1 metre in 1900, and extending it from the former terminus to Hanoi, was 20,000,000 francs. Its length is 165 kilometres (103 miles).

There are 28 stations or stopping places and the rolling stock consists of 12 locomotives, 43 passenger cars and 48 waggons. There are only 17 French officials employed on the line, the stationmasters, telegraph operators, guards and engine-drivers being Annamites. The number of passengers carried monthly averages 75,000, but the goods traffic is small. The receipts amounted to $1,730 a kilometre, the total for 1901 being $263,000, against an expenditure of $210,000, showing a balance of $53,000. The native can travel 150 kilometres for $1!

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

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

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

Old Saigon Building of the Week – Former Saigon Adventist Hospital, 1961

The former Saigon Adventist Hospital building on the Phú Nhuận crossroads

This article was published previously in Saigoneer

The Phú Nhuận Red Cross Association building at 2 Hoàng Văn Thụ originated in 1960-1961 as the Saigon Adventist Hospital.

It was American missionary Randall H Wentland who in 1929 introduced the teachings of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church to Việt Nam. By 1937, there were five Adventist churches in Cochinchina, plus a training school and publishing house at the organisation’s headquarters in Saigon’s Phú Nhuận district.

Opened in May 1952, the Saigon Adventist Hospital was originally housed in a French villa

In the late 1930s, a sea captain named Thomas Hael donated US$4,500 to launch a programme of Seventh-Day Adventist medical work in Indochina. However, because of restrictions by the French administration, the money was used instead to develop medical programmes in Siam (Thailand).

Plans to set up an Adventist medical programme in Indochina were revived in 1949, following the establishment of Bảo Đại’s transitional State of Việt Nam administration. Three years later, permission was granted to open a public hospital in Saigon. With the help of a US$2,500 contribution from the Bangkok Adventist Hospital and donations from supporters in the United States and Việt Nam, the church acquired the former villa of a departing French planter at 2 rue Lacaut/đường Chi Lăng (modern Hoàng Văn Thụ), right next to its Phú Nhuận headquarters, and converted it into a small hospital. This first Saigon Adventist Hospital opened on 22 May 1955.

In 1960-1961 the villa was demolished and replaced by a purpose-built 38-bed hospital

Popular from the outset with local people, the new hospital quickly became so over-subscribed that, in 1960-1961, it was decided to demolish the old French villa and replace it with the current building, conceived as a modern cottage hospital with 38 beds.

During its 12 years in Phú Nhuận, the Saigon Adventist Hospital struggled to keep pace with demand for its services. A newspaper article of 1969 commented that it was always full, despite its less than ideal location right next to one of the city’s busiest and noisiest junctions:

“Besides the fact that every room and hall is crowded to capacity, huge traffic jams during the rush hours make the noise deafening. The only ‘fire escape’ for the building is the lofty palm tree outside.” Geyersville Press, California, 25 September 1969.

The US Army 3rd Field Hospital at Tân Sơn Nhất in 1969 and the same building in 1973 after it was taken over by the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, photos by LLU/Ralph S Watts

In the early 1970s, the Seventh-Day Adventist Church in Saigon drew up plans to build a larger hospital near Tân Sơn Nhất Airbase. Construction began early in 1973, but following the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in February of that year, the church was invited temporarily to take over the 325-bed US Army 3rd Field Hospital, also near Tân Sơn Nhất, which was then being vacated by departing American troops.

In March 1973, the Seventh Day Adventist Church transferred its hospital from Phú Nhuận to Tân Sơn Nhất. Staff from the School of Medicine at the Loma Linda University (a Seventh-Day Adventist training institution based in Southern California) were brought in to assist with the running of the new hospital, and in 1974 they are said to have performed the first open heart surgery in Việt Nam.

The move into the former US Army 3rd Field Hospital was only envisaged as a temporary one, pending completion of the new purpose-built Saigon Adventist Hospital. However, the latter was still unfinished when PLA tanks rolled into Saigon in April 1975.

The Saigon Adventist Hospital in 1966, photo by Darryl Henley

After 1975, all Seventh-Day Adventist Church premises were taken over by the new government. The former US Army 3rd Field Hospital buildings at Tân Sơn Nhất were subsequently converted into the South East Region Armed Forces Museum (Military Zone 7 Museum), while the church’s Phú Nhuận headquarters and the old hospital building were reallocated to various civil society organisations.

In 2008, the Vietnamese government granted permission for the Seventh-Day Adventist Church to resume operations in Việt Nam and gave back its former Phú Nhuận headquarters. A new church building was subsequently constructed on the site.

As for the old Saigon Adventist Hospital building next door, vacated by the church in 1973, its present occupant is the Phú Nhuận Red Cross Association (Hội Chữ Thập Đỏ Quận Phú Nhuận).

The Saigon Adventist Hospital in 1969, photographer unknown

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 Phu Lang Thuong-Lang Son railway line, from Autour du Tonkin (“Around Tonkin”) by Henri-Philippe d’Orléans, 1894

The inauguration of the completed 0.6m gauge Phủ Lạng Thương-Lạng Sơn line in December 1894

Opened in 1894, the first railway line in northern Việt Nam was a military line connecting Phủ Lạng Thương (Bắc Giang) with the border post of Lạng Sơn. A costly failure, the line was upgraded in 1899-1902 and transformed into today’s 1m gauge Hà Nội-Đồng Đăng line – but not before French aristocrat Henri-Philippe Marie d’Orléans had laid into the authorities for the gross incompetence surrounding its construction and the unsuitability of its rolling stock.

The main street through Đáp Cầu, a town on the Phủ Lạng Thương-Lạng Sơn (later Hà Nội-Đồng Đăng) line

I was recently invited to the inauguration of our new national road from Hanoi to Hai-Duong; it starts on the left bank of the Red River, a little above Hanoi. Only just completed, this road is excellent, though it has not yet been subjected to the test of the summer rains. The region it traverses is currently full of barren swamps, but over the next year these will be replaced by fertile rice paddies. Such results have already been achieved between Phu-Lang-Thuong and Kep.

In military terms, new roads like this benefit our troops more than they do the pirates and brigands of the far north, indeed, the latter prefer to see our settlements remain isolated from each other. The old narrow paths, known only to local people, are very difficult to access, and serve those who wage guerilla war against us. On our wide new highways, it’s possible to move easily in more than just single file, and under these new conditions our enemies lose much of their advantage.

A bridge on the 0.6m gauge Phủ Lạng Thương-Lạng Sơn line

In the same way, the new Tien-Yen-Lang-Son road, which I believe has also just been completed, crosses the eastern region of the country parallel to the open border with China, and will undoubtedly be of great strategic importance.

This new system of 11m wide highways, also capable in future of accommodating tramways, certainly represents progress, but it’s not perfection. Railways would be preferable, and the example given by the English in their colonies should serve to guide us. Upper Burma was taken by the English in 1885; by 1887, a railway had reached Mandalay. Despite the competition of easy navigation along the Irrawaddy River, that line has since proved more successful than any of the East Indian Railways.

Here in Tonkin, just one proper railway line – the line between Hong Hai [Hòn Gai] and Kebao being simply a mining tramway – has so far been built, linking Phu-Lang-Thuong with Lang-Son near the Chinese border.

A works train hauled by one of the line’s three 5-tonne Decauville 0-4-0T locomotives, pictured during construction of the 0.6m gauge Phủ Lạng Thương-Lạng Sơn line

We should therefore examine its strategic and commercial importance. Far be it for me to discuss in detail the construction process; I don’t want to name or attribute blame to anyone in particular, yet it is good for the public to know how this enterprise of general interest was entered into and conducted. A few facts will therefore be exposed, for common sense to judge.

The construction of the line was granted to a M. Soupe, who later passed it to sub-contractors.

According to the tendering specifications, the administration reserved the right to purchase the rolling stock, and also paid directly for the construction of bridges. But they preferred to engage an expensive contractor, and, as a result, to pay under the terms of his contract, a commission of 18%, amounting to 300,000 Francs which could otherwise have been saved.

Plenty of warnings were given to the administration, flagging up how detrimental this was to the state, but no one seemed to take any notice.

Kép station on the 0.6m gauge Phủ Lạng Thương-Lạng Sơn (later Hà Nội-Đồng Đăng) line, pictured in 1893

Written instructions by the Under Secretary of State were often contradictory and caused the greatest embarrassment to our engineers in Tonkin.

The means of purchase being known, we should also consider the type and quality of rolling stock, and above all the decision to adopt a track gauge of 0.6m. A Dutch engineer, who I met while travelling, expressed surprise that the French had chosen this gauge. “Neither in the English colonies, nor at home,” he told me, “do they use a gauge of less than 1m. Above all, where a line covers distances of more than 100km, as this one does, 0.6m gauge equipment will wear out very quickly and must be constantly renewed. Furthermore, the route of this line travels through mountainous country, and with gradients of up to 30mm/m, Decauville locomotives can hardly haul convoys of more than three wagons. The more practical 1m gauge has already been used in Tonkin by a private company for the coal operations of Hong-Hai, where only a small distance is covered; all the more reason, it seems, to select the larger gauge for longer journeys. ”

Two of the line’s three 5-tonne Decauville 0-4-0T locomotives (No. 40 “Amiral Courbet,” No. 62 “Langson” and No. 80 “Haiphong”) were displayed at the Exposition Universelle of 1889 in Paris before being shipped to Indochina

As for the quality of the rolling stock, they sent to Phu-Lang-Thuong some of the rolling stock which had been displayed at the Exposition Universelle of 1889 in Paris; I myself saw one of the locomotives and several carriages. Had the latter even been in perfect condition, which I think is not always the case, we could still reproach them for being entirely unsuitable for use in hot countries.

During the enquiry into the Phu-Lang-Thuong to Lang-Son railway line, which took place on 27 November 1890 at the Chambre des députés, the Deputy Secretary of State said that he had been pushed to commence work on the line without consulting the Chambre by a “superior interest,” namely that of supplying troops to, and transporting sick soldiers back from, a remote military outpost.

However, on this last point, an objection may be made. The wagons purchased were entirely unsuitable for hot countries; no modifications were made to the French-built rolling stock in order to counter the dangers of sunstroke. For the countries of the East, one does not build as for Europe, and on this subject I refer the reader once again to the example of our neighbours, the English.

“The wagons purchased were entirely unsuitable for hot countries; no modifications were made to the French-built rolling stock in order to counter the dangers of sunstroke”

So, to justify the preference given to Decauville over other railway manufacturers, it is difficult to invoke strategic and military interests; transportation in Decauville rolling stock will be slow in highlands and, in the hot season, dangerous for troops.

Let us now leave aside the criticism that can be directed to the adoption of the 0.6m track gauge and the choice of rolling stock to focus on the operation of the line.

In November 1890, it was announced that “Part of the line will be in operation by early 1891 and the entire line will be functioning by the end of that year.”

Here we are in 1893; the government forecasts were incorrect.

Was the line mapped properly?

Construction of the 0.6m gauge Phủ Lạng Thương-Lạng Sơn line

The tender specification states: “Before the works commence, the route will be mapped by state engineers; the contractor will assist in this operation.”

I believe that a preliminary route was mapped, but due to the difficult security situation in that area, the landmarks and marker posts were repeatedly destroyed. In addition, the route was originally mapped for a track gauge of 1m, and was not therefore suitable for a line of 0.6m gauge. As for the entrepreneur, he demanded the implementation of the initial route, purely in order to give him more work.

Besides this, the representative of the contractor M. Soupe did not appear to have the necessary expertise for the establishment and management of railway construction sites, so the state engineer offered his assistance, and work was begun with the help of his staff. But the contractor’s Paris office disapproved of this situation and secured the dismissal from the project of the state engineer, M. Lion. He has recently returned to Tonkin to work as consulting engineer for M. de Lanessan.

Construction of the 0.6m gauge Phủ Lạng Thương-Lạng Sơn line

After the departure of M. Lion, significant concessions were made to the contractor.

He was permitted to rebuild completely, under the pretext of poor mapping at the commencement of the line, 3km of the 18km already in existence. Cost – 30,000-40,000 piastres on top of the existing budget.

On the section of line west of Bac-Le, instead of paying the workers according to working hours (with upward adjustment of wages to reflect the increase received by the company), the contractor was allowed to institute a system of infrequent payments to its workers. Then, beyond Bac-Le, it began to pay workmen per cubic metre of earthwork. This new system, disadvantageous to the state, permitted the contractors to sub-contract the work.

The first mode of payment would have been preferable, had its application had been applied strictly; but the local workers were paid by the company at the rate of 15 cents per head, the latter alleging that it also provided them with clothes and food, and then falsely accounting to the state a wage of 30 cents per head. This was duly reported by whom it may concern; then everyone moved on.


Between 1890 and 1895, seven 9.5-tonne Decauville 0-4-4-0 “Mallet”patent compound jointed locomotives were purchased for the line – No. 83 “Eugène Étienne,” No. 84 “Phu-Lang-Thuong,” No. 85 “Commandant Rivière,” No. 86 “Carnot,” No. 126 “Commandant de Lagrée,” No. 188 “Kinh Luoc” and No. 195 “Francis Garnier”

When they arrived at an insurmountable obstacle, the construction team simply gave up and restarted elsewhere. East of Bac-Le, no fewer than six different track plans were adopted, one after the other; the last earthworks having been washed away, they simply embarked on another.

Besides, how may one believe in the good direction of an enterprise when it passes so often into different hands? Disclosure of reports is very instructive for those of us who have colonial questions at heart, showing how the interests of the state are taken into account by the authorities which have the primary mission of defending them.

It is not only in the work of mapping this line that we encounter culpable negligence. The operation of train services from Phu-Lang-Thuong to Lang-Son was initially granted for a period of two years to an entrepreneur with a guarantee of 3.60 Francs per tonne per kilometre, but after two years it was seen that the concessionnaire had won greatly, so the line was placed out to tender again and someone else acquired the franchise for just 1.20 Francs per tonne per kilometre. Difference: about 345,000 Francs that the state should have been able to save.

The 1m-gauge Port-Courbet (Hòn Gai)–Hà Tu mining tramway in Tonkin, built after 1888 by the Société de charbonnages de Hon-gay

I am now told that, thanks to the intervention of the Governor-General, work to upgrade the 0.6m gauge line to 1m gauge is finally underway. I hope so, better late than never.

When M. de Lanessan visited the mines of Hong-Hai, he marvelled at how cheaply the laying of 1m track could be achieved by a private company for its own operations, with an eye to economy. Between Phu-Lang-Thuong and Lang-Son, the interest of the state was at stake, yet the line was seen as a cash cow to be milked at pleasure, forgetting that the milk was that of France, and there will come a time when it will no longer be provided.

In summary, the construction of the Phu-Lang-Thuong-Lang-Son railway line, estimated initially to cost 4 million Francs, has already cost us more than 8 million, and if, on completion, it costs less than 12 million, we will consider ourselves lucky. In the space of two years, on flat terrain and without great physical difficulty, barely half of the line has been built – that’s not even 40 kilometres in a straight line! Meanwhile, during the same period, in rugged and difficult country, the English have laid nearly 200 kilometres of 1m gauge track.

These are results which are painful to see, yet I feel it is my duty to speak out. Let us take stock of the situation and we will find, if we want, that the situation is easily remedied.

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

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

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

“Another old Cochinchinois disappears,” L’Éveil économique de l’Indochine, 12 October 1924

$_57 (20)

After the recent death of old Father Charton, that doyen amongst the old Cochinchinois colons, we must now mourn the passing of Father Vidal, old “Danh-Ca” as he was called by the locals.

Father Vidal lived for 45 uninterrupted years in Cochinchina.

He originally came to the colony to work as a foreman at the Arsenal, and then became very attached to this land, making it his country of adoption. He gave up completely on European customs and went to live in the depths of Phu Nhuan village, in the province of Gia Dinh, amongst the workers he had under his command.

There he took an Annamite companion and lived completely in the native mode.

When the time came for retirement, he had himself appointed Huong-Ca of his village; that’s why the locals were accustomed to call him Danh-Ca.

He had, in this corner of Cochinchina, a very big influence. Many villagers came to submit their disputes to him. He dispensed justice in the Phu Nhuan area in the manner of King Solomon, sharp, final and with his usual common sense.

He ate and lived in the local style, and often, in recent times, he could be seen travelling around Phu-Nhuan in his horse-drawn Victoria carriage, his feet bare, wearing silk trousers and chewing betel.

Father Vidal had renounced the religion and customs of his childhood. He could often be seen making sacrifices to the Buddha in pagodas; he was even, in recent years, the head of a Buddhist society.

The approach of death did not change his feelings, because he wanted to be consistent with himself to the end. He therefore asked to be buried in the local style, with all the trappings of the Far East.

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.

Inauguration of the First Section of the Langbian Cog Railway, 1927

A passenger train on the Langbian Cog Railway

This article was published previously in Saigoneer

The Langbian Cog Railway was opened in stages between 1919 and 1932. The first 40km of the line from Tourcham (Tháp Chàm) to Krông Pha travelled through relatively flat terrain and required only conventional adhesion rail technology, but the remaining 44km from Krông Pha to Đà Lạt rose from 186m to 1,550m above sea level, demanding the use of state-of-the-art Swiss crémaillère (cog railway) technology. This short article, published in L’Éveil économique de l’Indochine on 20 February 1927, describes the inauguration of the first and most challenging 10km section from Krông Pha to Bellevue (Eo Gió, km 50) on 10 February 1927.

Henri Lartilleux’s map of the Krông Pha-Đà Lạt section of the Langbian Cog Railway

At 10.15am our train moves off and travels at a brisk pace along the 1,500m of almost flat rail track which separate us from the start of the rack section.

Suddenly the speed decreases; the pinion wheels of the locomotive engage with the rack and we attack an incline of 80mm/m, which soon becomes the 100mm/m and then 120mm/m. It’s like climbing a staircase, but effortlessly and at the steady speed of 10kph.

The first rack section on the Langbian Cog Railway

We feel as though we’re hanging on a vine at the edge of a precipice!

To reach the top, the locomotive makes use of full power, and no obstacles stand in our way.

We cut through sloped trenches in the granite. A great bulge of volcanic rock seems to block our way, but we pass through it easily via a 160m tunnel which leads us out onto a precipice, flanked by piles of rocks.

The train continues, and we soon arrive at another granite outcrop, which dwarfs us with its mass.

We cross torrents over bold bridges, and then we arrive at a train station on a bridge, set between the two great walls of a gorge… it’s Kabeu.

There’s just time to water the engine before the climb begins again, taking us over another section of rack rail, up through the rocks and peaks towards a sky which becomes steadily deeper and bluer as the air gets fresher and livelier.

A train arriving at Bellevue Station

Everything now reminds us strangely of France; the illusion is almost complete when, after crossing the last slopes and passing the most recently built structures, the train leads us onto the Dran plateau, where we see carnations and roses amidst the pine forest.

We are told that it will take several more months to achieve the final sections through the mountains of Annam, but the hardest and most costly part of this line has already been achieved. The laying of track between Bellevue and Dran is now nearing completion. Beyond it, the earthworks for another rack section from Dran up to l’Arbre Broyé are almost finished. If sufficient manpower is available, track laying will commence as soon as the next rainy season is over.

Soon, thanks to our skilled engineers, Dalat too will be much easier to access from Saigon.

A works train in the Bellevue Pass in early 1927

A train descends the first rack section on the Langbian Cog Railway

Kabeu Station

One of the line’s initial nine rack-and-pinion locomotives, Schweizerische Lokomotiv- und Maschinenfabrik (SLM) of Winterthur’s superheated 35.7-tonne HG4/4 0-8-0T number 701

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

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

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