Saigon’s Famous Streets and Squares – Ham Nghi

An aerial photograph of Hàm Nghi boulevard from 1955, photographer unknown

This article was published previously in Saigoneer

Once the heart of Saigon’s own Chinatown, Hàm Nghi is one of the city’s three widest boulevards.

Like several other major city thoroughfares, Hàm Nghi boulevard began life as a waterway. Late 19th century scholar Pétrus Ký tells us that this waterway was known in Vietnamese as the rạch Cầu Sấu (“Crocodile Bridge Creek”), because of the pools which once lined its banks, in which crocodiles were bred for their meat (Pétrus Trương Vĩnh Ký, Souvenirs historiques sur Saïgon et ses environs, 1885).

The Crocodile Bridge Creek is pictured on this map from the mid 1860s

The Crocodile Bridge Creek ran from the Saigon river as far as the modern Hàm Nghi-Pasteur junction, where it met another canal which extended along what is now lower Pasteur street and eventually connected with the “Junction Canal,” the forerunner of modern Lê Lợi boulevard. Before 1867, the Crocodile Bridge Creek was used mainly by merchants to access the old city market on what the French designated rue Chaigneau (modern Tôn Thất Đạm street).

At the start of the colonial period, the wharfs on both sides of the Crocodile Bridge Creek east of the junction with rue d’Adran (modern Hồ Tùng Mậu) were named rue No. 3, while those between the rue d’Adran junction and the lower Pasteur street canal were designated rue Dayot.

During the 1860s, the French authorities encouraged large-scale immigration from China’s Guangdong province, with a view to the further development of the economy. Emanating mainly from Guangzhou city and neighbouring Zhaoqing prefecture, many of the Cantonese newcomers chose to settle between the Crocodile Bridge Creek and the arroyo Chinois (Bến Nghé Creek) in Saigon, establishing a second Chinatown with its own assembly hall (the Guangzhao Assembly Hall) at Cầu Ông Lãnh.

The Maison Wang-Tai under construction in 1867, by John Thomson – in the larger images below the Crocodile Bridge Canal entrance may be seen clearly

In 1867, these new Chinese immigrants were joined by one of Cochinchina’s most famous Cantonese businessmen, the opium dealer Wang Tai, who in that year built his imposing headquarters (the Maison Wang-Tai) on the riverfront, right next to the Crocodile Bridge Creek entrance – see Wang Tai and the Cochinchina Opium Monopoly.

The Crocodile Bridge Creek was filled in 1867-1868, forming a 56m wide thoroughfare. In 1870, to accommodate the merchant boatmen, a replacement city market was built several blocks away, on the west bank of the Grand Canal (modern Nguyễn Huệ boulevard). Thereafter, the old rue Chaigneau market continued to function as a local market.

On 14 May 1877, in recognition of the fact that a large number of its residents were Chinese settlers from Guangdong province, the new street was designated boulevard de Canton.

A train waits to depart Saigon for Mỹ Tho on 20 July 1885, the opening day of the railway line, image courtesy Maison Asie Pacific (MAP)

During the first 20 years of the colonial era, numerous government buildings were installed at the lower end of the boulevard, including the Direction du Port de commerce (Commercial Port Directorate) and the Service du pilotage (Piloting Service). After purchasing the Maison Wang-Tai in 1881, the Customs and Excise Directorate had it rebuilt in 1886-1887 as the Hôtel des douanes (Customs House) – see Foulhoux’s Saigon.

The opening of the Saigon-Mỹ Tho railway line in 1885 brought further changes to the boulevard, which by this time extended west as far as the rue Mac-Mahon (modern Nam Kỳ Khởi Nghĩa). Saigon’s first rail terminus was situated at the riverside end of boulevard de Canton, between the Customs House and the Commercial Port Directorate, and the railway line itself ran west along the centre of the boulevard, before heading out towards Chợ Lớn and Mỹ Tho. A large railway atelier was built immediately to the west of the boulevard de Canton-rue Mac-Mahon junction – see The Saigon-Mỹ Tho Railway Line.

On 24 February 1897, the boulevard was split into two separate roads either side of the railway track, each road named after a French admiral – rue Krantz on the northern side and rue Duperré and the southern side.

The development of the boulevard as depicted in maps of 1898 and 1920

Another significant landmark was built on the boulevard in 1906, in the form of the École des mécaniciens Asiatiques (School of Asian Mechanics, now Cao Thắng Technical College), students of which included Nguyễn Tất Thành (Hồ Chí Minh) in 1911 and Tôn Đức Thắng in 1915.

The boulevard attained its current length of 988m in the period after 1910, when the railway atelier was relocated to Dĩ An and extensive marshland drainage permitted the creation of the new Halles centrales (Bến Thành Market) with its spacious square, together with a much larger railway terminus in the area occupied today by 23-9 Park. By 1914, the twin roads Krantz and Duperré stretched all the way from the Saigon river to the place du Marché (modern Quách Thị Trang square) – see The Changing Faces of Sai Gon Railway Station.

In 1914, a new railway headquarters building was installed at 139 boulevard de la Somme, overlooking the new market square – see Vietnam Railways Building. From that date onwards, passenger trains on the Saigon-Mỹ Tho and newly opened North-South lines no longer ventured beyond it along the boulevard, but the old track was retained in order to facilitate freight train access to the Saigon port via the swing bridge across the arroyo Chinois (Bến Nghé creek), which had been installed in 1903.

A CFTI electric tram on boulevard de la Somme in the 1930s

In 1911, a tramway line was also installed on the boulevard, and in subsequent years the rue Chaigneau junction became an important tramway terminus.

During the Great War of 1914-1918, more than 92,000 Vietnamese men fought in the French armed forces, and at least 12,000 of these are believed to have lost their lives during that conflict. Numerous war memorials were subsequently built in Saigon – see Hùng King Temple –  and on 22 April 1920, the rues Krantz and Duperré (then still known to many people as the boulevard de Canton) were reunited and named boulevard de la Somme, after one of the First World War’s bloodiest battles.

In the wake of the violence which attended the 1919 Vietnamese boycott of Chinese traders, many Cantonese residents of the surrounding streets relocated to Chợ Lớn for safety. However, several popular Chinese restaurants on the boulevard de la Somme remained in operation, and as tourism started to develop in the mid 1920s, numerous small hotels and guest houses also appeared. Then in 1927, plantation owner Trần Quang Ẩn opened the 60-room Grand Hotel d’Annam at 117 boulevard de la Somme, which in the 1930s and 1940s would become one of the most popular hotels in the city.

The first US Embassy building at 39 Hàm Nghi in the early 1960s

In 1949, having suffered numerous setbacks in the First Indochina War, the French decided to offer limited independence to Việt Nam within the context of a French Union, leading to the creation of the State of Việt Nam, with the former king Bảo Đại as Head of State. The United States of America immediately opened full diplomatic relations with the new entity, and in 1950 the first United States Embassy building was inaugurated at 39 boulevard de la Somme.

After 1955, this building – the “American Legation” described by Graham Greene in his novel The Quiet American – served for 12 years as the American Embassy to the Republic of Việt Nam. In 1967, in the wake of the bombing of 30 March 1965, the US diplomatic mission was relocated to a more secure compound at 4 Thống Nhất (Lê Duẩn) boulevard.

King Hàm Nghi (1884–1885)

Following the establishment of the Republic of Việt Nam in 1955, the boulevard de la Somme was renamed boulevard Hàm Nghi, in memory of the eighth Nguyễn dynasty monarch Hàm Nghi (ruled 1884–1885), who left Huế to join the Cần Vương insurgency against French occupation forces. Replaced on 19 September 1885 by his brother Đồng Khánh (1885-1889), Hàm Nghi was captured by the French on 1 November 1888 and exiled to Algeria on 12 December 1888.

Sixty years later, the boulevard still goes by that same name.

The bridge over the entrance to the Crocodile Bridge Canal (filled in 1867-1868) may be seen clearly in both of these two photographs of the Maison Wang-Tai under construction in 1867 by John Thomson

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.

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