Petrus Ky – Historical Memories of Saigon and its Environs, 1885, Part 2


Pétrus Ký (1837-1898) pictured in the 1890s

In 1885, scholar Pétrus Trương Vĩnh Ký delivered a lecture at the Collège des Interprètes entitled Souvenirs historiques sur Saïgon et ses environs (Historical Memories of Saigon and its Environs). Published as a booklet later that same year, it provides us with one of the most important historical accounts of Saigon-Chợ Lớn in the pre-colonial period. This is the second instalment of the serialisation, translated into English.

To read Part 1 of this serialisation, click here

Saigon under the rule of Viceroy Lê Văn Duyệt


Marshal Lê Văn Duyệt (1763-1832)

Now lets look at the reign of the “Great Eunuch,” who lived in the former Saigon until his death. Lê Văn Duyệt, then called Ông Lãn Thượng, ruled the country peacefully under Gia Long and during the first part of the reign of Minh Mạng, although occasionally he made expeditions against the Cambodians when they rose up in revolt.

He was known as the “terror of Cambodians,” a good, fair, firm and even inflexible Annamite administrator. He was plenipotentiary, exercised extraordinary powers and proved an inviolable governor, fearless of death; he had the right to condemn people to death and to execute the sentence without prior recourse to the confirmation of the Royal Ministry of Justice. He only had to make a simple report after the execution was carried out. It was thanks to this power that he succeeded in completely pacifying the country.

Without going into the details of his private or public life, let’s look for a moment at his administrative career.

As he loved combat, he set up a kind of arena where men fought tigers or elephants. He also had a passion for cockfighting and for theatre. These forms of entertainment occupied his leisure time.

Every year, shortly after Tết, he reviewed the troops of the six provinces in Saigon on the Plaine des tombeaux (Đồng Tập Trận), today the area known as the Polygone [the large military training area initially known as the “Polygone d’Artillerie” was later redeveloped as a military barracks and after 1954 this became became “Camp Lê Văn Duyệt,” headquarters of the Third Corps of the Army of the Republic of Việt Nam (ARVN)]. The purpose of this review was both political and religious, or even superstitious. It was intended to show ostentatiously that he was ready to punish all disorders and at the same time to drive away evil spirits. Here’s how this “Ra Binh” ceremony was carried out:


A Nguyễn dynasty elephant parade

On the eve of the 16th day of the first month of the New Year, the Governor, after fasting and abstinence, and in full dress, would pay tribute to the king in his temple. Then, after three shots from the cannon, he mounted a palanquin (sedes gestatoria), which was both preceded and followed by his troops. He went out of the Citadel in procession, either from the Gia Định Môn or the Phiên An Môn gates, headed towards Chà Vải, and along rue Mac-Mahon [modern Nam Kỳ Khởi Nghĩa street] to reach the Mo-sung ceremonial area.

There, cannon shots were fired, troops were manoeuvered and elephants were exercised. The Governor then continued in procession to the Shipyard, where he attended a mock naval combat before returning into the Citadel. During the procession, people made much noise, setting off firecrackers to drive away the evil spirits that may haunt their houses.

On the second Tết, that is to say, in the fifth month, the Governor went to carry out the Tịch Điền (ploughing) ceremony (where the sovereign or his delegate made an example to his people by doing some work himself). The location reserved for this ceremony was almost immediately in front of the Hospital of the Sisters of St-Paul in Thị Nghè.

Saigon during the reign of King Minh Mạng

And so, we come to the reign of Minh Mạng. The Governor General went to Huế on the occasion of Minh Mạng’s accession to the throne. At that time, his comrade-in-arms, Nguyễn Văn Thiêng, was Governor General of Tonkin.

King of Cochin China, and Deputy Governor of Kamboja

Minh Mạng, King of Cochin-China, from John Crawfurd, Journal of an Embassy to the Courts of Siam and Cochin-China, exhibiting a view of the actual state of these kingdoms (1828)

Minh Mạng, after having stripped his legitimate rivals, began to plot the removal of two glorious veterans whose ongoing actions interfered with the accomplishment of his designs: the Marshal of the central region, then Viceroy of Tonkin, and the “Great Eunuch” Lê Văn Duyệt, who respected the French, and whose presence in Huế interfered with the king’s schemes.

The king proposed to accuse them of rebellion in order to make them disappear. To achieve this, he won over their secretaries and their seal guardians. He began with the Viceroy of Tonkin; a stipendiary strove to imitate the writing of Viceroy Thiêng and his son. A forged letter which had supposedly been intercepted was then brought to Minh Mạng.

It was a general call to arms against the king, the writing imitated that of the son of the Viceroy of Tonkin, and the letter bore the seal of Viceroy Thiêng himself. Minh Mạng immediately recalled Viceroy Thiêng from Tonkin. The proof was clear; Thiêng and his son were ordered to commit suicide. This favour, known as the tam ban triều diện, involved offering the “privileged condemned” a choice out of three possible means of destruction – (i) 3m of pink silk with which to hang or strangle oneself; (ii) a glass of poison to drink, and (iii) a sword with which to cut one’s throat.

Lê Văn Duyệt, seeing his old friend sentenced in front his eyes, a victim of the duplicity of the king, guessed the plot by which he, too, would eventually succumb. By a truly providential presentiment, he left the palace to go home and see if his seal was still in its usual place. Not finding it there, he without delay sought his seal guardian, who was found semi-conscious, next to a well. Searching him, they found on his person the lost seal and a fake letter which had not yet been stamped. The seal guardian was beheaded that same hour, on the orders of the Marshal. He then went to find Minh Mạng, and told him that Lower Cochinchina was the victim of exactions by bandit leaders and that his presence there would put to an end these disorders, which threatened to worsen.

cochinchine - tombeau du marechal lê van duyêt

Marshal Lê Văn Duyệt’s tomb, pictured in the French colonial era

Minh Mạng, not daring to keep him there, and happy indeed at his voluntary removal from the court, let him go. Lê Văn Duyệt therefore returned to Saigon as Viceroy, and he arrived in time to suppress an insurrection by the Cambodians of Trà Vinh (1822). He remained in Lower Cochinchina until 1831, the year of his death. He was very fearful of Minh Mạng, who did not, however, dare to move against this loyal and brave soldier, representative of his father, his own guardian and tutor. The greatness of his services had made the Viceroy almost inviolable.

After Lê Văn Duyệt’s death, Minh Mạng, who had kept a deep grudge against him, but had never dared to undertake anything against him during his lifetime, avenged himself basely. He profaned the Marshal’s tomb by encircling it with a chain and whipping the grave tumulus with 100 lashes; this vile, shameful and miserable vengeance was the only revenge he could take against a servant who, along with Gia Long, Thiêng, Võ Tánh, French officers and so many other brave companions, had destroyed the Tây Sơn and reunited the kingdom of Annam. Lê Văn Duyệt’s tomb was eventually restored by Thiệu Trị, son and successor of Minh Mạng. We can see it today, repaired and maintained by the care of the French government, in front of the Inspection de Gia Định.

When Duyệt died, the Bố chánh of Saigon, Bạch Xuân Nguyên, to please Minh Mạng, attacked the Viceroy’s memory, and in his investigation report accused him of wanting to become independent, and in particular of collaborating with Nguyễn Văn Khôi [Lê Văn Khôi, the adopted son of Lê Văn Duyệt] to exploit the forests…

quan doi nha nguyen ma binh 1

Royal cavalry in Huế during the French colonial era

Nguyễn Văn Khôi was demoted and told to go to Huế to explain. Instead of obeying, he rebelled, along with the principal officers of the late Viceroy Lê Văn Duyệt.

At night time, prisoners were released, and all followed Nguyễn Văn Khôi, who went to cut off the head of the Tông Đốc Nguyễn Văn Quế and that of his accuser, Bố chánh Bạch Xuân Nguyên.

The city of Saigon fell into the hands of Khôi. The next day, proclamations were posted at Mỹ Tho and in the western provinces on the one hand, and in Biên Hòa, Bà Rĩa and Mô Xoài on the other, declaring submission to the chief of the insurgents. Lower Cochinchina was all theirs.

At the news of this insurrection, Minh Mạng sent troops by land and sea. They arrived at about the same time: the first group at a place called Đồng cháy (burned field), and the second in the Saigon River, along the Giồng Ông Tố. The river was blocked by iron chains, between the Fort du Sud and the fort on the opposite bank. The attack began at night on the 6th day of the 7th month; a passage was forced, and by next day, Khôi’s troops had retreated into the Citadel.

Minh Mạng’s fleet anchored in the Saigon River and in the arroyo de l’Avalanche [Thị Nghè Creek]. Ground troops encamped in front of the Citadel. The besiegers then constructed a series of earthen forts around it, each higher than the walls of the Citadel. But the fall of Saigon was delayed by the intervention of the Siamese, who, solicited by Nguyễn Văn Khôi, appeared in Hà Tiên and Châu Đốc, and forced the King of Cambodia to flee from Vĩnh Long. Driven back, the Siamese returned home by fighting their way through Pursat and Battambang.


Father Joseph Marchand was arrested in 1835 in Saigon and martyred by having his flesh pulled by tongs (the “torture of the hundred wounds”)

To monitor and protect against both the Siamese and Cambodians, the Annamite General Trương Minh Giảng ordered the construction of a citadel called An Mari in Phnom Penh and installed himself there (1834). The Siamese left and five provinces fell rapidly to the officers of Minh Mạng. But Saigon, besieged for about a year, still held.

The first assault was made in the 4th month of 1834 for eight hours without success: the attackers were beaten. The Citadel did not finally fall until after repeated assaults (the 6th day of the 7th month). The victory was costly. Vae victis! The day of victory was also one of carnage, we could not count those who were cut down by arms!

The son of Khôi, together with a French missionary named Father Joseph Marchand of the Paris Foreign Missions Society and the captured rebel mandarins, were all placed in cages and taken to Huế, where they perished by slow death. A total of 1,137 men were executed on the Plaine des tombeaux and buried in a mass grave covered with a high mound called Mả Biền tru (tomb of people cruelly killed, mound of terror), or more vulgarly Mả Ngụy (tomb of the rebels).

After the capture of Saigon, Minh Mạng ordered the destruction of the Citadel raised by Monsieur Ollivier, under Gia Long, because it was too large and required too many troops to be well defended. It was replaced by a less extensive work, which was captured by the French in 1859, and on the site of which today stand the new Marine Infantry Barracks.

The villages and canals of old Saigon

Returning to the walls of the ancient Citadel of Saigon, let’s descend first to its front face, that is to say, all the lower part, stretching from the rue d’Espagne [modern Lê Thánh Tôn street] to the banks of the Saigon River.

Saigon map 1795

A 1799 map of Saigon

This area was one of the parts of the former Annamite commercial city, dotted with houses and shops and intersected by narrow, poorly maintained streets which were included in the territory of four villages, from the mouth of the arroyo de l’Avalanche [Thị Nghé Creek] to that of the arroyo Chinois [Bến Nghế creek] – Hoa Mỹ (shipbuilding), Tân Khai, Lũng Diện and Trương Hoa, whose boundary was at rue Mac-Mahon [modern Nam Kỳ Khởi Nghĩa street].

The upper part was part of the village of Mỹ Hội, whose territory included the Citadel. At that time, the mayor of this village was one of the greatest mayors of the city. He was entitled to wear the gourd-shaped cap (Trái bí) and exercised the administrative powers of a district chief.

The village had a đình, or communal house. The king sent, by delegate, on a golden platter, five ligatures and gifts to inaugurate its buildings.

The area called Hàng Đinh (Nail maker’s village) was at the top of rue Catinat [modern Đồng Khởi street], stretching from the Hôtel Laval [aka the Hôtel Fave, forerunner of the Grand Hôtel Continental] to the Hôtel du Directeur de l’Intérieur [at the modern Đồng Khởi-Lý Tự Trong junction]. On the site of the current Town Hall of Saigon, there was a canal which ran through a culvert called the Cống Cầu Dầu (“Oil bridge culvert”).

The riverside area of Saigon was covered with houses on stilts. At the lower end of rue Catinat, at the current Thủ Thiêm wharf [immediately opposite the modern Majestic Hotel], there was a Thủy các (Royal water palace) or Lữ Ông Tạ, a royal bath house built on floating bamboo rafts. They called this place Bến Ngự (Kompong Luong in Khmer), or “Royal Wharf.”

From the mouth of the arroyo de l’Avalanche [Thị Nghè Creek] to the point of the rue de la Citadelle [now Tôn Đức Thắng street] was the Shipyard, and opposite it the naval port.


An 1880 photograph of the Canal du Marché de Saigon or “Grand Canal,” which ran along the path of the present-day Nguyễn Huệ boulevard

A pier jutting out into the river was called Cầu Gõ or Cầu Quan. Before reaching the artillery, an arroyo called the kinh Cây Cám ran inland as far as rue d’Espagne [modern Lê Thánh Tôn street], passing the Naval Artillery and terminating at the Naval Engineering yard.

The Canal du Marché de Saigon or Kinh Chợ Vải – “Fabric Market Canal [aka the “Grand Canal,” which once ran along the path of modern Nguyễn Huệ street] went as far back as the well of this name, which was located in front of the house of Monsieur Brun, the saddler.

Between the Maison Wang Taï [the forerunner of the Customs and Excise building] and the Direction du port de commerce, there was another arroyo, called the rạch Cầu Sấu (“Crocodile Bridge Canal”), which meandered inland, eventually meeting the upper section of the Kinh Chợ Vải via the canal Coffyn, named after the Lieutenant Colonel of this name who, after remaking in earth the walls of the Citadel, had a new canal dug to connect the two ends of the old canals.

This canal was later filled, and on its location today is built the great boulevard which passes the Town Hall, connecting the rue de l’Hôpital [modern Thái Văn Lung street] with the rue Mac-Mahon [modern Nam Kỳ Khởi Nghĩa street].

The arroyo rạch Cầu Sấu or “Crocodile Bridge Canal” was so called because it was once used for breeding crocodiles that were sold for butcher’s meat. The current Direction du port de commerce is located on the spot where there was once a fort and residence for visiting envoys from the court in Huế, and where Lord Nguyễn Phúc Thuần and his nephews Nguyễn Phúc Dương and Nguyễn Phúc Ánh (later Gia Long) took refuge.


This 1865 map (courtesy IPRAUS) shows all of Saigon’s inner-city canals as described by Pétrus Ký, before they were filled by the French

So what was on the other bank of the river, opposite Saigon? In the time of Gia Long, this was the Xóm Tàu Ô or “Hamlet of the Black Junks;” this place was assigned as the home of Chinese pirates, whose small sea junks were painted black. When they offered their services to Gia Long, the king received them, and installed them with him under the name of Tuần hải Đô dinh, placing them under the command of their chief, General Xiền (Tướng Quân Xiền). They were commissioned to go and supervise the coast. Those who remained were employed in caulking [sealing the undersides of] boats in the fleet of the king.

To read Part 3 of this serialisation, click here

For other articles relating to Petrus Ky, see:
“A Visit to Petrus-Ky,” from En Indo-Chine 1894-1895
Old Saigon Building of the Week – Petrus Ky Mausoleum and Memorial House, 1937
What Future for Petrus Ky’s Mausoleum and Memorial House?

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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