Date with the Wrecking Ball – Vietnam Railways Building, 136 Ham Nghi, 1914

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The Vietnam Railways building today

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

Featured earlier this year as a Saigoneer “Building of the Week,” the 100-year-old Vietnam Railways Building at 136 Hàm Nghi is the latest of Hồ Chí Minh City’s historic buildings to be threatened with destruction. Let’s take another look at its long history.

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An early 20th century image of the Chemins de fer de l’Indochine (CFI) building with the Halles centrales in the background

When construction of the southernmost section of the Transindochinois (North-South) railway line got under way in 1904, it was envisaged that the existing terminus of the Saigon-Mỹ Tho line at the riverside end of rue de Canton (modern Hàm Nghi boulevard) would serve both lines. However, when the first northbound trains began operating, the colonial authorities realised that a larger station was required.

In 1910, a scheme was drawn up to reroute both railway lines as they entered the city centre, building a larger Sài Gòn Railway Station in reclaimed swamp land to the west and demolishing an old locomotive depot to free up land for the construction of a new central market and spacious city square.

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A colonial-era taxi rank outside the CFI building

The project was beset by delays, but the Halles centrales (now Bến Thành Market) finally opened in March 1914 and the second railway station in September 1915.

As part of this scheme, the government railway company Chemins de fer de l’Indochine (CFI) built itself an imposing new southern region railway headquarters on the square, right opposite the station entrance. It was inaugurated in 1914, a full year before the opening of the new railway station. Each level of the ornate three-storey building incorporated a spacious outer corridor which shielded the offices from the heat of the external walls.

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A 1960s shot of the building when it was the headquarters of Hỏa xa Việt Nam (HXVN)

In May 1952, when CFI became the Việt Nam Department of Railways (Sở Hỏa xa Việt Nam, HXVN), the railway building became its southern branch headquarters. Just three years later, HXVN became the southern rail operating company, responsible to the South Vietnamese Ministry of Public Works and Transport.

During the 1960s, the railway headquarters acquired a certain notoriety after the sidewalk outside the building was turned into a place of execution.

Since 1975, the building has functioned as the Hồ Chí Minh City branch office of Vietnam Railways. However, as part of co-operation agreement with Kinh Đô Land, the site is now earmarked for redevelopment as offices and serviced apartments – http://www.baomoi.com/Thanh-lap-Trung-tam-ung-pho-su-co-thien-tai-va-cuu-nan-Duong-sat/144/8925682.epi.

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A present-day shot of the façade of the Vietnam Railways building

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

Tim Doling is also the author of The Railways and Tramways of Việt Nam (White Lotus Press, Bangkok, 2012) and 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 pages Saigon-Chợ Lớn Then & Now to see historic photographs juxtaposed with new ones taken in the same locations, Đài Quan sát Di sản Sài Gòn – Saigon Heritage Observatory for up-to-date information on conservation issues in Saigon and Chợ Lớn, and Rail Thing – Railways and Tramways of Việt Nam for more information about Việt Nam’s railway history and all the latest news from Vietnam Railways.

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