Tim Doling is the historian behind Word’s own attempt at guidebooking — the unorthodoxly completist A Short History of Saigon cover story in our February 2013 edition. Tim’s piloting a set of tours aimed at those with some grounding in the Saigon and Cholon record — enough to know where Thu Thiem is, but not enough to know that it was formerly the ‘Hamlet of the Black Junks’, a territory given over to the pirates-turned-patriots the Nguyen kings enlisted to safeguard Saigon’s waters. Over coffee at the Highlands on Lam Son Square, Tim catches me up on the last 400 years of Ho Chi Minh City history.
“In 1623,” he says, “a Nguyen lord was able to secure from the Khmer king the right to set up a customs station in Prey Nokor, as well as permission for Vietnamese to settle there. This gave the Nguyen lords their first foothold in the Mekong Delta. After this, many more Vietnamese were encouraged to come south and settle in and around the town, which the Vietnamese called Ben Nghe.”
Tim draws a line between Ben Nghe and the Ho Chi Minh City that we know today, the one we’re planning to walk and drive around for the next four hours. It joined with Minh Huong — the future Cholon — as the first pioneer settlements of a rugged and wide-open south that Chinese refugees of the Ming Dynasty soon started pouring into. “They were skilled traders and quickly came to dominate the shipping and processing of rice from the Mekong Delta,” he says.
Before I start fading into the nodding state brought on by things unconnected with my reality, Tim brings it full circle. “Historians believe,” he says, “that it was during this early period that the skills of entrepreneurialship — risking capital for gain — became the central value of the local community here, laying the foundations for Saigon's development as an economic powerhouse.”
And here Tim sets the tone. We’ll be dealing in the primordial ooze of Saigon, the Saigon that is quickly vanishing from our present day, but is somehow still present everywhere.
A Time Traveling Operetta
As we walk around the front of the Ho Chi Minh City Opera, we spy the façade of the Continental Palace Hotel, which used to background the “leading foreign correspondents” of the 1950s, who “chose to base themselves at the hotel here while reporting on the political and military situation during the latter days of French rule”. These included Graham Greene and his Quiet American alter-ego Thomas Fowler, who “would start every evening at 6pm with a drink at the Terrace, where the dice would rattle as the French played a game known as quatre cent vingt-et-un”. Passing the colonial nouveau white moldings of the Continental, we can almost hear the creak of the punkah fans, large cloth sails suspended from the ceiling of every room, swaying to and fro on pulleys cranked by sweating men in the basement.
Getting a five-block lift from Tim’s chartered car (later to be a minibus which will help shortcut some of the thinner spots on the route), we continue our tour down Dong Khoi, the road the Nguyen kings traveled when on their way from the Royal Wharf to the first Gia Dinh Citadel, that used to lie near where we now stand. We look at the Caravelle in hundred-year terms — first as the original Théâtre de Saigon, later as a journalist haunt rocked by the violence of the 1950s, then rebuilt into a bulletproof glass stronghold whose rooftop Walter Cronkite and other newsmen presided upon. We pass cafés once again assuming their colonial stature, after a brief American military-entertaining interlude as nightclubs and go-go bars.
On the Waterfront
Dropped on the safe side of Ton Duc Thang, we face the Majestic Hotel — built in 1925 at the behest of Chinese Hui Bon Hoa’s real estate company, one of the colony’s prime movers. It “predated the Hui Bon Hoa Company’s own headquarters building on rue Alsace-Lorraine,” Tim says, which is “now the Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Museum at 97A Pho Duc Chinh. Designed by the same architect, Rivéra, it shared several stylistic features with the later building and also incorporated the very first electric lift in Saigon.”
And, as in other places on the tour, common strands emerge that carry over into the present day. Further down our riverfront stroll, we come upon the Customs House of Alfred Foulhoux, one of colonial Saigon’s founding architects. As with Foulhoux’s other landmarks — the central Post Office, the Palais de Justice and the Lieutenant Governor's Palace, now the Ho Chi Minh City Museum — the filigrees between the windows strongly resemble poppies, one of the colony’s main sources of revenue.
We speed down Vo Van Kiet in the car, slowing as Tim points out the still-iconic window grills on the Department of Distribution and Vaults for the State Bank, the former home of Vietnam’s first HSBC. Some curious Khmer elements creep into the architecture here — notable as there are supposedly only two buildings in the city that employ the indicated Indo-Chinois style.
We pause at Cau Mong — the only Eiffel construction in the city. “By that time,” Tim says, “[Eiffel] was submerged in corruption and scandal,” so it never took on the same iconic status as his other constructions. But if you look at the oxidised metal underside of the small bridge, you can see parallels between it and the more famous monuments he built.
Passing the stock market building further down the street, we again see some Khmer elements. Built in the former Senate building, sentry towers were visible up until two years ago.
“The architects’ association has been petitioning the government to draw up a list of historical buildings,” Tim says when I ask what steps are being taken to preserve this history. “Right now they don’t even know what they have.”
Canal of Crocodiles
We’re on Ham Nghi, the former Crocodile Bridge Canal — one of the main canals of a network that crisscrossed both Saigon and Cholon at the time of the French conquest.
“At the outset,” Tim says, “the French had plans to retain Saigon’s waterway system for merchants to use… However, the canals were used to dump waste of all kinds, and within no time people were complaining of the bad smell. As malaria and other tropical diseases began to take hold among the colonial population, the French became increasingly concerned about hygiene and the authorities began filling the city-centre canals and replacing them with roads.”
We walk on this late-19th century road, perhaps over the bones of crocodiles, towards the site of the first Ben Thanh Market — today the much humbler Ton That Dam Market. It was present when the French came in 1859, and was a commercial centre until its thatched roof caught fire in 1869 and the replacement Ben Thanh was built one block to the east, where the Bitexco Financial Tower now stands.
“During the American War,” Tim says, “this old market became known as the Thieves’ Market because it was always stacked with American products, including whisky, cigarettes, food and electric appliances, which had been stolen during the unloading of American ships at the docks.”
Today the market still does a brisk trade in whisky and food, some of it perhaps acquired in a similar way.
On the rooftop of the Rex, we have a drink and gaze out on the noonday city. We leisurely hear about the 38 years it took to build the present-day People’s Committee Building — “completed after much infighting as to where it would go, and who would get the commissions”.
Hearing about the unapproachable People’s Committee Building is one thing, but when we learn that the hotel beneath us was originally a motorcar showroom, we’re baffled. The landmark we know so well only got its five stars in 1988, 29 years after being refitted as a hotel and cinema, 28 years after being leased to the Americans. It was built on whims that would eventually become the identity of the modern city.
Another car ride later, and we’re in the former Clock Square, the present unnamed corner of Nguyen Du and Dong Khoi. The clock is gone, but the scandalously expensive (in 19th century francs) Notre-Dame Cathedral and Ho Chi Minh City Post Office still stand. Instead of immediately walking into the Post Office, Tim points out the famous inventors and scientists enshrined