The historic photos presented here help to shed light on the evolution of the skyline and modes of life in Ho Chi Minh City from the end of the 19th century to the mid-20th century. We’d like to thank the Institut d’Asie Orientale (Eastern Asia Institute) for making their image collections available to the exhibition organisers.
Saigon – a panaroma of the arroyo Chinois and swing bridge
This photo, which probably dates from around 1900, is taken from the mouth of the arroyo Chinois (Bến Nghé creek), probably the top of the Signal Mast. The camera is facing west towards Chợ Lớn. The swing bridge visible in the foreground is a demonstration of technical efforts at that time to connect the two banks of the creek without affecting waterway traffic, which was indispensable along this important axis. The bridge could turn as shown in the picture to permit high-masted vessels to pass through.
Aerial view of the arroyo Chinois
This photograph, showing an aerial view of the mouth of the arroyo Chinois, dates from 1930-1940 – that period is evidenced by the presence of the second Banque de l’Indochine building constructed to a design by architect Félix Dumail between 1924 and 1928. It is also possible to see the swing bridge and behind it the earlier “fixed” bridge, the pont des Messageries maritimes. The left bank of the creek seems to have a large number of small boats, unlike the right bank. One reason for this relates to the fact that the left bank was the first to be urbanised and thus has a greater concentration of housing and commercial installations.
Khánh hội and Mống bridges
This aerial view of the mouth of the arroyo Chinois taken by Raymond Cauchetier in 1955 shows that despite some modernisation (construction of the Bastos warehouse and replacement of the original swing bridge by a new one), the spatial configuration remained unchanged from what it had been in the early 20th century, with the busy sight of vessels on both sides of the river, roads built alongside the creek and a proliferationof buildings serving an economic function (warehouses and financial institutions). In this period, the arroyo still played the role of a vital waterway connecting Saigon and Chợ Lớn.
Saigon: The arroyo Chinois and its traditional houses
This picture, taken by Emile Gsell in 1866 during the first days of French colonisation, shows one of Saigon’s waterways before urbanisation. The houses on the bank clearly belonged to the owners of the vessels.
A view of an arroyo in Chợ Lớn
This picture, taken by Georges Victor Planté in 1906, shows the state of the arroyos in the absence of urbanisation. However, they are far from devoid of settlement, as evidenced by the construction of thatched, stilted wooden houses along the banks. The economic activity of their inhabitants was largely orientated towards the exploitation of aquatic resources, including fisheries, highlighting the second economic function of the creeks and canals.
Cochinchina. Chợ Lớn. View of the arroyo Chinois
The location of this undated image (c1900-1910) by famous photographer Poujade de Ladeveze is difficult to pinpoint, although the greater degree of urbanisation on the left of the picture suggests that it was taken facing the direction of the mouth of the arroyo. The photograph again shows the space along the banks occupied by those who make their living on or near the water. Among the boats in the picture, some serve as houseboats and are always docked next to the shore, recognisable by their domed roofs. In addition, there are larger vessels carrying grain, which are used solely for commercial purposes and not as living accommodation.
Like the waterways, the shoreline is also spatially organised, with clearly defined functions. Close to the riverbank are smaller warehouses and bags of grain drying in the open. A little further away from the creek are residential one-or two-storied buildings. According to the principle of “economic” space management, it seems normal that the immediate vicinity of the arroyo is reserved for warehouses.
Chợ Lớn: The arroyo Chinois.
This picture was taken in 1909 and retrieved from the collection of Frédéric Drouhet, then mayor of Chợ Lớn. The picture features a developed section of the arroyo with warehouses lining the quayside. Only vessels carrying grains, chiefly rice, from Chợ Lớn to the Saigon port at the mouth of the arroyo can be seen in this picture.
Chợ Lớn: Rice processing factories along the banks of the arroyo
The picture was taken in around 1910 and shows one of the numerous rice processing factories which were built along the banks of the arroyo in Chợ Lón. The construction of these factories was needed to accommodate the growing size of rice-carrying vessels and to minimize the time taken unloading paddy and loading husked rice.
A fleet of junks
It is difficult to date this shot, which was taken some time between 1900 and 1919 on the left bank of the arroyo Chinois, facing the direction of its mouth at the junction of the Saigon river. It was probably taken from the pont des Messageries maritimes and in the background it is possible to make out the swing bridge and, on the left, the Signal Mast. This photo reveals a great deal about the dependence of poor people on the river and their partial use of the water surface as living splace. In addition to the “houseboats,” it is also possible to see boats for navigation such as the one on the far right of the photograph.
Chợ Lớn: The banks of the arroyo Chinois
This photograph, undated but probably taken in the years 1910-1920, shows vividly the diversity of habitats and modes of transport on the arroyo. Along the wharf may be seen houses and warehouses, while rows of houseboats are moored immediately in front of them. As always, the centre of the arroyo is reserved for navigable vessels, which range from simple boats to large freight barges.
Chợ Lớn: View of the arroyo Chinois
A view of the arroyo Chinois looking towards Chợ Lớn and probably dating from the period 1940-1950. This “colourised” photo shows in a dramatic way the encroachment of housing onto the water surface, thereby illustrating the waterway’s dual function as both a living space and an economic space. We notice many houseboats and houses on stilts and, in the middle of the river, other vessels for navigation and transportation of people and goods.
The tramway alongside the arroyo Chinois
This undated picture by Fernand Nadal was undoubtedly taken in the 1920s on the approach ramp of the pont des Malabars in Chợ Lớn. It signals the start of an era of change which would take place throughout the 20th century and spell the beginning of the end for the canal that used to serve as the key passenger and cargo transport route from Saigon to Chợ Lớn. The building of the tramway line heralded the beginnings of the gradual restructuring of the riverbank from a small, narrow and relatively inaccessible path into today’s expressway, which permits a fast, easy connection between the eastern and western parts of HCMC.
Chợ Lớn: arroyo Chinois
The location featured in this late 1950s photograph is difficult to identify, but it shows the ongoing use of the water surface next to the bank of the arroyo for the purposes of habitation. The narrow band of stilted houses in the picture seems to be home to a population with a very precarious existence. These are not people whose survival depends on their economic activity on the arroyo (note the absence of boats) but a disadvantaged community living on the margins of a city where waterways are no longer the main arteries of communication. The habitat no longer includes houseboats but rather shacks built from recycled materials (wood and corrugated iron). Again, we note a form of hierarchy in the occupation of the land space adjacent to the arroyo, with a first level corresponding to a semi-aquatic band reserved for the poorest people and a second level where villa-type houses coexist with small apartment buildings.
Chợ Lớn: the arroyo Chinois at Bình Tây
This photograph, undated but probably taken in the early years of the 20th century, is particularly interesting because it depicts a canal running through Chợ Lớn where the current Bình Tây Market would later be built. This canal, originally known as the canal Bonard, is now known as the rạch Bãi Sậy. Note the absence of “houseboats” on this waterway and the omnipresence of barges carrying grain. The numerous chimneys and warehouses hint that this is mainly an areas of factories and godowns.
Cholon. Canal Bonard
This undated picture probably dates back to the years 1940-1950 and shows a portion of the canal Bonard (rạch Bãi Sậy). In the foreground may be seen two of the bridges which crossed cross the canal and behind them the pont des Trois arches (three arched bridge), once a famous local landmark. Despite the narrowness of the waterway, habitation is still very much in evidence along the canal banks. This section of the canal has very few commercial buildings or warehouses but we note the presence of numerous residential buildings. This urban densification may be accounted for by the fact the area depicted is located in the heart of Chợ Lớn and not on its perimeter.
Saigon: the naval port on the river
This picture taken by Emile Gsell in 1866 shows the Signal Mast on the left hand side and the scene along the Saigon river. It depicts an early stage of French colonisation when the port infrastructure was yet to be developed.
Saigon: The port and colonial buildings
This photograph by Emile Gsell shows some of the first colonial buildings in the port area next to the Saigon River. In subsequent years two separate ports would be built, one reserved for naval vessels and the other near the mouth of the arroyo Chinois for commercial activities and river/sea-going vessels.
An aerial view of Saigon port
This photograph, taken by Raymond Cauchetier in 1955, shows in a vivid manner the importance of maritime trade in Saigon. In the foreground is the military port, at that time still occupied by the ships of the French Navy, while further downstream may be seen the civil and commercial port. In the distance, at the mouth of the arroyo Chinois, we see the iconic Messageries maritimes building and the imposing warehouses of the merchant port.
Canal Thị Nghè
This 1955 photograph of the Thị Nghè creek (formerly the arroyo de l’Avalanche) by Raymond Cauchetier highlights another use of the space adjacent to waterways. Here we see no evidence of economic activity like that which developed on the arroyo Chinois. The absence of boats on the creek is significant. Instead, this photograph depicts a residential neighbourhood of small houses which are oriented away from the waterway towards the streets and alleys.