1. 3  Võ Trường Toản

    Just next door to the Modernist circularity of 1 Vo Truong Toan sits a house in a very different style. Composed of curlicues in concrete, geometric reliefs, painted Ionian columns, a pitched-tile roof that from beneath looks like a mound of popsicle sticks, tilework of yellow, green, red and white — repeating kaleidoscopes of stars, fleur-de-lis and feathered plumage, somewhat Moorish in mood — it’s a fusion of popular styles from 100 years ago. All of them faded, like the images of loved ones on the walls.

    Two generations lived there before Pham Thi Hue, who runs the sugarcane stand on the other side of the boundary wall. They’re all descendants of the family’s patriarch, great-grandfather Quang Chau, a court figure in the last imperial court in Hue. In a portrait that must date from the 19th century, he stares ahead with youthful purpose, in clothes drawn on perhaps in stylistic update — a French cap over a stiff, split-collared robe.

    On the other walls sit Hue’s grandparents, looking more traditional than Quang Chau somehow, more receded into history. Then her bookseller parents, mother with a perm and airbrushed glow surrounding her head, looking content. An over saturated black-and-white photo holds the head of an older brother, who died for some unexplained reason.

    New Life

    A young girl runs around in a white dress, smiling, patting down halls in her plastic shoes, blurring out of photos. Her grandfather — Hue’s husband, Nguyen Quoc Nam — looks lovingly on and tosses off a sweet little nothing in the French patois we’ve negotiated between us.

    Living alongside the ancestors on the wall are seven others, sharing this house and a rear extension. Most of Hue’s other family members have moved to the US, starting with her grandmother.

    Nam shows us a computer — grandson occupied with it — and then we chance upon a guitar. “Tu joues?” I ask. “Oui, je joue,” he says, picking it up. Settling into a leather-upholstered rocking chair, Nam gently starts in on a lilting French ballad, looking up in smiling, soulful eye contact every phrase or two. It’s a jaunty tune, and it seems to fill the house with the youthful exuberance of the year it was written. 

    Words by Ed Weinberg | Illustration by Lys Bui | Advisory by Tim Doling. www.historicvietnam.com


  2. Hải Thượng Lãn Ông Str. 

    Personally, I name it ” paper road”. 


  3. 213 Đồng Khởi Str.

    If you pass 213 Dong Khoi today, you’ll see temporary wooden walls postered with pictures of Reunification Palace, the People’s Committee Building, the Opera House, Ben Thanh Market, a blooming lotus. Many of Saigon’s symbols are accounted for — but not the posthumously famous one whose Art Deco rubble threatens to overwhelm the 3-metres-high walls.

    To some it’s natural for buildings like 213 to come down, as Dong Khoi-centred downtown continues its march to skyscraper-dotted prosperity. But nowhere on HCMC House Trade Management Co, Ltd’s banner is there a Vincom Center or Bitexco.

     On either side of the temporary wall where 213 used to stand are old constructions. One is a former part of the demolished building — its insides now being gutted, its 213-facing side open to the elements — the other is the People’s Committee Building, a relic of the same era, but with a perfectly maintained facade, floodlit at night. Across the streets that 213 used to corner on are the twin presences of Vincom Centers A and B, threatening to overwhelm them all.

    Buildings with Souls

    Vincent Scully, one of the US’s leading architectural critics over the past century, wrote in a 1985 New York Times article, “Nothing shows up more definitively in a building than a lack of love, unless it is the love of money.”

    He wrote this at a time when New York City was at a crossroads, in the process of leaving behind its checkered past for a more prosperous future. Scully’s worry on seeing the towers of modern New York rise was that they “look[ed] devoid of life; their surfaces are closed and dead”. They were no longer part of the city below, and upon entering one had to leave the atmosphere of the city for a closed-off, air-conditioned world.

    Scully felt that an architect’s responsibility was to design “buildings that fit, in a civilized manner, into the man-made environment”. At a different crossroads in New York history, Scully was a vocal critic of the 1963 destruction of the original Beaux-Arts-styled Penn Station rail terminal — whose unconsulted demolition kick-started the modern historic preservation movement nationwide. About the transition to the modern, utilitarian Penn Station, Scully said, “One entered the city like a god. One scuttles in now like a rat.”


    Saigon is at a crossroads now, similar to the one New York faced in 1963. Modern New York was built on the bones of demolished buildings — there wouldn’t be a Times Square without them.

     But modern New York was also born of the historic consciousness of its public. Three years after Penn Station fell, the National Historic Preservation Act became law. Such an integral part of New York’s fabric never fell again.

     213 Dong Khoi wasn’t the original Penn Station, but it was a building that mattered to many people, a building with 85 years of history and point-of-reference status in cultural touchstones like The Quiet American. And now it’s been excised from the modern city forever.  Tim Doling was prominently involved with raising consciousness about 213, and he thinks that its loss might not have been “completely in vain… It has received a great deal of publicity, and many concerned local people (not just expats!) now seem to be questioning the speed at which old buildings are being destroyed in Ho Chi Minh City.”

    For the rest of us, there’s a new concern on the horizon. The 126-year-old former Cochinchina government secretariat at 59-61 Ly Tu Trong, directly behind 213 Dong Khoi, has been slated for “renovation”. Recessed from the street, it’s not as immediate a landmark as 213, but it has been a foundational block of the modern city for as long as it has existed. It’s one of those buildings that we won’t miss until it’s gone, until it’s only a fading photograph from old Saigon.

    But there might be some hope for compromise here, the kind we’ll need for the modern city to resemble its past. Tim says, “I hear they are commissioning a new competition for designs which retain/incorporate the old building rather than destroy it.“I really hope that the powers that be will recognise the heritage value of that building and find an alter native solution to demolition.” 

    Words by Ed Weinberg | Illustration by Lys Bui | Advisory by Tim Doling. www.historicvietnam.com


  4. Bãi Sậy Street.

    Near what used to be the Canal Bonard in Ho Chi Minh City’s Cholon area, the family home of a long-gone shipping magnate sits, surrounded by houses with tin roofs and modern structures, rivaling the mansion’s three storeys with their blocky presence. Through the concrete which covers damaged sections of original tile, the original craft is still evident. Contours of elegant wrought iron billow out from concrete walls, which hide the courtyard-wide fence they’d been cast to support. Chicken cages lay scattered.

    The patriarch of the nine-member family residing there was named Tiet Tuc. He was part of the Chaozhou Chinese community, whose immigration the French encouraged from the 1860s, the most successful of Cholon’s final wave of settlers. Quach Dam, the builder of Cholon’s magnificent Binh Tay Market, was also from Chaozhou.

     Sunk Costs

    80 or 90 years ago, according to Tuc’s granddaughter Mrs. Dinh, her grandfather’s import-export company Thuan Long sent an ill-fated shipment of beans to Hong Kong. When the ship sank, he looked to his insurance company for compensation. The owner of the insurance company was the original inhabitant of the house Tuc’s family still calls home.

    It was here that Tuc set about building his legacy. In 62-year-old Dinh’s early years, it was still the only home on its canal-circumscribed block. As what would become Ho Chi Minh City developed and became more prosperous, Tuc contributed to that development — commissioning the building of An Binh Hospital and Nghe An High School. To staff them, he invited doctors and teachers from Chaozhou to work there and train local professionals in Chaozhou-style methods.

    The house passed to Tuc’s fourth son, Tiet Que, who also took control of his father’s business — renaming it Soon Long, minus accents, in an effort to Anglicise it. His wife, Dinh’s mother, still lives in the house, although all of his children except for Dinh have moved overseas.

    The House

    Still possessing many of its original design elements, the house has two residential floors with identical floor plans — three bedrooms and a kitchen on each, one for each of the original owner’s wives. The ground floor was the workers’ quarters, which the authorities took over from 1975 to 1986, forcing the family into the upper levels. To this day, the house is split into two residential addresses.

    The 800sqm structure is made of stone, in a style that has held up well over time. Stepping inside, you feel a tangible chill in the air. Although many of the structural elements have fallen into disrepair — to the point that the company in discussions to purchase it intends to tear it down — they still communicate the aura of the house, an aura that has taken inspiration from every part of the last century of its existence. 

    Words by Ed Weinberg | Illustration and translation by Lys Bui | Advisory by Tim Doling. www.historicvietnam.com



  6. Phan Chu Trinh, Ben Thanh Market, Sai Gon. 



  8. Cô Giang Str. 


  9. Phó Đức Chính 


  10. district 5