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Architectural Heritage on the Ben Thanh–Suoi Tien Metro Line

At nearly 20 km long, the No. 1 urban metro line will go through many symbolic hundred-year-old constructions of Ho Chi Minh City, such as the Ben Thanh Market, Municipal Theatre, Hotel Continental and Ba Son Shipyard. When this metro line is fully operational, both residents and tourists will enjoy the benefits of modern transportation and have the opportunity to glide over Saigon’s cultural and historical heritage sites every day.

Let's take a look back at four of the typical cultural and historical sites near the three underground stations on metro line No. 1.

Ben Thanh Market

This large market located in the middle of Saigon was built by the French contractor Brossard et Maupin and completed in March 1914. The colonial government held an inauguration ceremony for the opening of the new Ben Thanh Market. The event, dubbed by the press at the time as “Tan Vuong Hoi,” included fun activities that lasted for three days and nights from the 28–30 March, attracting more than 100,000 visitors from Saigon and other provinces.

Trung tâm Sài Gòn xưa tại khu bùng binh chợ Bến Thành năm 1920 -- Ảnh sưu tập của Dương Hiệp.

Before the event, the organizer made an announcement throughout the Six Provinces of Southern Vietnam. After hearing the announcement, Chinese and Indian merchants rushed to buy stalls at the new Ben Thanh Market to sell cigarettes, silk, food and other commodities. On the opening day, visitors from the Southeast to the Southwest eagerly promised each other to go shopping and sightseeing at the new market. People from all over the Mekong Delta happily told each other: “The opening ceremony is so marvelous that I can die happy after seeing it!”

The festival was jam packed. The opening day began with a lion dance, a martial arts performance, a Bat Am orchestra and even a French military band came to participate in the festivities. In the evening, there were fireworks, a parade, and blue and red lights were hung up around the market. There were more visitors at the ceremony than during the Tet holidays. Also featured for free was a Hat Tuong (classic Vietnamese opera).

Originally, the market was located on the corner of Nguyen Hue—now Bach Dang Pier. The name Ben Thanh means “citadel along the pier.” One year after the French and Spanish captured Gia Dinh (the former name of Saigon) Citadel on February 17, 1859, a new Ben Thanh Market was rebuilt by the French government in Saigon, replacing the previous market that was almost completely destroyed during the battle. But the new Ben Thanh market was relocated to the Vai Market on Charner Street (now Nguyen Hue Street) instead of its original site at the river wharf.

The old Ben Thanh Market is now located at the four streets of: Nguyen Hue–Hai Trieu–Ho Tung Mau–Ngo Duc Ke. Built quickly, the market went into operation in 1860 with five compartments, wooden pillars and a thatched roof similar to the old Vai Market. Ten years later, in 1870, one of the compartments burned down, creating an opportunity to rebuild the market according to the decree (banning houses and palaces with thatched roofs in the inner areas of Saigon) of the South governor at that time. This market included brick pillars, wooden ribs and tiled roofs, except for the butcher compartment with a corrugated roof and granite floor.

This rebuilt market also featured five compartments that sold dry food, fish, meat, and produce.

Officially revived, the Ben Thanh Market immediately prospered: boats from all over came in droves to trade at the Charner Canal (now Nguyen Hue Street) in front of the market and Cau Sau Creek (now Ham Nghi Street) behind the market—these two canals were used to transport goods and customers.

In 1887, the Charner Canal was filled in, creating Charner Boulevard (known colloquially as Kinh Lap Street, literally “Filled Canal” Street). Both sides of the road were packed with Vietnamese, Chinese, Indian, and Khmer trading families. It was such a popular spot that there used to be a series of restaurants, hotels, and even newspaper offices.

After years of operation, the market began to degrade with fetid smells from the Vai Market Canal and rubbish piles in front of City Hall (now the headquarters of the City People's Committee). The surrounding residents filed a complaint against the Saigon City Council at that time. The city council planned to build a new Ben Thanh Market, far from the old location, in the Bo Ret Swamp (marais Boresse) with an estimated budget of 400,000 francs—the actual cost reaching 975,000 francs. For comparison, during the same period, The Huyen Si Church (now on Nguyen Trai Street) was built with a budget of 1.5 million francs. When the new Ben Thanh market opened in March 1914, the old Ben Thanh market was cleared to build a treasury (before 1975 it was the General Treasury, now it is the State Treasury).

Municipal Theatre (Opera House)

Conveniently located in the center of the city, the Opera House is considered as the central multifunctional theater, specializing in performing arts as well as major events. Located on the most expensive street in the city center next to two grand hotels—Caravelle and Continental—this theater is a long-standing flamboyant structure considered as a famous tourist destination of the city.

The theater has a classic and majestic design with a ground floor, two upper-floors, 1,800 seats, a spacious atmosphere, modern sound and light systems, and is the venue for professional performances of plays, folk operas, concerts, ballets, traditional music, and operas for groups of both domestic and international artists.

In 1863 troupes from France performed for the French Expeditionary Corps. At first, they performed at the wooden house of the Admiral-Governor at Clock Square (Place de L'Horloge) on the corner of today’s Nguyen Du–Dong Khoi, then a temporary theater was set up in what is now the Caravelle Hotel.

Construction of the Opera House (known as the Municipal Theater today) began in 1898. In early 1900, the theater was solemnly inaugurated. The façade of the theater was decorated with many statues and reliefs (similar to Dinh Xa Tay, later City Hall, now the Ho Chi Minh City People's Committee) in the architectural style of the time. In the middle of World War I and World War II, to bring entertainment troupes from France, the city had to pay heavy subsidies. Many people objected and wanted to turn the theater into a concert hall (salle de concert).

As the face of the theater was considered too cumbersome, a transformation project was launched in 1943 which brought the familiar façade we know today. When the French re-occupied Indochina after World War II, the theater received few renovations.

In 1954, it was used as a temporary residence for French civilians from the North emigrating to the South under the Geneva Accords of 1954. In 1955, the theater was reconditioned as the National Assembly headquarters (thereinafter called the Lower House Assembly) of the Republic of Vietnam.

After 1975, the theater returned to its original function of housing the performing arts. In 1998, on the occasion of the 300th anniversary of the founding of Ho Chi Minh City, during improvements to the theater, the government rehabilitated the old city theater, as well as restored a number of artworks such as the two goddess statues, flower garlands, and chandeliers. The total cost of the restoration at the time was about 25 billion VND.

Hotel Continental

This famous historical hotel is located on Dong Khoi Street. The hotel was built in 1878 during the French colonial period by Pierre Cazeau, a building materials and home appliance manufacturer. Mr. Cazeau wanted to open a luxury hotel to welcome tourists from France to Saigon after a long journey from the “motherland.” The construction took two years and the Hotel Continental was inaugurated in 1880.

At around the same time, other famous architectural buildings were also built by the French in Saigon such as Notre Dame Cathedral (in 1880), Saigon Central Post Office (in 1886), and the City hall of Saigon (in 1898).

In 1911, the hotel was sold to Duke De Montpensier (who built Ong Hoang Hill in Phan Thiet). In 1930, the hotel was then owned by Mathier Francini, a reputed gangster from Corsica. Francini managed the hotel until 1975. During the 1960s and 1970s, the hotel was named “Dai Luc Lu Quan.”

The Hotel Continental has hosted many famous people such as the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore (winner of Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913), French writer André Malraux, English writer Graham Greene (author of “The Quiet American”). During the Vietnam War, the hotel was a gathering place for foreign journalists, politicians and businessmen operating in Saigon.

Ba Son shipyard

In “Geography of Gia Dinh [Saigon]” (Gia Dinh thanh thong chi), author Trinh Hoai Duc wrote: “The Chu Su workshop, located approximately 1 li [500 m] east of the Citadel along the Tan Binh [Saigon] River, next to the Binh Tri River [Thi Nghe Creek], is a factory which makes seagoing ships for the navy, a military workshop 3 li [1,500 m] in length.” On the map of Gia Dinh in 1815, Tran Van Hoc remarked: “Xuong Thuy” (Naval Workshop) is located on the eastern side of the citadel of the eight trigrams (Citadel of Saigon). This place builds and repairs all kinds of warships”.

The Ba Son shipyard was originally founded by Nguyen Anh to assemble a fleet of modern warships. The shipyard stands at the confluence of the Saigon River and Thi Nghe Creek, on an area of 22 hectares with 2,000 m of riverside roads, including 6 wharves totaling 750 m.

Originally, this was a muddy area, so it was often used as a place to dock and repair ships. After capturing Gia Dinh (Saigon), in 1861, the French built a dry dock on the existing shipyard, which is now the current Ba Son. On 28 April 1863, France formally approved the construction of Ba Son naval workshop in Saigon, directly under the French Navy Ministry. In 1884, France dug and built a large dry dock facility of stone, costing nearly 8,000 francs.

In the early 1860s, the French acquired the Arsenal Shipyard (Navy Yard) for the French Navy in Saigon, which is now Ba Son Workshop. However, initially, this facility did not meet the requirements, so the French decided to set up a floating dock on the Saigon River to repair large ships docked at the Saigon Port. This floating port was manufactured separately by the Scottish company Randolph of Scotland. In May 1863, these parts were transported by ship to Saigon for assembly from January 1864 to May 1866. The length of the floating port was sufficient for receiving and repairing the largest ships calling at Saigon during this time. The Saigon floating port is 91.44 m in length, with an outer width of 28.65 m, inner width of 21.33 m and the below section at 13.71 m; altitude: 12.8 m.

Ba Son Shipyard, with over 200 years of history, is located in one of the most beautiful areas of the city. Currently, the Vinhomes Golden River Bason Urban Area is being developed here to create a complex of commercial areas, offices, apartments and villas… right on the land of Ba Son shipyard.

The Ben Thanh–Suoi Tien Line–Metro Line 1, with a total length of 19.7 km, was started in 2012 and is expected to be completed and operational in 2021. The metro begins at Ben Thanh Market, goes underground from Ben Thanh Station to Ba Son Station in the Vinhomes Golden River Urban Area, then runs along the Van Thanh Canal, crosses the Saigon River, follows the Hanoi Highway and ends at Mien Dong (Eastern) Bus Station (Di An Station, Binh Duong province). The whole route consists of 14 stations and 1 depot, of which the 3 underground stations are Ben Thanh, Opera House and Ba Son. The remaining 11 stations are elevated stations (from Van Thanh Station to the new Mien Dong (Eastern) Bus Station. Depot of Line 1 Ben Thanh–Suoi Tien is located in Long Binh Ward, District 9, which is also the center of control and maintenance of Line 1 until 2040.

Texts: Minh Tran -- Photos: various photographers

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