Following in the footsteps of the grand tourists

Take a step back in time with The Romance of the Grand Tour: 100 Years of Travel in South East Asia.
Take a step back in time with The Romance of the Grand Tour: 100 Years of Travel in South East Asia. Pha Lina

Following in the footsteps of the grand tourists

Retracing the Grand Tours of the East, popular during the ‘golden age of travel’ in the early 1900s, sociologist and cultural heritage expert Kennie Ting’s historical travelogue The Romance of the Grand Tour: 100 Years of Travel in South East Asia charts the living heritage of 12 port cities from Rangoon to Hong Kong. Beautifully illustrated with vintage postcards, photos, flyers, brochures and maps – along with some of Ting’s own contemporary snaps – the coffee table book captures the sprit of the age while providing an enchanting guide for contemporary travellers. In this extract, Ting explores the French influence and its enduring legacy in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City)

Unlike Hanoi in the north, which retains significant tracts of its Sino-Vietnamese built heritage, Saigon is essentially a French city. Between 1887 and 1902 it was the capital not only of Cochinchina, but of the whole of Indochine, following which the capital was moved to Hanoi.

A map of Saigon in 1917
A map of Saigon in 1917. PHOTO SUPPLIED

As soon as they arrived, the French wasted no time in making the city the Paris of the East, completely destroying almost everything that stood, and replacing it with some of the most impressive, most French, imperial monuments east of Suez, particularly in and around what they nostalgically called Paris Square and down three major thoroughfares – Boulevard Bonnard, Boulevard Charner and Rue Catinat. As with their contemporaries, the British and the Dutch, the intent of French colonialism was trade, commerce and access to raw materials. Unlike them, however, the French also had one other important goal: the export of La Civilisation Française.

This penchant of the French to “civilise” is evident in the urban landscape of their showpiece city, Saigon. The rationally laid-out grid system with its wide, tree-lined boulevards, elegant parks, squares and roundabouts echoed the imperial city of Paris itself. So too did Saigon’s monumental buildings in ostentatious Beaux-Arts, Neo-Italianate, Neo-Gothic, Art Nouveau and later, Art Deco styles.

One of the many cafes in today’s Ho Chi Minh City
One of the many cafes in today’s Ho Chi Minh City. PHOTO SUPPLIED

Today, much of this still remains, clinging to the waterfront city that the French etched forcibly over the Vietnamese citadel and town that they destroyed. On the religious and cultural front, the two most famous buildings are the High Gothic Cathédrale de Notre Dame (1880) in Paris Square and the Beaux-Arts Municipal Opera House (1897) on Rue Catinat. There are also civic institutions like the bright pink Neo-Classical wedding-cake confection that is the Hôtel des Postes (Central Post Office Building, 1891), designed and built by Gustave Eiffel of Tower fame, no less, as well as the similarly eye-catching Hotel de Ville (City Hall, 1908). Government and military installations included the ancient Palaisdu Gouvernment (Government Palace, 1873, destroyed in 1962) and Caserne de l’Infanterie (Infantry Barracks, also 1873).

The Saigon Opera House in the early 1900s
The Saigon Opera House in the early 1900s. PHOTO SUPPLIED

In addition, within and surrounding this downtown core, sat dozens of colonial villas and bungalows housing French civil servants, merchants and their entourages – the French loved their pieds-a-terre. Sadly, many have been demolished in the post doi-moire-building fervour of modern-day Vietnam, but a few still cling on, even as whole blocks around them are demolished for the construction of such towering hulks of nondescriptness as the Bitexco Towers, the tallest building
in the city, and the Vincom Towers, the city’s most luxurious mall.

In fact, Saigon today is a battleground of sorts - a landscape of construction and re-development. New buildings, sporting the airbrushed visages of Hollywood actresses and the serpentine logos of luxury brands, sit side by side with the earlier French legacy. It wasn’t so long ago that symbols of Frenchness and Americanism were vilified as being unforgivably capitalistic and anti-revolutionary. Today, those selfsame symbols have once again become desirable marks of status and wealth.

The Hotel Continental (right) and Eden Centre on a 1940s postcard
The Hotel Continental (right) and Eden Centre on a 1940s postcard. PHOTO SUPPLIED

A closer look also reveals the country’s European past continuing to linger in the habits of the newly affluent Vietnamese. As they smoke, converse and imbibe petitestasses de cafés et de thés in the cosy cafes that line many of the city’s sidewalks, they almost seem to recall the joie de vivre et de conversation of their former rulers. Similarly, the sight and smell of newly-baked banh mi or baguettes, stuffed with a variety of hams, meats, cheeses and salads; the delectable confit decanard, boeuf bourguignon or even escargots that can be had in the excellent French restaurants resuscitated in the city, are a reminder that the city’s French past refuses to go away. Finally, in the boîtes de nuits that have sprouted again in the city’s fashionable corners, one can once more aller dancercommeen France — dance like one was back in France.

The Romance of the Grand Tour: 100 Years of Travel in South East Asia is available now at Monument Books for $34.50. For more from Kennie Ting, check out:


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