Memory lane: More than a century of Dong Khoi, icon of Saigon beauty (Part 2)

Thanh Nien News

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The trip back to the previous century continues in this second part of the series, taking us to the Opera House, the famous bakery Givral and the Notre Dame.

 The theater was built in the late Gothic architecture style Flamboyant, with the front door strongly resembling that of the art museum Le Petit Palais built in Paris around the same time. Paul Blanchy, Saigon’s mayor at the time, already hosted an opening ceremony on the 1900 New Year's Day, with Prince Valdemar of Denmark and other the guests. It was meant to be a high-class entertainment center, but it kept losing visitors to night clubs. 

A photo in 1943 shows the front of the renovated theater – without goddess statues and strings of flowers. 

 In 1955, the building was renovated again to be used as the Lower House of the US-backed South Vietnam government.

 In 1998, the city made various efforts to restore the building to its original design by adding goddesses and flowers to the front, to celebrate 300 years of Saigon.

 At the far side of the photo is the Hotel Continental at the corner of Catinat and Borrnard, which is now Le Loi Street. Pierre Cazeau, a producer of construction materials and home appliances, starting building the hotel in 1878. The work took two years to finish.

 A photo of the hotel during its first days, with one three-story block. The wall of the top floor reads “Grand Hotel Continental.” Far behind are the two bell towers of the Notre Dame Cathedral.

 The hotel has added another four-story block in this 1906 photo.

 A bookstore of François-Henri Schneider, who founded the literary magazine “Luc Tinh Tan Van”, occupies the ground floor of the hotel (R) between 1907 and 1910. The magazine was one of the first non-Catholic publication published in the Latin script at the time. Although it needed a Frenchman to obtain a publication license, most content was supervised by its Vietnamese editor-in-chief Tran Chanh Chieu, who was later arrested for his involvement in an independence movement. 

 The hotel was renamed Continental Palace after it was sold to Ferdinand d’Orléans, Duke of Montpensier in 1911. The great-grandson of King Louis-Philippe I bought the hotel after staying there during his trip to Angkor, Cambodia.

 The hotel put up a gate to welcome French marshal Joseph Joffre during his visit to Saigon in December 1921. A banner on top of the hotel reads the marshal’s message to his soldiers before the outbreak of World War I, calling them not to back down. Among the hotel’s other famous guests were Indian Nobel-winning poet Rabindranath Tagore and US novelist Graham Greene.

 Between 1930s and 1950s, cafés and restaurants in the hotel drew many people from Corsica, a French island in the Mediterranean Sea, after Mathieu Francini from the island bought the hotel in 1930. In 1964, he passed the hotel management down to his son and the son kept it until the Vietnam War ended in 1975.

The hotel today 

Opposite the hotel during the early 1900s was Café de la Musique, with an advertising column at the front. 

 The café was turned into a pharmacy in the 1940s.

 A business card of Givral. The bakery took over the pharmacy’s place in 1950. Alain Poitier, a French baker, opened it after many years living in Saigon, making it a favorite destination of many journalists, both Vietnamese and foreign.

 A man walks past the bakery in a photo taken in 1990.

Actor Michael Caine (R) and Brendan Fraser in the city in 2001 during the filming of “The Quiet American." The movie was adapted from the eponymous novel of Graham Greene, who wrote it while staying at Continental. 

 Inside Givral in 2009. In April 2010, the building housing the bakery was razed to make space for the new shopping mall Union Square. The bakery was opened at the same place in October 2012 but closed again in the summer of 2013.

 This café, La Pagode, at the Catinat and d’Espagne (Le Thanh Ton) corner was a place for creative and romantic minds, like authors, painters and songwriters, during the early 1900s.

The two houses at the T-junction of Catinat and Taberd (Nguyen Du) were used by police and inspectors of the French government from 1917. 

 A photo in 1967 shows the houses being used as the ministries of interior affairs and social affairs by the US-backed South Vietnam's government.

 Now it is the Saigon Metropolitan Tower.

The Saigon Central Post Office in its first days in 1860, when it was called An Nam Post Office. The city issued the first postal stamp on January 13, 1863 and many people started sending letters through the post office a year later. 

 The post office in 1886, after it was rebuilt into a grand building from the design of Foulhoux Villedieu, combining western and eastern architectural features. The telegraph line to Bangkok was connected in 1889, mostly serving businesspeople. The city started using telephones in July 1894.

The post office today 

The Notre Dame Cathedral was built with Jules Bourard’s design mixing Roman and Gothic styles. The construction used all materials brought from France, from iron, cement to bricks, and no mortar. The work started in 1877 and lasted for three years, funded by the French government, hence its original name State Cathedral.

The bell towers were added in 1895, raising the height to 60.5 meters. 

The French government in 1903 built a bronze statue outside the cathedral showing French Catholic priest Pigneau de Béhaine with Vietnamese Prince Nguyen Phuc Canh. The priest was sent to Vietnam as a missionary and best known for his role in helping Nguyen Anh (later Emperor Gia Long) establish the Nguyen Dynasty in Vietnam from 1802. 

From inside the cathedral 

The statue was removed after Vietnam gained independence from France in 1945, but the pedestal was still there. A priest brought in a marble statue of the Virgin Mary from Italy in 1959 and placed it there. 

“Saigon – Duong Catinat dau the ky 20” (Saigon – Rue Catinat of the early 1920s) by Nguyen Duc Hiep, published in 2012
“Nhung doan doi Givral” (Givral’s parts of life) by Quoc Bao, published in 2015
“Chao – khong con gap lai mot noi lich su tung di qua” (Goodbye – Never going to see again a place where history walked by) by Do Trung Quan, published in 2010

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