Saigoneer

Back Heritage » Saigon » [Photos] A French Photographer's Portrait of Saigon in 1866

[Photos] A French Photographer's Portrait of Saigon in 1866

It took millions of years for dinosaurs' ferocious claws to evolve into the soft wings of a hummingbird and even longer for simple algae to transform into towering pine trees; change has been much more rapid in Saigon. 

Saigon's transition from simple dirt streets stretching between humble wooden homes and citizens clad in loose, monotone áo dài into a glitzy metropolis where locals strut through traffic in colorful, form-fitting attire took place in a geological blink of an eye. These photos by French photographer Émile Gsell taken in 1866, featured in New York's famed Met Gallery for their 150th anniversary, allow viewers to admire the impermanence of the norms humans frequently take for granted. 

View of imperial couriers.

Émile Gsell (1838 - 1879) arrived in Cochinchina, now southern Vietnam, as part of a French delegation to explore the Mekong region on behalf of the colonial government. After taking some of the first photos of Angkor Wat he established himself as the first professional photographer based in Saigon. His selection of panoramic city views and portraits of people from all walks of life provides rare insights into 19th-century Saigon.

Take a look below: 

Tomb of the Bishop of Adran, also known as Lang Cha Ca in Vietnamese.

Funeral procession.

Prisoners and native militia member.

Vietnamese in classic áo dài.

Vietnamese theater performers.

Wealthy Vietnamese citizens.

Marriage ceremony.

A view of the Saigon River from downtown.

Fruit vendors.

Monks in Cho Lon.

Saigon River view.

Musicians.

Native militia members.

Vietnamese women.

Militia members taking a break.

Chinese pagoda in Vietnam.

View of Cho Lon.

View of Cho Lon. 

[Images compiled by Flickr user manhhai]

Related Articles

in Saigon

[Photos] Into the Wilderness of Saigon in 1867

Before “southern Vietnam,” there was Cochinchina; before Saigon, there wasn’t much of anything but vast stretches of tropical jungle and mosquito-infested swamps.

in Saigon

Old Saigon Building of the Week: The Three-Legged Bridge of Cho Lon

Saigoneers born after the 1990s might be familiar with the term dân chơi cầu Ba Cẳng, or “the daredevils of Ba Cang Bridge”. However, not many are aware of its starting point, which originated from a ...

in Saigon

[Photos] 10 Remarkable Black-and-White Shots of Saigon in 1967

Lush bunches of fresh bananas at a market, a street-side merchant selling embroidered artworks to tourists, and Buddhist worshipers praying at a local temple — these Saigon scenes are rather mundane b...

in Saigon

[Photos] 17 Photos of 2002 Saigon as Seen From Above

2002 might not seem like a long time ago, but Saigon’s urbanscapes have grown so much in the last ten years that these scenes offer some surprising insights into our city 17 years in the past.

in Heritage

[Photos] 1972 Saigon, a City of Style

Based on this collection of black-and-white snapshots, there’s no doubt that Saigon was – and still is – a city of style.

in Saigon

[Photos] 20 Rare Black-and-White Photos of 1948 Saigon by Jack Birns

"Photography takes an instant out of time, altering life by holding it still." — Dorothea Lange