The Story of Saigon's Last Citadel

You’ve probably passed the pair of colonial buildings at intersection of Dien Tien Hoang and Le Duan hundreds of times. What you may not be aware of, however, is that these two buildings are the last physical remnants of Saigon’s royal citadels.

According to historian Tim Doling, Before French occupation, the ruling Nguyen family built 3 major fortifications in Gia Dinh (Saigon’s pre-colonial name) to consolidate control of southern Vietnam, especially in their 30-year war with the Tay San brothers.

The Phoenix Citadel was the last built but the Nguyen Dynasty. Constructed in 1837, it stood in the areas now bordered by Nguyen Dinh Chieu, Nguyen Du, Mac Dinh Chi and Nguyen Binh Kim streets.

Following French conquest, the citadel was burned to the ground and replaced by the Caserne de l’infanterie (infantry barracks) over its front section in 1873. “Despite the demise of Minh Mạng’s citadel, the French continued to call the area “Citadelle” throughout the colonial period,” writes Doling.

The French citadel in 1881.

The Caserne de l’infanterie housed rows of well-built, iron-framed colonial barracks buildings, similar to those found at Children’s Hospital 2 today.

At the end the Japanese occupation of Saigon, the barracks were briefly used to intern French troops. In 1956, South Vietnamese President Diem renamed the Caserne de l’infanterie as the Thành Cộng Hòa (Republic Citadel) and became the headquarters of his elite Presidential Guard. During the November 1963 coup which deposed him, the facilities were badly damaged.

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Following the coup, the remaining military buildings were removed and Dien Tien Hoang Street was extended through the middle of the grounds.

Within 4 years, the area’s contemporary layout took shape with Sài Gòn University occupying the southwest section, and the American Armed Forces Radio Television Service (AFRTS) and the locally-run Việt Nam Television (Truyền hình Việt Nam, forerunner of Hồ Chí Minh City Television, HTV) taking over the northeast section. Today the site is shared by the Hồ Chí Minh City University of Social Sciences and Humanities and HTV.

The former main gate of the Caserne de l’infanterie. Photo by Tim Doling.

While nearly all remnants of the old citadel have been demolished, the two colonial buildings which originally stood either side of the main gate of the 1873 Caserne de l’infanterie, “our last link with the lost royal citadels of Gia Định,” have thankfully endured.

Head over to historicvietnam for a detailed history of Gia Dinh’s old citadels.

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