Nguyen Hue, one of the most successful military commanders in Vietnamese history, and an emperor of the Tan Son Dynasty, has a major street in almost every Vietnamese city named after him. Yet the one in Ho Chi Minh City is perhaps the best known.
The street had very prosaic beginnings and perhaps only now is worthy enough to be named in his honour.
When the French invaded Vietnam in 1859, their choice of city in Southern Vietnam was influenced by the strategic location of a fishing village known as Prey Nokor and the Bat Quai Citadel close by. They named it Saigon — it is believed this was a derivation of the colloquial name given to the area by Chinese settlers.
The French military built the city to urban design principles introduced by Haussmann in Paris in 1853. The boulevards of Saigon were formed for military as well as other reasons: connecting the military quickly with the port and the interior; wide enough to prevent insurrections blocking them; dealing with a contemporary theory that disease was spread by “bad air”, and providing ceremonial places and grandness exemplifying the French empire.
Nguyen Hue was not one of those early boulevards, as it didn’t connect the military with their headquarters at the port. Instead, it was a waterway. Its canal allowed goods to be conveyed from the merchant port up to the high ground of the French civic centre. It also consisted of two roads straddling the canal.
The early French settlement used existing canals for transportation and added some of their own. For health and safety reasons, they were almost all closed including, in 1867, a portion of Nguyen Hue near Le Loi that had become polluted. On doing so the width of Nguyen Hue was found to be too small to retain two roads plus add buildings between them, so it became one road and renamed as a single street, Charner Boulevard. The rest of Charner closer to the port was filled in later in the 19th Century.
Rebirth and Renovation
Nguyen Hue’s DNA has always been mercantile, and as the city grew, buildings connected in the street with the port and its business flourished. It was never seen as a major shopping precinct like Dong Khoi, which was then and still is the prime retail street of Saigon. Major hotels clustered around Dong Khoi rather than Nguyen Hue.
Instead, Nguyen Hue became a grand but relatively underutilised thoroughfare, which only came into its own during the celebrations for Tet.
The decision to pave the centre of the street was likely made for a number of reasons, one being its relatively low traffic volumes. Nguyen Hue’s advantage was that it could provide the city with some significant open space because its closure would not significantly affect the traffic network.
However Nguyen Hue’s size and proportion breaks many rules of current urban planning; too wide, too long and too hot. When it was announced it was heavily criticised. “Why not do that in grander streets?”
Yet it has been an enormous success.
The reopening has created a completely new precinct in the city — a motorbike-free space and a promenading space; people flock to it in the evenings, and it has retained and enhanced its ceremonial use at Tet.
This success has induced a remarkable renaissance in refurbishment along its edges as well as the streets leading on to it. So many businesses and restaurants fronting Nguyen Hue have started the process of upgrading and new restaurants are emerging. It is a model for the rest of the city.
Plans are being made to link Nguyen Hue with Thu Thiem peninsula on the other side of the river — a big ask — but nevertheless the renaissance of the riverside esplanade will further enhance Nguyen Hue’s position as a significant and important part of the urban fabric of Ho Chi Minh City
A happy accident indeed that a utilitarian waterway could become such an important street.
Emperor Nguyen Hue would be proud.