What’s On

Locals haunted by ghosts of Saigon cemetery

By Tim Doling   August 31, 2016 | 10:00 am GMT+7
Locals haunted by ghosts of Saigon cemetery
The Massiges Cemetery taken in 1970. Photo by Frederick P Fellers (Indianapolis, USA)

A simple walk in the park begs the question: What lies beneath?

Cleared in 1983 to make way for Le Van Tam Park, the former Massiges or European Cemetery (Cimetière Européen) was the most famous French cemetery in Saigon. To coincide with the release of hitherto unseen pictures of the cemetery taken in 1970 by Frederick P Fellers (Indianapolis, U.S.), Tim Doling takes a look at the history of this old Saigon institution.

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A view of Rue Legrand de la Liraye (now Dien Bien Phu Street) with the main gate of the European Cemetery on the right

Saigon’s European Cemetery, later known as the Massiges Cemetery, was established in 1859 on the east side of Rue Nationale (modern-day Hai Ba Trưng Street), north of the city center, initially to provide a final resting place for the French soldiers and sailors who had died during the conquest of Saigon.

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The European Cemetery (1859) and its later neighbor the Annamite [Vietnamese] Cemetery (c 1870) are both visible at the top of this 1871 map of Saigon

At the outset, it was administered by the French Navy as a military cemetery. Some of its earliest occupants included French marine infantry soldiers Captain Nicolas Barbé (beheaded at the Khai Tuong Temple on December 7, 1860), Lieutenant-Colonel Jean-Ernest Marchaisse (killed at Tay-Ninh on June 14, 1866) and Captain Savin de Larclauze (also killed at Tay Ninh on June 7, 1868); and Mekong River explorers Captain L Doudart de Lagree (died March 12, 1868 while leading a geographic survey and exploration of the Mekong River into Laos and China) and Lieutenant Francis Garnier (killed December 21, 1873 in Hanoi). By 1895, the cemetery was home to 239 military graves.

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A 1970 photograph of a French military memorial in the former Massiges Cemetery, now Le Van Tam Park. Photo by Frederick P Fellers (Indianapolis, USA)

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A 1928 photograph of the combined tomb of Mekong River explorers Doudart de Lagree and Francis Garnier (killed 21 December, 1873 in Hanoi).

During the 1870s, the European Cemetery acquired the popular name “Jardin du Père d’Ormoy” (Father d’Ormoy’s Garden), apparently because of the practice of the Navy’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Lachuzeaux d’Ormoy (1863-1874) of sending his most unruly patients to tend its lawns and flowerbeds.

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The main entrance to the European Cemetery

However, by the late 1860s, civilians were also being buried in the European Cemetery, a trend undoubtedly reinforced during the early years of the colony by the high mortality rate from serious endemic diseases such as cholera, malaria, intestinal parasites and dysentery. A report from 1889 noted that “although there exist in our colony none of the terrible epidemics that all too often afflict our possessions across the seas, a visit to the European Cemetery in Saigon may painfully reveal the truth about the victims of the climate.”

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A military memorial in the European Cemetery

Intriguingly, the European Cemetery contained a relatively large number of tombstones with Germanic names, reflecting the preponderance of German merchant trading houses in Saigon, particularly before 1870. 

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A corner of the European Cemetery

In one corner of the compound there was also a group of tombs belonging to a band of injured Russian seamen who had fled to Cam Ranh Bay in 1894 following their defeat at the Battle of Tsushima and later died in the military hospital in Saigon.

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A 1967 photograph of a Vietnamese tomb in the cemetery

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The Massiges Cemetery taken in 1970. Photo by Frederick P Fellers (Indianapolis, U.S.)

In around 1870, a smaller Vietnamese Cemetery (Cimetière Annamite or Cimetière Indigène) was opened immediately north of the European Cemetery. The street dividing the two compounds – modern-day Vo Thi Sau Street – was briefly named Rue des Deux Cimetières (Two Cemeteries Street) before it became Rue Mayer in the late 1880s.

From the end of the 19th century, as standards of hygiene improved and the colony prospered, the European Cemetery became the last resting place of choice for Saigon’s colonial politicians and administrators, among whose number were architect Marie-Alfred Foulhoux (1840-1892) and city mayor Paul Blanchy (1837-1901).

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The Massiges Cemetery taken in 1970. Photo by Frederick P Fellers (Indianapolis, U.S.)

On December 14, 1912, this transformation of the European Cemetery into a burial place for the colonial elite prompted a critical report by the Courrier Saigonnais newspaper. It pointed out that while the cemetery contained an ever-increasing number of grandiose and well-maintained tombs belonging to high-ranking functionaries, many of the original soldiers’ and sailors’ tombs had been left abandoned and overgrown. It also singled out for criticism the “sacrilegious” practice of exhuming poor people's graves within seven or eight years and relocating them elsewhere, presumably to make way for those of the rich and famous.

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A Life magazine photograph taken in Mac Dinh Chi Cemetery in 1961.

By the early 20th century, the interior of the cemetery was criss-crossed by pathways and planted with trees and shrubs by the staff of the Saigon Botanical and Zoological Gardens. It was surrounded by 2.5m high whitewashed walls, with its main gate in the southern wall of the compound on Rue Legrand de la Liraye. This main gate was located directly opposite the northern end of Rue de Bangkok, and after 1920, when Rue de Bangkok was renamed Rue de Massiges, the cemetery became known by the new name Cimetière de la Rue de Massiges.

Transferred by the French Navy to the care of the municipal authorities in the 1880s, the cemetery was administered thereafter by the Bureau du Conservateur des Cimetière, part of the Bureau du Service Régional d’Hygiène de Saigon, which had an office at 67 Rue de Massiges (modern-day Mac Dinh Chi Street).

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The Massiges Cemetery taken in 1970. Photo by Frederick P Fellers (Indianapolis, U.S.)

Many well-known figures of the later colonial era were buried here, including French naval officer Alain Penfentenyo de Kervéréguin (died February 12, 1946), missionary Grace Cadman (died April 24, 1946) and journalist and politician Henri Chavigny de Lachevrotière (died January 12, 1951). By all accounts, however, the most impressive tomb of that period was the grand mausoleum of Nguyen Van Thinh (died November 10, 1946), first President of the short-lived Autonomous Republic of Cochinchina (République Autonome de Cochinchine, June 1, 1946 - October 8, 1947).

In March 1955, Rue de Massiges was renamed Mac Dinh Chi Street after the renowned Vietnamese scholar and diplomat Mac Dinh Chi (1280-1350), and henceforward the cemetery also became known as the Mac Dinh Chi Cemetery.

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The Massiges Cemetery taken in 1970. Photo by Frederick P Fellers (Indianapolis, U.S.)

Over the subsequent two decades, a further generation of high-ranking politicians, military leaders and other prominent members of South Vietnamese society were buried within its walls, along with a small number of foreigners such as Time and Newsweek correspondent François Sully (died in February 1971). However, perhaps its most famous occupants of this period were South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother and chief political adviser Ngo Dinh Nhu, who were assassinated on November 2, 1963.

In 1971, according to Arthur J Dommen (The Indochinese Experience of the French and the Americans: Nationalism and Communism in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, 2001), President Nguyen Van Thieu had a section of the cemetery’s west wall demolished, apparently because a Cao Dai clairvoyant had relayed to him a message from Diem’s ghost that since Thieu was responsible for his death, the least he could do was to release his spirit from the cemetery!

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The Massiges Cemetery taken in 1970. Photo by Frederick P Fellers (Indianapolis, U.S.)

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The Massiges Cemetery taken in 1970. Photo by Frederick P Fellers (Indianapolis, U.S.)

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Photo of the combined tomb of Mekong River explorers Doudart de Lagree and Lieutenant Francis Garnier taken in 1970. Photo by Frederick P Fellers (Indianapolis, U.S.).

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The Massiges Cemetery taken in 1970. Photo by Frederick P Fellers (Indianapolis, U.S.)

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The Massiges Cemetery taken in 1970. Photo by Frederick P Fellers (Indianapolis, U.S.)

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The Massiges Cemetery taken in 1970. Photo by Frederick P Fellers (Indianapolis, U.S.)

However, ghost stories about the cemetery only began to circulate widely after 1983, when the Vietnamese government decommissioned the Mac Dinh Chi Cemetery and transformed it into Le Van Tam Park.

The destruction of the old Mac Dinh Chi Cemetery was part of a wider project which also included the clearance of the French military cemetery at the Bay Hien intersection and the Pigneau de Béhaine Mausoleum near Tan Son Nhat Airport, as well as the old French cemetery in Vung Tau. Those with family members buried in these cemeteries were instructed to make arrangements for their reburial within two months. Unclaimed remains were cremated and relocated. French military remains were repatriated to France for final burial in Fréjus, where a memorial was raised in their honor.

While Le Van Tam Park has since become a popular place for recreational activities, there are still many superstitious locals who prefer not to go there because of its history.

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Le Van Tam Park today. Photo by Panoramio/Vu Ha Duy

Today, the park is dominated by a Socialist Realist sculpture of the eponymous Le Van Tam, a young Vietnamese revolutionary martyr of the First Indochina War who is said to have destroyed a French fuel store at Thi Nghe in January 1946 by deliberately soaking himself with petrol and then turning himself into a “human torch” before jumping into the nearest petrol storage container. After 1975, many schools, parks, cinemas and streets were named after Le Van Tam, but in 2005, leading historian Professor Phan Huy Le of the Hanoi National University showed that while revolutionary forces did destroy the Thi Nghe fuel store in January 1946, the story about Le Van Tam was a fictional one written by then Propaganda Minister Tran Huy Lieu.

In August 2010, ground was broken on a new project to build an underground car park beneath Le Van Tam Park, with space for 2,000 motorbikes, 1,250 cars and 28 buses and trucks. However, it was recently reported that due to formalities relating to the issuance of a land-use certificate and exemption of land use fee, as well as a change to the project’s technical planning, no progress on this project has yet been made.

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An artist's impression of Le Van Tam Park after completion of the planned underground car par project

Tim Doling is the author of the walking tours guidebook Exploring Ho Chi Minh City (The Gioi Publishing House, Hanoi, 2014). For more articles about Vietnam’s history, visit his website, www.historicvietnam.com.

Join the Facebook group pages Saigon-Chợ Lớn Then&Now to see historic photographs juxtaposed with new ones taken in the same locations, and Dai Quan sat Di san Sai Gon – Saigon Heritage Observatory for up-to-date information on conservation issues in Saigon and Cho Lon.

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