Ben Thanh Market's historic century: culture and memory

By Le Tuyet   June 7, 2024 | 10:57 pm PT
Originally an empty plot of land, Ben Thanh Market Square has evolved over 110 years into a bustling transportation hub, deeply connected to generations of Saigon residents.

As tasked by the Ho Chi Minh City People's Committee, District 1 authorities have recently developed a plan to rebuild the historic square in front of the iconic Ben Thanh Market by April 30 next year, in time for Vietnam’s major Reunification Day and Labor Day holidays.

The total area in need of renovation is approximately 45,000 sq.m, including the square and associated roads, sidewalks, and structures.

Upon completion, the area will feature additional public amenities, green spaces, restored architectural works and monuments linked to the city's history.

According to historical records, the square was originally located on the eastern bank of a large swamp known as Bo Ret Pond (Marais Boresse). Frenchman Eugene Cuniac (1851-1916), the first mayor of Saigon, filled the pond to construct the new market to replace an old, deteriorated structure between Charner Avenue and Rue d'Adran, now Nguyen Hue and Ho Tung Mau streets.

The square was inaugurated simultaneously with Ben Thanh Market in 1912 by the French contractor Brossard et Maupin. It was then fully completed in nearly two years.

The grand opening of the new Ben Thanh Market in 1914 was called the "New King Fair" by the media. The event featured three days of festivities on March 28, 29, and 30 and drew over 100,000 people from Saigon and surrounding provinces.

The market was surrounded by four roads, as it has always been until now, with the square situated at the southern frontage, spanning 3,220 sq.m.

During construction, authorities relocated the Saigon-My Tho railway train depot, which had by then been in operation for nearly 30 years, to the southwest station of the square. The old depot was then turned into what is now September 23rd Park.

Initially, Saigon residents referred to the square are as Place du Marché (Market Square), while the new Ben Thanh Market was called Saigon Market or New Market to distinguish it from the old one.

In July 1916, the square was renamed Place Eugène-Cuniac in memory of Mayor Cuniac, who had just passed away. In the 1920s, it served as the venue for various festivals, commercial activities, and entertainment events such as circus acts, cai luong (Vietnamese southern-style opera) shows, amateur music performances, as well as dancing, singing, and boxing showcases.

Then the new Saigon train station was inaugurated in 1915, followed by the construction of a tram station in 1923. Subsequently, two bus stations to the east and west of the market transformed Place Eugène - Cuniac Square into one of the busiest and most important transportation hubs in the city at that time.

After 1929, authorities added a roundabout and a landscaped garden in the center of the square.

Khu vực bùng binh trước chợ Bến Thành năm 1967, lúc này tại đây xây cầu vượt dành cho người đi bộ để kết nối khách từ chợ qua khu vực xe buýt, hiện cầu không còn. Ảnh: Tư liệu

The roundabout area in front of Ben Thanh market in 1970. Two overpasses were built here to facilitate pedestrians and were dismantled in 1972. File photo

In 1955, the Bao Dai government renamed Place Eugène-Cuniac as Dien Hong Square.

The Bao Dai government, led by Emperor Bao Dai, was the last ruling monarchy in Vietnam, established during the period of French colonial rule. It existed from 1949 until 1955, when Bao Dai was ousted by Ngo Dinh Diem, leading to the establishment of the Republic of Vietnam.

The name "Dien Hong" was derived from a 13th-century conference called by King Tran Thanh Tong, where elders from across the country gathered to discuss defending Vietnam against the Mongol invasions.

The spirit of the Dien Hong Conference became a symbol of unity and determination to protect the nation. Renaming the square after the conference honored history, evoked national spirit, and was part of efforts to erase French colonial influences.

Over time, Dien Hong Square became a site for protests against the government due to its spacious and easily accessible location.

Courageous woman’s fatal anti-war protest

On August 25, 1963, during a protest against the U.S.-backed Saigon regime’s declaration of martial law, 15-year-old student Quach Thi Trang was shot dead by police.

The Saigon Student Association raised funds to sculpt and erect a statue of Trang in the garden where she died. Hence, the area became known as Quach Thi Trang Roundabout.

Two years later, a statue of General Tran Nguyen Han on horseback releasing a bird was installed on a high stone pedestal in the roundabout. The general was a military expert who contributed significantly to Vietnam’s fight against Chinese invasions in the 15th century.

Looking from above, the traffic island with the two statues forms a flower shape at its center, with the petals being the seven roads radiating from the roundabout in different directions: Le Loi, Tran Hung Dao, Ham Nghi, Huynh Thuc Khang, Le Lai, Phan Boi Chau, and Phan Chu Trinh.

Surrounding the roundabout are Ben Thanh Market, the railway building, bus stations, parks, hospitals, monuments, museums, antique streets, and bank streets. This area became the busiest transportation hub in the city and a part of the collective memory of generations of Saigon residents.

Out with the old, in with the new

In 2014, both the Quach Thi Trang and Tran Nguyen Han statues were moved elsewhere due to construction of HCMC’s first metro line. Three years later, the entire roundabout was demolished for construction of the line’s underground station.

The entire area in front of the market has since been utilized for the "crucial" metro project. The site’s public space was only reopened two years ago with traffic lights and a zebra crossing for pedestrians.

Now, in a new plan to renovate Ben Thanh Square, the two statues will be returned to their original locations.

Architect Khuong Van Muoi, former vice president of the Vietnam Association of Architects, stated that the Ben Thanh Market roundabout is a part of the city's memory and symbolizes culture, economic trade, and historical struggles.

The city's renovation plan, including the preservation and restoration of the statues of Tran Nguyen Han and Quach Thi Trang in prominent, honorable positions, will retain the city’s best memories, Muoi added.

Muoi said the city also has to upgrade its downtown area by turning Le Loi Street into a pedestrian street and renovating September 23 Park.

Therefore, transforming the roundabout into a square is "in line with current trends," he said.

"Commercial centers always need a large square because visitors shouldn't enter the market immediately," he posited. Therefore, creating a square in front of the market, surrounded by food and beverage streets, is a key advantage of the project, he argued.

Phối cảnh quảng trường trước chợ Bến Thành trong tương lai. Ảnh: Sở Quy hoạch kiến trúc TP HCM

Perspective of the square in front of Ben Thanh market in the future. Photo by HCMC Department of Planning and Architecture

More importantly, when metro line No.1 becomes operational in the future, an underground entrance and exit will be placed directly at Ben Thanh Market.

This is also a form of TOD (Transit-Oriented Development), where all stations have public facilities, including a hospital (the Saigon General Hospital) on one side and a park and public square on the other, making it convenient for people to use the metro.

"The plan to renovate Ben Thanh Market Square will preserve historical values while also meeting new development requirements," Muoi said.

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