Opium in HCMC

A lockdown post.

Looking forward to continuing to explore the city one great meal at a time. Here are some of my notes on La Manufacture d’Opium, at 74 Hai Ba Trung – and a bit about Subhas Chandra Bose at the end..

The stylised opium poppy design in the entrance arch for Number 74 Hai Ba Trung signals, almost like a guilty secret, that this was the site of the French Opium Factory in Sai Gon/Ho Chi Minh City, from 1881.

from: https://www.itourvn.com/blog/vietnam-s-history-with-opium

The Opium Trade was a vicious French colonial policy, of which Ho Chi Minh famously mentions in his Declaration of Independence in 1945:

“for more than eighty years, the French imperialists, abusing the standard of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity, have violated our Fatherland and oppressed our fellow-citizens. They have acted contrary to the ideals of humanity and justice.

In the field of politics, they have deprived our people of every democratic liberty.

They have enforced inhuman laws; they have set up three distinct political regimes in the North, the Center and the South of Vietnam in order to wreck our national unity and prevent our people from being united.

They have built more prisons than schools. They have mercilessly slain our patriots; they have drowned our uprisings in rivers of blood.

They have fettered public opinion; they have practiced obscurantism against our people.

To weaken our race they have forced us to use opium…


Not that surprisingly, this opium history in HCMC has been erased over time – ever more so, it seems. The latest update even removed the name plate that mentioned “La Manufacture d’Opium” (without any context). The restaurants inside seem to erase more and more indication of what this was. When I first visited there was a sign at least, now, like so many places where this trade went on, there is no sign.

Tim Doling writes: “It was built in 1881 after the Cochinchina authorities took back the opium franchise from Wang Tai http://www.historicvietnam.com/wang-tai/ and was significantly expanded in size in the early 1900s, when the opening of the new Yunnan railway line gave the French a new cheap and plentiful supply of raw opium from China”

There is much more to dig out on this place. which of course I hope to do – this is a holding post for that work. Anyone got stuff please send. Anyone want to visit and explore – some fine dining options even, get in touch. Some of it looked a little run down 2 years ago:

before the most recent update. Photo: John Hutnyk

To its credit, one of the restaurants in the complex does keep a little history on its website:

As soon as Indochina was conquered, the French understood the financial benefits they could reap out of the opium trade. Usage was already widespread in the local community.

In 1861, two Frenchmen acquired the rights to trade and they quickly became very prosperous. By 1881, the Governor of Indochina decided to exercise direct control over the refining and sale of opium in the colony. The concession had passed from French to Chinese hands and there were security concerns over the situation.

The refinery – La Manufacture d’Opium – was build that year. You can still admire the old logo, an interlaced wrought iron O & M, in the main gate as you enter the courtyard from Hai Ba Trung Street as well as the stylised carved opium poppies above the entrance.

The administration, La Régie de l’Opium – the building still stands at the end of Ham Nghi Street, facing the river – controlled the sales via approved distributors who sold the goods in stamped brass boxes. Prices were set by decree.

This revenue generated a large part of the colony’s budget – up to 37% in 1914.

The opium refined in Saigon came mostly from India. Only a very small amount was grown in the colony.

As early as 1907, a decree was introduced that forbade the opening of new opium dens but it seems that production did not actually stop until 1954.

For the next 20 years, the area became the red light district of Saigon. In 1975 the buildings were split into housing for Customs Department officials. They still lived here when we opened in 2006.

Photo: Shashwati Talukdar
Photo: Shashwati Talukdar

And just nearby, the last refuge of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose

Just up the road from the Opium factory, there is another site of interest. I have been collecting material and visiting the house that Bose stayed in here in Saigon at the end of the second global imperialist war. Its a bit dilapidated but still owned by the Indian grandson of the guy that made it available to Bose. I think it probably that Bose could have stayed in the hexagonal guest room at the back. The likelihood of it being torn down in favour of a glass and chrome skyscraper is high unless some dosh is found to rip off the horrible hoardings on the front – though it is not that offensive that the courtyard has become the home for about 6 street food cafes, some of which are very good – others do specialties that I don’t rate but some do – those huge snails do not seem that appetising to me :)/ There is also a shrine to some other soldier, from a later period in the back part of the driveway heading towards the servant’s kitchen. Whoever actually lives in the house seems to be struggling to keep things going, and the condition is very basic and run down, though well secured. From here Bose either was flown to Taiwan and the plane crashed on the tarmac – there is no record of any crash. Or, he was taken to the nearby Bot Catinat (Police station, notorious for its torture dungeons) and killed, which seems the more likely. Other, wilder, stories say he became an advisor to Ho Chi Minh and is even pictured in the delegation to Paris!! I think that is a stretch, despite the mysterious Bengali-looking man who was in the inner circle for the right time. Others of course ‘found’ him in Benares as a sadhu and still others were awaiting his return, at least as late as 1995, in Calcutta – probably still are. We can discount most of these latter fantasies. None so far can really be confirmed. Shashwati Talukdar is making a film on all this and I took her to the house 3 years ago to film. Its interesting that this is not renovated, despite being only a few doors up from the Opium factory and its set staging of colonial grand exotic theme restaurants, with no real remaining evidence that its the opium factory except for the undeniable opium decorations in the main gate. You can see some snaps from visits above:

Now, I know its a dangerous thing to even mention Subhas as it seems to always get me entangled in long ‘conversations’ with those who think he’s due to return any moment – a sprightly 123 year old jogs past and I wonder, doesn’t he look a little… – but I also want to write something about “The Forgotten Army – Azaadi ke Lite”

“The Forgotten Army’ is the dynamic story of Lt. Sodhi and his daredevil band of men and women who fought a heroic battle for the independence of India as part of the Indian National Army which was forged out of British defeat in Singapore during WWII and led by the charismatic, indomitable Indian leader Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose”
Starring Sunny Kaushal, Sharvari Wagh,

I am not sure how to get into it, but I’ve collected Bose trinkets since 1987 – when he will have been 90, so might still have turned up at one of the expectant vigils – cue every Sadhu spotting hyper-mystery mulcher ever. I do at least have the chance to sit and write this, or at least sketch a plan, in the last house he lived in here in Sai Gon before, probably, being carted off to the nearby, still extant, police lock-up (though not a lock-up anymore, its the Ministry of Culture – and the dungeons are totally flooded, thanks Tim Doling). Many thanks also to Joe Buckley for first taking on the mission to find the Bose place back in 2017. Now, how to track the INA through the Malay Peninsula and up to Imphal. Planning random trips in lockdown may be a little perverted though. Challo Delhi!
You like unrequited love stories? This series has it too – Shah Rukh Khan’s influence perhaps

Watch the forgotten Army

This little finale though, about the owner of the building where Bose stayed, from Shrawanti Saha. It is poignant and needs to be followed up – perhaps a visit to Pondicherry at last.:

“As the country today celebrates the birth anniversary of Netaji – the symbol of courage, valour and patriotism, my mind takes me back to my holidays in Vietnam couple of years back. While browsing through the various museums, war remnants, palaces, French colonial landmarks and the food stalls lining the streets of Ho Chi Minh City, (Saigon), I had the good fortune of visiting the mansion, where Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, was last seen in Saigon in 18th August, 1945 before he mysteriously vanished from the face of earth. This sprawling villa in the posh ‘white town’ of Saigon belonged to Leon Prouchandy, one of the most prominent and affluent Indian Tamil, originally from Pondicherry, living in Saigon.Like many Indians living abroad, he too, supported Netaji’s bid for armed liberation of India and donated handsomely to the fund of Indian National Army. This mansion on Hai Bha Tung Road, Ho Chi Minh City, once 76 rue Paul Blanchy, Saigon, used to be Prouchandy’s abode before he gave a portion of it away to serve as the secretariat of Indian Independence League. This was the mansion, where Prouchandy bade adieu to Netaji before flying out in the Japanese plane on the fateful morning of 18th August, 1945. It is said that the two spent the previous night together discussing about his final destination and the whereabouts of the cash, jewellery and gold donated by the Indians to INA. Soon after the 2nd World War ended and Japan surrendered, the British authorities arrested Prouchandy infront of his entire family from this same mansion. It took me little time and effort to spot this once palatial villa on the busy Hai Bha Tung Road as I could never imagine a place of such historical importance could house dirty shacks selling momos and street food, the sprawling lawns used as parking spaces for two wheelers and the porch in front could have a florist shop!! It was painful to see how this historic building is in a dilapidated state and lacks minimum maintenance. However, in case you are still wondering about the whereabouts of Leon Prouchandy, then you sure are in for some shock. He was imprisoned and subjected to inhuman torture to extract information about Netaji and his treasure trove. Those 3 months of barbaric torture left him shattered and broken. He had lost his memory, senses and speech, when he was brought back to Pondicherry, where he lived another 23 years of his life in a vegetative and debilitated state. This was the price Leon Prouchandy, paid for his patriotism and supporting Netaji Bose. Thus one of the prime financiers of INA died a death of anonymity.”

photographs by Elizabeth Riley
Photos: Joe Buckley

More opium architecture:

An additional note to follow – up on Duong Tôn Đức Thắng, a building from 1885-1887 redesigned following the French architect Alfred Foulhoux wbut previously owned by Maison Wang-Tai, and in the new building decorated with further stylised opium poppies as described in Saigoneer.

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