Dr. Morice’s Voyage to Cochinchina in 1872

Edited, translated and annotated  by Hien V. Ho

 (Voyage en Cochinchine en 1872)



For people living in the 21st century, “globalization”, “diversity” and “tolerance” are daily “keywords” not to be missed. However, it took waves of traders, mercenaries, missionaries, conquerors, adventurers and explorers to link the world together as it appears today. And the impassioned traveler does not leave behind what he is familiar with just to find in new and far away places things that don’t arouse strong, even hostile reactions and emotions in him. It takes time to familiarize oneself with a new place and perhaps to like it, and to do that well, one has to take a critical look at first.

Between 1859 and 1883, France conquered Cochinchina that became a colony, and then established a protectorate over Central and Northern Vietnam ( Annam and Tonkin , respectively). Dr. Morice, a French naturalist, visited Cochinchina in 1872; only thirteen years after French colonial regime started in Vietnam , and published his long report in French about his journey in 1875 in the journal “Tour du Monde”. His report is available in the public domain on the Internet, and also in the form of a book available from old book dealers[1].  In the 18th century, of course, people from Europe like Dr. Morice who for the first time came in contact with Vietnam, must be shocked by an ethnicity and a living environment that were totally new to them. Though he candidly confessed initial “disgust’ toward the new found ethnicity, Dr. Morice was smart enough, despite strong prejudice, to see the people ‘s physical strength and endurance (capacity to row the boats for hours, resistance to sunburn and heat stress), to recognize their cheerfulness mixed with a dose of sarcasm (probably a mechanism of defense against the powerful colonists) and their ability for quick learning, i.e. their innate intelligence. He also acknowledged that the foreigner’s aversion toward the Cochinchinese would dissipate more or less with time. He was a big fan of Chinese theaters, in particular of the puppets that he found much better made than the French ones. He noticed the qualities of the native horses, smaller but better adapted to the local environment than those brought from Europe , and even took exception to the then popular belief among tourists that crocodile meat, “well received on the natives’ tables”, was too tough and smelled musk. Also, there is a shade of sympathy regarding their lack of freedom as a cause of the people’s deplorable plight, harsh conditions under French dominion, following a similar rule by the mandarins in Hue . Therefore the disparaging observations were restricted to the poor populace of South Vietnam (Cochin-China) rather than an across the board assessment of the Vietnamese people or culture in general. More than that, the author found it worthwhile to document and report what he saw on an international magazine, and that gives us now a unique, detailed and candid look into what South Vietnam was at the end of the nineteenth-century. What he wrote about Vietnam has to be read now in its proper context and can be used only as points of reference in our endeavor to understand the place where we Vietnamese came from and the long journey we have since made. Extensive footnotes will help the reader get some additional historical, cultural and linguistic insights.

The editor acknowledges with gratitude that this article has been inspired by a presentation in the French website “La belle Indochine”[2].  

Hien V. Ho

May 12th, 2008


The Cosmopolitan Hotel and the ants

The next morning, after a night of sleep disturbed by so many blood drinkers-which helped me find the only appropriate definition of the mosquito- net: muslin drapes under which mosquitoes are kept-I woke up to visit the city. But before gratifying my curiosity, I wanted to check on some animals that I had brought from France and that, thanks to my fatherly care, had been able to survive after a long trip. They were grass snake- vipers, still young, but whose developing charm delighted me. I opened the chest of drawers where I had placed the box which held them. How dreadful! Legions of ants came out of it and I only found too well prepared skeletons. The tropical ant just showed up to me in all its feverish activity.

The great Cosmopolitan Hotel, or Maison Vantal, showed, with pride, right on the banks of the wharf, its large front with its three stories; Tamarinds on Rue Catinat[3] and other arteries of the city hoisted their large green heads, regularly spread out; and those numerous but uncomfortable carriages called Malabars, were waiting for their multiple preys to be delivered to them.

Figure 1 : The Cosmopolitan Hotel

The Annamese: initial impressions and prejudices[iv]

The first feeling that a foreigner experiences toward him is a rather intense disgust. Those more or less flat faces, often without expression, these livid eyes and above all that pug nose, and these mouths with their big lips curled up, reddened and darkened by betel[v], do not correspond at all to our ideas of beauty. But after a few months stay, we can make a certain sense out of many of these faces and sort out something out of the ugliness. One can find some rather straight eyes, some almost Caucasian noses[vi], and the repugnance disappears little by little.

After all, it’s a small race. We are very big compared to them, and their strength is well below ours; either by poor hygiene, or by inborn weakness, none of them is worth a European[vii]. About their skin color, when they are not too dark, they appear very pale. There are only two things where the Annamese are better than us: they can row for 10 hours without interruption, and the way they can brave the sun without being harmed”.

As to their character, it’s that of a race that slavery, ignorance and laziness have rendered poor, fearful, with little curiosity. Our domination of Cochichina has followed another one, heavier and otherwise degrading, by the mandarins of Hue ’s court. Therefore, it’s a people of liars, weak and difficult to move to feelings. But among all those vices of a freedom deprived people, there are qualities that allow us to have a lot of hope: a cheerfulness[viii] too often bordering on mockery, a powerful aptitude to learn and to understand, and oddly, a certain racial pride, at least in some of them.

Observations about local culture

The Teachers School (L’Ecole Normale de Saigon), where they train elementary school teachers and interpreters, despite its few years of existence, has given very good results. Generally speaking, it’s a very easily perfectible race. It lacks a lot of things, of course: for example the artistic feeling. However, this can still be found in some murals, truly surprising, where bright colored and lively nature-flowers, birds, insects- is reproduced with love, but, generally speaking, this race is insensitive to arts, its   monotonous and shrill music is not made for our ears and I doubt that their people’ ears would enjoy ours; sculpture is almost unknown to them; their poetry is poor; they are ignorant about dance. About the sciences they cultivate, they had better not be talked about. Their literary knowledge is limited to a few Chinese characters.

Their life style is the most insufficient and the most unhygienic one that could be thought of: unfiltered drinking water, taken in abundance directly from the river (arroyo), or corrected a little bit with alum, or more rarely tea, rice added with pepper, cucumber with fish sauce or nuoc mam, more or less fresh fish, some fruit, and there we are, nutrition in almost all of Cochinchina; there’s probably no other people on earth who eats the same way in a more monotonous and uniform fashion everywhere.

Pork is one of the rare meats that they eat once in awhile, and it is dangerous meat because frequently it gives tapeworms (Taenia)[ix]. A crude rice brandy (eau-de-vie), the “sam-cheou or soum choum, as they call it in the colony, is the only alcoholic beverage that they use; also it must be recognized that they don’t have a very strong inclination for alcohol. At least I am talking about those who have not come too close to us, because for those who have, in particular our domestics, they have for wine and French liqueurs a passion very much contrary to our own interests.

They eat with those small Chinese sticks[x], about which so many old fables were told in the past, sufficiently refuted by now.

Their garments, that they take off only when they have become tattered, don’t keep them warm enough during relatively cool and humid nights that they spend on the arroyos, nor during the early hours of December and January, when we can see them shiver with a temperature of 18o C (64o F). Also, in their infancy, many children die of bronchitis, and of many intestinal conditions of which we don’t know the causes.

As for their huts, almost all built on stakes, half on land or mud and half on water, they are equally unhealthy.

Rice cultivation and fishing have made of this people a kind of amphibians. Water often comes to wash the floor of an Annamese house, notably during high tides, and then we see the native squatting on the main table of the family, or swinging in his coarse hammock, and singing some monotonous song or smoking his trombone-shaped cigarette.

Their gate is characteristic: men and women walk with their feet very spread outward, with an awkward waddling (dehanchement) that is even more pronounced due to a rather accentuated lordosis, possibly due to their habit of rowing while standing.

Some postures and ways of moving are unique to them and deserve to be mentioned here:  mothers carry their children, not on their arms like we do, or in a back sack as in certain African populations, but with the child astride on the mother’s hip and supported by one of her arms[xi].

Their resting position would be very tiring for us: they squat on their heels, but without touching the ground[xii]; they are able to stay in this position for a very long time, and on the road sides, it’s not rare to see them folded this way and ruminating their betel. To climb on trees, they don’t use either their knees or their trunk. They just leap up to a certain height and then grasp the trees with the palms of their hands and the soles of their feet, the same way monkeys do. Finally, the strangest thing, the kiss is unknown to them; mothers don’t kiss their children, they “breathe” them by holding them close to their nose. That’s one of the traits that surprise the most a European upon his arrival.

As for what has been said about the gap between their big and second toes, a trait that some have wanted to use as a racial marker[xiii], right now, we can say that this detail has been exaggerated. Annamese feet, being never tortured by any kind of shoes, are well made, some times they are big in the common man, but remarkably small in the higher classes, in women in particular. The toes never overlap, they open out freely and in parallel. One can note however that because of the habit of keeping their feet bare in a stirrup, at the helm, while climbing trees, when picking up objects from the floor, the big toe has developed a certain freedom, which allows it to a rather wide range of movements.



Figure 2 : Chinese smoking opium in Saigon


Figure 3: Asian neighborhood in Saigon

Chinese Theaters

A word about Chinese theaters, the usual distraction of Europeans in Cochinchina. There are two kinds: one almost everyone knows, and the other much more interesting, in my view, that is less talked about, I am referring to the Puppet Theatre. How often, in Saigon , I found myself embroiled in the crowd of Chinese workers who came every night listening while laughing to the lazzis[i] (jokes) or rather heroic and comic scenes of these incomparable actors! This small theatre of four square feet was located at a crossroads, behind the Chinese arroyo. The torches shone before the small stage, which was heightened on bamboo pikes, and one could smell coconut oil and the special smell of Chinese tobacco everywhere. It didn’t matter though and I braved these disgusting emanations. These puppets are much better and much more finely made than ours, every part in them can move: legs, hands, heads, fingers. I was most surprised by their ability to reverse their fingers to the back of their hands. It seems that Chinese women can actually force their joints to the point of dislocation in a similar manner. The most typical scenes of the repertoire were cheating husbands, representations of battles and trials. All this was accompanied with this voice-over, either guttural or extremely shrill, by the Chinese actors. Music from shrillish pipes repeating forever the same air or guitars with creaking cords accompanied the action, and at the denouement, vigorous tom-tom strokes punctuated the insolent triumph of vice or the reward for virtue.

The other theater, where men (because women do not play on the Chinese stage) usurp the place they should have left to the puppets, came to settle not far away to celebrate a religious holiday. As the French authorities were invited to the performance that I attended, and that most ladies of the colony had come, they toned down some aspects too crude of these oriental evenings where the love of truth is as a rule pushed to a point one could hardly imagine, even in Paris .
Behind the actors were a row of musicians, and on the two sides as well as on the stage, like the marquises in the past did at Moliere’s performances, strutted about rich Chinese traders who had given us this entertainment. These men had well organized these events, and beer, liquors and cigars were distributed profusely to all guests. The Chinese, Jews of the East, save hard until they have conquered their financial independence, but then they immerse themselves in all the pleasures that can be bought, and, a more rare thing, the like to have others participate in them. I couldn’t possibly attend the whole performance: it lasted about ten hours! I can remember only some episodes, among others, a very beautiful scene of spousal jealousy, and above all a very well simulated fight between a troop of Amazons and a genie armed with a short sword and a huge shield under which he sometimes hid totally like a turtle under its shell.


Figure 4 : Cochinchinese actor

Street scenes

 I met a group of Hindu men and especially women, the latter of black or bronzed complexion, covered with sparkling clothing of crude colors, yellow or green. A silver ring is often inserted in their nose; their tall figure and their majestic stoutness contrasted with the small and fragile frame of Annamese women, whom I saw pass by here and there, bending under the weight of merchandises that they carried to the market; they were followed by their children, also in charge of a disproportionate burden which made them stop frequently to rest. In the middle of the street, I saw a police station from which came out, along with a few Europeans, Malabars, Chinese, and mostly Annamese. The latter, small men in police uniform, with their little swords, their minuscule salaco[ii] (spherical hat), their large chignons set on one side of their heads, assumed the appearance of swaggerers who tried their best to be pleasant. Once in while, I met some Chinese, each followed by a young Annamese porter who carried his provisions.

Figure 5: A market in Saigon


The Saigonese Street Urchins

Among the types of Annamese, the so-called Saigonese street urchin is one of the most interesting. The Saigonese urchin is a hybrid: he is a child of Paris added to a riff-raff (lazzarone), and brought under the sun of the East. As a boy, as I saw him the day after my arrival, he earns his living by carrying in a large basket, hung from his shoulder like an antique shield, trifling objects that Europeans buy on their way. At other times he accompanies the hunters, carrying their rifles, guiding them through the maze of rice fields or forests, points to their game at distances where their eyes, accustomed to less intense light, are still unable to distinguish anything. He is also an indispensable aid to go fishing in the mud of rice fields and to find in clumps of bamboo trees the snipe or the dove shot dead in its flight. But the moment the herds of buffalos approach is when his usefulness is invaluable. Like their masters, these huge ruminants have not made peace with us. They show an indomitable hate towards us, which has too often led to bloody disasters. It is a spectacle that it is never contemplated without a certain degree of emotion: a buffalo raising its head, sucking in air at length, and rushing forward while lowering its huge horns. But the little guide is there; with a wild scream he stops the beast, and with a second scream he makes it take an about-turn. Also, near Saigon , where these animals are quite feared, we rarely venture a trip without an Annamese. When he should walk on these narrow embankments between the rice fields, his help is also valuable: plunging carefree his legs in the horrible hot mud, he supports your arm and help you reach firmer ground without an unpleasant bath.
When he earns a few pennies this way, the Saigonese kid will find under the verandas of the city  the crowd of his friends; he then gambles, usually in card games, his day’s earnings. These games lead to insults and fights, often very amusing: after exhausting the rich vocabulary of abuses of the Annamese language, both funny blokes, throwing back by a proud movement the mass of dirty hair that falls on their shoulders, throw themselves against each other: they seem ready to annihilate each other, but this storm calms down with the first shots, and after a few jostles from each side, the party ends in a fashion soon after it starts.
Later, the kid goes to work for Europeans as a domestic or “boy”, an English word used frequently in the colony. He cooks or makes the bed for his master, takes care of his weapons and his clothing, but his native laziness, his incurable dirtiness and his irresistible penchant for stealing make him a servant that we have to tolerate while cursing him at the same time

Old Annamese men

But it is by aging that Annamese take a particular appearance and quite different from that of their youth. One could say that we are dealing with a really different people. They never have much of a beard and it comes only very late, and a small moustache and a little patch are granted, and that is all that nature has given them; they have no side-whiskers. This beard turns white quickly. Father of family more often than not, an Annamese thinks of replacing the pleasures that are no longer appropriate for his age with a noble solemnity. He walks majestically, wearing his long levite (long tunic), his lean black turban, and armed with a parasol and the inevitable fan. An eternal cigarette hangs on his lower lip, and he only ceases his enjoyment of his tobacco for a moment only to shoot out far from him a spurt of reddish saliva or to replace his worn out quid. He takes a serious and defying air and at moments looks hostile. This does not mean, however, that he has broken up with all earthly pleasures: alcohol, which he has tasted in his young age, is still highly enjoyable to him, and he is still all smiling when a familiar European invites him to take a glass of absinthe or vermouth, or even a mixture of both. But it is mainly in matters of money that he has become self-interested and devious; he likes the piastre for the piastre and not for what it can give.


Figure 3 : Annamese notable[i]


Annamese Horses

If his fortune or his rank allows him to have a horse, his pride knows no bounds. Wearing his conic straw hat adorned with a silk tassel, his bare foot in the stirrup of his horse whose race shakes the numerous bells, while the sun shines on his red leather saddle, he shows his disdain for this world below without ever putting himself out, yet except for Europeans. The pitfall of his vanity is precisely to meet an inspector, because Annamese politeness demands that he dismounts for a moment and makes the “lay”(to bow with joined hands)[iv] or traditional salutation.
This horse, which is his pride, does not receive any care that man should always give to this noble servant. A bit bristling with spikes hurts badly its mouth, which ends up becoming almost insensitive to pain. After an exhausting journey done in a single breath, it is left by itself without being wiped or groomed; and finally, most often it must find something to eat by itself. Despite this neglect, this courageous animal renders considerable services, and while horses we have brought over here fall sick fairly rapidly, the indigenous horse withstands well the irritating climate of lower Cochinchina. Its size is small: it is only slightly larger than an Icelandic pony and is usually bay and almost always has a black or brown stripe on the middle of the back. It goes in the usual amble[v], at a soft and sure pace. But we can see that it is not for our big and strong countrymen, and would fit well only with small Annamese.

Annamese women

The best thing that an Annamese woman has is her hair, usually long, black and beautiful enough, although a little coarse; also she takes particular care of it, amorously braiding it, adding a fake chignon if she thinks it’s not voluminous enough, and anointing it-unfortunately- with coconut oil. The exhalations of this oil, which reminds us of oil used for lamps, are awful, and it’s a shame that the Annamese don’t have any other ointment for their hair. Their limbs are very slender: the small bracelets made of filigreed gold or plain silver that they wear can give an idea of the delicate size of the wrists or the ankles that they wrap around . Their mouths are generally well contoured; their shoulders are too often broad and square...


Figure 6: Annamese women

Annamese women fashion

It’s not very pleasant to see an Annamese woman walk, she walks ahead by swinging her arms along her body and swinging forcefully to the right or to the left. Regarding her clothing, it consists of a long high necked and closed robe, serving at the same time as outer garment and shirt (this robe is white when the woman is mourning, and then a white turban is added); of a pair of pants, white or black, made of calico (printed cotton) or silk, and sometimes together with a red or blue belt; she walks bare footed or rarely wears ornate and curved mules (slippers). That’s how the “congai”[vi] is dressed. For jewelry, she wears yellow amber or gold earrings, in the shape of a nail with a big head piercing through the usually nice and small ear lobe. On her arm, bracelets made of gold, jet, plain or covered with a sheath of gold, silver, amber or yellow glass; sometimes she wears a silver coil on her ankle and at last often she wears a neck lace.

Common women go bare headed or just wear a simple handkerchief; women of high classes wear a spherical straw hat reminding us of the salaco, but with curved up rims and a flat bottom, a thick yellow silk plait ended by a heavy tassel hanging to the level of the waistline.

Annamese in the French military:

A certain number of Annamese have been recruited by our government; the first group, called linh tap[vii], wears uniforms identical to those of the soldiers of the infantry of the navy and are armed with a chassepot[viii] (breech loading rifle). They are under the command of French officers and form the so-called indigenous companies. It is comical to see these little men wear with such pride and at the same time such embarrassment a costume which awfully annoys them. Their shoes in particular appear like a real torture to them, and they take them off every time they are allowed to do so. However, because they have a lot of self-esteem, they try not to let Europeans prevail over them too much, and make pretty good soldiers, but a little cranky. What has bothered them the most is that they have been forced to cut their lush hair[ix]. They are armed with indigenous lances and muskets (mousquetons). They stand in position of attention during inspections, and cry out the habitual call  “Sentinels, be watchful” or “Sentinels, attention”[x], distorting it as much as possible. They have the most terrible guttural way of saying the Annamese “qui vive’ (who is there?): “Ai ?” (Who ?). Native non commissioned officers (NOC) are chosen among these; the “cai”[xi], corporals, ”doi’, sergeants, and the “tho lai”, “fourriers”[xii]. These NOC didn’t take small pride in their stripes and often push the respect of their noble selves up to the point where they even wear shoes.


The second group of natives that we have organized is the Matas[xiii]. They are the administrators’ soldiers. White calicot[xiv] (cotton) pants, bare feet, a broad red belt[xv] with a pouch of betel and tobacco attached to it, a blue vest with yellow flat collar and bearing on the left side the number of the unit to which they belong, the miniaturized salaco hat with copper points, under which one can see the traditional chignon: such is the costume of these Lilliputian soldiers, among whom you can find very good subjects as well as true rascals.

Finally some Annamese serve on light armed ships[xvi] of the State, where they often become good sailors.


Figure 7: Soldiers and cavalry in Saigon


The tomb of Pierre Pigneau, Bishop of Adran[xvii]

A tomb in a style similar to that of the mounds of the Plain of Tombs[xviii], but much more interesting to see, is Bishop of Adrian’s who has left imperishable memories in Cochinchina. It is situated not far from Saigon , near the road of Go Vap. This monument, because it deserves this appellation, is surrounded by an enclosure that a guardian assigned to its care has to open for us. The strangest frescos, made by Annamese artists, decorate its walls. I still remember an enormous tiger, with its body in vivid yellow color with black stripes, and with the menacing gaze of its two large enameled glass eyes. An immense inscription in Chinese characters describes the titles and the great accomplishments of the Bishop, sleeping under this earth that owes him so much.


Figure 8: Photo of the tomb of Pierre Pigneau (Bishop of Adran)[xix] (not from Dr. Morice’s article)



Origin of the eyes painted on the boat hulls*:

The arroyo[xx] is covered with boats which, whether they are modest sampans or large junks, all have a gigantic eye painted in the middle or on each side of their prow.

This is the legend that people tell about the subject:

One of Emperor Tu Duc’s[xxi] predecessors, considering complaints from his subjects about people eaten by crocodiles or big fish, gave an edict by which every one must paint the front of his boat, so that, says the naive text, water monsters would take it for an live being like themselves and wouldn’t do it any harm.

Cho Quan Hospital

Another day, we went to visit the very beautiful Cho Quan hospital[xxii]; one of the most dreadful diseases of the Indochina , a too common disease, is treated, but without more success than elsewhere: I am talking about leprosy[xxiii]. One interesting feature perhaps worth noting is that leprosy would never strike Europeans; among the natives, it seems especially rampant among the Annamese, a mainly fish eating people.
I saw one of those unfortunate who had lost all the fingers of each hand, except his thumbs; his legs were swollen and bleeding, and his face was a mixture of deep furrows and ugly blisters; another, once a temple keeper in Cholen[xxiv], and that we called Quasimodo, had his face grown enormously, the so called lion face (léontiasis)[xxv], while others had their legs covered with sores so extensive that they could not walk. In addition to leprosy, skin diseases, very common in Cochinchina, are treated in the hospital by doctors of the Navy.
We had breakfast in Choquan with our colleagues, and after the required nap under the huge veranda of the hospital, in these comfortable arm chairs that we should import to use in our gardens of France for summer, we went to visit Cholen which was no more than three kilometers away. After Saigon , it is the largest city in the colony. Its population is approximately twenty-four thousand inhabitants. It is separated from Saigon by a distance of five kilometers and a half, but it is still connected with the European city by an uninterrupted succession of villages, of country houses belonging to rich traders of the Celestial Empire , and pagodas that serve as places of rest. Cholen is the center of all Chinese trade of the colony. The amount of rice, fabrics and products imported from China that they sell here is beyond imagination. Also the bustle that reigns in the streets, and the quantity of Chinese junks and Annamese sampans that fill the arroyo, are truly remarkable.


The Cholon Crocodile farms*.

Among the peculiarities of Cholon, we have to mention its crocodile parks. Imagine a barrier of heavy and long posts that surrounds an area of 20 square meters on the banks of the river. In this mud, that the tides flood regularly, swarm 100 to 200 crocodiles. Their meat is produced nearby. When they need to kill one of the monsters, their pull up two posts, they throw a slip knot around the neck of the biggest of them and pull it to the outside; then they tie up the tail along the body, they clasp its feet and pull them to its back, tying them together with rattan. Another rattan cord holds the jaws, and those plant ties are so solid that despite its prodigious strength, the saurian is unable to fight back and resign to die without a vengeance. Its meat, though a little tough, has its merits and does not have that musk odor that so many travelers agree to attribute to it. It is very well received on Annamese tables.


[i] sarcastic jokes, pranks (italian word)

[ii] Le salaco est le chapeau des tropiques; il partage avec le casque en moelle d'aloès, ou pour mieux dire en tige de saja (cây diên diên des Annamites), que les Anglais de l'Inde appellent solatopi, la fonction de garantir les crânes des Européens des trop ardents baisers du soleil. Il est vrai qu'il est disgracieux et quelque peu lourd, mais on se fait assez vite à cette étrange coiffure, sous le dôme blanc de laquelle on peut braver les insolations. Figurez-vous en effet un objet arrondi, mince, concave d'un côté, convexe de l'autre, et réuni par trois montants à une couronne inférieure, de radon beaucoup plus petit

[iii] http://collin.francois.free.fr/Le_tour_du_monde/textes/Cochinchine/Gravures/gravure%201875-2-375.jpg

[iv] lạy may mean (1) bowing with hands joined as an indication of respect or formal salutation  (vái or bái) or (2) kowtowing, touching the forehead to the ground while kneeling as an act of worship, respect, subservience. In this context , “bowing” is more likely.

[v] To amble: (of a horse) to go at a slow pace with the legs moving in lateral pairs and usually having a four beat rhythm (Random House Webster college Dictionary)

[vi] con gái: girl , the French used the word incorrectly to mean “Vietnamese girl or woman’. The Petit Larousse, 2004, still lists  “congai” or “congaye” as “femme ou jeune fille du Vietnam ”.

[vii] lính tập: “soldiers in training”

[viii] The Chassepot, officially known as Fusil modèle 1866, was a military breechloading rifle, famous as the arm of the French forces in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and 1871. It replaced the obsolescent muzzle-loading Minié rifle. It was a great improvement on the rifles previously in use and marked the real commencement of the epoch of needle, breech, and magazine loading firearms generally. (wikipedia)

[ix] It’s not surprising that the Vietnamese soldiers cherished their long hair and were reluctant to part with it. During French rule, for many old school Vietnamese, keeping their uncut hair in chignon was a symbol of loyalty to the Emperor, while for others inclined to modernization, cutting their hair the European way was gesture showing their commitment to change.  Traditionally, Vietnamese males had to leave their hair long, uncut, and wearing it in a chignon, contrasting with the pigtail, adopted by Chinese since the Chin (Manchu) domination.  Vietnamese hero Quang Trung (Nguyễn Huệ), before going to battle in the lunar New Year of 1789 against Chin General Sun Shiyi (Tôn Sĩ Nghị), addressed his troups with these verses:

We have to fight so we can wear our hair long,

To fight so we can dye our teeth black...

( Đánh cho để dài tóc

Đánh cho để đen răng

Đánh cho nó chích luân bất phản

Đánh cho nó phiến giáp bất hoàn...)  


[x] Sentinelles, veillez; sentinelles, prenez garde-à- vous!

[xi] đội: sergeant, non commissioned officer (NOC) in colonial times; thơ lại: district office clerk

[xii] fourrier: NOC in charge of supplies and housing (Ancien sous officier chargé de distribuer les vivres et de pourvoir au logement des militaires. le Petit Larousse Illustré)

[xiii] mã tà; police agent in colonial times.

[xiv] Calicot: Tissu de cotton  (from Calicut , an Indian town), Re: Petit Larousse, 2004.

[xv] lính khố đỏ in Vietnamese. Despite its literal meaning in modern Vietnamese (‘red loin clothed soldier”) , here khố designates a belt (thắt lưng). Soldiers of the Vietnamese court wore yellow hat straps and belts. For soldiers working with the French, those accessories were blue for the lính khố xanh, who were in mostly police duties  (guarding public buildings, civil order in the country); red belts and straps belonged to the lính khố đỏ who were responsible for more important military assignment (like fighting rebels, alongside with French soldiers) and under direct command from French officers. (Về đường phòng-giữ, thì chính-phủ lập ra những đội binh bảo-an, lấy người bản-sứ làm lính. Những lính ấy đội một thứ nón dẹt có giải xanh và múi thắt lưng xanh, cho nên tục gọi là lính khố-xanh. Lính ấy do người Pháp cai-quản ở dưới quyền quan cai-trị người Pháp, cho đi canh giữ các dinh-thự, các công-sở, và cho đi đóng đồn ở các nơi trong vùng thôn-quê, để phòng-giữ trộm cướp. ở những nơi hiểm-yếu thì có lính Pháp và lính khố đỏ đóng. Lính khố đỏ là một thứ bộ binh người bản-xứ, cách ăn- mặc cũng như lính khố xanh, chỉ khác là quai nón đỏ mà múi thắt lưng đỏ. Những lính ấy có cơ, có đội do sĩ-quan Pháp cai-quản ở dưới quyền nhà binh Pháp. Khi có việc gì quan-hệ thì đem lính Pháp và lính ấy ra đánh-dẹp). (Trần Trọng Kim, Việt nam Sử Lược)

[xvi] canonnière: light vessel armed with canons and used on rivers and near coast lines. (batiment léger armé de canons et employé sur les fleuves et près des côtes.. Petit Larousse)

[xvii] Pierre Pigneau, French missionary, Bishop of Adran, 1741-1799 (in Vietnam ). He went to Louis XVI’ s court in Paris to ask for military help on behalf of Nguyễn Ánh who was fighting the Tây Sơn brother and who later became Emperor Gia Long. He is the author of one of the first Vietnamese dictionaries (Dictionarium Anamitico Latinum, 1773).

[xviii] A Vietnamese cemetery near the botanical garden in 1872 described in another paragraph about Saigon by Dr Morice

[xix] Lăng Cha Cả (The Great Father’s Tomb). Photo from the Vietnamese Wikipedia. The bishop’s remains were disinterred for reburial in the 1980’s under the Vietnamese communist government; all the remaining buildings were destroyed. The site is now traffic round point in Saigon .

[xx] Arroyo: small, steeped sided watercourse or gulch with a nearby flay floor: usually dry, except after heavy rains (Webster College Dictionary).

[xxi] Emperor Tự Đức (1829-1883) was the Vietnamese Emperor in Huế at the time of Dr. Morice’s visit to Cochinchina. Vietnam was progressively lost to the French under the last part of his reign.

[xxii] Cho Quan Hospital originally was specialized in the treatment of infectious diseases such as leprosy, tuberculosis and sexually transmitted diseases.

The Hospital for Tropical Diseases (HTD), located in District 5, Saigon, on the banks of the Ham Tu River, is the main referral hospital for infectious diseases in southern Vietnam . Originally founded as a small private hospital in 1862, it now serves a population of 38 million people.


 It was founded in 1862 as a community funded Center for Tropical Diseases. In 1865 it was donated to the government, renamed as Cho Quan Hospital , after the local village. It was intended for the treatment of prisoners and cases of venereal diseases. In 1908, it became a specialized in infectious diseases. In 1957 it included the treatment of neuro-psychiatric patients. In 1975, the neuro psychiatric department was moved to Bien Hoa. In 1979; it became the first hospital in Vietnam specialized in infectious diseases. In 1989, with increase cooperation and investment from other countries, it became the Center for Tropical Diseases.


[xxiii] Mycobacterium leprae, the cause of leprosy, was discovered by G. H. Armauer Hansen in Norway in 1873, making it the first bacterium to be identified as causing disease in humans. Dr. Morice visted Saigon a year before this discovery was made. Numerous leprosaria, or leper hospitals, sprang up in the Middle Ages; Matthew Paris estimated that in the early thirteenth century there were 19,000 across Europe , so whites are not immune tothe disease.  However , it is true that most of the 2-3000,000 leprosy cases of the world  are now in India , Barzil and Myanmar ( Burma ).(Wikipedia)

[xxiv] Original French spelling for Cho Lon (Big Market)

[xxv] Quasimodo is the hunch-backed character in Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris (1831). Leontiasis is also referred as “leonine facies”, a sign of lepromatous leprosy, due to nodular infiltration of the subcutaneous tissue of the face. A vaguely leonine appearance is also found in Leontiasis ossea, a different developmental and non-infectious condition with hypertrophy of the facial and cranial bones (the disease is called polyostotic fibrous dysplasia (PFD), where the bone medulla is replaced by fibrous tissue, the bone architecture becomes distorted and fractures, subluxations and dislocations occur easily).

[1] http://collin.francois.free.fr/Le_tour_du_monde/textes/Cochinchine/cochinchine2.htm

South East Asia Vision ( Cornell University ) allows us to read as text or browse the image of the original “Le Tour du Monde” article.



Dr. Morice’s work is introduced as follows: “In 1875, the magazine ‘Tour du Monde’ (‘World Travel’ published an article by a French naturalist, Dr. Morice. In addition to a comprehensive study of the local fauna, there is a description of Saigon of that period. Continental Hotel and the Cathedral did not exist yet; it was the period of the first French colonists and dirt roads. Doctor Morice also helps us discover other places of Cochinchina: Cholon, Hatien, Vinh Long , My Tho, Go Cong...”

The paragraph titles are from the translator (HVH), some are from the La Belle Indochine presentation (marked with an *).    

[3] Nicolas Catinat (1637-1712), French Commander and Marshal of France under King Louis XIV. In 1856, his namesake, the battleship Catinat was dispatched to Danang , Vietnam with requests to end persecution of Christians but the Hue court refused to see the French plenipotentiary. They bombarded Danang before departing. The famous Saigon Street was named after the French battle ship. (Nguyen Gia Kieng, in “Whence.., Whither... Vietnam ?”, Paris-Melbourne, 2005).

[iv] Since the 19th century, the official name of the country has been Việt Nam (it was Đại nam [Great South] under Minh Mang (1838), but this name was for internal use only). The French, deliberately or not, insisted on calling it Annam or An Nam (Pacified South), from An Nam Đô Hộ Phủ (The Dominated District of Pacified South), a name given in 679 by the Tang Dynasty to its conquered neighbor. Often, Annam is used in French to designate the Central Part of Vietnam (Trung Phần, or Trung Kỳ or Trung Bộ), as opposed to Cochinchina (Nam Phần, Nam Kỳ or Nam Bộ), which under French colonial regime, was still under the direct government of the Emperor in Huế, which the French referred to as Empereur d’Annam.

Vietnamese, in a play on words, sometimes called themselves Annamites or “Mít”, which also means jack fruit, and by extension, stupid (i.e. with a brain as thick as a jack fruit) in the self deprecatory way, The term Annamese is used in this article to translate Annamite only for the purpose of staying true to the original 19th century French text

[v]   trầu: betel leaves, trái  cau: areca fruit, the nut (hột cau) is extracted from the fruit of the areca tree also called betel tree.

Betel chewing is a part of many Asian and Pacific cultures and often takes place at ceremonies and gatherings, and preparation techniques vary from region to region. The nut is either slivered or grated, often flavoured with spices according to local tradition, and usually wrapped in a betel leaf (note that betel leaf comes from the betel pepper plant Piper betle, which is not botanically related to the Betel Palm), along with some lime (calcium oxide or calcium hydroxide) to better extract the alkaloids. Some people also chew tobacco with betel nut”.(from the Wikipedia)

[vi] In 2005, many American Asians are still not happy with their noses. 437,000 plastic procedures are performed on them, a 58% increase over the previous year and the three most common procedures are rhinoplasty (or nose reshaping), eyelid surgery, and breast augmentation.

[ http://news.newamericamedia.org/news/view_article.html?article_id=7c14ed6d4c1a4b750271890673d66c22 ]

In an article written in 2006 about rhinoplasty in emedicine.com, Dr Charles S. Lee states: “The same goal exists for rhinoplasty performed on Asians as for rhinoplasty performed on Caucasians, which is to build a natural-appearing structure that blends harmoniously with the face. As a group, Asians require augmentation of the nose to achieve this result, in contrast to Caucasians who usually require reduction. ... Thus, the goal of surgery should be an attractive Asian nose, not the creation of an attractive Caucasian nose on an Asian face.” But he also added that “Southeast Asians (Malay, Filipino, southern Chinese) typically require the most dorsal augmentation (4 mm or more)”, so it seems that in practice the goal is to create that almost Caucasian nose that Dr. Morice referred to in his article. [ http://www.emedicine.com/plastic/topic474.htm ]

[vii] An average Frenchman ‘s height is 174. 1cm  (5f 9. 6’’) (in 2004) compared to the Vietnamese male’s height of 162,1 cm or 5f3.8” (1992-93), 166.3 cm for rural China and 170cm for urban male Chinese (2002), 170.8 cm for Japanese (2005) (wikipedia). Thai male children’s height in the 50th percentile is about 165 centimeters on their growth chart.( http://www.neiu.edu/%7Erghiggin/Thaiadopt/boy6-20s.gif )

[viii] Nghia Minh Vo , in his article “The Lotus Pond” ( in “Remembering Saigon”, SACEI FORUM #1), analyzes so well the Vietnamese smile: “A smile does not have any sarcastic meaning as elsewhere in the world. Intended to deflect the attention away from any embarrassing situation, it sometimes contributed to inflame the anger and irritation of westerners who perceived the inappropriate behavior as an insult. The Vietnamese smiled not only when they were happy, but also when they were sad. They smiled because as straightforward people they could not fib very well and were often short for words to explain their complex feelings. They smiled also when they were caught in an embarrassing situation. Unable to produce an adequate explanation for what they had done right or wrong or in order to express the deep regret they felt, they just awkwardly smiled. This is known as a “sorry-smile,” a unique Vietnamese trait that had been misunderstood by westerners and Vietnamese alike. If they did not smile, they could become angry or blunt in order to protect the deep emotions they experienced. For beneath this smile or bluntness ran a wealth of often complex if not contradictory feelings or emotions.” 

Nguyễn Văn Vĩnh (1882-1936), one of the earliest modern Vietnamese writers, translator of French literature into quoc ngu, and trained at the School for Interpreters in Hanoi, once wrote in Đông Dương Tạp Chí: “We, Annamese, laugh about anything, we laugh at things we don’t like, at things we like, we just show our teeth and then nothing remains serious. (...hay cũng cười, dở cũng cười, cứ nhe răng một cái là không còn gì nghiêm trang nữa). It seems that, that cheerfulness was not shared by the educated class imbued with the Confucian tradition of propriety and ceremony, in particular in Central and North Vietnam . Children were often scolded for laughing: “It’s ungraceful to smile/laugh before you talk and to run before you walk.” (Chưa nói đã cười, chưa đi đã chạy là người vô duyên).

Now in America and even in westernized Vietnam , the ‘impassible oriental face’ may become a liability, the smile our even a smirk has almost become a must in everyday life. Bùi Bảo Trúc, a Vietnamese American writer, complains that as Vietnamese reacted to the famous Nguyễn Văn Vĩnh’s scolding, they have become more surly like monkeys and refused to smile or laugh, and encourages his countrymen to “Smile, laugh, ladies and gentlemen. Men will look better, ladies will look younger.”( Cười lên đi ông bà ạ. Ông thì sẽ đẹp, bà sẽ trẻ ra. Tại sao lại đóng vai xuất sắc con khỉ già như thế?
Bực cụ Nguyễn Văn Vĩnh không thể tả được. Tại cụ mà tha hương ngộ... đồng bào cũng cứ quạu như thế đấy.)


[ix] Taenia solium  or pork tapeworm: Meat from  an infected pig contains cysts (cysticerci ) of the parasite; when we eat pork that  is not adequately cooked, the cyst of the parasite goes to the human small intestine and develops into a full size adult tape worm (2-7 meter long).

[x] Đũa: chopsticks

[xi] Bồng nách. This way of carrying a child may be helpful and therapeutic in cases of congenital subluxation of the infant hips, because it keeps the hip joints of the baby in constant abduction, and therefore helps retain the head of the femur in its good location inside the acetabulum.

[xii] Ngồi chồm hổm, ngồi  chò hỏ. There is a difference between the ways Asians and Westerners squat. It might be due to the fact that Asian legs are relatively shorter and make them fold their knees and flex their ankles more easily, or that they have more training in that position with the generalized use of squatting toilet in Asia, vs. the sitting commode in western countries. A Malaysian mother who immigrated to New York found to her surprise that Americans can’t squat and puts it this way:” In the Asian squat, your feet are flushed to the ground and your thighs are perpendicular to the floor. It is quite a relaxing stance and some people can squat for a long time without getting tired. In a Western squat, you are on the balls of your feet and your thighs are parallel to the floor. In this stance, you get tired easily.” [ http://www.msianmominny.com/2008/02/asian-squat.html  ]  

[xiii] During the Bronze Age, the northern part of modern Vietnam was called Giao Chi, which in Chinese may be literally interpreted as meaning “crossing toes”. There is a theory, currently contested, that the gap between the first two toes is a racial characteristic of the people living there, the Giao Chi people, also shared by other populations of South China and South East Asia . In 1868, a French explorer, Dr Thorel, reported that crossing toes were a characteristic of the Vietnamese. In this study, Dr Morice gives us a surprisingly detailed scientific discussion of this racial theory. (Re: Wikipedia article: Giao Chi ( http://vi.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giao_Ch%E1%BB%89)

[i] sarcastic jokes, pranks (italian word)

[i] http://collin.francois.free.fr/Le_tour_du_monde/textes/Cochinchine/Gravures/gravure%201875-2-375.jpg