5 January 2015
Saigon, in fact all of Vietnam, has unexpected and hidden treasures. The city of Saigon is old, dating back to the 17th century. Prior to that, the area was inhabited, but was mostly swampland. The region has been a crossroads of trade for centuries, with various national and ethnic groups coming and going in all directions, buying, selling, trading, and taking over.
So in the 1800s, Monsieur Gustav Eiffel, of Eiffel Tower fame, opened an engineering and architecture office in Saigon. The region was French, the French were building, there were rivers to cross and trade routes on which to expand.
And here the facts get a bit murky. Some people and publications claim that Eiffel was in Saigon, and did the hands on designing and building. Other people claim he had an office here but wasn't here himself. The main post office is sometimes attributed to Eiffel, sometimes not. Other buildings were supposedly designed by Eiffel but are no longer standing.
The one structure that is still in Saigon that is attributed to Eiffel, or at least his company, is Cau Mong, or in English, Mong Bridge. Which turned out to be the pretty bridge Richard and I noticed during our first walk along the river.
Cau Mong (pronounced "cow MUNG") is on the tributary that feeds into the Saigon River, linking the center of Old Saigon with what was, at the time, the outskirts of the city and undeveloped land. These days, Mong Bridge links District 1 with Districts 4 and 5 - although District 1 still is the area with City Hall, the Opera House, and most of the many museums.
It's a lovely bridge, turned into a pedestrian bridge because one needs to walk up the stone stairs to get to the actual bridge. Gorgeous curving riveted steel I beams, with criss-crossing smaller metal beams supporting the bridge itself. All painted a pretty copper-patina green, giving the bridge its nickname, the Rainbow Bridge. (Interesting aside here - the bridge is the same color as the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor - which seems fitting, since Eiffel designed the internal structure of the Statue of Liberty, while the exterior sculpture was designed and created by sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi.)
Some tourists and travellers come to the bridge to see what Eiffel or company created, others don't know who the designed might have been but know it's a pretty bridge. Apparently brides and grooms come here for photographs - we saw two couples with their photographers, though we were told these are pre-wedding photo shoots, with rented clothing, not the real wedding ensembles. (We met a Canadian man who has been living here in Saigon for nine years, as a photographer, and he gave us the inside scoop on the wedding photos. He's one of the people who said that Eiffel wasn't the designer, it was his company but not Eiffel himself who created this bridge.)
Anyway, I had a great time walking around under the end of the bridge, then the two of us walked across Cau Mong. There were people fishing on the other side of the river, though they didn't seem to be catching much. And there was plenty of boat traffic on the river, my favorite being the coconut boat with the motorcycle on the bow.
We walked back and found the arch Christmas decorations, complete with fabric and styrofoam flowers. Not sure if the decorations are being left up because they took so long to put together, or if they stay up for the twelve days of Christmas. Richard thinks the decorations will stay up until Tet, the Chinese Lunar New Year. Usually in January, this year Tet occurs around February 18 or so, and continues for several days.
Several businesses have taken down their Christmas decorations and put golden tree branch designs on their glass doors and picture windows. One store is more obvious, with gold coins on the tree branch, we guess for a profitable new year. The others have yellow or gold flowers, probably to look like coins.
So things are still decorated and cheerful, and the holiday atmosphere continues!