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19th-Century Vietnam Recorded by the French: “Haven’t been there yet, don’t know Saigon”


All servants are men. Sometimes, some of the maids or nannies are Annamite or Chinese women, but they are not very interested in the work; there are no female cooks and maids.

19th Century Southern Period via French Records:

Restaurants at Bach Dang Pier

Mannhai Flickr

Your cook, Chinese or Annan, costs you 8 to 20 piastre per month, about 40 to 100 francs. He gets paid like a civil servant and arrives at your house on time at a certain time like a civil servant. At night he asks you about going to the market, three or five francs for two, and then goes home to sleep unless you have room for him in your downstairs, which is often a disadvantage, as he brings friends and wife to your place quickly becomes a hotel.

With the daily pocket money you give him, he goes to the market early and cooks around eight. Usually there are four courses for breakfast and four courses for dinner. After lunch, the cook left and came back when it was time to prepare dinner. Of course, he doesn’t eat the food he cooks: for them, just rice is enough. This does not affect his cooking skills. In this regard, the Chinese and Annan are very talented – world-class chefs and the best businessmen. His dishes are always rich and varied.

At the market, he has familiar suppliers, where he can easily find a colleague to share a food that is too much for you. However, sometimes the menu gets bad. Your chef loses money on groceries and you have to lend him a loan. Another time, your meal is too rich to surprise you: he won by eight punches (that is, three punches- ND – a Chinese roulette) and shares his luck with you in a noble manner.

Chinese don’t spend money on spices or wine in your shopping budget, usually you have to buy it in a bakery.

Either way, you can invite friends over for dinner, and if there are a lot of people, give your Chinese chef a franc to take care of. If it’s more than the normal stuff you receive every day, then you have to expand your wallet. Meat is expensive, wine is expensive, six people eat, one hundred francs. Lamb’s feet on the table is a luxury dish that sells for 3 piastre; Bordeaux or Burgundy needs 2 or 3 piastre; the champagne we usually drink, 2 piastre a bottle.

On days like this, your chef is proud; service can’t go wrong. A colleague helped him and everything went smoothly. He made dessert, nothing to complain about.

In addition to the chef, there is a bartender (saïs) and several waiters, one of whom is a fan, making up your group of servants. A rickshaw can earn 60 to 100 francs a month without food. Like the English coachman, he only looked after horses and carriages. Usually, the chariots are Malay. The horses they make are nice, neat, and the service is great.

Waiters are paid 40 to 60 francs, and usually less. They go to markets, serve tables, prepare bathrooms, and clean rooms. They do what you need, and when they’re not thieves, they’re excellent servants, quick to learn your habits, know your friends, customs, and guess your wishes.

In short, Cochinchina is one of the best countries to live in, but it is very expensive.

In Saigon, the real city of civil servants, there are no furnished apartments, only bachelor’s hotels and empty houses for others. So, depending on the situation, everyone’s standard of living, a lot of people live in hotels, like a lot of Americans.

All in all, life here is fun; but after a short period of time people get tired of the multitude of dishes on offer. Soon, people were going to restaurants to eat, then back to hotels, and so on. Accommodation and meals are approximately 150 to 160 francs per month.

For those with families, it’s a different story: having to settle down is a big responsibility. There are many furniture wholesalers, carriage manufacturers, pottery dealers… but if you need it, especially the auction floor, the trading floor, the sales room, the Drouot Saigon Hotel. Located on Catinat Street (now Dong Khoi), the facility is open every day, but mainly on Sundays, where Europeans gather in the morning.

What people see is amazing: next to the limousine that crashed into the sky in Cochinchina; Annamite horses, furniture from all over the world: China, Europe, Annam, new, old, dirty or luxurious; Bronze, porcelain, complete or worn books; sundries, shotguns and bullets, Chinese screens, coffee shops…(continue)

(taken from Cochinchina and its inhabitantsTranslated by JCBaurac, Huynh Ngoc Linh, Omega+ and Ho Chi Minh City Comprehensive Press, 2022)