Saigon’s most notorious prison

General Sciences Library saigon

The Ho Chi Minh City General Library (District 1), which is the Saigon Grand Prison – the horrors of prisoners and the public with the public death penalty, the guillotine has a 50 kg knife blade…

After defeating the Nguyen and capturing Cochinchina, the French quickly established a new rule in the new land. One of the indispensable works is the prison system that holds all those who oppose colonial rule as well as other crimes.

The Saigon Grand Prison was built in four years, beginning in 1886. The main road at Lagran Dière (now Ly Tu Trong Street), fenced with iron bars; The back side nearby Espagne Street (Le Thanh Ton); The two other ones are Mac Mahon (now Nam Ky Khoi Nghia) and Filippini (Nguyen Trung Truc).

The Saigon Grand Prison on Lagran Dière
The Saigon Grand Prison on Lagran Dière (now Ly Tu Trong Street) was built by the French. Material photo

The project is located on the land that used to be the ancient Cay Da Com. According to scholar Truong Vinh Ky, the bazaar has this name because it is meeting under the skin of a branch of a tree, the leaf fell to the ground (“Com” in Vietnamese means weak and hunched). The market specialized in drum, parachute, saddle and baccalaureate.

The roads in the prison have 30m length, 15m wide, with a 2m wide walkway. The dungeon looks gloomy and scary with four walls painted black, the main side is enclosed by bars. Each cell has only a very small window above.

The design is only for ventilating, and the guards can observe in the cell from outside. However, due to the lack of light, poor hygiene and the increasing number of prisoners, the cells are so stuffy that there is always a disease outbreak. The cellar floor is cemented, the prisoners lying on one leg shackled to a cell.

There is also a cell dedicated to those sentenced death penalty crimes. It is a closed tunnel with 5 m length and 3 m wide, three sides are walls, the other is a thick iron door, there are only a few holes to vent. It is dark and melancholy, not different from hell.

The Grand Prison with the Courts and the Governor’s Palace of Cochinchina lying at three corners in central of Saigon and symbolizing for the domination of the French colonial regime in Cochinchina, so it was called “Death Triangle” – the fear of both prisoners and the people.

The French colonial brought a 4.5m high guillotine with a 50kg blade taken from France to Saigon in 1917. According to some documents, around 1925, death row execs were often executed in the midnight with giant guillotine machines located between Lagran Dière (now Ly Tu Trong).

Saigon Grand Detective was Cochinchie's largest detention center
Saigon Grand Detective was Cochinchie’s largest detention center. Photo material.

When the prisoners were overcrowded, the French authorities had to build more new rooms including two single storey houses and two ground floor blocks, divided into several areas. The Saigon Grand Prison became the largest prison in the Southern part of the country at that time, sometimes reaching up to 2,000 people.

This is also the place which detained Vietnamese famous patriots like Nguyen An Ninh, Phan Van Ho, Tran Phu, Le Hong Phong, Ngo Gia Tu, Nguyen Van Cu, Vo Van Tan, Phan Dang Luu, Pham Van Dong, Pham Hung, Nguyen Thi Minh Khai, Ly Tu Trong …

Two revolutionary soldiers, Ly Tu Trong and Nguyen Thi Minh Khai, were put on a guillotine machine. This is the reason Lagran Dière – the face of the Saigon Grand Prix after April 30, named young hero Ly Tu Trong.

On November 23, 1940, the insurrection of Cochinchina failed, and many French Resistance troops were arrested. The Saigon Grand Prison, Catinat and other didn;t have enough space; In the center of the city, where anti-colonial struggles took place regularly, the Governor of Cochinchina approved the plan to build the Chi Hoa Prison in Chi Hoa hamlet (District 10).

In 1943, the new prison was built. However, at that time, the French coup d’état of the Japanese caused the construction work to be interrupted until March 8, 1953. The then Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Van Tam (June 23, 1952 – December 7, 1953) released a number of prisoners and moved 1,600 other prisoners and the guillotine machine to the new Chi Hoa.

General Science Library today
General Science Library today. Photo: Wikipedia

Since then, the Saigon Grand Prison was only an auxiliary detention facility and later destroyed by the South Vietnamese government to establish the University of Literature (founded in 1957 under the Saigon University). It is the National Library and is now the General Sciences Library of Ho Chi Minh City.

The prison was built to a national library based on the designs of two architects, Bui Quang Hanh and Nguyen Huu Thien, in collaboration with technical consultant Le Van Lam. The Republic of Vietnam government, Tran Van Huong, laid the first stone and the construction was completed in 1971.

The library was larger than 7,000 square meters, and the cost of construction was up to $ 177 million at that time. The contractor must employ up to 100,000 workers, 500 tons of iron and 27,000 bags of cement to complete in three years. The building consists of two blocks: the first block is a 71 m long block, 23 m wide with a basement, a ground floor and two floors, a terrace on the second floor; The second block is centered, square and rising like a spire with 14 floors, 43 m high, containing material.

This is the largest library in Vietnam, with 53 staff serving about 100,000 copies.

Not to mention newspapers, magazines, antique prints on leather, film editions, books for marketers … the library has more than half a million books. Among them there are many precious documents such as a complete collection of printed publications in Indochina in the late 19th century and early 20th century; Documents published in temporary occupied areas, the years of the resistance war against France and the United States, have been printed in Confucian and French language nearly 300 years extremely valuable because it is unique.

Credit: VNExpress
Translator: Hanh Chan

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