Urban structure of Saigon: A history exploration

Urban structure of Saigon: A history exploration

For the capital city, the traditional fengshui principle is to face the south – towards the sun to receive the Yang energy and positive energy flow, and to lean on the mountain in the north to shield from negative energy flow.
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Author: Dzung Do Nguyen- enCity’s Founder + Group Managing Director


Tree-lined boulevards of Nguyen Hue, Dong Khoi or Le Duan once form the structure of Saigon, former name of Ho Chi Minh city. These boulevards, though built by French, were first established King Gia Long and his team as the main axes of Gia Dinh citadel when they planned for temporary capital in late 18th century. they are the outcome ofan ambitious and complex work based on the mixed concepts of feng shui, regional development, geo-political and geo-economic calculations for the Gia Dinh Citadel.

The strategic location

After 15 years of conviction and self-imposed exile in foreign countries (1774 – 1789), Lord Nguyen Phuc Anh seized Gia Dinh from Tay Son Dynasty. Realizing its limitation of development space, he began his plan to upgrade the existing fortress. The new plan was designed by a 22-year old French officer, named Oliver du Puymanuel, following the French Vauban Style in combination with Oriental architectural principles, thus, resulting in a square-shaped citadel having eight gates.

Figure 1: Map of Gia Dinh Citadel prepared by Le Brun in 1795 under the order of Lord Nguyen Phuc Anh

The reason to upgrade the fortress in the same position of Tan Khai Village was due to its strategic location. Three edges of this area were adjacent to the Sai Gon, Ben Nghe and Thi Nghe rivers, which formed natural defense lines and promoted waterway transport and trade. Besides, Tan Khai was in close proximity with Cholon (called Saigon at that time) – where rice was gathered in the south of Vietnam and the new settlement of Chinese-Vietnamese who were chased away by Tay Son troops from their home in Cu Lao Pho (Bien Hoa). Thanks to Cholon, Lord Nguyen Phuc Anh Qian used rice and tax incentives in rice export as leverage to attract merchants carrying war products and formed alliances with other forces by selling cheap rice (ex. Siam Empire). Lord Nguyen Phuc Anh also won support from the Chinese-Vietnamese community in Cholan and Đàng Trong in the war with Tay Son Dynasty. Along with fertile land and development in trade, Tan Khai provided a solid foundation for the unification ambition of Lord Nguyen Anh.

Given those advantages, twelve years after its completion, the improved Gia Đinh Citadel (also known as Eight Trigrams Citadel or Turtle Citadel) became the new capital of Vietnam, and Lord Nguyen Anh ascended as Gia Long (combination of the names of Gia Đinh and Thang Long Citadels).

To win people’ hearts

The importance of Gia Dinh Citadel is recognizable, unlike its fengshui placement of “back to the northwest, front to the southeast” – “seat at Qian, face to Xun” (“tọa ngôi Càn, trông hướng Tốn”).

According to Dr. Pho Duc Tung, an expert in Planning and Feng Shui, unlike the “early heaven eight trigrams” (“tiên thiên bát quái” which emphasizes submission to the law of nature with basic opposites such as Qian (Yang, summer) – Kun (Yin, winter), Li (fire, spring) – Kan (water, autumn), the “later heaven eight trigrams” implies the rules of society and family bonds. Accordingly, Qian and Kun are no longer regarded as opposites, but represent (father) and (mother), respectively. With this interpretation, “seat at Qian” (back to the northwest) means relying on the ancestors’ blessing, while “face to Xun” (front to the southeast) expresses the long-term development philosophy of utilizing consensus and winning the hearts of people.

Figure 2: Early Heaven and Later Heaven Eight Trigrams
(source: http://www.thehelmofdestiny.com/articles/early-heaven-and-later-heaven-eight-trigrams/)

Lean to mountain, overlook the sea

The exact direction of each citadel also depended on the terrain of the region. For the capital city, the traditional fengshui principle is to face the south – towards the sun to receive the Yang energy and positive energy flow, and to lean on the mountain in the north to shield from negative energy flow. Aside from this, a river running along the front of the city in north-south axis is considered to carry positive energy flow, especially one that originates from sacred mountain sources. Indeed, rivers are also the source of urban life, providing water, food and goods pouring into the city from other provinces.

Figure 3: Gia Dinh area in An Nam’s great national map (An Nam đại quốc họa đồ) (1838) of Bishop Taberd, in which Ba Den mountain and Saigon river were highlighted, forming a Northwest – Southeast axis facing the sea.

From this perspective, the shape of the land and the orientation of the Gia Dinh citadel met the perfect conditions as it was adjacent to the sea in the east and leaned on Ba Den Sacred Mountain in the northwest (“Núi thiêng Bà Đen”)[1]– the tallest one in the Southern region (“phía Đông giáp biển, phía Tây Bắc dựa núi”).[2]

Figure 4: Topographic map of the region from Tay Nguyen to the Mekong Delta, which emphasizes the link between the axis of Ba Den Mountain (Tay Ninh) – Vung Tau Cape and the axis of Saigon – Lam Vien-Bidoup mountain cluster (Lam Dong). Source: The author draws on the topographic map of Central Vietnam and Southern Vietnam in the Vietnam Geography Atlas published by Education Publishing House in 2012

Moreover, the northwest – southeast axis of Gia Dinh Citadel was perpendicular to the axis of Dong Nai River at its intersection with Saigon River. The branches of Dong Nai River, before flowing into the sea, also flowed through the Can Gio mangrove forest, forming a large wetland – an area of ​​”water convergence” in the southeast of Gia Dinh Citadel. The last point on the Northwest – Southeast axis of Gia Dinh citadel is the group of mountains and the peninsula of Vung Tau, including Big mountain, Small mountain, Long Son mountain and Dinh Chau mountain, all facing towards the city and protecting Can Gio estuary (Figure 5).

Figure 5: the northwest – southeast axis of Gia Dinh citadel. Source: illustrated by the author based on Google Earth image.

At the qi center of Than Quy mountain system

Ba Den mountain, Dong Nai river and the mountains of Vung Tau were part of the landscape structure of the Than Quy mountain system (Lam Vien plateau – Langbiang, the roof of Tay Nguyen). It formed an ideal feng shui model for Gia Dinh citadel as it was located in the acupuncture point of the mountain system, having advantageous location of “big river stretching in the front, high mountains shielding from behind, dragons are rolling, tigers are perching” (“sông lớn giăng phía trước, núi cao giữ phía sau, rồng cuốn hổ ngồi”), similar to those of Hue and Thang Long citadels. [3]  If Le Duan Boulevard (close to horizontal axis of the old Gia Dinh citadel in the northeast) is extended, it will point to the second highest peak in the South of Vietnam – Chu Yang Sin mountain. (Figure 6)

Figure 6: A diagram of the eight trigrams citadel on the current urban foundation, drawn by Nguyen Dinh Dau

The first city masterplan

Gia Dinh Citadel’s location at Tan Khai village and its direction of “seating at Qian, facing to Xun” laid the foundation for the formation of the central area and main roads of Ho Chi Minh City today. From the southern and eastern corners, canals were dug to direct water from the Saigon River to the citadel’s defensive channels. The canal in the south, Kênh Lớn, allowed boats to approach the citadel gate (Can Nguyen gate), but was later filled by the French to build Nguyen Hue Boulevard.

Originating from the gates of the citadel, roads were built towards the direction of the Saigon River Bank, other surrounding provinces, and “built urban areas along the roads, organized in rows and layers” (“cất dựng phố xá hai bên đường có hàng có lớp”) as proposed by Tran Van Hoc. One of these roads, heading straight from Can Nguyen gate to the Saigon river bank, became an active trading street in beginning of the 19th century and is the busiest commercial street in Saigon today: Dong Khoi Street. Meanwhile, the route on the northwest side of Gia Dinh citadel running through the city center and extending to the banks of the Saigon River once became the lifeline of the city: Hai Ba Trung Street.

The routes built by the Nguyen Dynasty and the planning of the French colonists helped Saigon retain its traditional feng shui relationship with the nature, mountains and rivers of the Southeast Region (Đông Nam Bộ), and more importantly, its connection with history though very few vestiges remain. The illustration by Le Brun in 1975 showcased the ideas of the Gia Dinh Citadel by Lord Nguyen Anh and his trusted generals, Oliver du Puymanuel and Tran Van Hoc, can be distinctly considered as the first urban masterplan of Saigon.


[1] An Nam đại quốc họa đồ (1838)

[2] Quốc sử quán triều Nguyễn (tái bản 2006), sđd, tập 5, trang 241

[3] Quốc sử quán triều Nguyễn (tái bản 2006), sđd, tập 5, trang 15


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This article is a summary of a chapter written by enCity’s Founder and Group Managing Director Dzung Do Nguyen for the book entitled “Saigon Symbols” published by Phan Books and Culture & Arts Publisher. This English version is prepared by enCity team members: Vu Thanh Cong and Elizelle David

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