Tramcar or streetcar systems were developed early in the 19th century to address exactly the same issues as we have today. The problem then was just as acute as it is now, just on a smaller scale. Their introduction forever changed those cities that adopted them, especially Saigon at the end of the 19th century, a metropolis which is still struggling with its public transport. We can see today the disruption in the city caused by the construction of the first — of a hoped-for eight — metro lines. We can look forward to years of similar pain.

 

Tramcars arrived in Saigon in 1881 as a steam tramway operated by Société Générale des Tramways à Vapeur de Cochinchine (SGTVC), connecting the city with the then-separate city of Cholon. Ten years later, another French company — the Compagnie Française des Tramways de l’Indochine (CFTI) — established a line from Saigon also to Cholon, which followed the north bank of the Ben Nghe Creek. But CFTI made the mistake of using a gauge of only 0.06m and were bankrupted in 1896 only to be bailed out by the colonial government. After returning to profit they acquired SGTVC.

 

Rise and Fall

 

The presence of that tramcar connecting Cholon with Saigon stimulated Cholon’s growth, allowing it to merge with Saigon in April 1931. The tram stops themselves catalysed retail businesses’ commercial and residential growth. It would be fascinating to trace where these stops were — sadly obliterated by time.

 

By 1930 a comprehensive electrified light rail network had been established across the city. Passengers could arrive by train at the station next to Ben Thanh and transfer onto a tram that would transport them down Ham Nghi, Ton Duc Thang up Hai Ba Trung and out to Dien Bien Phu or out to Cholon. The route is shown highlighted in the annotated 1931 map included in this article. The network extended from Lai Thieu to Thu Dau Mot, and to Cholon’s Binh Tay Market. By 1933 there was some 157km of track with good patronage. What happened?

 

First came the occupation by the Japanese, then the Second World War with the network damaged by American bombing. After that war, the First Indochina War and the rise of a paramilitary group lead by local Cholon warlord Bay Vien created unstable economic conditions that impacted on the profitability of the lines. The network was allowed to deteriorate between 1950 and 1954, with the lines closed for good in 1957.

 

In addition, the aftermath of war saw the rise of the car and personal transport. The car promised a new era with private transport prevailing over good public transport systems worldwide, including cities in Australia and New Zealand and most famously Los Angeles in the United States.

 

A New Future?

 

We have now come full circle, with cities choked by cars and authorities looking to public transport to cure the problem. Some 60 years after their demise, tramcars are making a return. About 70 US cities are installing light rail as it is now called and Australia’s Gold Coast conurbation is running a very successful light rail system. Sydney is also installing a network.

 

It is easy to understand why. Buses are cheap and have the most flexibility, but they are polluters and cannot move large numbers of people without significant impact on the road network. Heavy rail and metro lines are extremely expensive. Light rail has a smaller impact, and works with the existing street systems while moving large numbers of people. When operated in concert with metro and heavy rail, light rail has shown to be a safe transport system providing a pollution-free solution to overcrowded city streets.

 

Could we see it here again?

 

Ed Haysom is the general director of Mode / Haysom Architects and is based in Ho Chi Minh City. You can contact him on This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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