Few non-Vietnamese know the story of Nguyen Hue, the general and emperor who has given his name to a major street in almost every major city in Vietnam. Indeed, many may have only heard of one of the most successful commanders in Vietnamese history as a result of the opening of the first pedestrian-only street in Ho Chi Minh City, in April 2015.
Born in 1753, together with his brothers Nguyen Nhac and Nguyen Lu, Hue defeated the two rival feudal houses of the Trinh in the North and Nguyen in the South. He then overthrew the Le dynasty, unifying the country. In 1788 Nguyen Hue was crowned emperor and changed his name to Quang Trung.
However, his reign was short-lived and he died just four years later, aged 40. Despite his stunted period in power, he instituted many national reforms including setting Vietnamese chu nom as the official written language of the country and creating an identity card system.
64 metres wide and 670 metres long, his namesake in Central Saigon is often called Walking Street and stretches from the People’s Committee Building (the former Town Hall) to Bach Dang Wharf on the Saigon River. Since its inauguration, it has become the de facto centre of the city.
From a Canal to the First Pedestrian Street
Originally a canal stretching from the Saigon River to the Gia Dinh Citadel, the first incarnation of this street was built in 1790 by Nguyen Anh, later known as Emperor Gia Long.
While local Vietnamese called it kinh lon (big canal) or kinh cho vai (fabric market canal) as it was a busy fabric trading area, later when the French colonised Saigon it was renamed Grand Canal. There were two roads alongside the canal — Rue Rigault de Genouilly (now on the Sunwah Tower side) and Rue Charner (Times Square side). Merchants used this canal to bring their products to the central market that was the old Ben Thanh Market located on Rue Rigault de Genouilly (now the National Treasury on the corner between Ngo Duc Ke and Nguyen Hue)
In 1887, due to pollution issues, the French filled in the canal and merged the two roads, creating Charner Boulevard, and in 1912 Ben Thanh Market was moved to its present location at the end of Le Loi. In 1956, the former Saigon government changed the name to Nguyen Hue Boulevard.
After six months of construction, with an investment of VND430 billion and tiled with granite bricks, the boulevard has become the first pedestrian street in Ho Chi Minh City. Now it functions like the old Grand Canal, with the roads on either side reserved for vehicles, and the central area for pedestrians.
A Messy Combination?
Up to the end of the 20th century, during Tet Nguyen Hue was still the main flower market of the city. Flowers were gathered at Bach Dang Wharf then delivered to booths set up on the street. After a break, the flower market returned during Tet 2004 in a new format where flowers were not on sale, but were displayed in complex arrangements for visitors, the only time of the year that Nguyen Hue got busy and crowded. Since the rebuild last year, the street has welcomed hundreds of both local and international visitors every night.
According to Nguoi Lao Dong newspaper, Nguyen Hue is the most modern street in the country with a lighting control system and two underground toilet areas. It’s also considered the most beautiful urban walking street in Vietnam with two fountain-light areas, trees, benches and, of course, CCTV systems set up at each corner.
However, Tran Dinh Nam, a professor of Ho Chi Minh City University of Architecture, doesn’t think the walking street comes up to standards.
“Beautiful walking streets are streets which lie in old areas such as Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral or Moscow’s Red Square,” he says. “Nguyen Hue is a messy combination of modern building and old architecture. Only 30 percent of the buildings show characteristic architecture, such as the People’s Committee Building, the National Treasury, the Rex Hotel and Palace Hotel.”
He also admits that he preferred the old Nguyen Hue where he could take a walk around the small garden in front of the old statue of Ho Chi Minh. “The statue is bigger now and is more for meeting people than for looking at,” he adds.
Better at Night
Nguyen Hue, with its two lines of small shadeless trees is definitely not a destination during daylight hours when the temperature can get up to 39°C. It’s also not a place for those who want to stay for a few hours, as there are not many seats.
“People just sit on the ground,” says a lady called Ngoc. She often takes her nieces to the street at weekends. “But it’s more fun and beautiful at night.”
Ngoc is right. From above, Nguyen Hue looks fabulous at night with the lights and fountains. Most people find the street a relaxing spot to hang out with friends or family. The street is not only a favourite place for selfies and other photos but also an outdoor stage for street artists. Kids enjoy the pedestrianised area as a space for their roller skates and hoverboards. There used to be food and drink vendors along the street, however, eating and drinking has been prohibited since Apr. 18 this year to reduce littering.
More Walking Streets
According to Dan Tri online newspaper, big and popular F&B brands including McDonald’s, Starbucks, Ngon Asia House and Eleven Café already have branches on the street and other investors are jostling for space despite the high rents and tiny floor spaces. Some investors have already amalgamated small areas to build an entertainment complex (Saigon Garden) then split it up again into smaller sections for lease. The land on Nguyen Hue was already the most expensive in Ho Chi Minh City, but after the pedestrian street opened, rents have increased by 15% to 25%.
The Ho Chi Minh City authorities are planning to build another walking area around Bui Vien, De Tham and Do Quang Dau in the backpacker area. This is considered a good way to make the area safer for tourists as well as promoting tourism and residential life. According to Thanh Nien newspaper, the process will be divided into two phases — the pedestrian street project will be first tested on Bui Vien for a year then expanded on De Tham and Do Quang Dau with vehicles prohibited from 7pm to midnight.
As a warrior, a leader and an emperor, one wonders what Nguyen Hue would think of his namesake. Would he be proud? That’s an answer we’ll never know. One thing’s for sure. His feats and short time on this planet have not been forgotten.