BackHeritage » Saigon » From Vauban Citadel to Modernist Icon: The History of Turtle Lake

From Vauban Citadel to Modernist Icon: The History of Turtle Lake

The area of Công Trường Quốc Tế and Turtle Lake (Hồ Con Rùa) has been through many changes both in design and function throughout the history of Saigon. First, it housed a gate for a Nguyễn-dynasty citadel, then the land was flattened for a water tower in accordance with a new urban plan by the French colonial government, and finally, the square became a diplomatic display for past allies of the previous regime.

Today, much of the historic and political meaning that once surrounded this structure has mostly faded into obscurity. The lake area has transformed into a beloved landmark in the collective imagination of Saigoneers — a civic space for street vendors, cordial hangouts, and memories. Let’s unravel the past layers of history that befall Turtle Lake and explore how Saigon, its landscapes, and people, have changed around this icon.

Khảm Hiểm Gate — The impenetrable gate of the Citadel of Saigon

According to past records by historian Trịnh Hoài Đức in Gia Định Thành Thông Chí (The Annals of Gia Định Citadel), when Emperor Gia Long established Gia Định as his capital, he ordered the construction of an octagonal citadel, called Bát Quái Thành, in 1790. The structure resembled a lotus, featuring eight gates, eight inner pathways, eight fortresses, and six giác bảo, a semicircular reinforcement feature.

Khảm Hiểm Gate was one of the eight gates, based where the intersection of Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai and Phạm Ngọc Thạch streets stands in Saigon nowadays. In Trịnh Hoài Đức’s depiction, each gate of the citadel had a lookout tower, sturdy laterite reinforcement on the outside, and a dome to let water flow into the surrounding moat.

A map of Bát Quái Thành, reproduced by Trương Vĩnh Ký based on the original blueprint by architect Trần Văn Học. Image via Tuổi Trẻ.

Within the citadel, Khảm Hiểm Gate was where administrative departments operated. Initially, the Nội Khố (internal treasury) was based here, storing high-value assets like gold, silver, silk threads and textiles. Later, Nội Khố was converted into Kiên Tín Khố, a department spanning five houses specializing in tax collection and wealth storage, a task important enough to warrant its own guardian squad called Kiên Tín. In 1806, granaries were added. Two rows of ten rooms each were built to store rice collected from plantations, with a dedicated army of guards called An Hòa.

Outside of Khảm Hiểm gate was a giác bảo right where Turtle Lake is today. The outer layer featured a dirt berm stretching around the citadel, called giai thành. Apart from this dirt wall, there were also elephant camps, established to tame and care for war elephants. The camps were moved into the citadel on occasion or resettled near grasslands and water sources towards Biên Hòa, depending on the season.

Bát Quái Thành and Khảm Hiểm Gate. 3D rendering by Tản Mạn Kiến Trúc.

The architecture network making up Bát Quái Thành existed until 1835 when Emperor Minh Mạng dismantled it to construct a new Gia Định Citadel in 1837, where the northern corner of the old citadel used to be. During this era, what remained of the old fortress was only stretches of the moat.

The first waterworks and the transformation of Cochinchina under French rule

After the fall of Bát Quái Thành, the site was abandoned for a long time. After the French subjugated southern Vietnam, they embarked on a quest to replan Saigon as a major city. Some new streets in the new city under this French plan followed the pathways and edges of the old Bát Quái Thành. At the site of Khảm Hiểm Gate, the French put a water tower to supply drinking water to residents across the city.

Progress on establishing a water supply network, from water production to distribution, started in 1876. According to Sài Gòn và Nam Kỳ thời kỳ tân canh 1875-1925, a book by Nguyễn Đức Hiệp, the system comprised a 20-meter-deep well that gathered water from right beneath the city. The water was retrieved by two pumps arranged atop each other and flowed into four tanks on the ground. This formed a cross-shape structure with the water tower in the middle. A third pump pushed water from these tanks to the upper container.

Saigon's first-ever water plant. Photo via Flickr user manhhai.

The water plant was based at the Water Tower Square, the site of the Department of Education and Training’s representative office today. Sifting through photos, maps and blueprints from the era, one can spot the tall chimney of the station, which let out smog from the steam-powered generator providing electricity for the pumps. The filtering tanks were constructed completely underground right below where Hồ Con Rùa is now. They made up a 120-meter long, 12-meter wide and 9.5-meter high chamber with the middle truncated by circular wells.

The chamber’s room comprised columns to support the arches, filtering planes, and foundational stone pillars stretching to the surface. A network of pipes brought ground water up through these pillars. Works on this water plant began in November 1879 and finished in July 1881. The facility received rounds of expansions in subsequent years to meet rising water demands.

The Water Tower Square. Photo via Flickr user manhhai.

When 1921 came, the city population had grown so much that the water tower alone wasn’t enough to cater to the entire Saigon, so the government crafted a plan for a waterworks system delivering from Tân Sơn Nhứt. The old water tower gradually lost its importance and was dismantled not long after.

The ‘Peace’ monument and the anti-war vestige of wartime

Following the tower’s demolition, the French administration constructed a monument at the site to commemorate the upcoming visit of Marshal Joffre to Saigon. The square was renamed Place Maréchal Joffre for the same reason. This structure existed until 1927, when it was replaced by the Monument aux Morts de la Grande Guerre (Great War memorial and cenotaph), comprising two statues of ‘Soldiers’ and ‘Peace,’ to honor fallen soldiers of the first world war, facing what is now Phạm Ngọc Thạch Street in both directions.

The obelisk at the square. Photo via Flickr user manhhai.

These statues were placed at the foot of an obelisk, a popular design among city planners when it comes to commemorative monuments. The obelisk took inspiration from the intricate signal column at the Tự Đức Mausoleum. Two eastern-style dragon statues sat beside the obelisk, facing the direction of today’s Võ Văn Tần. On top, a statue of the Goddess of Victory held in her hands an olive branch, another common motif often seen in monuments for soldiers at the time. Saigoneers back then called the area Công trường Ba Hình (lit: Three-Figure Square) after the three statues.

Associated Press reported on the toppling of the statues by the Saigon General Assembly of Students to protest the French occupation of Saigon. Photo via Flickr user manhhai.

On July 29, 1964, members of the Saigon General Assembly of Students roped up the statues and toppled them to protest the French occupation of Saigon, causing quite a stir among the local media. The obelisk remained alone until the end of the 1960s, when it was replaced by a more modern monument. The square became known as the International Aid Square.

The International Aid Square — A landmark of modernist architecture in Saigon

Công trường Quốc tế Viện trợ (International Aid Square), punctuated by a modernist monument in the middle, was designed by architect Nguyễn Kỳ. His submission was selected via a design competition in 1967, and the structure was unveiled on a Sunday morning in June 1969.

The square’s new face was designed in an octagonal shape as an homage to its past selves and a nod to the fortress that put down the first grid arrangements for Saigon's urban layout. In the center of the square sat a tall tower made of concrete. According to a blueprint that the writer accessed at the National Archival Center II, the tower is named Hoa Tự Do (lit: The Flower of Freedom), with five petals, five other smaller petals for each big petal, and a copper-plated stigma in the middle.

The monument in its complete design in 1970. Photo by Charles W. via Flickr user manhhai.

The Flower of Freedom emulated a lotus blossom emerging from the octagonal water fountain below. Below the flower shape was a raised platform that could be reached via a staircase. The ceremonial platform was adorned with brown mosaics and its balcony featured a white granite covering. Here, a large bronze altar was included, reserved for representatives of the previous government to light incense sticks during important events.

To the west of the platform rested a bronze tortoise statue hauling a marble slab inscribed with the names of countries that had provided aid to the previous government. The slab was also inscribed with bottle gourd motifs in the traditional style. The use of tortoise imagery was inspired by many other tortoise sculptures at Hanoi and Huế’s temples of literature, both using the figure from the four traditional mythological animals (Tứ linh).

The tortoise and the marble slab of countries. Photo via Flickr user manhhai.

Both the sculpture and the slab were destroyed in 1976 by unknown offenders, and all the structure’s bronze details, from the bottle gourd to the flower stigma, no longer exist today. This monument encompasses valuable reference points about the origin story of Saigon, expressing distinctive Vietnamese cultural traits using a new design language that reflected the then-developing town’s cosmopolitan attitudes. In contemporary Saigon, the square is simply known as Công Trường Quốc Tế (International Square).

Architect Mel Schenck, a researcher on modernist architecture based in Saigon, said of the International Aid Square in his book Southern Vietnamese Modernist Architecture: "This design is overtly modernist with its abstract expression of a lotus plant. Even though it originally had a government function and was funded by the government of the Republic of Vietnam, this monument's design is unpolitical and nonrepresentational of nationalist identity unlike most other monuments in countries around the world, even in the twentieth century. This design competition affirmed that southern Vietnam had embraced modernity and modernism, similar to the design competition that resulted in the modernist scheme for the Independence Palace in 1962."

The multi-layer richness of Hồ Con Rùa today

A public space can be appreciated not just for its architectural and landscape values, but also in how much it enriches local civic interactions. When one actually dedicates time to chat with the street vendors at Hồ Con Rùa, it’s instantly apparent that they hail from all regions of Vietnam. This small ecosystem of street food represents Saigon’s dynamism as an urban center that welcomes flows of immigration and where immigrants find opportunities to make a living. The culture that they bring, in turn, helps shape the city where they reside. The pavement and walking paths around the lake have become an oasis for street food and hangouts by members of the public.

The pavements and walking paths around the lake have become an oasis for street food and hangouts by members of the public. Photo via Unplash user Irish83.

Public interest in Turtle Lake may ebb and flow. Nearby shopping malls and new pedestrian plazas might lure more passersby, and the lake vicinity may turn desolate at times. How Saigon residents make use of public spaces, including the vending and purchasing of street snacks, also poses direct conflicts with local officials’ aspirations for a more orderly and proper metropolis.

Hồ Con Rùa is a long-enduring public space in Saigon that perfectly epitomizes the multi-dimensional nature of the city, how it conflicts with itself and how it solves those conflicts. Its luxuriant green canopy and the diverse human life surrounding it have made the lake into a shining example of Saigon’s bustling urban dynamism.

Even today, one can see a resemblance of the past citadel in the lake design. Photo via Người Lao Động.

This article was published as part of a content collaboration between Saigoneer and Architecture Excursions (Tản Mạn Kiến Trúc), an independent collective focused on Vietnam’s urban heritage, especially of southern Vietnam. To find out more about Tản Mạn Kiến Trúc’s work, visit their Facebook page here.

Related Articles

in Saigon

From Swampland to Heartland: The History of Bến Thành Market

From the very first discussions in 1868 regarding a new marketplace for Saigon, it was not until 1914, that Bến Thành Market became a reality. The birth of the market was like a dream come true, one t...

in Saigon

How Nhà Thờ Tân Định, Saigon's Iconic Pink Church, Came to Be

You just have to mention the “pink church” and everyone knows which one you mean. But few are aware that the building in question — Tân Định Church — is one of Saigon’s oldest and most important Roman...

in Saigon

A Brief History of District 1's Collège d’Adran, Saigon's Oldest School

Driving past the Saigon Zoological and Botanical Garden toward Nguyễn Hữu Cảnh Street, many of us might not notice the presence of Võ Trường Toản Secondary School and Trưng Vương High School. The two ...

in Travel

Brise-Soleil, Đá Rửa, and Other Modernist Curios to Befriend on a Walk Across Saigon

My non-existent architectural background leaves me unable to do anything beyond expressing a distaste for tacky constructions and a vague idea of what constitutes a well-designed building. I can speak...

in Saigon

Hidden in the Heart of D5, an Architectural Vestige of 1970s Vietnam-Korea History

For years now, the verdant pine green pavilion in the heart of Hòa Bình Park in District 5 has been a familiar landmark for denizens of Chợ Lớn.

in Saigon

Tân Định Market, D1's Nearly 100-Year-Old Trading Hub

Originally known as the marché de Phu-Hoa, Tân Định Market at 1 Nguyễn Hữu Cầu in District 1 is one of the city’s most historic markets, but it was the opening of the stylish French market building of...

Partner Content