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Below: the "Auto-Hall" garage of the "Etablissements Bainier
d'Indochine" in Hanoi, located on 10, Trang Thi ("L'Eveil
Economique de l'Indochine", 17 July 1927).
Right: traces of the former garage in Hanoi, in the '90s.
Above: the "STACA" was a Citroen sub-agent in Annam
("L'Eveil Economique de l'Indochine", 16 Sep 1934), until
it was replaced by the Garage Aviat.
Below: the Citroen exhibition hall of the "Garage Aviat" in
Hanoi (undated photo, in "Revue Francaise de l'Elite
Europeenne", 1952). Albert Aviat had started a garage in
1920 on 45, rue de la Chaux in Hanoi; it moved to the
corner of boulevards Gambetta and Rialan in 1926, and
changed its name to SNC "Aviat et Dassier" in 1929, then
"Etablissements Aviat et Cie" in 1940. Albert Aviat's
son-in-law Andreani took over in 1947 and continued the
Citroen business until at least 1952.
Right: undated photos of Traction in Vietnam.
Above: a map of Indochina in 1931, with from
North to South along the South China Sea:
Tonkin, Annam, Cochinchina. Saigon, "the
pearl of the Orient", was the Southern capital
of this French territory, comprising of
present-day Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.
Above left: one of the first Citroen advertisings
in Indochina, by the "Société Anonyme des
Etablissements Bainier - Auto Hall" ("Les
Affiches Saigonnaises", 17 Sep 1920).
Left: large Citroen letters can be seen on the
roof of a building in the port of Saigon, in this
postcard printed in the '20s. This building may
have been used to store and assemble the
vehicles imported from Marseilles.
Above and left: the "Garage
Citroën", newly established on
37, rue d'Espagne, replaces
the Etablissements Bainier.
The Traction Avant was
launched by Citroen in 1934
Economique et Financiere",
19 Jan and 20 Apr 1935).
Right: in 1936, Citroen
established its fully-owned
subsidiary, the only one in
Asia, the "Société Automobile
brochure for the shipping
Maritimes"). The brand's
position remained strong,
keeping the top share in 1939,
with 374 cars sold, before
Renault (241) and Peugeot
(227), and well ahead of
Hotchkiss (18) and
Left: the very first mention of Citroen
in the local press: Emile Bainier
announces his appointment as
"exclusive agent for Cochinchina
and Cambodia" ("Les Affiches
Saigonnaises", 27 Jun 1919).
The first Citroens hit the Indochinese roads in 1919, the very year the company was founded
by André-Gustave Citroën. The importer, Emile Bainier, a fomer employee of the Ippolito
garage, had already started his automobile-related business in 1914 on 40, boulevard Bonard
in Saigon. In 1920 he founded a new company, the "Société Anonyme des Etablissements
Bainier", representing several automobile brands: Dodge, several now-forgotten French
brands: Darracq, Brasier, Unic, Zèbre, and the newly started Citroen, who met with
immediate success: it was one of the three most sought-after brands in the region in 1921,
along with Darracq and Renault.
In 1927 Emile Bainier shifted in higher gear
and opened "the most beautiful garage in the
Far-East" as the press wrote at the time, at
the corner of the boulevards Bonard and
Charner. In 1930, the company employed "14
Europeans and 261 natives" and sold a total
of 666 cars and chassis, thus securing the
top market share. Emile Bainier left the
country that same year, entrusting the
company to his deputy Georges Goetz.
Meanwhile, branches had been established
across the territory: Hanoi (1927), Hue, Tourane
(today's Danang) and Phnom-Penh (Cambodia).
But the economic crisis hit hard, and in 1933, the "Etablissements Bainier" lost the Citroen
rights. Citroen sent Henri Hospital to launch its own representation: the "Garage Citroën" on
37, rue d'Espagne (became Le Loi in 1939, then Le Than Ton since 1955), followed by a
new subsidiary, the SAEO (Société Automobile d'Extrême-Orient), founded on February
22nd, 1936, at the same address. Robert Morard and Henri Hospital were the directors.
Outside Saigon, agents were recruited to
develop the market and maintain the cars.
Albert Aviat in particular played an important
role: he started to represent Citroen in Hanoi
from 1936, then in Haiphong (thus replacing
the "Garage Central"), then in Tourane (in
replacement of the STACA). Meanwhile,
another director of the Etablissements
Bainier, Georges Desrues, opened his own
concession in Phnom-Penh (see ).
In 1954, while the French were losing Indochina and the
Americans started to step up their presence in the
South, the SAEO, headed by Guillemin, counted about
120 employees. This relatively high figure is explained
by the fact that the T45 trucks were still being CKD-ed
locally, in order to optimize the shipping costs. These
trucks, along with the Traction and 2CV, were very
popular with private companies (plantation, insurance,
breweries...), administrations and individuals.
Above: the Citroen network in what was
still, but not for long, French Indochina,
and before the introduction of the DS
("Sud-Est Asiatique", end 1952 or beg.
Right: the entrance to the workshop of
the SAEO, in 1965.
In October 2014, I could find and talk to
Hubert de Jorna, who was sent to the
SAEO in 1954 and succeeded Guillemin
in 1962. He recalled vividly the arrival of
the first DS in the country, in 1957: "It was
crazy. We got hundreds of orders but
could eventually deliver maybe a hundred
DS19, due to the importation quotas. But
very quickly, the technical problems
experienced by these early owners
(overheating and hydraulic leakage,
in spite of the replacement of the original
LHS by castor oil !) led to declining orders.
In spite of the introduction of the simpler ID,
the total sales did not exceed about 300
cars during these first 10 years."
Above: one of the first DS imported to Vietnam. This
photo, dated 1957, was taken in front of the mausoleum
of General Le Van Duyet in Saigon ("La DS objet de
culte", Fabien Sabatès, ed. Massin).
Above: one the twenty-one DS19 presented by the
French government in 1957 to its Vietnamese
counterpart, here at the French embassy in Saigon.
They were supposed to be used during the negotiations
held in the frame of the Colombo Plan. Hubert de Jorna
is second from right.
Below: some of these in front of the Dien Hong Hall in
Saigon, where the negotiations were held, in 1957. No
less than eight DS can be seen on this photo !
The customers were rich individuals,
French, Vietnamese, Chinese. The local
administrations had to buy American...
No advertising: the problem was more in
the importation quotas anyway. Only the
normal version of the DS was sold: no
modification (even air-conditioning), no
wagon body, etc.
End 1966, following the declaration of
General De Gaulle in Phnom-Penh
condemning the American military
intervention in Vietnam, the importation of
cars and parts from France was forbidden:
from then, only about 30 DS were brought
to the country, on a case-by-case basis,
from Citroen's Forrest plant in Belgium,
not concerned by the blockade. Spare
parts were also shipped from Belgium,
for maintenance purposes.
In 1975, Jacques Duchemin, who arrived
in 1964 and succeeded Hubert de Jorna
as SAEO Director four years later,
managed to import a "Prestige" DS23,
and sold it to the country's last President,
Nguyen Van Thieu. It has survived, and
is now in a private collection, see
Above and left: photos found in 2014 in an old shop in
Saigon. No location, no date, but so much charm !
Below: other photos of Saigon streets, dating back to
the '60s for the main part. Many such photos can be
found on the Net.
I could also talk to the SAEO's last Director,
Jacques Duchemin, in September 2014.
He explained how he came up with an
idea to sell a model more adapted to the
country's specific situation: locally
designed, locally assembled. The "La
Dalat" project was born...
Below: an ad for the 2CV, aimed at the American
personel in Vietnam, who are invited to "enjoy their tour
of duty" (1966), and another one for the Dyane (before
Further below: an Ami in Vung Tau (Cap Saint-Jacques),
the seaside area not far from Saigon. It did not sell
much in Vietnam.
In 1968, Jacques Duchemin obtained from
the Ministry of Industry the authorization to
imports parts with the goal of assembling
locally a small vehicle, on a 2CV basis. The
car was quickly conceived, with the help of
Alfred Nicolas, a Citroen agent in Dalat (a
hillside resort area), and production started
in 1969, first in SAEO's workshop, then,
in 1971, in a new building situated in
Saigon's suburbs. The total production,
including the last batches made after the
North Vietnamese took over after the fall
of Saigon in April 1975, reached an
estimated 3,880 cars. Some of them can
still be seen in Saigon's streets today.
In November 1975, seven months after the
fall of Saigon, Jacques Duchemin had to
leave the country, "in pyjamas". Citroen was
not to be seen again to Vietnam for a long,
Last but not least: in 1972, Jacques
Duchemin conceived another model for
local production: a small truck on a Type H
chassis with a "Currus" face, named
"Bassac", after the name of a tributary of
the Mekong river. Only 14 were made (bus,
pick-up and ambulance prototypes), and to
my knowledge none has survived. It is
undoubtedly one of the rarest Citroens in
the world... (Citropolis No 10, 2006, article
by Christian Etienne).
Below: the factory used by the SAEO for the "La Dalat"
assembly from 1971, on the road to Cholon (155, Van
Don), fornerly a Bastos tobacco factory. The SAEO
changed its name to Xe Hoi Citroën Cong Ty (Société
des Automobiles Citroën) in 1969.
Heartfelt thanks to Hubert de Jorna, Jacques Duchemin and Francois Doré (Librairie du
Siam, Bangkok) for their precious help in gathering information. I am also indebted to
Marie and Christian Etienne and their very well documented book for information about the
"La Dalat" project, and to fellow Citroen and DS hunters in Vietnam. Finally, the following
websites have been of great help:
Tim Doling has a fine website about old Indochina, and a page about the "Etablissements
Bainier" in particular (English):
Jean-Claude Toudy has loads of old documents on French Indochina and Saigon (French):
Many archives about Indochina here too (French):
Not forgetting this one, a very systematic study of the history of private companies in French
The "Dalat" is exhibited in several
versions along with a "Bassac" truck,
on this photo taken after the country's
unification ("2CV Citroën, ses dérivés,
Baby Brousse, Dalat, FAF et autres",
by Marie & Etienne Christian, ed.
Citroen met with success in
Vietnam like nowhere else in
Asia. The brand enjoyed a high
market share in the '20s and
'30s, and the introduction of the
DS in Saigon in 1957 was also
a hit, albeit short-lived.
Above: the "Auto-Hall" garage of the "Etablissements
Bainier d'Indochine" in Saigon, probably in the '30s. This
is where the famous Hotel Rex stands today.
Right: Bainier advertises for the C4 and C6 models
("Extrême-Asie", Oct 1929).
Below: another view of the same garage in Saigon, from
a book published in 1931.
Below right: traces of this garage could still be seen in
the '90s (photo taken in 1997).