Odd beginnings and puzzling narratives

Augustus in Saigon!? This seems odd, at least at first sight. The first Roman emperor Augustus (27 BC – AD 14) never entered what is nowadays Vietnam, nor did Roman imperial rule ever reach out to here (though few finds of Western ancient objects have been discovered). And of course, no copy of the famous Augustus of Primaporta statue is visible in modern Ho Chi Minh City, as might be suggested by our logo: it is just a collage to provoke thoughts and stimulate discussion.

Yet, there is some presence of Roman imperial, and classical Western, ideas in what was once Saigon and Vietnam, and it can be found in urban space, architectures, sculptures, money, and stamps, then and now. Certainly, these imperial messages are inevitably linked to the French colonial period, but they are still present today, in so-called post-colonial times, albeit in different guise and appearance. But why, how, and to what extent?

This webpage is dedicated to studying these classical Greek and Roman elements in their specific spaces and frameworks, and to reveal the different narratives they produced, from the past until today. It is the result of our course conducted in spring semester 2022 at Fulbright University Vietnam. Discovering and identifying these classical past in the very details of building structures, statues, monuments, reliefs, coins, banknotes, and stamps was the first step to delve into the history of the respective space or topic. Then hours of research into the historical contexts and background followed, to analyze the meaning and use of those classical elements in the overall structure. Based on these observations, we then attempted to understand the (changing) narratives to which those elements contributed. And at last, we composed our understanding into historical narratives that now lie in front of your eyes, dear visitor!


Happy the man who has Phyllis before his eyes each day and who never ceases seeing the things it contains, you cry, with regret at having to leave the city when you can barely graze it with your glance.

Invisible Cities (1972) by Italo Calvino


Similar to the description of the city Phyllis, an imagined version of the protagonist’s hometown Venezia, Ho Chi Minh City contains in itself several layers of meanings. However, you might not need to cry as the traveler’s claim in the above quote. Navigating through our exhibition, you will have the chance to see Saigon with new eyes and perhaps feel familiar and surprised simultaneously!

At first glance, it is still “Saigon” with the well-known City Hall, the Opera House, Vietnam History Museum, the National Bank of Vietnam, or the Riverside Hotel as being promoted at various tourism website. Yet, soon you will dive deep into the buildings’ pasts and go beyond their walls to explore Saigon’s societies. Once the mysteries shadowing those grandiose architectures are unveiled, you can train your eyes further by examining smaller spatial and social structures, such as statues. They are ubiquitous on the streets but we have barely paid sufficient attention to them. And finally, a very indispensable part of your life – banknotes, coins, and stamps – also embody in themselves the complicated histories of Vietnam. In the first half of the 20th century, those buildings, statues, and money conveyed and promoted the representation of French colonial ideology – Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity – through the images of Marianne or Greek/Roman gods, especially Athena/Minerva, Hermes/Mercury, and Nike/Victoria. The French colonial policy of assimilation or association was, and is, also expressed through the purpose and the design of those social infrastructures.

Nonetheless, you will probably ask whether those colonial buildings, statues, and money are still present in contemporary Vietnamese society. The answer is: yes and no. They are here, in Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City, but cloak themselves in new appearances, or are reconstructed and replaced. They are introduced to nowadays audiences – both Vietnamese and foreigners – in a depoliticized manner so that Vietnam can commemorate their own histories fraught with war and the spirit of resistance, but still conjoin with the international atmosphere of the new era.

Hence, let us start our journey to the past that is present and right before us!


The “Augustus in Saigon!?”-class

Odd beginnings and puzzling narratives