This highly attractive and technically impressive atlas, or mega-map (depending on its format), occupies an important place in the history of the earth sciences of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. It represents the bridge between the geological mapping of the former colony of French Indochina (which embraces all three said countries), largely conducted by French scientists, and the new post-independence mapping executed by Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian specialists, forming the foundation for all the work that had been done up the present day.
The atlas was made by the Service géographique national du Viet-Nam (Bản Đò̂ Địa chá̂t Cam-bó̂t-Lào-Việt-nam), the geological mapping institute of South Vietnam, which was the local successor of the long-standing French colonial agency, the Service géologique de l’Indochine, based in Hanoi (Vietnam gained its independence in 1954 but since 1955 had been divided into the pro-Western capitalist South and the Communist North, resulting in the ongoing Vietnam War (1955-75)).
The atlas features 22 large format folding maps covering all the territory of Vietnam (both North and South), Cambodia and Laos, all colour lithographed in resplendent hues to identify geological zones. The maps were originally separately and serially published between 1961 and 1963 at the Service géographique’s headquarters in Đà Lạt, a bucolic resort town that sits at an elevation of 1,500 metres in the mountains, to the northeast of Saigon. The complete series of maps were assembled and bound into atlas form, as here, in 1963. Alternatively, the sheets could be joined to form a geological mega-map of Indochina, of irregular dimensions, with maximum measurements of almost 3.7 x 2 metres.
Each of the finely designed and colour lithographed map sheets is built upon a highly accurate topographic template taken from official trigonometric surveys, and are overprinted in bright hues showing geological zones, which are explained in the margins, including classifications of sedimentary and crystalline rocks. Additionally, in the margins are the symbols used to identify fault lines, and the presence of various minerals and resources, such as gold, iron, oil, copper, graphite, lead, salt, mercury, carbon, antimony, etc. Only the geological zones and resources present on each sheet are noted in the appropriate margins, such that the legends are customized for each map. While the legends of the sheets are only in French, the titles and explanations are trilingual (Vietnamese, French and English).
To be clear, the present atlas includes the complete suite of maps of the series, numbering 22 sheets, although the numbering of the maps is somewhat eccentric. The numbering is not cleanly sequential, as it is based upon an old grid system favoured by the former colonial authorities, such that the map sheets are numbered as 1, 2E, 2W, 4W, 4E, 5W, 5E, 7, 8W, 8E, 11W, 11E, 12, 13, 14W, 14E, 15, 16, 17W, 17E, 18, 20; with ‘E’ being the eastern part of the quadrant, and ‘W’ being the western part. It seems that when the map sheets were issued separately, they often were accompanied by a descriptive text sheet; these were omitted when the sheets were bound in atlas form, as here.
The story behind the creation of the atlas is intriguing, and commences in French Indochina (Union indochinoise), the federated mega-colony that comprised of all modern Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, that existed between 1887 and 1954. While the French regime was responsible for suppressing the local peoples, it did succeed in rapidly modernizing the region, building several grand cities, sophisticated infrastructure and large enterprises of economic development (mines, plantations, ports, etc.).
Geological mapping, including of an advanced nature, commenced in the region not long after the first French colonial holdings were established in Cochinchina (far southern Vietnam) in the 1860s (the first part the future French Indochina), and further geological surveys continued to be undertaken as the French further developed the landscape. By the 1920s, there were stellar geological maps of certain key places, usually of the vicinities of major cities, mining areas or along the routes of railways, etc.; however, the coverage of geological cartography across French Indochina was highly uneven, such that some places were exquisitely mapped, while others were scarcely mapped at all. As France maintained grand colonial ambitions to further develop Indochina, the lack of a systematically and scientifically created geological map of the entire region, executed to a uniform standards and scale, came to be seen as major barrier to progress.
The Service géologique de l’Indochine, headquartered in Hanoi, the capital of Indochina, was established with the purpose of eventually creating such a standardized, advanced, all-encompassing survey of Indochina. This was a monumental endeavour, made even more challenging by unforeseen geopolitical events.
In 1927, the Chief of the Service géologique, André Lochard (1880–1946), commenced fieldwork on the first complete, systematic scientific geological survey of all Indochina.
The survey was to be executed upon a large uniform scale, with a plan to print the survey on 15 large sheets, to be separately and serially issued under the title Carte géologique de l’Indochine à l’échelle du 1:500,000 ([Hanoi:] Service géographique de l’Indochine, 1931-53).
The maps were designed and colour lithographed under the supervision of Vinh Phuong Nguyên, the Vietnamese master cartographer and draftsman, whose key role on the Service’s team is indicative of the fact that by the 1930s academic ventures in Indochina were increasingly becoming a multicultural affair, as opposed to the exclusive province of French and other European scientists.
From 1933, the project was spearheaded with gusto by Jacques Fromaget (1886–1956), who took over as the Chief of the Service, personally supervising field work to ensure quality control. The endeavour also received the enthusiastic support of Maurice Gassier (1880 – 1957), the Inspecteur Général des Travaux Publics de l’Indochine, who possessed wealth of geological information acquired through his infrastructure projects, as well as immense financial and technical resources, which he shared with the Service.
The sheets of the Carte géologique de l’Indochine continued to be gradually issued. However, the Japanese invasion of conquest of Vietnam, in September 1940, severely retarded the project, although some activities were still permitted by the occupying authorities. To make matters even more difficult, not long after the Japanese were defeated and evicted from Indochina, in the summer of 1945, the region descended into all-out rebellion against French rule during the Indochina War (1946-54). While the Service was able to continue its activities in French-controlled Hanoi, progress was challenging, and the last of the Carte géologique’s 16 sheets was only completed in 1953, the year before France was entirely driven from the region (Vietnam gained its independence in 1954, but fractured into South and North Vietnam in 1955).
While a small number of sets of the Carte géologique de l’Indochine were bound in atlas form, the separately issued sheets were seldom collected, and the complete work it today very rare, known in only a handful of examples.
Upon the fall of the French colonial regime in 1954, the Service géologique de l’Indochine was disbanded, although it seems that some of its records and resources managed to be transported to South Vietnam. This was fortunate, as geological surveying was then not really a priority for the communist North Vietnamese. Eventually, the Service géographique national du Viet-Nam was founded in the celebrious climate of Đà Lạt, with the ambition of continuing the former French Service’s mission. Conducting new field work was virtually impossible, due to the ongoing Vietnam War (1955-75), so the priority was to resurrect, improve and repackage the Carte géologique de l’Indochine, the sheets of which were, even by the late 1950s, very hard to come by.
It was in this context that the present Carte géologique Viet-Nam – Cambodge – Laos was endeavored, with the information from Vinh Phuong Nguyên original 1931-53 map sheets reformatted into 22 (generally smaller) sheets (as opposed to the original 16 sheets). The sheets were also issued with titles and explanations in a trilingual form (Vietnamese, French and English) to honour the home language, while making the work accessible to an international audience (the former sheets were only in French), while some limited improvements were made.
The fall of South Vietnam in 1975, saw the dissolution of the Service géographique national du Viet-Nam, whose activities were rolled into the Communist-run Vietnam Institute of Geosciences and Mineral Resources (headquartered in Hanoi), which during the post-war period eventually came to operate at a high scientific standard. The Carte géologique Viet-Nam – Cambodge – Laos served as the basis for their endeavours and was only superseded after many years, as new field work arrived from across Vietnam, and eventually Cambodia and Laos (which suffered their own political and military tragedies).
A Note on Rarity
A complete collection of the 22 map sheets, either gathered loose, or in atlas form, is very rare. As the sheets were issued separately over two-year period, in limited print runs, within a mildly chaotic wartime environment, it seems that even contemporary subscribers to the Service Géographique National su Viet-Nam’s publications had hard time receiving the complete set.
We can trace only 4 institutional holdings of the complete suite of 22 maps, held by Columbia University; University of California – Santa Barbara; University of California – Los Angeles; and the ETH-Bibliothek (Zürich). Various other institutions hold either single sheets or partial sets.
References: Columbia University: G8021.C5 s500.V5; University of California – Santa Barbara: 6737 .I52s C5 500 .V5; University of California – Los Angeles: G8006s .C5 500 NGSVN; ETH-Bibliothek (Zürich): KS Kartensammlung K P 214011; OCLC: 39334351, 496094493.