When we think of the city named Saigon, the Vietnam War seems to be the predominate thought that comes to mind.
Although the official name – as of 1976 – is Ho Chi Minh City, most Vietnamese and expats still refer to their city as Saigon. Buried deep in a rich and tumultuous history, the Saigon of today is nothing like it’s past.
As with all Southeast Asian countries, Vietnam is beaming to the brim with 98.5 million proud people that love their country and are happy to be living there.
Ho Chi Minh City, is the largest city in Vietnam. It was the capital of the French protectorate of Cochinchina from 1862–1954 and of South Vietnam from 1954–1975. The city lies along the Saigon River to the north of the Mekong River delta, about 50 miles (80 km) from the South China Sea. The commercial center of Cho Lon lies immediately west of Ho Chi Minh City.
The area now occupied by Ho Chi Minh City was for a long time part of the kingdom of Cambodia. The Vietnamese first gained entry to the region in the 17th century. Relations with France began in the 18th century, when French traders and missionaries settled in the area. In 1859 the town was captured by the French, and in 1862 it was ceded to France by the Vietnamese emperor Tu Duc. As the capital of Cochinchina, Saigon was transformed into a major port city and a metropolitan center of beautiful villas, imposing public buildings, and well-paved, tree-lined boulevards. Railway lines running north and south of the city were constructed, and Saigon became the principal collecting point for the export of rice grown in the Mekong River delta.
Saigon was occupied by the Japanese in 1940, but French colonial authorities continued to administer Vietnam until 1945, when they were interned by the Japanese. Saigon itself was largely unaffected by World War II.
After the Japanese surrender in 1945, Vietnamese independence was declared by the Viet Minh organization under Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi, but celebrations in Saigon turned into a riot. French troops then seized control of the city, and the First Indochina War began. The war ended in 1954 with a Geneva conference, which divided Vietnam into northern and southern zones. The cultural and political life of Saigon, which became the capital of South Vietnam, was enriched and complicated by an influx of refugees from North Vietnam.
During the Second Indochina War in the 1960’s and early 1970’s, Saigon was the headquarters of U.S. military operations. Parts of the city were destroyed by fighting in 1968. On April 30, 1975, North Vietnamese troops captured Saigon, and the city was subsequently renamed Ho Chi Minh City.
It was a brutal time in Vietnam’s history as many remember the savage images that were spread around the world.
In once such case, the public execution of Nguyễn Văn Lém would be one of many turning points to end the Vietnam War.
Under communist control, Ho Chi Minh City lost its administrative functions, and strenuous efforts were made to reduce its population and dependence upon foreign imports and to nationalize its commercial enterprises. While many business firms closed or were disrupted after 1975, new ventures began, with emphasis placed on self-sufficiency. A state-run handicraft enterprise exports a wide range of products—including furniture, carpets, lacquer paintings, and other works of art—made largely from local materials.
Ho Chi Minh City retains the faded look of a European city, its many Western-style buildings dating from the period of French colonial rule. Most of the bars and restaurants that thrived in Saigon during the Vietnam War have closed their doors. The elegant Cercle Sportif, a focal point of social life for Westerners after it was founded in 1912, is now a people’s museum. The old opera house, for 20 years the National Assembly Building, was converted to a national theater. The University of Saigon was reorganized to form the University of Ho Chi Minh City. Tan Son Nhut Airport has regularly scheduled flights by Air Vietnam to other domestic urban centers and by Air France to Paris.
Cochinchina was bounded on the northeast by the part of central Vietnam that the French called Annam (q.v.), on the southeast by the South China Sea, on the southwest by the Gulf of Thailand, and on the northwest by Cambodia. Its chief city was Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City.
Largely comprising a flat, deltaic plain created by the historically shifting channels of the Mekong, Cochinchina extended from the canal-checkered Ca Mau Peninsula northward through the Mekong channels and the swampy Dong Thap Muoi west of Saigon. At its northwestern and western extremities, outliers of the Plateau du Mnong and the Cambodian Dâmrei Mountains rose to more than 2,300 feet (700 m).
The Ca Mau is still one of the world’s richest rice-producing regions, and as a whole is predominantly Vietnamese, with Khmer – Cambodian – and Chinese minorities, the latter principally in the Cho Lon sector of Ho Chi Minh City.
Saigon River, in southern Vietnam that rises near Phum Daung, southeastern Cambodia, and flows south and south-southeast for about 140 miles (225 km). In its lower course it embraces Ho Chi Minh City on the east and forms an estuary at the head of Ganh Rai Bay, an outlying part of the Mekong delta. The Saigon is joined 18 miles (29 km) northeast of Ho Chi Minh City by the Dong Nai River, an important stream of the central highlands, and just above Ho Chi Minh City it is joined by the Ben Cat River. At Cho Lon, the former Chinese southern sector of Ho Chi Minh City, it is joined by two ship channels, the Kinh Tau Hu and the Kinh Te. Ten miles (16 km) below Ho Chi Minh City is the oil harbor of Nha Be. Although it lies 45 miles (72 km) from the mouth of the river, the port of Ho Chi Minh City is the most important in Southeast Asia and is navigable to ships with drafts of up to 30 feet (9 m).
The Paris Peace Accords of January 1973 had allowed the United States a face-saving way to extricate its troops from the Vietnam War. The agreement left North Vietnamese army units where they were in South Vietnam, and low-intensity fighting continued. The South Vietnamese were profligate in the expenditure of munitions and, with rapidly rising fuel prices, faced a financial crisis. Rampant inflation, glaring corruption, and the loss of U.S. support undermined army morale, with 24,000 troops deserting every month.
The North Vietnamese, resupplied and scenting a final victory, were eager to fight. In December 1974 they tested whether the United States would resume bombing if they blatantly violated the peace by invading Phuoc Long province, only 40 miles (65 km) from Saigon. Congress rejected U.S. President Gerald Ford’s appeals for increased aid for South Vietnam, and there was no U.S. response. The speed and ease of the operation showed that South Vietnam’s willingness to resist was disintegrating.
In March 1975 the North Vietnamese launched offensives in the Central Highlands and in Quang Tri province in northern South Vietnam. South Vietnamese counterattacks failed as large numbers of troops deserted to protect their families. On March 13, South Vietnam’s President Nguyen Van Thieu ordered his army to withdraw southward, where supply lines would be shorter, but retreat rapidly became a rout as deserters, refugees, and troops clogged roads and spread panic. Emboldened, the North Vietnamese ordered their entire strength on the offensive—Saigon was to fall that spring. With only three divisions left to defend the capital, there was no question about the outcome. A desperate scramble to escape the approaching North Vietnamese army ensued. Some South Vietnamese units fought on with great courage. The 29th Division, for example, made a heroic last stand at Xuan Loc on the approaches to Saigon. But one air force pilot bombed the presidential palace before flying off to defect.
On April 21, Thieu announced his resignation on television, denouncing the United States for betraying South Vietnam in its hour of need. By April 27, Saigon was encircled by 100,000 North Vietnamese troops, but there was hardly a need for such a force. U.S. citizens were already being evacuated, and Vietnamese thronged around the U.S. embassy, frantic for a seat on the helicopters. Operation Frequent Wind did evacuate 7,000 people, but they were only a fraction of those with reason to fear the North Vietnamese. Desperate people tried to get aboard already overcrowded boats on the Saigon River. The North Vietnamese did not hinder the flight.
When an artillery barrage announced that the final assault was about to be launched, there was little resistance left. North Vietnamese troops began to occupy strategic points in the city, and within hours the South Vietnamese government offered to surrender, but they were ignored. The North Vietnamese army saw no need to deny themselves a military victory to crown decades of struggle. At noon on April 30, a T-54 tank burst through the gates of the presidential palace, an act seen on television across the world. A few South Vietnamese units fought on in the Central Highlands and Mekong delta for a while longer, but the Vietnam War was effectively over.
Nguyen Tri Phuong, a general dedicated to protecting Vietnam from European influence and military conquest by France. He was a conservative and a close adviser to the emperor Tu Duc.
The son of a provincial administrator, Nguyen Tri Phuong entered the military service and distinguished himself by repelling the Siamese invasion of Chau Doc, on the Cambodian border, and recapturing Ha Tien. At the death of General Truong Minh Giang in 1841, Nguyen Tri Phuong was named as his successor and became viceroy of lower Cochinchina.
Nguyen Tri Phuong linked himself to the monarchy by arranging the marriage of one of his daughters to Tu Duc, becoming one of the most powerful ministers at the court of Hue. Together, he and Tu Duc kept Vietnam closed to the West but, in refusing to adopt Western technology, left the country backward and vulnerable to conquest by the French.
Nguyen Tri Phuong delayed French conquest by his defense against Admiral Charles Rigault de Genouilly at Tourane – now Da Nang – in 1859, but he was decisively beaten in 1861 by Admiral Léonard Charner at Chi Hoa, near Saigon, and France was ceded several southern provinces. His final defeat in 1873 occurred in the defense of the Hanoi citadel. Taken prisoner, he availed himself of a traditional Vietnamese means of political and moral protest by tearing at his bandages and starving himself to death.
Tribal Viets inhabiting the Red River delta entered written history when China’s southward expansion had reached them in the 3rd century bce. From that time onward, a dominant theme of Vietnam’s history has been interaction with China, the source of most of Vietnam’s high culture. As a tribute-paying state after throwing off Chinese rule in 938 ce, Vietnam sent lacquer ware, animal skins, ivory, and tropical products to the Chinese emperor and received scrolls on philosophy, administration, and literature in return.
Sinic culture seeped deeply into society, but it shaped the aristocracy and mandarin families more than it did the peasantry, which preserved distinctive customs, beliefs, vocabulary, life ways, and gender relations.
Modeling themselves on Chinese emperors, Vietnam’s kings exacted tribute from ethnic minorities on the periphery of the Vietnamese state and called themselves emperors when not addressing the Chinese court. Although cultural and spatial gaps between the Vietnamese court and the farthest reaches of society were not as great as they were in China (Vietnam is about the size of a Chinese province, with a comparable population), the Vietnamese state’s capacity to rule diminished with distance from the capital. The refractory character of bamboo-hedged peasant communes was captured in the cliché, “The emperor’s writ stops at the village gate.”
Vietnam has a long history of affiliating with a dominant civilization and adapting that civilization’s ideas, institutions, and technology to Vietnamese purposes. This pattern of affiliating and adapting was already evident in Vietnam’s historical relations with China, and it reappeared as descendants of mandarins responded to the challenge of the West by rejecting tradition and becoming communists to combat colonialism. The pattern was evident again as it animated 20th-century artistic movements that employed Western forms to promote social renovation; and since the 1980’s it has been the driving force behind the Vietnam Communist Party’s embrace of economic liberalization and integration into the world economy. Such strategic absorption and adaptation have helped propel Vietnam to become one of the world’s most populous countries, with one of the most rapidly expanding market economies.