Saigon – Thanh Pho Ho Chi Minh

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Saigon 1968

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.

Execution Of Nguyễn Văn Lém - February 1, 1968
Execution Of Nguyễn Văn Lém – February 1, 1968 – South Vietnamese sources said that Lém commanded a Vietcong death squad, which on that day had targeted South Vietnamese National Police officers, or in their stead, the police officers’ families. Corroborating this, Lém was captured at the site of a mass grave that included the bodies of at least seven police family members.

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.

Northern Vietnam Rice Fields

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.

The Golden Bridge (Cầu Vàng)

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The Golden Bridge

The Golden Bridge, (Vietnamese: Cầu Vàng) also known as the “Freedom Bridge” is a 490 foot (150 meter) pedestrian bridge in the Bà Nà Hills, roughly 15 miles (25km) west of Da Nang, Vietnam.

Formerly the site of an American base during the Vietnam War, the imperial city and the mausoleum of China. After watching so many Vietnam War films, Carson himself finally came to the battlefield. Carson is a strategic stronghold of the U.S. military’s lone 19th-degree line, threatening Ho Chi Minh Trail, and relying on airlift supplies to himself.

In 1968, North Vietnam changed its guerrilla tradition with Soviet weapons, attacking 5,000 marines with three main divisions. The U.S. military, supported by air power, attacked the Vietnamese army, defended its positions and won military victory. But the anti-war movement led the U.S. to abandon its positions and destroy everything. This was the most brutal battle of the Vietnam War. It was a US military base, but it was a simple display of US weapons and graphic material, which was slightly boring. Like China, it had less respect for its war adversaries. You can feel the cruelty of the war if you are there.

Hence the name of “Freedom Bridge.”

It was designed to connect the cable car station with the gardens and to provide a scenic overlook and tourist attraction. The bridge loops nearly back around to itself, and has two giant hands, constructed of fiberglass and wire mesh, designed to appear like stone hands that support the structure.

The client for the project was the Sun Group. The bridge was designed by TA Landscape Architecture based in Ho Chi Minh City. The company’s founder, Vu Viet Anh, was the project’s principal designer, with Trần Quang Hùng as the bridge designer and Nguyen Quang Huu Tuan as the bridge’s design manager. Construction began in July 2017 and was completed in April 2018.

Remembering The Killing Fields

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The Killing Fields Cambodia

As I’ve written many times before, this one is not going to be an exception.

Throughout history, dictators and governments around the world have all thought at some point in time – for reasons I cannot understand – that they would rather rule over the ashes than to allow a thriving population.

This is the story of one such power hungry government.

The Cambodian Genocide represents a very complicated time in history. In the early 1970s, US diplomats raised concerns about the potential for mass atrocities in Cambodia. The comparison between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were made. The level of support the Khmer Rouge received from fellow communist states North Vietnam and China also meant there were concerns over the spread of communism in Southeast Asia.

In 1979, the Khmer Rouge aimed outwards with the goal of creating a new Angkorian empire. This led to attacks into the newly unified Vietnam, which eventually provoked the country’s army to invade Cambodia. At the time, China opposed the action by Vietnam. Because of the support from China, the Khmer Rouge regime was able to keep its seat at the UN until 1982, three years after it lost power.

The occupation by Vietnam, the support from China, and the fact that the Khmer Rouge held power in many parts of rural Cambodia for more than a decade after the Vietnamese invasion, further complicates the international reaction to the genocide.

Lasting for four years – 1975 to 1979 – the Cambodian Genocide was an explosion of mass violence that saw approximately two million people killed at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, a communist political group. The Khmer Rouge had taken power in the country following the Cambodian Civil War. During their brutal four-year rule, the Khmer Rouge was responsible for the deaths of nearly a quarter of the Cambodian population.

The Cambodian Genocide was the result of a social engineering project by the Khmer Rouge, attempting to create a classless agrarian society. The regime would ultimately collapse when the neighboring Vietnam invaded, establishing an occupation that would last more than a decade.

Eight years before the genocide began, Cambodia was engaged in a bloody civil war. The war pitted the Cambodian monarchy, and later the Cambodian Republic, and its allies, including the United States, against the Cambodian communists. The communists received support from the neighboring Vietcong.

The Cambodian monarchy promoted a strong sense of nationalism and loyalty to the government, but was also seen as corrupt and ineffective. This corruption would breed several underground groups with the shared goal of overthrowing the government. Early on, right-wing and leftist groups, including leaders of what would become the Khmer Rouge, were allies.

Income imbalance was rampant. Cambodians living in the urban areas enjoyed relative wealth and comfort while the majority of Cambodians toiled on farms in the rural communities. This obvious division of class made Cambodia especially susceptible to revolution. Ultimately, the Khmer Rouge would take power in 1975, installing Pol Pot as the leader of the country.

Once the Khmer Rouge took power, they instituted a radical reorganization of Cambodian society. This meant the forced removal of city dwellers into the countryside, where they would be forced to work as farmers, digging canals and tending to crops. Gross mismanagement of the country’s economy led to shortages of food and medicine, and untold numbers of people succumbed to disease and starvation. Families were also split up. The Khmer Rouge created labor brigades, assigning groups depending on age and gender. This policy resulted in hundreds of thousands of Cambodians starving to death.

Religious and ethnic minorities faced particular persecution. Christian and Buddhist groups were targeted for repression but it was the Cham Muslim group that was most affected by the genocide. As many as 500,000 people, or 70% of the total Cham population, were exterminated. Because the Khmer Rouge placed a heavy emphasis on the rural peasant population. Anyone considered an intellectual was targeted for special treatment. This meant teachers, lawyers, doctors, and clergy were the targets of the regime. Even people wearing glasses were the target of Pol Pot’s reign of terror.

There is difficulty establishing a definitive number of victims of the Cambodian Genocide. The Cambodians kept methodical records of prisoners and executions. However, because Cambodia’s enemy, Vietnam, invaded and released the records, there is speculation they could have been exaggerated. In addition, estimating the total number of people who starved is difficult. Estimates range from 1.5 to 3 million people having died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, with the consensus being approximately 2 million.

Pol Pot, or Brother Number One, was the leader of the Khmer Rouge. He was born Saloth Sar to farmers in rural Cambodia in 1925. Pol Pot was a bright student and spent time studying in France, where he became involved with communist groups in the early 1950s.

After returning home in 1953, Pol Pot joined clandestine groups in Cambodia. It was during this time that he began combining Stalinist and Maoist models with a returned focus on an agrarian society. With support from rural Cambodians, North Vietnamese, and Chinese, Pol Pot was ultimately able to take control of the country in 1975.

Although he would be overthrown four years later by an invading Vietnamese army, Pol Pot avoided capture. He maintained some level of power for nearly two decades. When the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) came to the country in 1992, it engaged Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge as a necessary partner to bring peace to Cambodia. One of UNTAC’s stated goals was to bring Pol Pot and other senior Khmer Rouge officials to trial. However, Pol Pot would die in 1998, before the trials took place. Although tried in absentee, he was never punished for his crimes and remained unrepentant until the end.

The Cambodian Genocide continues to play a role in Cambodia today. Although Cambodia has made the transition back to a functionary democracy since its constitution was ratified in 1993 as part of the UNTAC operation, the country still has difficulty addressing the crimes of its past.

In 1997, the Cambodian government approached the United Nations for assistance in prosecuting senior members of the Khmer Rouge. After the Vietnamese had taken power in 1979, many leaders had been tried in absentee, but were never formally punished. The courts in Cambodia, known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, or the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, attempted to identify the senior members of the regime who were most complicit with the crimes occurring.

Since the court was convened, it has indicted five members of the Khmer Rouge. Three of them have been convicted and are currently serving life sentences, one died during trial, and the fifth was deemed unfit for trial and is pending further evaluation. The Khmer Rouge trials have been a source of controversy in Cambodia because of their cost and perceived ineffectiveness. In addition to the trials, the courts are also tasked with providing victim support and documenting the crimes. There is no deadline for the court to cease operating.

Many of the locations connected with the genocide are now popular tourist sites. The Tuol-Sleng museum is housed in the former S-21 prison, the scene of many executions. The museum itself was created by the Vietnamese and used to display the horrific crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge. It is left in a state as the Vietnamese found it. The killing fields, popularized by major motion pictures, are also popular tourist sites in Cambodia. Signs often mark the burial places of hundreds located in mass graves. The country continues to grapple with monetizing places connected with a terrible past and the desire of tourists to experience them.

Today, arts explore the memory and legacy of the genocide. Recent popular songs have explored the genocide and its lingering impact on contemporary Cambodia. This connection has spread to the United States, where a significant number of Cambodian refugees settled in the aftermath of the genocide.