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Saigon in the earlier days

When the Van Lang and Au Lac kingdoms in northern Vietnam were founded before the era, Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) was still an ownerless land which remained uninhabited until the 17th century, when the first groups of Vietnamese arrived.

Saigon and Nam Bo plain came into existence around 6000 years ago, after the sea retreated the last time. In those days Saigon lied between two old alluvial plains: the South East and the Cuu Long. Throughout the Stone and Iron Ages, Saigon represented two cultures: Sa Huynh (formed around 3000 BC) and Oc Eo (from the beginning of the era to the 7th century).

In the 6th century, Chan Lap (today Cambodia) took control of Phu Nam (which included Saigon). Chan Lap territory was devided into two parts: the affluent and densely populated Dry Chan Lap where the feudal government was based, and the Wet Chan Lap covered by sea, waste land and forest. Saigon was named Preinokor and belonged to the wet Chan Lap.

The Wet Chan Lap was still a dangerous desert land by the 17th century. When king Chey Choetha II of Chan Lap married a daughter of a Nguyen lord, both sides were happy. Chan Lap hoped the Nguyen lords could help them thwart Chiem La (Thailand), while Nguyen lords wanted to further extend their territory. As a result of the marriage, citizens of both Dai Viet and Chan Lap were free to move between the countries, and the Vietnamese started to move south. Vietnamese settlers began to use Vietnamese words for their new homelands: Preinokor was named Saigon, Kaskrobey changed to Ben Nghe, and Nong Nai to Dong Nai.

In 1623 king of Chan Lap allowed Nguyen lord to set up tax offices in Saigon. By then the 'dangerous' Wet Chan Lap was seen by both Dai Viet and Chan Lap as the ownerless land: there were no restrictions on whoever wanting to settle in the Wet Chan Lap, all depending on the will and the power of the new settlers. The NO RESTRICTION policies from both Dai Viet and Chan Lap towards settling in the Wet Chan Lap helped to create a mix of different ethnicities in Saigon and the surrounding area. By the 17th century Saigon mixed population was made up of the Khmer (Chan Lap), Champa, Man, Chinese and Vietnamese. Original dwellers of the Wet Chan Lap was the Khmer, in their small numbers. The Champa arrived here after the Nguyen lord invaded and annexed the Champa Kingdom to Dai Viet in 1693. The Chinese were dissidents of their mainland feudal government, they obtained permissions to stay from Nguyen lords. The Vietnamese were encouraged to move south by the Nguyen lords, in the hope they can extend the Nguyen territory and resist Trinh lords' forces from the north.

King Nac On Non of Chan Loc was driven out of his own country in 1674 by the opposing force from his own royal clan. He came to Dai Viet to plead with Nguyen lord for assistance. Nguyen lord sent his army to Chan Lap to help the king but the plan did not succeed so Nguyen lord appointed Nac Ong Non the deputy head of Saigon. In truth, Saigon become a territory of Nguyen lord. In 1697 Nac Ong Non's son, Nac Ong Niem, returned from Saigon to Oudong, the capital of Chan Lap, to marry the daughter of king Nac Ong Thu of Chan Lap, the event which could see him as the future king of Chan Lap. Since then Saigon no longer had the deputy head.

 

Nguyen Huu Canh and the re-birth of Saigon

In 1698 Nguyen lord sent Nguyen Huu Canh to Dang Tho (Wet Chan Lap) to form Gia Dinh county. The entire Wet Chan Lap was still full of mud and dense forest. Facing a stark reality of the labour shortages and the primitive way of life on the 'unexplored' territory, Nguyen Huu Canh based his headquarter at Cu Lao Pho and immediately set out his plan to bring Dang Tho to prosperity.


Nguyen Huu Canh 1650-1700

Once Nguyen lord approved the plan, Nguyen Huu Canh sent his officers to talk up the Vietnamese to move into Dang Tho. Nguyen Huu Canh also divided the land into counties and set up the corresponding principal towns. Dong Nai was re-named Phuoc Long, with Tran Bien (present-day Bien Hoa) the principal town. Phien Tran (the then name of Saigon) was the town of Tan Binh. Tran Bien covered lands from Binh Thuan to Nha Be, Phien Tran occupied lands between Tan Binh and Can Giuoc (today Long An). Gia Dinh was a vast area covering Binh Thuan, Sai Gon, Dong Nai, Nha Be and Long An. In commerce Nguyen Huu Canh set up the floating river market Nha Be, at the triangle of the Binh Duong river. Towards the end of the 17th century, Nha Be was developed into Dai Pho port, one of the youngest ports in the South East Asia. In the middle of the 19th century, Saigon became a prosperous land, supplying food for the whole Vietnam.

 

Saigon under the French rule

A year after invading Da Nang, the French seized Saigon in 1859. Seeing Saigon as an ideal location to exert control over Vietnam and Indochina, the French started to rebuild Saigon into the 'Pearl of the Far East'. Saigon was made a borough and the principal city of Gia Dinh county. The head of Gia Dinh was a French national, supported by an advisory council. The Vietnamese officials were also present to help out their French superiors.

Two years into the reconstruction had changed Saigon look: new buildings in places of the old dams, new roads replacing footpaths and uneven dirt tracks. Highways, streets, pavements and office complex completely changed the rural Saigon into a cosmopolitan city with easy access by many means of transports. Saigon apart, the Gia Dinh county also had other boroughs, namely Cho Lon, Tay Ninh, Go Cong and Tan An.

On the 15th of March 1874, the French president formally approved the city status to Saigon. The city was governed by a head, two deputies and a council. Within half a century Saigon had changed into a Western-styled city. Saigon became the political centre of the South Eastern Counties in 1862, the principal city of the Southern Vietnam in 1867, as well as being a political and economic centre of the whole Indochina.

 

Saigon in resistance against the French and American

Spring of 1885 saw Phan Cong Hon and Nguyen Van Qua leading the peasant uprising against the French in Hoc Mon. 30 years later a similar uprising took place in Muoi Tam Thon Vuon Trau (18 betel villages), headed by Nguyen Huu Tri and Pham Xich Long. Both of them were brought down by the French.


Nha Rong Wharf, where Ho Chi Minh started
his journey abroad in 1912 to liberate Vietnam

During the August revolution (1945) the Viet Minh set up the General Uprising Council the night of 15th August 1945 in Saigon and seized the city shortly afterwards. However, with the help of Britain, the French once again came back to Saigon and the city went through another decade of the French rule until 1954, when the Geneva Peace Accord was signed between Vietnam and France.

By the term of the 1954 Peace Accord, Saigon hoped to become a free city of the unified Vietnam by 1956. The dream never came true, as the American did not accept the terms when the accord was signed. Vietnam was again split into the socialist North and capitalism South, and the campaign to drive American out of the country went on for another 21 years.

In Saigon the anti-American feeling reached its climax on 11th June 1963 when patriarch Thich Quang Duc burnt himself to protest against Ngo Dinh Diem, the then president of South Vietnam, and the presence of American army. Alongside peaceful protest, Saigon people also put up military and para-military fights in the form of special task force (Dac Cong). American advisers were assassinated in worryingly increasing numbers. September of 1962 alone saw 86 assassinations. Bomb attacks took place almost everywhere in the city. The basketball ground had bomb detonated on 9th February 1964, the King Do cinema serving American officers was attacked on 16th February 16th February 1964, causing the death of 150 American service men. On the 2nd of May 1965, the Carter aircraft carrier was blasted at Saigon port, 55 American soldiers died and 19 planes destroyed. Although the Tet offensive in 1968 did not bring the success the North had hoped for, both America and the South were left shaken and doubting whether they would ever be safe in Vietnam.

Throughout the war, Saigon residents also invented 'Dia Dao Cu Chi', a network of underground ditches that accommodated the anti-American forces. The 'Dia Dao Cu Chi' provided almost everything the partisan forces needed: food stores, arm caches, wells, commander bunkers, meeting places, cinemas, communal sleeping places, dining areas, surgeries,... In the year 60s 'Dia Dao Cu Chi' was the hiding place for the Saigon resistance forces, avoiding American planes scanning ground from the air. 'Dia Dao Cu Chi' made it easy for the Vietnamese fighters to mobilize between different attacking positions.

While 'Dia Dao Cu Chi' was the underground base of Viet Cong, 'Rung Sac' was their floating base. Aware of the importance Rung Sac held to the survival of Saigon, the American set up 'Rung Sac Special Zone' to protect Saigon. For the Viet Cong, Rung Sac was the channel to supply food and arms. They established Rung Sac as an important military base, their forces ('Dac Cong') being carefully trained in small units to take on the well-equipped and outnumbering American forces. Facing constant attacks from 'Dac Cong', the American had to accept that they were fighting a 'strange battle in a strange war'.

 

Ho Chi Minh campaign

The campaign started on the 1st April 1975 and was named after Ho Chi Minh, to reflect Ho Chi Minh's desire to unify Vietnam. Unlike the Tet Offensive in 1968, when the Ho Chi Minh campaign started it was only a matter of days the South of Vietnam were going to crumble, as the North had previously taken control of the Central High Land early in March and freed a number of cities, including Hue, Da Nang.


April 1975 marked the final moments of the US Embassy

On 8th April 1975, the North pilots bombarded Independence Palace, headquarter of the South of Vietnam. On 16th April they broke down the Saigon defence trench in Phan Rang. The final push for Saigon started on 26th, 3 days after the American admitted the Vietnam war was over, and they moved swiftly to finally win the war when America-supported Duong Van Minh's government in Saigon laid down their arms on the 30th April 1975.

Ho Chi Minh city today

After the war ended, Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City. The city is the economic centre of Vietnam, with a population of more than 4 million people. It's a bustling, dynamic and industrious place, the largest city in the country, the economic capital and the cultural trendsetter. Yet within the teeming metropolis are the timeless traditions and beauty of an ancient culture.