Vietnam’s former capital is a city that has been known by many names - historically, during France’s colonization, the French had nicknamed it “Pearl of the far East”, Chinese immigrants in the 1800s called it Cho Lon (which means big market), while in the present day, the metropolis on paper is officially Ho Chi Minh City, having had been forcibly renamed by the Communist government after the revolutionary. To most locals like me, it’s still affectionately called Saigon, a poetic name that evokes what the city was known as before the American war.
Ho Chi Minh City, also known as Saigon, is the largest city in Vietnam and the former capital of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam). The city was named after Ho Chi Minh, the communist leader of Vietnam who helped lead the country to independence from French colonial rule in the mid-20th century. However, the city was also known as Saigon prior to this, and the name has remained in use by many locals and internationals alike. Upon landing at the airport in Ho Chi Minh City, you may notice the airport code is SGN. While addresses around the city would say HCMC (abbreviation of Ho Chi Minh City), the names of some businesses would include Saigon. It could be perplexing and could lead you to even wonder why this city has two names…
The name itself, “Saigon”, can be traced back to the 18th century, when the city was actually just a small fishing village on the banks of the Saigon River. The name Saigon is thought to have originated from the Sài Gòn, the name of a tributary of the Dong Nai River that runs through the city. The name Sài Gòn is a combination of the Sài, meaning "to gather" or "to collect," and Gòn, meaning "coconut." This likely refers to the many leafy coconut trees that grew along the banks of the river.
The once sleepy fishing village then became an important city in the 19th century, when the French colonized Vietnam and established it as the capital of Cochinchina, one of the three regions of French Indochina, along with Tonkin and Annam (modern-day North and Central Vietnam, respectively). The city grew rapidly as a centre of trade and commerce. By the early 20th century, Saigon had already become the largest city in Vietnam and the economic and cultural centre of the country.
The French also brought in many settlers, particularly from France and other parts of Europe, to the city (French names of places in Saigon, like Pasteur street and the elite Marie Curie High School, still exist.) These settlers established businesses, banks, and trading companies, which helped to further develop the city's economy. They also built grand colonial-style buildings, such as the Notre-Dame Cathedral and the Central Post Office, which can still be seen today. French literature, art and education were introduced to the local population, and many Vietnamese students were sent to study in France. Saigon also had a vibrant nightlife with a buzzing cafe scene, and theatres catering to both locals and foreigners (all that is to this day very much a huge part of the city’s DNA).
Notre Dame Cathedral of Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City01 Công xã Paris, Bến Nghé, Quận 1, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam
However, it is really crucial to remember that the French colonization was not without its exploitative issues and pain. The French government had a policy of forced labour and land confiscation, which led to widespread poverty among the local population. Additionally, the French were responsible for the deaths of thousands of Vietnamese citizens in their effort to control and maintain power over the colony. Ho Chi Minh, the revolutionist, was the man behind ultimately ending French colonial rule through warfare.
After the fall of Saigon in April 30, 1975, the city was officially renamed Ho Chi Minh City in honour of the communist leader. To this day, the official name of the city is Ho Chi Minh City, and that is the name that is recognized by the government and used on official documents - be it passports, business deals, addresses, etc. However, the city's residents, who are called Saigonese, continue to refer to the metropolis as Saigon. The name Saigon holds a significant cultural significance for many people in Vietnam, particularly those who lived in the city during the time it was known as Saigon (including my parents and their friends).
For many older residents of Ho Chi Minh City, particularly those who lived there during the time of the Vietnam War, the name Saigon is closely tied to their personal memories and experiences. For these people, the name Saigon represents a different time in their lives, one that is often remembered with a mix of nostalgia and longing. For the younger generations, the name Saigon is often associated with the cultural identity of the city and the country as a whole. The name Saigon is closely tied to the history and culture of South Vietnam, and it is seen as a symbol of the unique identity of this region.
It’s also a name that is woven into Vietnam’s culture - Saigon is still used in literature, music, and film to evoke a certain time and place, a certain atmosphere. The name Saigon is often used as a symbol of a bygone era, one that is romanticized in the minds of many people. Saigon is even used in Western pop culture and in music and film, such as the lyrics "Queen of Saigon" sung throughout various songs by Lana Del Rey, or the film "Saigon Electric" which is a Vietnamese-American film.
When you’re walking around exploring Ho Chi Minh City, it’ll be easy to notice how the city is referred to interchangeably:
- Local businesses such as cafes, bars and restaurants often have "Saigon" in their name, such as "Saigon Coffee House" or "Saigon Bistro."
- Landmark attractions in the city, such as the Saigon Opera House, Saigon Central Post Office or the Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica, still retain their original names from before the fall of Saigon.
- Many hotels in the city still use the name "Saigon" in their branding, such as "Paradise Saigon Boutique Hotel & Spa" or "Calista Sai Gon Hotel." Both are super affordable well-rated hotels that are within walking distance of the city’s main attractions too!
- Many locals and older residents in the city still refer to it as Saigon and refer to Ho Chi Minh City only in writing and as a governmental name.
- Many media outlets in Vietnam, especially in the south of Vietnam, continue to use the name "Saigon" when referring to the city, as it is more familiar to their audience.
Saigon Central Post Office, Ho Chi Minh City02 Công xã Paris, Bến Nghé, Quận 1, Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh 70000, Vietnam
It is important to note that while the name Saigon is still commonly used, it is not considered always correct to use it in all contexts, particularly in official or formal settings. In general, in a conversation or informal setting, both names can be used interchangeably, but when it comes to formal or official settings, it's best to use the official name Ho Chi Minh City. Though the age-old adage goes, it is always best to be mindful of the context and audience when using either name, as some people may have strong feelings about the name and its historical and emotional attachment.
Overall, while the official name of the city is Ho Chi Minh City, the name Saigon is still used widely in the city and continues to be a strong part of its cultural identity today.
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