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Brief history

Knowledge of Ho Chi Minh City’s early history is sketchy at best. Between the first and sixth centuries, the territory on which it lies fell under the nominal rule of the Funan Empire to the west. Funan was subsequently absorbed by the Kambuja peoples of the pre-Angkor Chen La Empire, but it is unlikely that these imperial machinations had much bearing upon the sleepy fishing backwater that would later develop into Ho Chi Minh City.

Khmer fishermen eked out a living here, building their huts on the stable ground just north of the delta wetlands, which made it ideal for human settlement. Originally named Prei Nokor, it flourished as an entrepô for Cambodian boats pushing down the Mekong River, and by the seventeenth century it boasted a garrison and a mercantile community that embraced Malay, Indian and Chinese traders.

Such a dynamic settlement was bound to draw attention from the north. By the eighteenth century, the Viets had subdued the kingdom of Champa, and this area was swallowed up by Hué’s Nguyen Dynasty. With new ownership came a new name, Saigon, thought to be derived from the Vietnamese word for the kapok tree. Upon the outbreak of the Tay Son Rebellion, in 1772, Nguyen Anh bricked the whole settlement into a walled fortress, the eight-sided Gia Dinh Citadel. The army that put down the Tay Son brothers included an assisting French military force, who grappled for several decades to undermine Vietnamese control in the region and develop a trading post in Asia. Finally, in 1861, they seized Saigon, using Emperor Tu Duc’s persecution of French missionaries as a pretext. The 1862 Treaty of Saigon declared the city the capital of French Cochinchina.

Prey Nokor

What is today known as Ho Chi Minh City began as the Khmer fishing village of Prey Nokor. The village was situated on swampland and remained in the hands of the Khmer (Cambodians) for many centuries until floods of Vietnamese immigration arrived during the 17th Century A.D. The immigrants first came in 1623 with permission from the Cambodian king, but later waves came uninvited, while Cambodia was too weakened by a war with Thailand to stop them.

Early Saigon

In 1698, Prey Nokor, and the whole lower Mekong river delta, was formally annexed by Vietnam and became known as Saigon. Prey Nokor had been the Khmer's most important sea port, and its loss isolated them from international commerce on the South China Sea. Saigon was a great gain to Vietnam, however, and soon grew into a major settlement.

Colonial-era Saigon

Ho Chi Minh City owes much of its form and character to the French colonists: channels were filled in, marshlands drained and steam tramways set to work along its regimental grid of tamarind-shaded boulevards, which by the 1930s sported names like Boulevard de la Somme and Rue Rousseau. Flashy examples of European architecture were erected, cafés and boutiques sprang up to cater for its new, Vermouth-sipping, baguette-munching citizens and the city was imbued with such an all-round Gallic air that Somerset Maugham, visiting in the 1930s, found it reminiscent of “a little provincial town in the south of France, a blithe and smiling little place”. The French colons (colonials) bankrolled improvements to Saigon with the vast profits they were able to cream from exporting Vietnam’s rubber and rice out of the city’s rapidly expanding seaport.

On a human level, however, French rule was invariably harsh; dissent crystallized in the form of strikes through the 1920s and 1930s, but the nationalist movement hadn’t gathered any real head of steam before World War II’s tendrils spread to Southeast Asia. At its close, the Potsdam Conference of 1945 set the British Army the task of disarming Japanese troops in southern Vietnam. Arriving in Saigon two months later, they promptly returned power to the French and so began thirty years of war. Saigon saw little action during the anti-French war, which was fought mostly in the countryside and resulted in the French capitulation at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.

Saigon in the American War

Designated the capital of the Republic of South Vietnam by President Diem in 1955, Saigon was soon both the nerve centre of the American war effort, and its R&R capital, with a slough of sleazy bars along Dong Khoi (known then as Tu Do) catering to GIs on leave from duty. Despite the Communist bomb attacks and demonstrations by students and monks that periodically disturbed the peace, these were good times for Saigon, whose entrepreneurs prospered on the back of the tens of thousands of Americans posted here. The gravy train ran out of steam with the withdrawal of American troops in 1973, and two years later the Ho Chi Minh Campaign rolled into the city and through the gates of the presidential palace and the Communists were in control. Within a year, Saigon had been renamed Ho Chi Minh City.

Post-reunification Saigon

The war years extracted a heavy toll: American carpet-bombing of the Vietnamese countryside forced millions of refugees into the relative safety of the city, and ill-advised, post-reunification policies triggered a social and economic stagnation whose ramifications still echo like ripples on a lake. Persecution of southerners with links to the Americans saw many thousands sent to re-education camps. Millions more fled the country by boat.

Only in 1986, when the economic liberalization, doi moi, was established, and a market economy reintroduced, did the fortunes of the city show signs of taking an upturn. Today, more than two decades later, the city’s resurgence is well advanced and its inhabitants are eyeing the future with unprecedented optimism.

Ho Chi Minh City

During the 40's, the U.S. had supported the Viet Minh against the Japanese. During the 50's, they supported the French against all rebels. During the 60's, the United States defended South Vietnam against incursions from the Communist North. On April 30th, 1975, however, the U.S. ended all involvement in Vietnam, and the Viet Minh took Saigon, renaming it Ho Chi Minh City in 1976.

After the "Fall of Saigon," which the victors called the "Liberation of Saigon," many Saigon residents fled to the U.S. and elsewhere, creating a Vietnamese diaspora. While in this sense the city shrank, it grew in that its borders were expanded to include its suburbs and its whole province. Today, Ho Chi Minh City is the largest city in Vietnam, having eight million inhabitants, and is the nation's economic hub, accounting for 20% of national GDP. The city also attracts many tourists, especially to its French District, museums and its numerous cinemas.

See more Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) travel guide at here.