Like many cities in Vietnam, Saigon did not escape the wrath of war. Since the beginning, Saigon has had quite a traumatic history. There are many citations to the birth of Saigon and the origin of its name. In the 15th century, this area were swamps, marshes and thick forests. By the early 17th century, a small township was formed. According to one theory, Saigon or Sai Con has its root in a Khmer word Prei Kor (Kapok Tree Forest).
The name Saigon was used officially in 1698, when Lord Nguyen Phuc Chu sent Mr. Nguyen Huu Canh to this region to create various districts and to form a government for this southern outpost. Because of its strategic location for trade and commerce as well as military importance, Saigon continued to grow and became a bonafide city. By 1772, Mr. Nguyen Cuu Dam began to fill many of the canals to form streets.
In the mid 19th century, the French with the aid of the Spanish invaded this port city and destroyed the fort. This event was the precursor to the long struggle between the people of Vietnam and France leading to the historical defeat of the French in 1954. In the years after the defeat of the French, Vietnam was divided into two separate countries and Saigon became the hub of resettlement for many as people from north and central Vietnam immigrated south
In the 60’s and 70’s, Saigon was bustling with commerce and business. It was the cultural center and the capital city of South Vietnam. Already heavily influenced by the French in terms of culture and style, the city had an air of a French provincial town with a Vietnamese twist. Saigon was dubbed the “Pearl of the Orient” by the foreign press. The city was alive with activities and cultural diversity that rivaled any Asian city at the time.
After the fall of South Vietnam to communism in 1975, the city and many of its inhabitants were in a state of chaos and turmoil. In 1976, the new government renamed the city Ho Chi Minh City and shut its door to the rest of the world. Although recognized world wide as Ho Chi Minh City, to the people of Vietnam, the city is still lovingly referred to as Saigon.
With a population of over 8 millions people, Saigon is one of the densest urban area in the world. On many streets, it is common to see houses with the ground floor converted into a business front while several families share living areas on the upper levels.
Common mode of transportation just a few years ago, the ubiquitous “cyclos” are becoming rare since they have been banned from many streets. Replacing them are fleets of taxis and “Honda ôm” – Japanese motocycles that you just wave down and jump on the back to be transported anywhere in the town.
Unlike other cities in Vietnam, Saigon is very active at night. Music halls often play to sold-out local crowds and restaurants stay open late into the night. During the summer months, sidewalks are dotted with colorful fruit stalls.
Ben Thanh Market
Ben Thanh market has long been one of Saigon’s most famous landmark. The market has been in existence since the French occupation. The original market was located on the shores of Ben Nghe river by old fort Gia Dinh. Its proximity to the fort and the river where merchants and soldiers would land was reason for its name (Ben meaning pier or port and Thanh meaning fort). In 1859, when the French invaded Saigon and overtook fort Gia Dinh, Ben Thanh Market was destroyed. It was rebuilt shortly thereafter and remained standing until it was moved to its present location in 1899
Built on a landfill of what was once a swamp named Bo Ret (Marais Boresse), the new Ben Thanh Market is located in the center of the city. Under the French government, the area around Ben Thanh Market was called Cu Nhac circle (Rond point Cuniac), named after Mr. Cuniac, the person who proposed filling the swamp to create this area. The area was later renamed Cong truong Dien Hong.
Nha Tho Duc Ba – Cathedral of our Lady
Proposed to be one of France’s most ambitious project in Indochina at the time, Rev. Colombert laid the cornerstone for the cathedral on October 7, 1877. Three years later, in 1880, the cathedral was opened to the public. These two dates are inscribed on a marble placard in the cathedral.The bricks used to build the structure were shipped from Marseilles. Artisans from Lorin Company (Chartres, France) were commissioned to create the stained glass windows. The cost of construction was a whopping 2.5 million francs. In 1962, the Vatican gave the cathedral the title Basilique.
Vinh Nghiem Temple
Located on Cong Ly boulevard (or Nam Ky Khoi Nghia), Vinh nghiem is south Vietnam’s most majestic temple. Construction of the temple was completed in 1971 after the design was drawn by Mr. Nguyen Ba Lang and associates. The ground floor consists of the library, the auditorium, and offices. The temple is located in a large parcel of land. On the left of the upper court yard stands a tower or the seven-level Avalokitesvara Stupa. Next to the tower hangs a large bell given to the temple by the Japanese Buddhists Sangha.
Hoi Giao – Islam
A small number of Muslims exist in Vietnam, and are mainly found in South central Vietnam, the Mekong Delta, and by the Cambodian border. Islam was introduced to Vietnam in the 7th century via Arab traders and later blended with local customs and religion. Islam is now mostly practiced by the Cham population of Vietnam, although there is a strong Hindu influence in their practice. Today, there are several mosques in metropolitan Saigon
Bao Tang Lich Su – Historical Museum
Located in Saigon’s Botanical garden and Zoo, the museum opened its doors to the public in January 1, 1929. Originally, the museum was named Blanchard de la Brosse. In 1956, the museum was renamed Bao Tang Quoc Gia – National Museum. And finally, in 1979, the government renamed it Bao Tang Lich Su – Historical Museum.
The museum houses many historical artifacts including three wooden stakes from the battle between Ngo Quyen and the Han invaders, granite tablets with intricate carvings, and uniforms of mandarins and kings of yesteryears. A statue of the Buddha with 1,000 eyes and 1,000 arms is also part of the museum’s collections. According to the curator, many of the artifacts dated back to the 6th and 7th century
Cu Chi district is well-known nationwide as the base where the Vietnamese mounted their operations of the Tet Offensive in 1968.The tunnels are between 0.4 to 1m wide, just enough for a person to walk along by bending or dragging. However, parts of the tunnels have been modified to accommodate visitors. The upper soil layer is between 3 to 5m thick and can support the weight of a 60-ton tank and the damage of light cannons and bombs. The underground network provided meeting rooms, sleeping quarters, commanding rooms, hospitals, and other social rooms. By visiting the Cu Chi tunnels provides a better understanding of the prolonged resistance war of the Vietnamese people and also of the persistent and clever character of the Vietnamese nation.
A place that’s physically invisible, the Cu Chi tunnels have sure carved themselves a celebrated niche in the history of guerilla warfare. Its celebrated and unseen geography straddles – all of it underground – something which the Americans eventually found as much to their embarrassment as to their detriment. They were dug, before the American War, in the late 1940s, as a peasant-army response to a more mobile and ruthless French occupation. The plan was simple: take the resistance briefly to the enemy and then, literally, vanish.
Firstly, the French then the Americans were baffled as to where they melted to, presuming, that it was somewhere under cover of the night in the Mekong delta. But the answer lay in the sprawling city under their feet – miles and miles of tunnels. In the gap between French occupation and the arrival of the Americans the tunnels fell largely into disrepair, but the area’s thick natural earth kept them intact and maintained by nature. In turn it became not just a place of hasty retreat or of refuge, but, in the words of one military historian, “an underground land of steel, home to the depth of hatred and the incommutability of the people. “It became, against the Americans and under their noses, a resistance base and the headquarters of the southern Vietnam Liberation Forces. The linked threat from the Viet Cong – the armed forces of the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam – against the southern city forced the unwitting Americans to select Cu Chi as the best site for a massive supply base – smack on top of the then 25-year old tunnel network. Even sporadic and American’s grudgingly had to later admit, daring attacks on the new base, failed for months to indicate where the attackers were coming from – and, importantly, where they were retreating to. It was only when captives and defectors talked that it became slightly more clear. But still the entries, exits, and even the sheer scale of the tunnels weren’t even guessed at. Chemicals, smoke-outs, razing by fire, and bulldozing of whole areas, pinpointed only a few of the well-hidden tunnels and their entrances. The emergence of the Tunnel Rats, a detachment of southern Vietnamese working with Americans small enough to fit in the tunnels, could only guess at the sheer scale of Cu Chi. By the time peace had come, little of the complex, and its infrastructure of schools, dormitories, hospitals, and miles of tunnels, had been uncovered. Now, in peace, only some of it is uncovered – as a much-visited part of the southern tourist trail. Many of the tunnels are expanded replicas, to avoid any claustrophobia they would induce in tourists. The wells that provided the vital drinking water are still active, producing clear and clean water to the three-tiered system of tunnels that sustained life. A detailed map is almost impossible, for security reasons if nothing else: an innate sense of direction guided the tunnellers and those who lived in them.
Many routes linked to local rivers, including the Saigon River, their top soil firm enough to take construction and the movement of heavy machinery by American tanks, the middle tier from mortar attacks, and the lower, 8-10m down was impregnable. A series of hidden, and sometimes booby-trapped, doors connected the routes, down through a system of narrow, often unlit and invented tunnels. At one point American troops brought in a well-trained squad of 3000 sniffer dogs, but the German Shepherds were too bulky to navigate the courses. One legend has it that the dogs were deterred by Vietnamese using American soap to throw them off their scent, but more usually pepper and chilly spray was laid at entrances, often hidden in mounds disguised as molehills, to throw them off. But the Americans were never passive about the tunnels, despite being unaware of their sheer complexity. Large-scale raiding operations used tanks, artillery and air raids, water was pumped through known tunnels, and engineers laid toxic gas. But one American commander’s report at the time said: “It’s impossible to destroy the tunnels because they are too deep and extremely tortuous.”
Today the halls that showed propagandas films, housed educational meetings and schooled Vietnamese in warfare are largely intact. So too are the kitchens where visitors can dine on steamed manioc, pressed rice with sesame and salt, a popular meal during the war, as they are assailed with true stories of how life went on as near-normal, much of the time. Ancestors were worshipped there, teaching was well-timetabled, poultry was raised – and even couples trusted, fell in love, were wed, and honeymooned there. But visitors have it easier: those re-constructed tunnels give the flavour of the tunnels but not the claustrophobia and the sacrifice of the estimated 18,000 who served their silent and unseen war there with only around one-third surviving, the rest casualties of American assaults, snakes, rats and insects.
Now the unseen and undeclared No Man’s Land is undergoing a revival, saluted as a Relic of National History and Culture with its Halls of Tradition displaying pictures and exhibits. The nearby Ben Duoc-Cu Chi War Memorial, where the reproduced tunnels have been built, stands as an-above ground salute to a hidden war.