Ho Chi Minh City’s 300-year History

The first settlers

Ben Thanh market.

In his book of literary works about the southern land in the 17th century when the first Vietnamese settlers arrived, Le Quy Don wrote: “From the Can Gio Estuary, the Soai Rap, Tieu (Small) and Dai (Grand) estuaries ... up (the rivers)”, the land of Saigon remained deserted, covered by dense forests and marshes. A few groups of ethnic tribes such as the Khmer, the Stieng, and the Ma were dwelling sparsely on high ground. The Vietnamese settlers were migrants from the North and the Central provinces. The majority of them were poor peasants ruined by the war between feudal clans, others were soldiers and officers ordered by feudal governments to garrison in the South, and some were runaway convicts. They all crossed the sea in small boats and from the Can Gio Estuary they sailed up the Saigon River to land in the area of today’s Saigon. The first migrants settled on high ground by the river to cultivate the land as the area had plenty of fresh water and good weather conditions. Gradually the settlers moved outward to reclaim cultivable land from forests, marshes and plains. They built homes and hamlets, gardens and rice fields.

History books mentioned Mo Xoai, probably an area of today’s Ba Ria, as the first settlement of those Vietnamese migrants. Here the land is quite high and near watercourses, rivers and the sea, which was favorable for providing them with a living.

From Mo Xoai, these immigrants quickly expanded their settlement, claimed virgin land in parts that are Dong Nai Province and Ho Chi Minh City. The natural conditions in these areas did not differ from those of Mo Xoai, and the watercourses were propitious to navigation, which encouraged the settlers to move even further. By the middle of the 17th century, Vietnamese migrants were reportedly settling in the area that makes up today’s Phnom Penh.

In the Vietnamese settlers facing the wildness of the old Saigon-Gia Dinh area, a land generous but mysterious and giving rise to plenty of mishaps, felt hesitant. This is reflected by the following folk poem:

"We are here in a strange place;
We fear a bird chirping and tremble at a fish wobbling"

Those pioneers, energetic and strong-willed, remained in the land of Saigon, to begin a new life. By the time the first emissaries of the Nguyen Lord arrived to tour and inspect the new land, the first generations of settlers already had a stable life, cultivating their productive fields and gardens. Current history books wrote that some 10,000 people inhabited the Saigon area in the middle of the 17th century.

Among the early Saigon settlers were a sizable number of Chinese migrants. They originated from China’s southern coastal regions, running away from the miseries of their war-torn country. In 1679 there occurred a great migration of 3,000 persons in 50 warships headed by two generals under the defunct Ming Dynasty: Duong Ngan Dich and Tran Thuong Xuyen. A large part of these emigrants settled in and cultivated the land in the South’s eastern region, Bien Hoa and Saigon. The city of Cholon was built with the contribution from these ethnic Chinese groups as they were being integrated into the ethnic communities of Vietnam.

The first 75 years         

In 1998, Ho Chi Minh City celebrated its 300th anniversary, but the period of the 75 years between 1623 and 1698 may be regarded as the time in which Saigon was founded. During this period, hundreds, and perhaps thousands of Vietnamese families migrated from the Center (the Inner Section) and the North (the Outer Section) to settle in the plains of the Dong Nai and the Mekong rivers. Saigon at that time already was booming with agricultural production, trading businesses, and handicrafts, enriching the prosperous customs tax office. Yet, all those peaceful economic activities were interrupted quite a few times.

In 1698, which is 19 years since the building of the garrison citadel and 75 years since the establishment of the customs tax collection office, the Nguyen Lord ordered Grand Mandarin Nguyen Huu Kinh (known also as Nguyen Huu Canh) to inspect the South, formalizing the control of this region.

At that time some 20,000 Vietnamese were settled in the Saigon area. They probably made up one-third of the Vietnamese population inhabiting the Dong Nai River basin. Nguyen Huu Kinh had an earth rampart built from the lower Thi Nghe Rivulet to Rach Cat to protect the northwestern and southwestern parts of Saigon; the northeastern and southeastern sides already were protected by the Thi Nghe Rivulet, the Tan Binh and the Saigon rivers.

From that time, “Saigon” was the name of the area enclosed between the watercourses and the 8,000 or 9,000-meter-long earth rampart. 
Nguyen Huu Canh - the founder of Saigon

Nguyen Huu Canh (1650-1700), was a famous army commander and an excellent administrator. He is credited for expanding our territories to the south and laying foundations for the city of Saigon-Ho Chi Minh City.

Nguyen Huu Canh was born in the year of the Tiger, 1650, in a village in what is nowadays Chuong Tin Commune, Phong Loc District of Quang Binh Province. According to researchers, one of his ancestors was Dinh Quoc Cong (Duke) Nguyen Bac, a famous general under King Dinh Tien Hoang. Nguyen Huu Canh was also a descendant of Vietnam’s most illustrious politician: Nguyen Trai. Canh’s father was Chieu Vu Hau (Earl) Nguyen Huu Dat, a noted general who had helped the Nguyen Lord in the struggle against the Trinh Lord in the Dang Ngoai (Outer Section or North Vietnam).

Growing up during the Trinh - Nguyen War, Nguyen Huu Canh spent all his time in the practice of martial arts so that he would be able to join his father in his military campaigns. Though still young, Canh had won many battles and was promoted by Lord Nguyen Phuc Tan to Cai Co, a high-ranking army officer’s rank, when he was in his twenties.

In 1681, his father died; he and his elder brother, Nguyen Huu Hao, succeeded their father as army commanders. In his manners and relations with people Nguyen Huu Canh was serious and careful; therefore he was well respected. In 1692, relations at the border of Vietnam and Champa turned to strife. Ba Tranh, the king of Champa, led his armies to attack Dien Ninh, a district of today’s Phu Yen Province. By order of Lord Nguyen Phuc Chu, Nguyen Huu Canh fought the attackers and chased them out. He named the new land Tran (district) Thuan Thanh and became the district’s first governor.

After he had pacified the region, Canh drew up programs of reclaiming land for farming, restoring social order, and stabilizing the livelihood of the people in Thuan Thanh District. The district quickly prospered.

At the beginning of the Mau Dan year (the year of the Tiger, 1698), Lord Nguyen Phuc Chu again sent Nguyen Huu Canh, now promoted to Grand Mandarin, to inspect the South, write the civil code, set up legal rule, and determine territorial borders. Nguyen Huu Canh and his troops sailed off to the south and went upstream on the Dong Nai River to arrive at Cu Lao Pho (Pho Island), the region’s largest and busiest river port at that time. Nguyen Huu Canh inspected the area of Saigon and set up two administrative offices in Phuoc Long and Tan Binh districts.

These administrative agencies, the first in South Vietnam, were under the rule of Gia Dinh County. Trinh Hoai Duc in the Gia Dinh Chronicle wrote: “The land was extended by over one thousand miles and population increased by 40,000 families.” Nguyen Huu Canh posted several bureaus in charge of the administration such as the Ky Luc (in charge of administrative affairs and tax), the Luu Thu (military), and Cai Bo (justice). Xa Ty (public servants) and some army units were engaged in the service of the mandarins. As for the Chinese ethnic people, Nguyen Huu Canh organized special administrative units like the Thanh Ha Commune (Tran Bien), and the Minh Huong Commune (Phien Tran). He also recruited volunteers from the population for his programs of reclaiming land and building hamlets in remote areas.

In the book Stories Of Dai Nam’s Celebrities (first edition, volume 1) it was noted that “Nguyen Huu Canh had recruited migrant people from Bo Chanh (Quang Binh Province) to the south for reclaiming land (in Tran Bien and Phien Tran); he then ordered the building of communes and hamlets, fixed tax rates and drew up rolls of taxpayers.” Thus, the border of Vietnam was extended to this area. In 1700, Nguyen Huu Canh led his army to the area that is today’s southwestern border of Vietnam. Thanks to his prestige he quickly pacified the troubled area. However, Nguyen Huu Canh fell gravely sick some time later and died, at the age of 50.

Nguyen Huu Canh was a good army commander who had been using his talent and virtue to placate people. He has contributed a great part in the southward march of our people; he brought prosperity to the people. Therefore, he was well respected, much thanked, and adored by the people. Nowadays, temples honoring Le Thanh Hau (Earl) Nguyen Huu Canh exist in many localities. The biggest of these are in An Giang, Dong Nai and Quang Binh provinces. There also is a temple venerating Nguyen Huu Canh in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

From Saigon to Ho Chi Minh City 

HCM City People’s Committee.

President Ho Chi Minh once said: “The southern region is the flesh and blood of Vietnam. Rivers may be shallow, mountains may be eroded, but the truth will never change.”

The truth proves that Vietnam was formed through a long time of reclamation of land from the sea and forests, expansion and defense of our ancestors; it also expresses the struggle against foreign invaders who wanted to separate the southern region, including HCM City, from Vietnam.

Long ago, when first arriving in the land around Saigon that they called Gia Dinh, and settling in the entire southern region, the settlers always looked toward the capital, now Hanoi, but formerly called Thang Long: Since the days of bringing swords southward to expand the country,The South has longed for Thang Long (Rising Dragon)!

In 1859, the French occupied Saigon and the southern region. From the South, they expanded their invasion in the whole country. Under French rule, Vietnam was divided into three regions, with three different policies. The northern region was a protectorate, the central region was governed by a Vietnamese king and French special envoy, and the southern region was a colony.

Politically, the French suppressed all resistance movements and controlled the circulation among the three regions. Economically, they invested only in fields that benefited their homeland; they maintained monopolies of salt, liquor and opium. Socially, they promoted backward habits of the feudalism and carried out obscurantism; up to 90% of Vietnamese people were illiterate at that time.

The French paid closer attention to the southern region in general and Saigon in particular. They tried to turn Saigon into the “Pearl of the Far East” with a view to boast their colonial civilization policy. The entire southern region had only one Vietnamese representative in France’s Parliament.

Under the French occupation, people organized many patriotic movements to struggle against the invaders in spite of the Nguyen dynasty’s attitude of weakly accepting the situation. All the patriotic movements against invasion, namely the resistance wars led by Thu Khoa Huan, Truong Cong Dinh and Nguyen Trung Truc in the southern region; the struggles led by Phan Dinh Phung and Tong Duy Tan in the central region; and the resistance wars led by Hoang Hoa Tham and Nguyen Thien Thuat in the northern region; were local, without coordination by way of help for one another.

Later, though the movements calling for freeing Phan Boi Chau or mourning Phan Chu Trinh – two patriotic scholars – and the resistance war launched by Vietnam Kuomintang in Yen Bai in 1930 were larger, they ended in failure.

Only after Nguyen Tat Thanh (President Ho Chi Minh later) left Saigon’s Nha Rong Port in 1911 for Europe, witnessed the success of Russia’s October Revolution, which opened a new era with Lenin’s theses on people and colonial powers, and then brought back and publicized Marxism-Leninism during the formation of Vietnam’s working class and the Communist Party, that nation-building and national liberation got on the right path.

The unification congress on February 3, 1930, presided over by President Ho Chi Minh, saw the establishment of the Vietnam Communist Party and the blueprint of the fight against invasion, and feudalism, and for national liberation, land allocation to farmers, and the building of socialism. These policies and mechanisms paved the way for the success of Vietnam’s revolution despite all the difficulties and sacrifice.

After the Party’s establishment, the Party Central Committee was based in Saigon during the 1930-1940 period. After the Southern Region Revolution, the central committee was moved to Hanoi. Under the Party’s command, the revolution was started throughout the country, the peak of which was the Xo Viet Nghe Tinh movement in the 1930-1931 period. The movement called for people’s welfare and democracy, anti-Fascism, and struggles in Saigon and Hanoi. The revolution rose to another peak in the 1939-1945 period when the Party prepared all forces and facilities for its opportunity. When World War II ended, with the unconditional surrender of the Fascists to the Allies, the Party launched a resistance war countrywide. Under the leadership of the Party and President Ho Chi Minh, the people took the opportunity to seize political power within 12 days (from August 14 to 25), despite heavy losses after the Southern Region Revolution. This is a legendary story for a backward and separated country under foreign occupation.

The August Revolution was a milestone for the history of the country. The revolution completely destroyed the colonialist and feudal regime, and put an end to its separation policy. It helped set up the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, turning the Vietnamese from slaves to owners of the country, and the Party to the political power holder.

The August Revolution created a uniform government for the entire country, making it a stepping stone for the resistance wars against French and American invaders. Internationally, the French Government had to recognize this revolutionary government through a preliminary agreement signed on March 6, 1946, and a temporary treaty signed on September 14, 1946, at the Fontainebleau Conference, where President Ho Chi Minh was invited as a VIP.

However, after the August Revolution, Vietnam encountered such difficulties as illiteracy, hunger and invasion. In the North, 200,000 Chinese soldiers entered the country, while British soldiers entered the South to take over Japanese soldiers who had surrendered. All of them hated the revolutionary government and managed to eliminate it. The British forces also helped the French colonialists to reoccupy Vietnam. When France was still ruled by German soldiers, the French Government claimed that it would manage to recover Indochina.

In this context, 28 days after the Saigon people seized political power, on September 23, 1945, French invaders occupied Saigon again and the whole southern region, as a step to invading the entire country. They established an “autonomous” Southern Region, with a puppet government, Saigon being the capital, aiming to repeat what they did nearly 100 years before.

The Central Government, led by President Ho Chi Minh, followed the Independence Proclamation announced by President Ho on September 2, 1945:
“All peoples in the world were born equal; every people has the right to live, be happy and enjoy liberty…”

“The people, who have bravely fought the French invasion over the past 80 years, and who have bravely supported the Allies to fight Fascism, must live independently…”
“Vietnam has the right to enjoy freedom and independence, and it is really a country of liberty and independence. All Vietnamese people are determined to use all their spirit, facilities, lives and property to protect liberty and independence.”

The people in Saigon and the southern region began to fight French invaders with all kinds of rudimentary weapons, ready to risk their lives instead of being occupied, starting the 30-year resistance war to protect their independence and reunification.

The Party Central Committee and the Government led by President Ho Chi Minh also appealed: “All for the resistance war and the southern front.” Northern and northern Central provinces sent many groups to the South. The Central Committee ordered 2,000 political prisoners, who had just freed from Con Dao Island, to stay in the southern region to assist the resistance forces there. Ton Duc Thang, Le Duan, Pham Hung and Le Van Luong were among these prisoners.

As the French military force was so strong, it expanded the occupation from Saigon to many southern localities. On February 27, 1946, President Ho Chi Minh appealed to southern soldiers and people to continue the struggle, granting them the glorious title of “Fatherland’s Iron Bulwark.”

The resistance war of the people in Saigon and the southern region aimed to delay the French invasion process for the Central Government to have enough time to push Chinese soldiers back into their own homeland, hold talks with the French Government, and prepare forces for a long-term resistance war against the French invaders.

The war broke out, with the main battlefields in the North. People and soldiers in Saigon and the southern region boosted their guerrilla warfare to cause more losses for the enemy, enabling the Government to launch a series of big military operations, especially the historic victory of Dien Bien Phu. Although busy with the main battlefields, the Government paid close attention to those battlefields in the southern region and regularly sent soldiers and weapons there.

With the Dien Bien Phu victory and the Geneva Treaty (1954), half of Vietnam from latitude 17 northward was liberated. The South was still occupied, waiting for a general election for national reunification two years later.

But U.S. imperialists then entered to replace French colonialists, aiming at a long-term occupation in the South, with a puppet government following a new type of colonialism, and Saigon was chosen as the capital of South Vietnam (from latitude 17 southward). Therefore, the South became the frontline and the North the rear. The resistance war against American invasion lasted for 21 years.

The North carried out the “All for the frontline, all for defeating U.S. imperialists and the puppet government” slogan set by the Central Committee and President Ho Chi Minh. Many campaigns for the South were launched in the North. Almost every family in the North had at least one member participating in liberating the South.

Despite hardships and sacrifice, people and soldiers in Saigon and the southern region always looked to the North and President Ho, firmly confident of final victory. The South was worried when American invaders bombed the North, especially Hanoi and Haiphong with giant B52 aircraft at the end of 1972. The South strengthened the resistance war to help the North, and southern people were very glad to see the triumph of people and soldiers in Hanoi in their fight against U.S. air raids.

The entire country fought, and nothing could stop Vietnamese from struggling for national independence, liberty and reunification. Finally, the war ended in victory. On April 30, 1975, Saigon and the entire southern region were liberated. The liberation was welcomed by all people in the country and by people in every country.

The country has been unified after years of resistance war against French and American invaders. From Saigon, Uncle Ho had found a way out for the people and the country. He wished to visit Saigon and the southern region, and the beloved people, but his wish could not be fulfilled. He died in 1969.

In 1976, after the reunification, the National Assembly unanimously decided to rename Saigon-Cholon-Gia Dinh as Ho Chi Minh City.

Since unification, HCM City has contributed a great deal to socialist and national construction and defense. Politburo’s Resolution 01 (1982) stipulates that HCM City has a political position just behind Hanoi, the capital. It is endowed with favorable conditions that cannot be found elsewhere. It has great potential for developing industry, exports, tourism and services. In coordination with other localities, HCM City is forming an agro-industrial economic structure for the country’s socio-economic development.

HCM City has contributed a great deal to the country, particularly in terms of economy. On the road to industrialization and modernization on the threshold of the 21st century, HCM City has connected with Dong Nai, Ba Ria-Vung Tau and Binh Duong provinces to form a focal economic hub. It has also cooperated with the Mekong Delta provinces, the rice basket of the country; the southwestern provinces and the Central Highlands, with forestry potentials; and the central and northern provinces. HCM City is one of the country’s biggest venues to attract foreign direct investment. It is trying to become a sizable tourism and service center.

Source: HCMC Website