Hồ Chí Minh City, Sài Gòn

People in Sài Gòn are less concern about the past and full of optimism about what the future might hold.

Due to geographic demographics and climatic changes it causes vast differences between south and north in many countries, and Việt Nam is no exception. It is not uncommon to hear Hanoians describing their fellow countrymen from the tropical south as crass, and return many southerners think their northern compatriots are too uptight. The difference between the two cities also translates into culinary terms. The people in the south are said to be fond of sweet, easy-to-eat foods, while northerners prefer the more challenging salty dishes.

However, sweet is not the first adjective that comes to mind when visiting Sài Gòn – a city which grew from a swampy port into the economic powerhouse of the new Việt Nam. Home to over 10 million people and at least five million motorbikes, it is the closest Việt Nam has to a Bangkok-style Asian metropolis. A place where the lights are brighter, bikes are faster, the skirts are shorter and you find bigger billboards.

Sài Gòn started out as a little Khmer town named Prey Nokor, 60 kilometers away from the South China Sea, it was a convenient stop for travelling of goods through the Sài Gòn River. Originally part of the greater Cambodian empire, Chey Chettha – the Cambodian king, made the fatal mistake of allowing Vietnamese to settle in the town in the early seventeenth century. About one hundred and fifty years later, Việt forces pushed into the delta, drove out the Khmers, and Prey Nokor has been rename to Gia Định before settling on Sài Gòn.

The Vietnamese emperor Gia Long moved the country’s capital from Sài Gòn to Huế, but the French certainly saw the potential in this small provincial town when they sailed up the Sài Gòn River in the middle of the nineteenth century. They transformed this Vietnamese outpost into the administrative centre of French Indochine, complete with a representative town hall, opera house, cathedral and central post office.

Visitors started to refer to Sài Gòn as the Paris of the East, or Pearl of the Orient, and the centre of town was the Rue Catinat-an elegant boulevard of chic shops and fashionable cafes. Graham Greene wrote his classic The Quiet American close by, staying at the Majestic Hotel around the corner from the town hall, and made the area the stamping ground of his fictional hero, British journalist Pyle. Street vendors are now selling pirated copies on virtually every street corner.

After the French left and the Americans moved in, Rue Catinat changed its name Tự Do (“freedom”), and the elegant boulevard became a seedy entertainment district with a row of girlie bars for GIs stationed in Sài Gòn. More name changes followed after Lieutenant Phùng Quang Thanh from the North Vietnam Army crashed his tank through the gates of the presidential palace, making the end of the Việt Nam War.

Following the Communist victory over South Việt Nam in 1975, the city itself was renamed Hồ Chí Minh City (often shortened to HCMC) and the name “Sài Gòn” now only refers to the central of the twelve inner districts of the city. The old Rue Catinat finally settled on the name

Đồng Khởi (“uprising”), and after some hard times is now approaching its former glory. Many of the old buildings have been restored and are again home to fashionable shops, restaurants and bars.

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