From Khmer port and trading hub to the megacity it is today, Saigon has been built, razed to the ground, and once again rebuilt. Now it’s going through a facelift. 

Despite being at opposite ends of the same country, a country boasting thousands of years of civilization, the history of Hanoi and Saigon couldn’t be more different.


Whereas Hanoi is officially 1,000 years old, and has been settled for two millenia, the ‘official’ founding of what was once a Khmer port called Prey Nokor was in 1698, just over 300 years ago. That was when the Vietnamese noble, Nguyen Huu Canh, was sent south by the Nguyen rulers in Hue to establish Vietnamese administrative structures in the area. His formation of Vietnamese authority over the area helped wrest the Mekong Delta from Khmer control.


And whereas for well over 1,000 years the Vietnamese had to fight off invaders to keep Hanoi as their spiritual and cultural home, so it was the Vietnamese who were the invaders when they appropriated what eventually became called Saigon. However, after the French came, it took more than a century to get it back.

Cholon or Chinatown was settled in 1776, some 75 years before the French colonised Saigon

The Arrival of the Chinese


The gradual move into land that was once part of the Khmer Empire started in 1623 when King Chey Chettha II of Cambodia (1618–28) allowed Vietnamese refugees fleeing the Trinh–Nguyen civil war to settle in and around Prey Nokor, which was a flourishing port and mercantile community.


In 1679 the Chinese arrived, led by Tran Thuong Xuyen, a former Chinese general with the Ming dynasty who was escaping the Qing. The group initially settled in Ban Lan (Bien Hoa) before moving to Cu Lao Pho, an island in the Huong Phuoc River (a section of the Dong Nai River). The island quickly became a hub for international trade.


However, the prosperity of Cu Lao Pho only lasted 97 years. In 1776, Tay Son troops came to suppress the Chinese in Cu Lao Pho because of their support for the rival emperor, Gia Long. In search of safety, the Chinese merchants moved to Cholon (Ho Chi Minh City’s District 5 and District 6), forming what would eventually become the largest Chinese community in Vietnam.


Like its forerunner to the north, Cholon quickly became a hub for trade, with merchants selling wares from as far afield as China, Japan and Faifo (Hoi An) in the north to Singapore and Malacca in the south. Aided by the economic ambitions of the Nguyen Dynasty, who widened and dug canals, a market was established on the site now occupied by Cho Ray Hospital.


Named Tai Ngon — meaning embankment in Chinese — by the 19th century the market appeared on several maps not as Tai Ngon but as Sai Gon. Yet when the French invaded Ben Nghe and the nearby Gia Dinh Citadel in 1859, the Vietnamese settlements on the site once occupied by Prey Nokor, they appropriated the name. In 1862 the treaty of Saigon declared the newly renamed city the capital of French Cochinchina.

An image of Rue Catinat taken from next to the Opera House. Today the street is called Dong Khoi

Some things never change...

A City is Born


The first action of the French was to raze the Vietnamese-built Gia Dinh Citadel and rebuild the city along the banks of the Saigon River. Where the citadel stood on a hill overlooking the city, the French built administrative buildings, a palace and a cathedral.


Canals were constructed along what is today Nguyen Hue, Le Loi and Ham Nghi, to transport goods from the Saigon River to the centre of town, and French villas began to be built. By the turn of the 20th century, the wooden shops and homes of the Vietnamese were replaced by the brick-built shophouses you can still see on streets like Ho Tung Mau and on one side of Ham Nghi and throughout Cholon.


In August 1887, Léon Caubert, a member of an official French delegation to China, made an overnight stop in Saigon. Here is what he saw.


The scene awaiting us was much more interesting than that which one sees on arrival in France, with large clumps of trees and tall buildings, mills and rice warehouses.


We crossed a magnificent single-arch iron bridge, which was built over the arroyo Chinois [Ben Nghe Canal]. We travelled along the quai du Commerce [Ton Duc Thang], rue Catinat [Dong Khoi] and into the place de la Cathédrale, then took the wide boulevard Norodom [Le Duan] to the Palace.


Our first impression was very favourable. In fact, it would have been excellent, had it not been for the heavy and humid atmosphere. But it’s precisely because of this difficult climate that we must admire the enormous efforts which have been made and the results which have been obtained here.


By 1906, Saigon was already an international city. A small brochure entitled Saïgon-Souvenir, a guide for first-time visitors to Saigon, provides a breakdown of the city’s population:


French: 6,000

Other Europeans: 5,000

Annamites (Vietnamese): 30,000

Cambodians: 150

Chinese: 13,000

Indians: 1,000

Japanese: 100

Malays: 500

Total: 55,750

Aerial photos of Saigon taken in 1955 by Raymond Cauchetier. The top photo shows Cau Cha Va and the bottom photo is an image of Binh Tay Market in Cholon

Key Moments


Much of the city’s history from 1859 through to 1975 is tucked away in French archives. Here are some of the key moments.


1880. The first hotel in Vietnam, the Hotel Continental, is completed, built by construction material manufacturer, Pierre Cazeau. During both the Indochina Wars, the Hotel Continental becomes popular with journalists. In 1976 it is closed down for 10 years, before reopening as the Dong Khoi in 1986. It returns to its original name in 1989.


1881. Tram services are inaugurated in Saigon using cars towed by a steam locomotive. The system goes bankrupt in 1896, but manages to survive using new cars. Two more lines are added in 1904 and 1913 with an electric car service taking over in 1923. The tram service ceases operation in 1954 and the system is dismantled by 1957.


1885. The first Saigon Railway Station is opened at the riverside end of today’s Ham Nghi. The line runs through Cho Lon and goes all the way to My Tho. This is then superceded by a second central station in 1915 located on Pham Ngu Lao in what is now the 23/9 Park. Construction of the third Saigon Railway Station begins in 1978 at its present site in District 3. It is completed in November 1983 and after its inauguration the old railway track into the city centre is removed.


1897. The French architect Eugène Ferret builds the Ho Chi Minh City Opera House, then known as the Opėra de Saigon. The 800-seat building is used as the home of the Lower House assembly of South Vietnam from 1956. After the Liberation of Saigon it is restored to its original use.


1912. Ben Thanh Market moves to its present location at the end of Le Loi. The original market was built in 1859 by the French on what is now Ton That Dam. It burns down in 1870 before being rebuilt.


1931. The district of Saigon-Cholon is formed. Prior to this they are two separate cities. They are officially merged as the city of Saigon in 1956.


1941. Having already taken northern Vietnam, Japanese troops invade southern Indochina. They occupy Saigon until they surrender to the British in September 1945, but by this time the city is in a state of anarchy. After handing back the city to the French amid fighting with the Viet Minh, British troops leave Vietnam in March 1946. The events of 1945 and 1946 lead to the First Indochina War.


1949. Saigon is made the capital of the ‘State of Vietnam’, a self-governing entity in the French Empire with a constitutional monarchy. Bao Dai, the last Nguyen emperor, is made Head of State. In October 1955, Saigon becomes the capital of the newly proclaimed ‘Republic of Vietnam’.


1963. Thich Quang Duc, a Vietnamese Mahayana Buddhist monk, burns himself to death at a busy Saigon intersection — now Cach Mang Thang Tam and Nguyen Dinh Chieu. His self-immolation is a protest at the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government led by Ngo Dinh Diem. Persecution of Buddhists continues until Diem is assassinated later that year in an army-led coup.


1975. The Liberation of Saigon on Apr. 30, the day the People’s Army storms the Presidential Palace. The victory puts an end to two decades of war and leads to the reunification of Vietnam.


1976. Upon the establishment of the unified Socialist Republic of Vietnam, Saigon (including Cholon), the province of Gia Dinh and two suburban districts of two other nearby provinces are combined to create Ho Chi Minh City.


1997. Work begins on building Phu My Hung, a new suburb in the swampland of District 7. A Vietnamese-Taiwanese joint venture, it leads the way towards the redevelopment and expansion of Ho Chi Minh City.


1998. Master planning for the redevelopment of Thu Thiem commences. In 2012 work begins on building the new city, which will replace District 1 as the city centre. To clear the land for redevelopment, almost 15,000 households are resettled.


2010. The Bitexco Financial Tower is completed, the tallest building in Ho Chi Minh City. The 68-storey skyscraper is 262.5m tall and has a helideck that has never been used.


Downtown Saigon and Thu Thiem in 1955, and Notre Dame Cathedral. The aerial images were taken by French photographer Raymond Cauchetier

Now and Then


Although Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City have contrasting histories, both cities are expanding outwards as new suburbs sprout up and high-rises dominate the skyline. And both cities are transforming themselves into modern Asian metropolises.


What remnants of the past will be preserved remains to be seen. But events in Saigon don’t augur well. As anyone who lives there will tell you, history is quickly being left behind.


For more information on the history of Saigon, click on

Nick Ross

Chief editor and co-founder of Word Vietnam, Nick Ross was born in the humble city of London before moving to the less humble climes of Vietnam. His wanderings have taken him to definitely not enough corners of the globe, but being a constant optimist, he still has hopes.


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