Before the 15th century, Ho Chi Minh City was a small village surrounded by a wilderness of forest and swamp. Through the years it was ostensibly incorporated into the Funan and then the Khmer empires but it’s unlikely that these kingdoms had any lasting influence on the community. In fact, the Khmers, who called the region Prei Nokor, used it for hunting. By 1623 the town had become an important commercial centre and, in the mid-17th century, it became the residence of the so-called Vice-King of Cambodia. In 1698, the Viets managed to extend their control to the far south and Saigon was finally brought under Vietnamese control. By 1790, the city had a population of 50,000 and Emperor Gia Long made it his place of residence until Hué was selected as the capital of the Nguyen Dynasty.
In the middle of the 19th century, the French began to challenge Vietnamese authority in the south. Between 1859 and 1862, in response to Nguyen persecution of the Catholics in Vietnam, the French attacked and captured Saigon. The Treaty of Saigon in 1862 ratified the conquest and created the new French colony of Cochin China. Saigon was developed in French style, with wide, tree-lined boulevards, street-side cafés, elegant French architecture, boutiques and the smell of baking baguettes.
During the course of the Vietnam War, as refugees spilled in from a devastated countryside, the population of Saigon almost doubled from 2.4 million in 1965 to around 4.5 million by 1975. With reunification in 1976, the new Communist authorities pursued a policy of depopulation, believing that the city had become too large and parasitic, preying on the surrounding countryside.
The population of Ho Chi Minh City today is officially seven million and rising fast as the rural poor are lured by tales of streets paved with gold. Vietnam’s economic reforms are most in evidence in Ho Chi Minh City, where average annual incomes, at US$1800, are more than double the national average. It is also here that the country’s largest population (around 380,000) of Hoa (ethnic Chinese) is to be found. Once persecuted for their economic success, they still have the greatest economic influence and acumen. Under the current regime, best described as crony capitalism, the city is once more being rebuilt.
Ho Chi Minh City has abundant transport – which is fortunate, because it is a hot, large and increasingly polluted city. Metered taxis, motorcycle taxis and a handful of cyclos vie for business in a healthy spirit of competition. Many tourists who prefer some level of independence opt to hire (or even, buy) a bicycle or motorbike.
Virtually all of Ho Chi Minh City lies to the west of the Saigon River. The eastern side of the river, District 2, is for the most part marshy, poor and rather squalid, although a growing expat city has evolved. Most visitors to the city head straight for hotels in Districts 1 (the historic centre) or 3. Many will arrive on buses in De Tham or Pham Ngu Lao streets, the backpacker area, in District 1, not far from the city centre. Cholon or Chinatown (District 5) is a mile west of the centre. The Port of Saigon lies downstream of the city centre in districts 4 and 8. Few visitors venture here although cruise ships berth in District 4.
It is not safe to carry handbags and purses on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City. Drive by snatchings are on the increase. Jewellery should not be worn. Cameras should be held tightly at all times and passports, tickets and money kept in the safe of your hotel.