How Saigon became Ho Chi Minh City: the history of a name

To veterans, the city has always been known by its current name, long before the Vietnam War ended.

Time magazine spent almost its entire edition on May 12, 1975 writing about the world’s most important event that year: the end of the Vietnam War.

The edition published a portrait of President Ho Chi Minh and the map of a unified Vietnam under the headline “The Victor.”

The map was entirely red except for the yellow star and the words “Ho Chi Minh City” at the location of Saigon. That name, perfectly put on the map, is a simple yet effective announcement that the war has ended.

TIME cover on May 12, 1975

Many people have wondered why the American magazine was quick in calling Saigon by its new name, which was only officially chosen by Vietnamese legislators in July 1976.

The only Time journalist who stayed in Saigon was Pham Xuan An. He had refused to leave with his colleagues. It wasn't very clear back then, but now we all know why: he was one of Hanoi's most important spies during the war.

The fact that An knew before anybody else is not surprising.

But how did the name “Ho Chi Minh City” come to life?

Hanoi, fall of 1946

It was a nice Sunday in Hanoi on August 25, 1946. Vietnamese national flags were flying all over the streets.

The Democratic Republic of Vietnam was almost one year old.

The iconic Opera House and the Children’s Palace were having tens of thousands of visitors at an arts exhibition about the revolution.

Volunteers were filling up trenches along the West Lake to plant flowers. Many were holding meetings and rehearsals for the Republic's birthday.

Newspapers advertised the first singing class for children.

Rain poured down once in a while, but it did not curb the enthusiasm a bit.

Soldiers parade in Hanoi in 1946.

On that day, an important idea was conceived: renaming Saigon-Gia Dinh to Ho Chi Minh City.

On August 25, 1946, the Central Southern Department met on Gia Dinh, which is now Tran Nhat Duat Street, and doctor Tran Huu Nghiep suggested using “Ho Chi Minh” as the new name for Saigon-Gia Dinh.

The idea was met with strong support. The next day, 57 southerners in the revolutionary forces submitted a petition to the National Assembly and the government.

“We would like the National Assembly and the Government to change the name of Saigon into Ho Chi Minh City as a symbol for the fight, sacrifice of the southerners and our determination to return to the homeland,” it said.

The petition carried 57 signatures, including those of Tran Huu Nghiep, head of Military Medicine Service, who gave up his private hospital to join the revolutionary forces; his deputy Nguyen Tan Gi Trong, who was a member of the National Assembly in the next seven terms; and lawyer Tran Cong Tuong, who was later Deputy Minister of Justice.

Nghiep studied in Paris and came back with a successful career. In his memoir, he described himself an educated man wearing sunglasses and well-ironed shirt with tie, driving a flashy black Peugeot, with a private chef at home.

The front page of Cuu Quoc newspaper on August 27, 1946

Nghiep found that, in the only Vietnamese dictionary available at the time, authored by the Association for the Intellectual and Moral Formation of the Annamites, the entry for "nước" lacked an important meaning: nation or homeland.

He joined the revolutionary coalition Viet Minh and was loyal to the revolution for the rest of his life.

On August 27, 1946, the front page of Cuu Quoc (National Salvation) Newspaper ran a big headline in Vietnamese: “Saigon from today will be renamed Ho Chi Minh City.” It’s a very strong statement.

A grain of sand in the machine

Ho Chi Minh, who was mentioned in the decision to rename Saigon in August 1946, was then more than 9,000 kilometers from Hanoi, in a Paris suburb. The president of the young country was facing a tough negotiation at the Fontainebleau Agreements, a proposed arrangement between the France and the Viet Minh.

The talks started in early July and, after more than a month, hit deadlock. Pham Van Dong, who led the Vietnamese delegation, did not agree with the idea that France green lighted the formation of a “self-governing South Republic” in Indochina.

On August 22, 1946, Ho Chi Minh met with French Foreign Minister Marins Moutet seeking to resume talks. Le Monde then described that French representative Jean Sainteny was running all day between Moutet’s office on Oudinot and the villa where President Ho Chi Minh was staying.

President Ho Chi Minh in France in 1946

Talks resumed on August 28, 1946. After days with long analyses, Le Monde gave it a small news story, asking people “not to expect” anything from the Fonteinebleau talks.

President Ho Chi Minh had come to be an official guest of France, the same government which had spent years trying to arrest him, to look for a solution to South Vietnam. The prime goal of the talks was to find an agreement on the time and approach to conduct a referendum on uniting South Vietnam with the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.

Uncertainty loomed large all over Saigon at the time.

On August 18, fire from storages at the Khanh Hoi area burned down an entire neighborhood. Grenades exploded here and there once in a while. Two French soldiers were killed. Leaflets calling for strikes were handed out. The French believed that all these events were orchestrated by members of the Viet Minh.

The Viet Minh responded that it was natural for the southerners to be angry at invaders, the same way the French had reacted strongly to German soldiers several years before that.

In mid-September 1946, the Fonteinebleau talks ended with no agreement regarding Vietnam’s independence and the South Vietnam.

“Un grain de sable peut entraver la marche d'une machine,” Ho Chi Minh told French media after the talks.

That means: A grain of sand can hinder the running of a machine.

“A grain of sand can hinder the running of a machine.”

Ho Chi Minh

That machine was peace, which was delayed in Indochina for 30 years after that.

Two months after the talks ended, a big gun fight broke out at an opera house in Hai Phong, marking the beginning of the first Indochina War.

Reunification Day

Veterans fighting in South Vietnam said the name Ho Chi Minh City has always been familiar to them for a long time, long before the war ended. 

On the Reunification Day, newspapers in Hanoi already referred to Saigon by the new name.

Tran Mai Hanh, one of the first journalists to arrive at the Reunification Palace on the historic morning of April 30, said the name just naturally came to his mind when he saw lines of people carrying the red and yellow flags as they entered the city center.

Both names were used in those days. Hanh’s story in Nhan Dan Newspaper on May 2, 1975, came out with this line: “From the northwest, we headed to the Saigon center. Ho Chi Minh City appeared in front of our eyes…”

Various other reports in Nhan Dan, as well as Hanoi Moi, also used both names.

Nhan Dan Newspaper used both names "Saigon" and "Ho Chi Minh City" on its front page on May 1, 1975.

It should be noted that at the time, no official decision was made about the new name.

The first administrative documents after the war still called the city Saigon-Gia Dinh.

The song “Tieng hat tu thanh pho mang ten nguoi” (The singing voice from the city bearing His name) was released and quickly became popular. Poet Dang Trung wrote the lyrics, inspired by a poem by To Huu in 1954.

On July 3, 1976, Vietnam’s National Assembly met and decided to officially rename the city.

That was one day before the 200th anniversary of the U.S. Independence Day. The New York Times front page and its main story were about parades for the Independence Day. It also printed a short news story from AP, saying that North and South Vietnam were officially united.

That day, peace took over the Times' front page.

Hien Nguyen 

Reference: Le Monde, Cuu Quoc; Nhan Dan; Tran Huu Nghiep Memoir (1993), The New York Times

Photo courtesy of History.com, The New York Times, Flickr, TIME, Marc Riboud 

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