Ho Chi Minh City History

Bordered by the Thi Nghe Channel to the north, the Ben Nghe Channel to the south, and the Saigon River to the east, the city has served as a natural fortress and has been fought over by countless people during the past 2,000 years. The ancient empire of Funan used the area as a trading post, and the Khmer kingdom of Angkor transformed Prey Nokor, as Ho Chi Minh City was called, into a flourishing center of trade protected by a standing army. By the 14th century, while under Khmer rule, the city attracted Arab, Cham, Chinese, Malaysian, and Indian merchants. It was then known as the gateway to the Kingdom of Champa, the sister empire to Angkor.

In 1674 the lords of the Nguyen clan in Hue established a customs post at Prey Nokor to cash in on the region's growing commercial traffic. Saigon, as the Vietnamese called it, became an increasingly important administrative post. The building in 1772 of a 6-km (4-mile) trench on the western edge of old Saigon, in what is now District 5, marked the shift in control in the south from Khmer rule to Nguyen rule from Hue. Further Vietnamese consolidation came in 1778 with the development of Cholon, Saigon's Chinese city, as a second commercial hub in the area that is now District 5.

In 1789 the Nguyen lords moved their power base from Hue to Saigon, following attacks by rebels from the village of Tay Son. Unhappy with the way the Nguyen lords had been running the country, the rebels massacred most of the Nguyen clan and took control of the government—briefly. In 1802, Prince Nguyen Anh, the last surviving heir to the Nguyen dynasty, defeated the Tay Son ruler—with French backing—regaining power and uniting Vietnam. He moved the capital back to Hue and declared himself Emperor Gia Long.

In quelling the Tay Son rebels, Gia Long's request for French assistance, which was readily provided, came at a price. In exchange for their help, Gia Long promised the French territorial concessions in Vietnam. Although the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars temporarily delayed any French claims, Gia Long's decision eventually cost Vietnam dearly. In 1859, the French, tired of waiting for the Vietnamese emperor to give them what they felt they deserved, seized Saigon and made it the capital of their new colony, Cochin China. This marked the beginning of an epoch of colonial-style feudalism and indentured servitude for many Vietnamese in the highlands. The catastrophe that was to overtake Saigon and the rest of Vietnam during the latter half of the 20th century was a direct result of French-colonial interference.

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