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"SAIGON: FROM CITADEL TO NATION'S CAPITAL," by Charles A. Joiner, with Nguyen Van Thuan (Institute of Public Administration, Saigon)

Prior to the Chinese and Vietnamese migrations, the current site of Saigon was named Prei-Nokor by the Khmers (the traditional name for Cambodia). Prei-Nokor served as the seat of a pretender, or second king, to the Cambodian throne. The next significant stage in the development of Saigon following the Chinese and Vietnamese migrations is closely tied to the political evolution in Vietnam during the eighteenth-century period of rapid switches in the fortunes of the house of Nguyen.

For over a century the houses of Trinh and Nguyen had skirmished for control of the nation, with the former predominant in the North (Tonkin) and the latter predominant in the South (Annam and later also Cochinchina). In 1771, a third house entered the competition, the Tay Son. Following the fall of Hue (in central Vietnam) to the Tay Son, the Nguyen fled southward, whereupon the Tay Son invaded Cochinchina. A series of successive periods of occupation of the Saigon area followed, with the Tay Son and the Nguyen each losing control on several occasions.

When the Tay Son invaded Bien Hoa in 1773, Chinese tradesmen residing and carrying on business in this area were forced to flee. The Chinese refugees from Bien Hoa finally settled, in 1778, in the area around the present site of Cholon, a suburb of present-day Saigon. They named their new residence Ta Ngon, or Tin Ngan. The Vietnamese pronunciation of the Chinese terms for the present Cholon sounded somewhat like "Saigon."

For the next several years after the conquest of Bien Hoa, the city changed hands frequently. Phan Yen Province (Gia Dinh) was attacked by the Tay Son in 1782, who marched into "Saigon" and massacred some 2,000 Chinese residents. This massacre resulted from the Tay Son fear of the increasing numbers of Chinese and of the dominance of the Chinese over trade throughout the entire region.

After Nguyen Anh [the Nguyen dynasty heir, who became Emperor Gia Long] fled to Phu Quoc Island, midway between Cape Ca Mau and the Gulf of Thailand, the Tay Son turned north to victory in Tonkin over the Trinh and later over a Trinh-Chinese coalition. Despite their significant victories, the Tay Son were weakened enough in the south due to quarrels among themselves to provide Nguyen Anh with an opportunity to first reconquer Gia Dinh (1788) and occupy Saigon (1789) and then to reunify the entire country. In 1802, he proclaimed himself to be the Emperor Gia Long. He once again established the capital in Hue and changed the name of the country from An Nam to Vietnam.

Vietnam was united. Many almost phenomenal successes followed during the reigns of the Emperor Gia Long (1802- 19} and his successors Minh Mang ( 1820-40) , Thien Tri (1841-49), and Tu Duc (1847-83). Both Cambodia and Laos became Vietnamese satellites despite certain interim setbacks for the Vietnamese forces.

A much stronger national government was established with a greatly improved military establishment, and a tightly knit centralization of authority based upon a hierarchical administrative network, wherein power originated in the person and office of the emperor and filtered through the mandarinal system and the village notables. Local governments lost most of the autonomy they historically enjoyed. Rapid advances were made in commerce, education, and administration. In short, the government of Vietnam following the fall of the Tay Son proved to be strong but despotic.

The French Move in

However, Gia Long had not returned from Phu Quoc Island to Hue without assistance. He had been aided by French troops recruited by the Bishop of Adran ( Pigneau de Behaine of the Missions Etrangeres de Paris) , the Apostolic Delegate to South An Nam and later Royal Commissioner for South An Nam. After the French government withdrew from an agreement to aid Gia Long instigated at the bishop's insistence, he personally recruited French troops to aid Gia Long's return.

An important door had been opened, and later attempts to shut out the French proved increasingly futile. Gia Long permitted the Catholics to continue the proselytizing that had begun on a meager basis over two centuries before. He even stimulated a minimum amount of trade with the French, although successfully excluding other foreign traders.

Saigon thrived considerably between 1789, when Gia Long returned, and its conquest by the French in 1859. After vanquishing the Tay Son, Gia Long rebuilt the citadel, in 1790, with the assistance of the French troops recruited by Pigneau de Behaine, Bishop of Adran. The citadel was a fortress with eight gates surrounded by a highway encircled by a moat. It was an octagonal structure constructed on a hill. The center of the citadel was located on the site of the present Saigon Cathedral.

Built on Swamps

The Saigon citadel was built with stone, by the side of an arsenal, sided by a civilian residential quarter including low, thatched houses. The commercial quarter faced the east. When Emperor Gia Long succeeded in defeating the Tay Son, the population returned in large numbers to the citadel and improved their dwellings and preferred to move to the west side of the citadel. By that time, the river and canal sides were paved with stones and brick for roughly one thousand meters. Some roads and streets were paved with stone but not well traced and maintained. The population of the citadel and its suburb was estimated to be about 180,000 Vietnamese and 10,000 Chinese. (Extract from the notebook of an American traveler, John White, who visited Saigon in 1819.)

Saigon became an important residential area for the Vietnamese in the South. The Chinese, during the long period in Cochinchina China after 1789, recovered their previous economic position and made Cholon the most important market for the six neighboring provinces. Even legal restrictions on many of their activities did not deter them from economic advancement. These restrictions were rarely enforced chiefly because of bribery of the mandarins. The Chinese also expanded their activities and the facilities of Cholon without an abundance of financial support from the government, building roads and landing-piers and digging canals with their own investments.

When the French invaded Saigon in 1859, they completely demolished the new citadel. However, in 1860 they built an armored fortification, the "Caseme du Onzieme Iterie Coloniale."