Names of Ho Chi Minh City

Names of Ho Chi Minh City
A 1910 postcard showing the name "Saigon" (French: Saïgon), a westernized version of the Vietnamese Sài Gòn.

The city now known as Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnamese: Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh, About this sound listen) has gone by several different names during its history, reflecting settlement by different ethnic, cultural and political groups. Originally known as Prey Nokor while a part of the Khmer Empire,[nb 1] it came to be dubbed Sài Gòn (About this sound listen) informally by Vietnamese settlers fleeing the Trịnh-Nguyễn War to the north. In time, control of the city and the area passed to the Vietnamese, who gave the city the name of Gia Định. This name remained until the time of French conquest in the 1860s, when the occupying force adopted the name Saigon for the city, a westernized form of the traditional name.[1] The current name was given after the Fall of Saigon in 1975, and honors Hồ Chí Minh, the pre-eminent North Vietnamese leader.[nb 2] Even today, however, the informal name of Sài Gòn remains in daily speech both domestically and internationally, especially among the Vietnamese diaspora.[citation needed]


Khmer name

Grong Prey Nokor, Khmer for Ho Chi Minh City. "Prey Nokor" is highlighted in red.

The area where present-day Ho Chi Minh City is located was likely inhabited long since prehistory; the empire of Funan and later Chenla maintained a presence in the Mekong Delta for centuries.[2] The city was known as Prey Nokor (Khmer: ព្រៃនគរ) to the Khmer Empire, which likely maintained a settlement centuries before its rise in the 11th and 12th centuries.[nb 3] The most popular interpretation of the name, and one supported by former Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk, suggests that the name means "forest city" or "forest kingdom"—prey meaning forest or jungle, and nokor being a Khmer word of Sanskrit origin meaning city or kingdom.[nb 1] The name Krong Prey Nokor (Khmer: ក្រុងព្រៃនគរ; "Prey Nokor City") is currently used to refer to Ho Chi Minh City in the Khmer language.

Vietnamese names

Sài Gòn

Sài Gòn Railway Station retains the traditional name used informally since the 1620s.

Beginning in the 1620s, Prey Nokor was gradually settled by Vietnamese refugees fleeing the Trịnh-Nguyễn War further to the north. In 1623, Khmer king Chey Chettha II (1618–1628) allowed the Vietnamese to settle in the area, which they colloquially referred to as Sài Gòn, and to set up a custom house at Prey Nokor.[3] The increasing waves of Vietnamese settlers which followed overwhelmed the Khmer kingdom—weakened as it was due to war with Thailand—and slowly Vietnamized the area. Upon capturing the city during the Cochinchina Campaign in 1859, the French officially westernized the city's traditional name into "Saigon" (French: Saïgon).[1]

Since the time of original Vietnamese settlement, the informal name of Sài Gòn has remained in daily speech; apart from official matters, it is still the most common way to refer to the city inside Vietnam, despite an official name change after the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. Sài Gòn is still used to refer to the central district, District 1.[2] Sài Gòn Railway Station in District 3, the main railway station serving the city, retains the name. The name is also found in company names, book titles and even on airport departure boards: the IATA code for Tân Sơn Nhất International Airport is SGN.[4]

There is much debate about the origins of the name, the etymology of which is analyzed below. The Vietnamese most often write the name as Sài Gòn, in two words, following the traditional convention in Vietnamese spelling. Some, however, exceptionally write the name of the city as "SaiGon" or "Saigon" in order to save space or give the name a more Westernized look.[citation needed]


Sài Gòn may refer to the kapok (bông gòn) trees that are common around Ho Chi Minh City.
Sino-Vietnamese etymology

A frequently heard, and reasonable, explanation is that Sài is a Chinese loanword (Chinese: , pronounced chái in Mandarin) meaning “firewood, lops, twigs; palisade”, while Gòn is another Chinese loanword (Chinese: , pronounced gùn in Mandarin) meaning “stick, pole, bole”, and whose meaning evolved into “cotton” in Vietnamese (bông gòn, literally “cotton stick”, i.e., “cotton plant”, then shortened to gòn).[5]

This name may have originated from the many cotton (kapok) plants that the Khmer people had planted around Prey Nokor, and which can still be seen at Cây Mai temple and surrounding areas.[5][nb 4]

Another explanation is that the etymological meaning “twigs” (sài) and “boles” (gòn) refers to the dense and tall forest that once existed around the city, a forest to which the Khmer name, Prey Nokor, already referred.[citation needed]

In Chinese, the city is referred to as 西, pronounced “sai gung” in Cantonese, "sai goong" in Teochew and xīgòng in Mandarin. This represents “Saigon” written phonetically.

Cantonese etymology

Another reasonable etymology was offered by Vương Hồng Sển, a Vietnamese scholar in the early 20th century, who asserted that Sài Gòn had its origin in the Cantonese name of Cholon (Vietnamese: quoc ngu Chợ Lớn; chu nom Cholon.png) , the Chinese district of Saigon. The Cantonese (and original) name of Cholon is "Tai-Ngon" (), which means "embankment" (French: quais). The theory posits that "Sài Gòn" derives from "Tai-Ngon".[nb 5]

Thai etymology

According to Lê Van Phát, a Vietnamese military officer, a similar source for the name may have developed from the Thai words Cai-ngon, meaning "cotton bush" or "cotton plant". Lê stated that Laotians refer to Saigon as "Cai-ngon".[nb 4]

Khmer etymology

Another etymology often proposed, although held now as a least-likely etymology, is that “Saigon” comes from “Sai Côn”, which would be the transliteration of the Khmer word, Prey Nokor (Khmer: ព្រៃនគរ), meaning "forest city" or "forest kingdom"[nb 1], or Prey Kor, meaning "forest of kapok trees".[nb 4]

This Khmer etymology theory is quite interesting, given the Khmer context that existed when the first Vietnamese settlers arrived in the region. However, it fails to completely explain how Khmer “prey” led to Vietnamese "sài", since these two syllables appear phonetically quite distinct and as the least reasonable and least likely candidate from the Khmer etymology.

Cham etymology

The Khmer etymology is considered to be the least likely candidate above because of the complex onset of "Prey" as opposed to the simple onset of "Sai". Furthermore, there is voice distinction between the onsets of "kor" and "gon", not to mention syllabic syncope of the [no] in "Nokor" without the acompanying tone rise as normally occurs during monosyllabification in Southeast Asian tone languages (Thurgood, 1992; Thurgood and Li, 2002). However, if the word passed directly from Cham into Vietnamese without a Khmer intermediary stage, the complex onset, apocope and voice distinctions would be eliminated. Furthermore, the [au]~[o] alternation is well established in Vietnamese, and is still active today. For example, "không" as [χomɰ] or [χawmɰ] meaning "no" is not dialectal according to region, but is used in free variation throughout present day Ho Chi Minh City (Lopez, 2010). Therefore, the historical chronology given by Nghia M. Vo (Nghia M. Vo (2009). The Viet Kieu in America: Personal Accounts of Postwar Immigrants from Vietnam. McFarland & Co.. p. 218. is corroborated by linguistic evidence as NPD (Normal Phonological Development) would lead to the Cham name of Bai Gaur being adopted into Vietnamese as "Sai Gon". The nasalization of coda sonorants such as [r] to [n] is well established in Vietnamese, and serves as a strong indication of Vietnamese "Sai Gon" and Khmer "Prey Nokor" as doublets of a Cham original. Analogy usually postdates the etymological source, such as in the morphism of "Gaur" into "Nokor" by analogy with the Sanskrit "Nagara" as well as in the imaginative but highly speculatory attributions given above alleging Sinitic etymologies in a Southeast Asian context. Further ethnolinguistic and historical linguistic studies on this subject are currently underway. (Lopez, 2011)

Gia Định

The name of Prey Nokor, along with Cambodia's rule over the area, remained until the 1690s, when Nguyễn Hữu Cảnh, a Vietnamese noble, was sent by the Nguyen rulers of Huế to establish Vietnamese administrative structures in the Mekong Delta and its surroundings. This act formally detached the area from Cambodia, which found itself too weak to intervene due to its ongoing conflict with Thailand. Prey Nokor was officially renamed Gia Định (Chữ Nôm: ), and the region was placed firmly under Vietnamese administrative control. With the city's capture by the French in 1859, the name Gia Định was discarded and replaced by the name "Saigon", which had always been the popular name.[1] Most sinitic maps were not updated to use the newer name until at least 1891, with the name of the city written as until then.[6]


The origin of the name Gia Định has not been firmly established. One possible etymology may relate to the Chinese characters used to spell the name in Chữ Nôm: , which means "joyful", "auspicious", or "pretty", and , which means "decide" or "pacify". Another possible etymology, based on the fact that Malay speakers existed in the region during the era of Vietnamese settlement, relates the name to the Malay words ya dingin or ya hering, meaning "cool and cold" or "cold and clear", respectively—perhaps referring to the appearance of the area's many waterways.[7]

Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh

On July 2, 1976, upon the formal establishment of the modern-day Socialist Republic of Vietnam, the new government renamed the city after Hồ Chí Minh, the pre-eminent but by-then deceased leader.[nb 2]

The official name is now Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh; Thành phố is the Vietnamese word for "city". In English, this is translated as Ho Chi Minh City; in French it is translated as Hô-Chi-Minh-Ville (the circumflex and hyphens are sometimes omitted). Due to its length, the name is often abbreviated or made into an acronym; "Tp. HCM" and the acronym "TPHCM" are used interchangeably in the original Vietnamese, along with "HCM City" or "HCMC" in English and "HCMV" in French.[nb 6]


As noted, the now-official name commemorates North Vietnamese leader Hồ Chí Minh, who, although deceased by the time of the Fall of Saigon, was instrumental in the establishment of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. "Hồ Chí Minh" was not his original name; he was born as Nguyễn Sinh Cung, and only began using the new name around 1940.[8] This name, which he favoured throughout his later years, combines a common Vietnamese surname (Hồ, ) with a given name meaning "enlightened will" (from Sino-Vietnamese ; Chí meaning 'will' (or spirit), and Minh meaning 'light'), in essence, meaning "bringer of light".[9]

Other names

The kingdom of Champa, though mainly based along the coast of the South China Sea, is known to have expanded west into the Mekong Delta.[nb 7] The Chams gave the city the name "Baigaur" (or "Bai Gaur"), which author Jacques Népote suggests may have been a simple adaptation of the Khmer name Prey Kor;[10] conversely, author Nghia M. Vo implies that a Cham presence existed in the area prior to Khmer occupation, and that the name Baigaur was given to the village that would later come to be known as Prey Nokor.[nb 8]


Khmer nationalism

The area now known as Ho Chi Minh City was part of several historical empires connected to modern-day Cambodia, including Funan, Chenla and the Khmer Empire.[2] Formal settlements by the Khmers likely date back to the 11th century.[nb 3] In comparison, the first Vietnamese presence in the area dates back to the late 15th century.[2] The gradual encroachment of the Vietnamese onto what were once Khmer lands, culminating in the creation of the unified State of Vietnam in 1949 and the associated cession of Cochinchina (known to the Khmers as Kampuchea Krom, or "Lower Cambodia") to Vietnam has resulted in significant bitterness directed towards the Vietnamese on the part of the Khmers. As a result, many of those who consider themselves Khmer nationalists would refer to Ho Chi Minh City as Prey Nokor, a reference to its former status as a Khmer port city.[11]

Overseas Vietnamese

Of the about 3 million Overseas Vietnamese, a majority left Vietnam as refugees after 1975 as a result of the Fall of Saigon and the resulting takeover by the Communist regime, taking up residence in North America, Western Europe, and Australia. Many are opposed to the existing government of Vietnam,[12][13] and, in some cases, view Hồ Chí Minh as a dictator who ruined Vietnam by starting the war with the US.[14] As a result, they generally do not recognize the name Hồ Chí Minh City, and will only refer to the city as Sài Gòn.[citation needed]

See also

Notes and references

  1. ^ a b c "The Khmer name for Saigon, by the way, is Prey Nokor; prey means forest, nokor home or city." Norodom Sihanouk (1980). War and hope: the case for Cambodia. Pantheon Books. p. 54. ISBN 0394511158. 
  2. ^ a b The text of the resolution is as follows: "By the National Assembly of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, 6th tenure, 1st session, for officially renaming Saigon-Gia Dinh City as Ho Chi Minh City. The National Assembly of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam Considering the boundless love of the people of Saigon-Gia Dinh City for President Ho Chi Minh and their wish for the city to be named after him; Considering the long and difficult revolutionary struggle launched in Saigon-Gia Dinh City, with several glorious feats, deserves the honor of being named after President Ho Chi Minh; After discussing the suggestion of the Presidium of the National Assembly’s meeting; Decides to rename Saigon-Gia Dinh City as Ho Chi Minh City." "From Saigon to Ho Chi Minh City". People's Committee of Ho Chi Minh City. Retrieved 2010-06-15. 
  3. ^ a b "At the height of the Khmer Empire's economic and political strength, during the eleventh and twelfth centuries, its rulers established and fostered the growth of Prey Nokor[...] It is possible that there already had been a settlement at this location in the Mekong marshes for some centuries, depending, as Prey Nokor did, on the handling of goods traded between the countries bordering the South China Sea and the interior provinces of the empire." Robert M. Salkin, Trudy Ring (1996). Paul E. Schellinger, Robert M. Salkin. ed. Asia and Oceania. International Dictionary of Historic Places. 5. Taylor & Francis. p. 353. ISBN 1884964044. 
  4. ^ a b c "Saigon, signifieraient bois des ouatiers, contenant ainsi une allysion aux nombreux kapokiers qui se rencontraient, parait-il, autregois dans la région. [...] Lê Van Phát avait cru pouvoir pousser cette interprétation très loin, et en déduire que là Plaine des Tombeaux avait été jadis une forêt inépuisable. [...] Sài Gòn pouvait être dérivé du nom cambodgien Prei Kor qui signigie fores des kapokiers (sic). Il pouvait être aussi l'adaptation des mots siamois Cai-ngon, c'est-àdire brousse des kapokiers, que les Laotiens emploient encore, affirmait-il, pour désigner la capitale de la Cochinchine." Hồng Sến Vương, Q. Thắng Nguyễn (2002). Tuyển tập Vương Hồng Sến. Nhà xuất bản Văn học. 
  5. ^ "Un siècle plus tard (1773), la révolte des TÁYON (sic) [qu’éclata] tout, d’abord dans les montagnes de la province de Qui-Nhon, et s’étendit repidement dans le sud, chassa de Bien-Hoa le mouvement commercial qu’y avaient attiré les Chinois. Ceux-ci abandonnèrent Cou-lao-pho, remontèrent de fleuve de Tan-Binh, et vinrent choisir la position actuele de CHOLEN. Cette création date d’envinron 1778. Ils appelèrent leur nouvelle résidence TAI-NGON ou TIN-GAN. Le nom transformé par les Annamites en celui de SAIGON fut depuis appliqué à tort, par l’expédition francaise, au SAIGON actuel dont la dénomination locale est BEN-NGHE ou BEN-THANH." Francis Garnier, quoted in: Hồng Sến Vương, Q. Thắng Nguyễn (2002). Tuyển tập Vương Hồng Sến. Nhà xuất bản Văn học. 
  6. ^ The official website of Ho Chi Minh City uses both "TP HCM" and "TPHCM" in Vietnamese, and uses mainly "HCM City" in English, though many linked articles (example 1, example 2) use "HCMC". The French acronym "HCMV" is less common, although it is used on the official website of the French consulate in Ho Chi Minh City.
  7. ^ "Such a trading center was bound to be one of the prizes in the struggle for power that developed in the thirteenth century between the declining Khmer Empire and the expanding kingdom of Champa, and by the end of that century the Cham people had seized control of the town." Robert M. Salkin, Trudy Ring (1996). Paul E. Schellinger, Robert M. Salkin. ed. Asia and Oceania. International Dictionary of Historic Places. 5. Taylor & Francis. p. 353. ISBN 1884964044. 
  8. ^ "Saigon began as the Cham village of Baigaur, then became the Khmer Prey Nokor before being taken over by the Vietnamese and renamed Gia Dinh Thanh and then Saigon." Nghia M. Vo (2009). The Viet Kieu in America: Personal Accounts of Postwar Immigrants from Vietnam. McFarland & Co.. p. 218. 
  1. ^ a b c Robert M. Salkin, Trudy Ring (1996). Paul E. Schellinger, Robert M. Salkin. ed. Asia and Oceania. International Dictionary of Historic Places. 5. Taylor & Francis. p. 354. ISBN 1884964044. 
  2. ^ a b c d Robert M. Salkin, Trudy Ring (1996). Paul E. Schellinger, Robert M. Salkin. ed. Asia and Oceania. International Dictionary of Historic Places. 5. Taylor & Francis. p. 353. ISBN 1884964044. 
  3. ^ Nghia M. Vo, Chat V. Dang, Hien V. Ho (2008-08-29). The Women of Vietnam. Saigon Arts, Culture & Education Institute Forum. Outskirts Press. ISBN 1432722085. 
  4. ^ "Ho Chi Minh City, Tan Son Nhat (SGN)". Retrieved 2010-06-15. 
  5. ^ a b Truong Vinh Ky, Souvenirs historiques sur Saigon et ses environs, trong Excursions et Reconnaissance X. Saigon, Imprimerie Coloniale 1885
  6. ^ "Comprehensive Map of Vietnam’s Provinces". World Digital Library. UNESCO. 1890. 
  7. ^ Choi Byung Wook (2004). Southern Vietnam under the reign of Minh Mạng (1820-1841): Central Policies and Local Response. Cornell University Southeast Asia Program. p. 20. ISBN 0-87727-138-0. 
  8. ^ Sophie Quinn-Judge, Hồ Chí Minh: The Missing Years, University of California Press, 2002 ISBN 0-520-23533-9
  9. ^ "Historic Figures: Ho Chi Minh (1890-1969)". British Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 2010-06-01. 
  10. ^ Jacques Népote, cited in Michel Dolinski (September 2007). "Cholon, ville chinoise?" (in French). p. 10. 
  11. ^ Sophat Soeung (March 2008). "A Personal Struggle to Balance Khmer Nationalism and Peacebuilding". The Beyond Intractability Knowledge Base Project. Retrieved 2010-06-01. 
  12. ^ Andrew Hardy (2004). "Internal transnationalism and the formation of the Vietnamese diaspora". In Brenda S. A. Yeoh and Katie Willis. State/nation/transnation: perspectives on transnationalism in the Asia-Pacific. Routeledge. pp. 231–234. ISBN 041530279X. 
  13. ^ Ashley Carruthers (2007). "Vietnamese Language and Media Policy in the Service of Deterritorialized Nation-Building". In Hock Guan Lee and Leo Suryadinata. Language, nation and development in Southeast Asia. ISEAS Publishing. pp. 196. ISBN 9789812304827. 
  14. ^ Charles Feldman (1999-01-21). "Hồ Chí Minh poster angers Vietnamese Americans". Associated Press. CNN. Archived from the original on 2008-03-16. 

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