Do you say Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City?

Is It "Saigon" or "Ho Chi Minh City"? A Tale of Two Names

Last updated:May 17, 2024
Have you ever noticed that when you are booking a flight to Ho Chi Minh City, the airport code is SGNwhich stands for Saigon - instead of Ho Chi Minh City? Why is that? Is there a difference between the two names? If so, what should travelers call this city when they visit the city and talk with the locals?
As a Saigonese myself, I'm going to explain in this article the historical context and cultural importance that is connected to both names, and hopefully shed light on the complexity and depths of Vietnam's history!

Is it “Saigon” or “Ho Chi Minh City”?

This bustling city in Vietnam acknowledged for its rich history, lively streets, and cultural tapestry, has been the focus of a continuous debate over its name. Is it Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City? Before I guide you through the correct name to use, let's explore the different names connected to the city and where each of them originated from.

Saigon - The Enduring Name

Saigon is the enduring name of Ho Chi Minh CitySaigon - The Enduring name. | Source: Manh Hai -Flickr.
Saigon, a Vietnamese city, is widely associated with French colonial buildings, marketplaces, and a lively environment. Its origins may be traced back to the Khmer region of Prey NôKôr, which grew into a major trading port during the Vietnamese administration. Saigon rose to worldwide prominence during the French colonial era and played a critical role in the Vietnam War. 
As Vietnamese influence over the region increased, they adopted the Khmer name and pronounced it "Sài Gòn". Saigon represents the economic and cultural core of South Vietnam, symbolizing the people's goals and dreams. Its enduring name contributes to an understanding of the city's historical and contemporary context, acknowledging its inspirational path and determined personality. However, in order to fully embrace the enduring name of Saigon, one has to appreciate the city's past and how it got its names.

Unveiling the City’s Historic Names

Prey NôKôr - A Glimpse into the Khmer Past

As mentioned above, Saigon was previously known as Prey NôKôr. The name Prey NôKôr is derived from the Khmer language, which was spoken in the area during the Khmer Empire's reign. Throughout the 17th century, the Vietnamese Nguyen lords progressively increased their dominance over the Mekong Delta region, which included Saigon. 
At the time, the territory was mostly populated by Khmers, who called it Prey NôKôr, which means "forest city" or "forest land". As the Vietnamese expanded their power and presence in the area, they began to refer to the city as Prey NôKôr. 

Gia Dinh - Vietnamese Names and the Rise of a City

Ben Thanh Market - Saigon 1920sBen Thanh Market - Saigon 1920s. | Source: Manh Hai -Flickr.
According to Wikipedia, in the 1690s, Vietnamese noble Nguyen Huu Canh was assigned by the Nguyen emperors of Hue to set up governmental institutions in the Mekong Delta and its surroundings. This move formalized Vietnamese control over the area, previously under Cambodian influence. Prey Nôkôr was renamed “Gia Định”, and the area was completely under Vietnamese government rule
During the Nguyen Dynasty, Gia Dinh became a major political, economic, and cultural center in southern Vietnam. The Nguyen Lords enacted laws and regulations to promote Gia Định's growth and prosperity.

2. Ho Chi Minh City - The Modern Name

Ho Chi Minh City - The modern name of SaigonThe modern name of Saigon is Ho Chi Minh City. | Source: Flickr.

Following the reunification of Vietnam in 1975, Saigon was officially renamed Ho Chi Minh City in honor of the esteemed leader,  President Ho Chi Minh. 

President Ho Chi Minh is an iconic figure in Vietnamese history, who fought for the country's struggle for independence and reunification. The renaming of the city was seen as a gesture of respect and recognition of Uncle Ho's contributions to the nation. Ho Chi Minh City embodies the ideals, principles, and aspirations of the Vietnamese people, symbolizing unity and national pride.

Do Vietnamese Call the City Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City?

Vietnamese people frequently refer to the city as both "Saigon" and "Ho Chi Minh City", with "Saigon" holding historical and cultural value and being widely used in informal situations and everyday discussions. However, it has been officially known as "Ho Chi Minh City" since its renaming in 1975 in honor of the Vietnamese president. The term "Ho Chi Minh City" is used in formal and official contexts, including government papers, maps, and official addresses. 
Both names are used interchangeably in Vietnam, with the use determined by context, personal taste, and generational differences. Nonetheless, older generations tend to use "Saigon" more commonly, while younger generations may be more familiar with "Ho Chi Minh City." 

Should Foreigners Call the City Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City?

So which name should foreigners use when they refer to city, then?  While official documentation and signage use the name Ho Chi Minh City, people and taxi drivers frequently use Saigon. Embracing both names can assist in bridging the gap between cultural heritage and practical navigation, encouraging meaningful exchanges and ties with locals. 

Regardless of whether you call it Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City, the city in Vietnam is still a mesmerizing destination that symbolizes the country's rich history, lively culture, and resilient spirit for you to explore.
hope that this article has given you some insight into the history and culture of Ho Chi Minh City - formerly known as Saigon - and helped you to understand why we still use both names today! With this knowledge, you're well on your way to having a fantastic Vietnamese adventure - we look forward to seeing you in Vietnam soon!
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