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About HCM City > Posts > Saigonese: People With A Difference
CultureThursday, 03/03/2005, 07:25

Saigonese: People With A Difference

Saigon in the pre-modern and modern eras became a big cultural and economic center within Vietnam and Southeast Asia. Has a 300-year culture formed a distinctive character for “Saigonese”?

Saigonese: People With A Difference


Saigonese at a flower festival

Saigon in the pre-modern and modern eras became a big cultural and economic center within Vietnam and Southeast Asia. Has a 300-year culture formed a distinctive character for �Saigonese�?

Gia Dinh Thanh Thong Chi, a book written in 1820 by Trinh Hoai Duc, has this to say: �The Gia Dinh area (the historic name for what is now the Ho Chi Minh City region) has a vast land area and a lot of food, so people like living in luxury and care little about saving. People come from different areas, and each family has its own practices. The land is near the sun and the climate is hot, so people respect faithfulness.� The next paragraph says: �Gia Dinh has a southern location, so there are many determined and courageous people who respect faithfulness and despise wealth. Beautiful women are also abundant.�

John White, an Englishman, visited Saigon in the early 1820s. In 1824 he published in London A Voyage To Cochinchina, where he gives some impressions of Saigonese: �Many women are beautiful and have a fair complexion. Their deeds are very attractive but there is nothing indecent.� After taking a walk, he wrote: �We are very pleased with what we see and we bring along the best impressions of the people�s custom and disposition. The considerateness, kindness and hospitality we see have reached beyond all what we have so far observed in Asian countries, which makes it impossible for us to imagine that such a nation could be different.�

In 1937, writer Ho Bieu Chanh, who enjoyed fame in the south for his very southern-style writing, described a night market in Saigon: �At big shops, people gather into a big crowd. Boys have a glossy hair; girls have bright red lips; old men hold a cigarette in their mouth and release smoke; a woman leads a group of her children, with an older child running ahead and a younger one following her calling to each other noisily; a group makes its way to buy shoes; another group hurries indoors; well-dressed people are with casually-dressed laborers. Everybody looks cheerful��

Like Hanoi, Saigon-HCM City is a melting pot. Hanoi is the capital, which had four districts for people from different areas to make a living. Ancient Saigon was also a melting pot. Phu Bien Tap Luc by Le Quy Don says Lord Nguyen encouraged wealthy people from Quang Nam, and the central and northern midland, to go south to reclaim the land from the forest and set up villages. Early migrants to Saigon were wealthy people, poor people suffering famine and crop failure due to war, craftspeople and merchants who sought a place for business, troops, designated officials (most of them were being disciplined by the State), criminals in exile, rascals, and even criminals . So migrants to Saigon were more diverse than those moving to Hanoi. 

Trinh Hoai Duc also says in his book that not only Vietnamese but people from other countries gathered in the area. Saigon is at an international crossroads and is not far from shipping routes between north and south as well as east and west. With a diameter of about 2,500km, Saigon is a central point of Southeast Asia and is close to East Asia. Trinh Hoai Duc wrote: �In Binh Duong and Tan Long districts, inhabitants are crowded; streets, markets and houses are side by side; and people speak languages like Cantonese, Hainanese, Western languages, and Thai. Ships come for trading, with hundreds of kinds of goods. Saigon is a big city in Gia Dinh. Nowhere else in the country can match it��

If Hanoi is an introverted city, Saigon is both a metropolis and an international port with a tendency of openness. In the mid 1800s, Pallu de la Barriere, a Western visitor to Saigon, remarked: �Thousands of boats gather by the river bank and create a small floating city. Annamites, Indians and Chinese, and some French and Tagal (Filipino) soldiers walked to and fro, which created a strange scene��

Among the first foreigners who migrated to Saigon in the largest number were Chinese, whose offspring are now part of Vietnam�s population and who are referred to as Vietnamese of Chinese origin. They were from coastal parts of southern China, including peasants, craftspeople, traders, mandarins and soldiers. They came to Saigon for many reasons, mainly to settle in a new land because they did not like their government. Chinese immigrants contributed to the establishment and development of ancient Saigon as well as the creation of a Saigonese character. The elements of Chinese culture in the southern culture are different from the northern culture because of the impact of these Chinese immigrants. Trinh Hoai Duc wrote: �Gia Dinh is a newly exploited land of Vietnam. Our migrants, in conjunction with Tang people, Europeans (French, Britons, etc), Khmers, Javans, and Malays, live together in a concentrated and complicated manner.�

The first Vietnamese migrants to the south did not live in solitude. Saigon-Gia Dinh, before the big settlement push began in 1689, was not deserted. Ancient inhabitants are remembered by some minority groups in the southeastern region like Khmer, S�tieng, Ma and Chau Ro. This has been agreed upon by historians, archaeologists and ethnologists. Vietnamese migrants lived with these minority ethnic groups for a long time in their early days of settlement. Cultural exchanges between Vietnamese and other communities contributed to forming the Saigonese from the very early days.

One of the factors in creating the Saigonese is the geographical environment of Saigon. Hanoi and Hue people are different because of the differences between the natural and geographical conditions of Hanoi and Hue, between the Red River and Huong River, and between a center of the northern delta and a hilly land in the central region. Saigon is near the equator and has a tropical climate with hot temperature and high humidity, so this is convenient for plants and animals to grow. Saigon has two seasons: wet and dry. As it is on the borderline between the southeastern region with its mountains and hills and the Mekong Delta with its plains, Saigon has high land in its north and lower land in its south and southeast, with many rivers, streams and swamps. The Saigon River is a young river, linking Saigon with the sea. Thanks to the Saigon River, Saigon remains a port convenient for shipping even though it is more than 60km from the sea. Saigon River and the system of canals and streams in the city are affected by the tides. The natural environment of Saigon has strongly influenced the lifestyle and character of Saigonese. 

It is difficult to answer clearly what Saigonese, Hanoians and Hue people are like. Trinh Hoai Duc and Nguyen Dinh Chieu described Saigonese as �respecting faithfulness and despising talent wealth.� Hanoians, Hue people and Saigonese are all Vietnamese. To some extent, Saigonese and southerners are not very different in their character from people in the other main centers. But a study of Saigonese does show that the natural, social and historical conditions of the Saigon area have crafted a people with distinctive characteristics.

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