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About HCM City > Posts > Cultural Merging In Saigon-HCM City
CultureThursday, 03/03/2005, 07:35

Cultural Merging In Saigon-HCM City

Over hundreds of years, with the vicissitude of history, the world’s various cultures seemed to have found a common place to converge in Saigon-HCM City. The city has been gradually turned into a non-discriminating community, a cultural kaleidoscope, for people from almost every corner of the world, regardless of race and ideology.


Cultural Merging In Saigon-HCM City    
 


A Chinese pagoda in District 5

Over hundreds of years, with the vicissitude of history, the world’s various cultures seemed to have found a common place to converge in Saigon-HCM City. The city has been gradually turned into a non-discriminating community, a cultural kaleidoscope, for people from almost every corner of the world, regardless of race and ideology.

Atheism and theism were all absorbed, blended and “Saigonized” into the Vietnamese cultural background – the revolutionary refinement. All the cultural flows converged and supplemented each other to produce a unique “common home” with a wide-ranging characteristic e.g. Vietnamese-Chinese-English-Indian-Russian-Korean-American-French-Japanese, and more.

Saigon, depending on individual appraisal, is sometimes called “Saigon Potpourri”, “Multi-faced Saigon”, and “Amalgamated Saigon,” all to describe the uniqueness of this lively and colorful city. 

  1. In 1698, Lord Nguyen Phuc Chu sent Garrison-General Nguyen Huu Canh on an inspection and conquest expedition to the Saigon region. This was a strategic step of the Nguyen dynasty, aiming to expand the court’s influence southward with gradual colonization. The coastal culture of the central region Vietnamese came with the expedition southward, then took root in the Saigon areas. The coastal ways of life had, for centuries, tempered these Vietnamese into hardened but flexible pioneer-soldiers, people who had to struggle to make a living in the narrowest and most arid part of Vietnam. These early soldier-pioneers were adventurous, hard-working, and brave, had good adaptability and above all, were dreamers of a better life, all the merits needed for the hardship of colonization. Long-standing skills were brought to the new land as well, the most notable being wood and stone carving, the fame of which had been manifested in the building of fortresses and royals’ palaces in Hue Citadel under the Nguyen dynasty. Local food specialties were brought along with the expedition and stayed throughout the centuries. Quang noodle (prepared with rice flour noodles), Hue beef-soup vermicelli (hot and spicy), and Hue tre (pork skin and galingale wrapped in leaves and paddy straw) can still be found in Saigon. In general, Vietnam’s central region culture was part of Saigon’s tradition right from the dawn of the community.
  2. A little later in the same period, Chinese culture started to arrive with defeated Ming troopers and court dissidents who failed in their uprising against the ruling Manchurian. In this new refuge, those uprooted Chinese, like working bees with their ancient cultural nectar, started to establish their own settlement quarters which then developed into Cholon, Saigon’s Chinatown. One particular trait of Chinese communities all over the world, Saigon’s Chinatown is no exception: commercial activities, importing and exporting and light industry always rank first of all professions. From the early days in Saigon, the Chinese were quick to figure out the principles of the “market economy” and therefore took to the catering for societies’ demands in accordance with consumers’ needs and whims. Thanks to these Chinese traders, merchandise was put into circulation and distributed through the import-export activities. Today, almost everything can be found in Cholon, not to mention the food and foodstuffs prepared by Chinese chefs. In other words, to fully enjoy food you have to eat in Cholon. It is not that you can find all the specialties, all the delicious dishes of the world and the southern region in Cholon but it is the eating ambience – good cooks, exciting atmosphere, the generosity, the hospitality that Cholon’s Chinese show during eating sprees – now also a trait of southern Vietnamese. Ancient residential quarters or at least their relics, can be found in Cholon, such as the famous Lord and Lady’s Shrines, the various schools of martial art, the homes of Lion and   Kylin dancing teams…Truly, Cholon is a typical Chinese community with a full range of activities reflecting the characteristic of the Saigon Chinese.
  3. In 1861, French colonialists invaded and occupied Saigon in their effort to break the “closed door” policy of the Nguyen dynasty. By then, Saigon had already established its own local ways of life by people coming from the southern plains, the coastal central region and various Khmer and Chinese communities. The trading with China and India had brought religious and philosophical ideas that complemented the existing Buddhism and various schools of ethical thought. Along with French colonialists, Western civilization flooded Saigon. Positive elements were brought by doctors, explorers, architects, engineers, and Catholic missionaries who came with the French legionnaires, the back-up force for the colonial rulers. The essence of French culture took root and bloomed in novel and exotic fields like technology, philosophy, religion, art, archeology, literature, culinary art, to the highest Western standards.
  4. The Dien Bien Phu victory (May 7, 1954) marked the downfall of French colonialism in Vietnam. The Geneva treaty temporarily bisected Vietnam and urged the historic migration from the north to the south. In fact, northerners had come to the south long before this event but the 1954 migration was the opportunity for the northern plain civilization to move to Saigon. Settlements of the uprooted northerners like the “Ong Ta” area changed the face of Saigon with their northern style well-organized communities. But the generosity of the southerners enabled them to adapt to the northerners’ discipline, a new trait for Saigonese. Most notable was the model of setting up communities by their common profession, allowing for the easy establishing of a professional association or vocational society, to help protect each other in the fight against the control of the market by “foreign corporate sharks”. Food wise, Saigonese now had on their menu specialties like pho, steamed meat rolls, spring rolls, green rice flakes, cakes, and drinks like green tea, kudzu dried powder and the hookah pipe for smoking. For fashion, the “ao dai”, a modification of the colorful and unique “four-piece dress” of northern girls, made its debut about this eventful period. This dress then contributed its part in the enriching of Vietnamese culture and in the enlivening of the Vietnamese characteristic in the then pro-Western fashion trend in Saigon. It seemed that at this point the breath of the northern plain civilization started to blend in with the way of life of Saigonese.
  5. Saigon in the period of a divided Vietnam. Late in the fifties, taking advantage of the weakened and shaky French colonialism in Indochina, American imperialists pushed the French aside and moved into southern Vietnam. Saigon then bore the brunt of the American-style of life. During this period, new notions and new schools of thought clashed with old ones, creating a state of complicated cultural disorder. However, Saigon had undergone and been tempered throughout decades of unrest and was competent in sorting and adopting essential quality from the new wave of cultural concepts to enrich its age-old experience. In short, having undergone the two modern-time conflicts with powerful opponents, Saigon had to face stressful challenges but was able to retain its own cultural characteristics.
  6. Emerging triumphant on April 30, 1975, Saigon had the honor of being named Ho Chi Minh City in 1976 and started a new cycle of transformation. The adopting of new Socialist concepts was not without difficulty but the flexibility of its aesthetic attributes allowed Saigon to gradually establish itself as a new cultural and economic beacon for the country.

The trend of global integration has seen Saigon implement the renovation policies that originated from the Party’s sixth National Congress in 1986. Consequently, Saigon-HCM City has had the opportunity to demonstrate its refinement and to invite other countries to come in with open dialogue and cultural cooperation. In the new millennium, Saigon-HCM City is going to be the gateway for talks and cooperation and certainly be in direct contact with new cultural inflows from all over the world. Once again, Saigon might have to show its ability to withstand culture shocks and to learn from the experience to improve its own ways of life.


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