What’s in a name?

Where am I? I’m in Sài Gòn, Sai Gon, Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City, Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh, Ho Chi Minh Ville, HCMC, HCMV, and Tp. HCM.

They’re all the names for one place and all in common usage within the city, but why so many versions? Well, the city has had many names since it was first settled by Khmer people but let’s start at Sài Gòn.

The Vietnamese language often employs a composite of two words to mean one thing. A doctor is bác sĩ, an airport is sân bay, etc. Vietnamese also uses accents over the letters change the tone and meaning, if you are writing in tiếng Việt (Vietnamese language) then, of course, you use the proper accents. So a Vietnamese person would write and pronounce it as Sài Gòn.

When the French invaded they didn’t see a reason to use two words or Vietnamese accents and westernised it to Saïgon, using an umlaut over the I.

English speakers didn’t see a reason to write the name with an umlaut and wrote it as Saigon.

Roll on the glorious revolution and on 2 July, 1976, and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam was established. The new government renamed the city of Sài Gòn to honour Hồ Chí Minh, the first leader of North Vietnam and it became known as Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh, (Thành phố is just Vietnamese for city.) It is a fairly long name for a city so people will often use the acronym Tp. HCM

English speakers couldn’t be bothered with accents and prompted anglicized it to Ho Chi Minh City or HCMC.

French speakers say Ho Chi Minh Ville or HCMV. (Ville is French for city.)

Older Vietnamese people will usually use Sài Gòn, while younger people will say Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh. I typically use Sai Gon because I understand enough Vietnamese to know it should be spelt as two words but am too lazy to get the software to type Vietnamese accents on my personal computer or copy and paste them every time. I’ll also use HCMC, again, because I’m lazy and it is shorter to speak and write.

So, there you are. The many names of my adopted home speak to its history and the people living there.

A man, not a city.
Uncle Ho – a man, not a city.

Pro tip – Never say that you’re staying in Ho Chi Minh; this is a man, not a place. You have to say the full name of the city or you are referring to the beloved Uncle Ho (Bac Ho in Vietnamese). Ho Chi Minh has been glorified to the status of a saint by the regime in Viet Nam and his cultural status is not to be taken lightly. His image appears on the front of all Vietnamese currency notes. His portraits and busts are in most of Vietnam’s public buildings, community halls, in public and private classrooms.


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