Lesson 7

Saigon Field Trip

Centre of modern culture

We are going to end our cultural research filed trip in Saigon (in Vienamese language: Sài Gòn), the capital city of the former Republic of Vietnam, with the goal to enable you to listen, to see yourself the socialist cultural revolution aimed at replacing the Saigon culture of the Republic of Vietnam. You will witness how that happened and you will also observe the real current situation of Saigon culture. You have read and heard from your parents about what happened to Saigon after 1975: the “liberation of Saigon” followed by the prohibition of all cultural activities from the “Ngụy = Usurper” era, such as:

– Burning of books, and arrests of intellectuals,

– Abolition of music, prohibition of songs (golden music).

Today, in Saigon, you will be surprised by many cultural changes, unlike what you have heard from your uncles. That’s why we have to go back in history so that we can see the development of the Saigon culture through political regimes: the monarchy under Nguyễn Dynasty, the French domination, the Republic of Vietnam, the Communist regime.

The monarchy under Nguyễn Dynasty

In 1698, Lord Nguyễn Phúc Chu ordered Marshall Nguyễn Hữu Cảnh, as Royal Envoy to Chenla, to start taking the land of Đồng Nai to establish the Phước Long District, the Trấn Biên Dinh (Biên Hòa), and taking the land of Sài Côn to create the Tân Bình District. The fortress of Sài Côn was given the new name of Fortress of Gia Định, and then Phan Yên (Phiên An) under the reign of Emperor Minh Mạng, and later Saigon under the French domination. During the pacification of Saigon, the soldiers have brought in Central Vietnam’s culture (architecture, religion, custom).

In 1673, Nguyễn Lord authorized a large group of 3,000 soldiers on 50 battleships under Ming Dynasty defeated generals to go settle down in the South. The soldiers of General Trần Thượng Xuyên entered the Cần Giờ estuary, and settled down in Bàn Lăng, Đồng Nai[1]. Saigon received Chinese culture (Three Religions, worshipping of the Jade Emperor, of Guan Yu, Chinese theatre …) from the Ming Chinese soldiers and gradually formed the urban market economy in Chợ Lớn.

Under the reign of Emperor Gia Long, Saigon already became large and crowded city like what Jean Sylvestre (in L’Empire d’Annam) recounted businessman Finalayson’words: “We did not know that in this remote land there was such a big city like this … with a very heavy river traffic. The arrangement of streets here is much more logical and orderly than many European capital cities. Saigon is the commercial centre of this prosperous province[2]”.

Under French domination (1884-1945)

Under the French domination, Saigon was a commercial port, an industrial city, the first city built in Western-style. In 1861, the French occupied Saigon, erased the old fortress, built government edifices, and streets in European style to make it the capital city of their administration. From that time on, Saigon had cultural exchanges with the bourgeois and democratic thought system, especially in philosophy, music, education, literature … and became a big cultural centre.

The Vietnamese culture changed radically after the Quốc ngữ (National language) scripture, the French language, and the new schooling system were introduced into the educational program and the examination system by the resolution by Governor-General Paul Beau in 1906-1907[3]. The Quốc ngữ became the means of the cultural dissemination in several fields: journalism, reportage, research, criticism, new poetry, realistic novels …

The model commercial-industrial city Saigon- Cholon (in Vietnamese language: Chợ Lớn) has given birth to the bourgeois intellectual, government official, and merchant social classes.

Culturally, the important changes have been:

– The birth and strong development of journalism from 1865 to mid-XX century. The first journal, Gia Định Báo (Journal of Gia Định), was published in 1865 with famous journalists, writers such as Trương Vĩnh Ký, Hồ Biểu Chánh, Phạm Quỳnh, Tản Đà, Đào Duy Anh …

– French literature infiltrated deeply into Vietnamese literature on two fronts: 1) introduction of many new genres such as prose novels, fables; 2) introduction of French literature, philosophical and religious thoughts …

– The birth of new music, new poetry.

Republic of Vietnam era (1954-1975)

Under the Republic of Vietnam (1954-1975), Saigon continued to play the role of the centre for world literature and the symbol of freedom.

From 1954, while the socialist North Vietnm was building the proletariat culture, the Republic of Vietnam in the South continued to preserve the traditional culture and develop the urban culture with Saigon as its centre.

By its contact with the Western culture, the Vietnamese culture has had structural changes, and has gone into the orbit of the Western industrial and urban civilization. Its cultural profile has changed in many respects:

– Scripture: the Quốc ngữ has been used as a mean to carry the culture,

– Appearance of means of cultural dissemination: printers, printing shops,

– Appearance of journalism, private publishing houses,

– Appearance of new literary genres, such as novels, new poetry, movies, plays, painting,

– Philosophy and thought system.

Saigon became the grouping point of the cultural cream of the cream in literature, poetry, music … with a number of centres for the cultural dissemination: Trường Quốc Gia Âm Nhạc và Kịch Nghệ (National School of Music and Performing Arts, 1956), Trường Quốc Gia Trang Trí và Mỹ Thuật (National School of Decorative and Fine Arts, 1971). Another example was Đại Học Văn Khoa Sài Gòn (Faculty of Letters, University of Saigon), which included the following departments: History, Geography, Eastern Philosophy, Western Philosophy, Humanities, Vietnamese Literature, Chinese Literature, French Litrature, English Litrature. With these departments, the Faculty provided a multi-dimensional and interdisciplinary program introducing the world cultural heritage from East to West, from Marxist-Leninism to capitalism. Both theist and atheist thought systems were taught at this Đại Học Văn Khoa Sài Gòn and later were spread to the whole country. All of these cultural currents have merged into one another, complimented to one another to form the Saigon cultural edifice with a global, unique, multi-coloured, dynamic, developing, and creative architecture of a free and humanist urban culture.

  1. Trịnh Hoài Đức, Gia Định Thành Thông Chí = Comprehensive Gazetteer of Gia Định, published by Nha Văn Hóa, middle volume, Sài Gòn, p. 9-10. The Long Môn soldiers under General Dương Ngạn Địch entered Tiền and Hậu esturaries, arriving in the Mỹ Tho area, and settled down in Ba Giồng, an area of good farming land. After that, General Văn Trinh led his soldiers to set up their camps in Mỹ Tho (Trịnh Hoài Đức, Gia Định …, op.cit., lower volume, p. 119).

  2. Nguyễn Đăng Thục, Văn hóa Việt Nam với Đông Nam Á = Vietnamese culture with the South East Asia, Văn Hóa Á Châu Publishing House, 1961, Saigon, p. 108.

  3. At the end of the XIX century, the first high school was built and named Collège Le Myre de Vilers, renamed later to Collège de Mỹ Tho, and renamed again to Nguyễn Đình Chiểu in 1950.