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The CityAfter Liberation
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Colonial Saigon | The War Years | After Liberation | Ho Chi Minh City Today

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A new name—and new masters

Saigon fell to the advancing Northern army with little resistance and few casualties. But the next decade wouldn’t be so easy for the capital of the now-vanquished Southern regime. Saigon’s name was changed to Ho Chi Minh City, to honor the revolutionary leader who had declared independence back in 1945. But Ho Chi Minh’s words of brotherhood and rebuilding the country “ten times more beautiful” quickly became a cruel irony.

soldier ride on tank entering city

Saigon After Liberation
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To the surprise of the native Viet Cong who had been fighting for years to reunify Vietnam, Northern cadre members were brought in to oversee the installation of a Soviet-style economy in the city and take over day-to-day rule. In the years after the fall of Saigon, as many as 400,000 Southerners who fought or worked for the ousted pro-American regime were rounded up and forced into reeducation camps. Doctors, soldiers, engineers, businessmen—some of the very people who could have helped put the shattered country back together again were instead forced to perform back-breaking menial labor and pen mindless “self-criticism.” After China invaded Vietnam in a brief 1979 border war, anti-Chinese persecutions were stepped up in Ho Chi Minh City, and thousands of Cholon shopkeepers began to trickle out of the country.

Down and Out

The new government took over production and banned all private business. Living standards in Ho Chi Minh City began to plummet—and the trickle of refugees fleeing Vietnam became a torrent. The late 1970’s and 1980s were the darkest period yet for Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh City, which had flourished off the billions of dollars the U.S. pumped into the Southern economy during the war, became dark and silent as poverty tightened its grip on Vietnam. 1978, Vietnam invaded Cambodia to put a stop to murderous cross-border raids by Pol Pot’s Khmer Rough. The decade-long war that resulted nearly bankrupted Vietnam.

soldier ride on tank entering city

At the same time, a decision to collectivize rice production devastated agriculture, and a United States-led trade embargo meant Vietnam had no access to much-needed international aid or capital. As Western nations turned their back on Vietnam, the country also found it increasingly difficult to communicate with the outside world. Thanks to the trade embargo, international telephone and even mail service was limited. As vendors had little to sell and residents had no money to spend, the once-vibrant streets of Ho Chi Minh City emptied out. A million people took their lives in their hands, attempting dangerous escapes by sea or land, desperate to get out of Vietnam.

Renovation and renewal

soldier ride on tank entering city

In 1986, at the Sixth Congress of the Communist Party in Hanoi, the country’s leaders finally took steps to halt Vietnam’s self-destruction. Under a movement known as Doi Moi (Renovation), Vietnam began to move towards a market economy. While Northerners were still brought in to head up State offices and factories, Ho Chi Minh City residents who had never lost their knack—or appetite—for capitalism were finally permitted to open their own businesses.

By the time the U.S. lifted its trade embargo in 1994, the city was leading Vietnam into unprecedented growth and financial stability. Foreign companies like Nike, FedEx, and Coca-Cola rushed in to set up shop; by 1997 Ho Chi Minh City revenue made up a third of the nation’s GDP, and per capita income for Saigon residents was more than triple that of the rest of Vietnam. These figures will only increase in coming years, now that Vietnam and the U.S. have finally ratified a far-reaching trade agreement. Plus, many of the one million southerners who fled Vietnam after 1975 now regularly send money back to relatives they left behind. This private assistance totals more than $2 billion annually - far more than the amount of official international aid Vietanam receives from other nations.

 

president clinton in vietnam

An American President in Vietnam

In November, 2000, Bill Clinton became the first American leader to visit Vietnam since the end of the war. He arrived as Vietnam and the U.S. were putting the finishing touches on a trade agreement. Many in the U.S. Congress were reluctant to sign the legislation, citing Vietnam’s restrictions on religious freedoms and human rights. The following is an excerpt from Clinton’s speech to a group of Vietnamese university students:

…In our experience, guaranteeing the right to religious worship and the right to political dissent does not threaten the stability of a society. Instead, it builds people’s confidence in the fairness of our institutions, and it enables us to take it when a decision goes in a way we don’t agree with. All this makes our country stronger in good times and bad. In our experience, young people are much more likely to have confidence in their future if they have a say in shaping it, in choosing their governmental leaders and having a government that is accountable to those it serves… You have proved to the world that you will make your own decisions. Only you can decide, for example, if you will continue to share Vietnam’s talents and ideas with the world; if you will continue to open Vietnam so that you can enrich it with the insight of others. Only you can decide if you will continue to open your markets, open your society, and strengthen the rule of law. Only you can decide how to weave individual liberties and human rights into the rich and strong fabric of Vietnamese national identity… Let the days when we talk past each other be gone for good. Let us acknowledge our importance to one another. Let us continue to help each other heal the wounds of war, not by forgetting the bravery shown and the tragedy suffered by all sides, but by embracing the spirit of reconciliation and the courage to build better tomorrows for our children.