Separate but unequal
In the 1850s, persecution of French missionaries gave
France an excuse to expand their colonial empire into
Vietnam. In 1859, French troops destroyed the citadel
at Gia Dinh. Skirmishes continued until 1861, and the
population of the city that was coming to be known as
Saigon fell from 40,000 to just 8,000 as residents fled
the fighting. After France forced the Nguyen emperor
to sign over control of Vietnam, the colonialists embarked
on an ambitious building spree in Saigon, using Vietnamese
slave and convict labor to fill canals, pave wide boulevards,
build elegant government and residential buildings,
even erect a European-style cathedral. French soldiers,
businessmen, officials and their wives shopped for the
latest Parisian fashions at boutiques along Rue Catinat,
gathered for cocktails at the Cercle Sportif, read week-old
editions of Le Monde on the verandah of the Continental
Hoteland insulated themselves as much as possible
from the poverty of the rest of the citys 100,000
inhabitants. Many Vietnamese, especially the well-educated
sons of native civil servants, chafed under the restrictions,
taxation and lack of liberty the French had imposed.
As the Governor of Cochinchina wrote in 1902, The
development of big centers such as Saigon and Cholon
has given birth to a kind of urban and suburban proletariat
whose attitude and activities cause serious and legitimate
concern to the European population. The Indochinese
Communist Party (ICP), founded in 1930 by Ho Chi Minh
and others who saw Marxism as the only hope for salvation,
began to plot the end of colonialism in Vietnam. Saigon
was increasingly the scene civil unrest as Communist
labor unions protested French exploitation of workers.
War of the worlds
When France was conquered by Nazi Germany in 1940,
the citizens of Saigon suddenly found themselves answering
to new masters. Japan took over governing Indochina
for the duration of WWII, throwing French troops into
jail and garrisoning thousands of soldiers in converted
schools and other buildings in Saigon. Any hopes that
the Japanese would be more sympathetic occupiers were
quickly dashed, as the troops terrorized and looted
the countryside. By 1941 the people of Vietnam suffered
from famine thanks to their new masters, who hoarded
rice for export to Japan. In March 1945, the Japanese
forced the last Nguyen emperor, Bao Dai to declare the
independence of northern Vietnam from France. But when
the Allies defeated Japan in August of 1945, revolutionary
cells of the communist party known as the Viet Minh
was quick to step in and take advantage of the uncertainty
that followed. On September 2, using language borrowed
from the American Declaration of Independence, Ho Chi
Minh announced the formation of the Democratic Republic
Who was Ho Chi Minh?
Ho Chi Minh, North Vietnam's leader, spent only
a few days in the city that now bears his name.
Born in central Vietnam in 1890, he left his
country while in his early twenties and traveled
everywhere from Hong Kong to Russia to Africa
to New Yorkwashing dishes at a Boston hotel,
toiling as a photo retoucher in Paris by day and
meeting leading Communist agitators by night.
Anguished missives sent to Western leaders show
Ho Chi Minh trying to convince the U.S. to support
a free and democratic Vietnam, but to no avail.
Only the Soviet Union offered assistance.
Ho Chi Minh returned to Vietnam for good in 1941,
establishing guerrilla bases in the mountains.
After declaring independence in 1945, he would
spend the next twenty years leading the Communist
north through twenty years of war. His ruthless
determinism shocked the West, and his statement
to the French in the 1940s that You can
kill ten of my men for every one I kill of yours,
but even at those odds you will lose and I will
win, proved eerily prescient.
Ho Chi Minh died in 1969, before he could see
his dreams of a unified Vietnam come true. But
Uncle Ho, as hes known, remains
an enigmatic figure in Vietnam today.
Officially revered almost as a saint, his Hanoi
mausoleum (built against his express wishes) remains
a pilgrimage site for Vietnamesesome of
whom spend days walking in from the countryside
to pay their respects.