Walter Pearson takes a look at three of the many historical sites around Ho Chi Minh City that show a timeline of Vietnam’s struggle for independence — but still go largely unnoticed by expats and tourists. Photo by Fred Wissink.
Nguyen Van Hao Theatre
Corner of Tran Hung Dao and De Tham streets, Pham Ngu Lao Ward, District 1
This theatre, built by a local businessman, was the site of a public meeting on 18 Aug 1945 that endorsed the Viet Nam Doc Lap Dong Minh Hoi, known more generally as the Viet Minh, a movement led by Ho Chi Minh to wrest independence from France.
After this meeting, the Viet Minh established a committee to run the area that had been known under the French as Cochinchina. A similar committee had been set up in Hanoi. These two committees were to run the country until a new constitution could be drawn up and a permanent government established for the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. This period is known as the August Revolution (Cach Mang Thang Tam).
After the end of World War II, the defeated Japanese surrendered their wartime gains, including control of Vietnam, to the Allied Forces. Under these arrangements, China entered northern Vietnam to accept the Japanese surrender. In September 1945, the British arrived in southern Vietnam to accept the surrender of the remaining Japanese forces. The Chinese did not interfere with the newly emerging independent Vietnam. By contrast, the British arrived with an agenda and a French commando company in tow.
The British commanding general, Douglas Gracey, knew Britain wanted its colonial holdings in the east. If France could regain Vietnam it would help Britain’s claims to its pre-war colonies. Gracey re-armed Japanese troops and with his own small contingent of British (Indian) troops and the French commandos, he attacked the Viet Minh Committee on 23 Sept 1945, driving it out of the building now known as the Ho Chi Minh City People’s Committee Building downtown.
So began the long 30-year war for Vietnamese independence and freedom. The Vietnamese say the war for self-determination began in the south on 23 Sept 1945 and ended in the south on 30 April 1975.
Between Pham Ngu Lao and Le Lai streets, Pham Ngu Lao Ward, District 1
This park — named to remind us of that fateful day when the hopes of the August Revolution were crushed by foreigners — is a big part of the life of downtown Ho Chi Minh City. Now it’s filled with evening dance groups, English language students accosting tourists, children playing, parents exercising and the Tet Flower Show. But originally it was the site of the Saigon Railway Station.
Lines ran west and north out of the city, another line ran through the roundabout in front of Ben Thanh Market and up Ham Nghi Street. The line branched out as it hit what is now Ton That Dam Street, with one branch going out to the wharves in the port on the other side of the Ben Nghe Canal, and the other going up to the waterfront along Ton Duc Thang Street. What is now a leisure area and berths for the hydrofoils and floating restaurants was once a bustling industrial port.
Ernst Thalmann School
Tran Hung Dao and Nguyen Thai Hoc streets, Pham Ngu Lao Ward, District 1
Most Europeans and Americans think the United States became involved in Vietnam in the ’60s. Not so. Outside the Ernst Thalmann School is a large red stone steela on which is inscribed the story of three eventful days in 1950. (Ernst Thalmann was an important East German communist.)
On 13 March 1950, two US destroyers, the Anderson and the Stickle, arrived in Saigon harbour. That night revolutionary forces, who had been fighting the French since September 1945, mortared the two US ships, forcing them to up anchor and move up and down the river throughout the night.
The Vietnamese were concerned that the arrival of these two ships marked the start of US involvement in the French war. The local leadership protested to the French authorities, saying there should not be a reception for the officers of the US ships. The authorities rejected the call. At 2am on 15 March, people began gathering outside the school.
By 9am, 500,000 people had filled the area. Local leader Nguyen Huu Tho told the crowd about the French authorities’ attitude. A riot then broke out. The crowd moved up Tran Hung Dao Street, through the Ben Thanh Market roundabout into Le Loi Boulevard. They were met by French soldiers with armoured cars and tear gas. People came out from their homes and businesses on the street and handed out wet towels to those affected by the tear gas. A group of US sailors said to be “lounging arrogantly” by the side of the road were chased back to their tender and returned to their ship. The riot broke up after three hours.
However, despite the Vietnamese protests, the United States persisted in its support of the French. The Vietnamese mark 15 March 1950 as the beginning of US involvement in the War in Indochina and total opposition to the US role. By the time the Vietnamese defeated the French at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the United States was supplying material worth 85 percent of the cost of the French War. Without this US support, the French no doubt would have been forced to yield much earlier.