Barbara Adam investigates what the names of some of Ho Chi Minh City’s streets really mean. Photo by Romain Garrigue.

It doesn’t take very long for newcomers to Ho Chi Minh City to work out how to navigate the streets, especially downtown, where French town planners laid out grids of wide boulevards.

But with the onslaught of everyday life in Vietnam, most expats don’t spare a thought for the names of the streets they traverse.

It only takes one or two trips to other destinations in Vietnam to realise that the same street names are used in just about every town in the country.

So what do the street names mean?

Most streets are named after historical figures: military leaders, poets and politicians. Some streets are named after military events, marking a victory or a great battle.

Historian Tim Doling says Vietnam has a long history of naming streets after notable people.

“Before the French arrived, there’s evidence that some streets in major towns had local names describing particular government offices or trades located on them, but the practice of giving each thoroughfare an official name only began after the arrival of the French and the introduction of Western-style urban management practices,” he said.

“Throughout the colonial era, the French were constantly renaming streets as colonial governors and senior officials came and went. They also applied the names of great battles in which France had been involved, leading French generals, and a plethora of other famous individuals.

“With the sole exception of the reigning Nguyen dynasty, great figures from Vietnamese history were generally ignored. Most of the Vietnamese street names applied in colonial times praised loyal local representatives of the French administration: collaborators, as they would be called now.”

Tim said as the French began offering limited independence to its colonies, including Indochina, in the late 1940s, local names began being used for some streets.

“By 1955-1956, most of the old French street names had been replaced with the names of great Vietnamese heroes,” he said. “In the North, these were supplemented by those of revolutionary activists, while in the South leading anti-communist politicians were also commemorated.”

Once the Vietnam-American War ended, the new government of Vietnam began renaming streets throughout the country after “revolutionary” heroes.

In today’s Ho Chi Minh City, several female revolutionary heroes have streets named after them, including Bui Thi Xuan, Nguyen Thi Minh Khai, and Vo Thi Sau.

Bui Thi Xuan (1771-1802) was a female general involved in the Tay Son Rebellion, which overthrew the Le Dynasty in the late 18th century. According to legend, she helped the Tay Son army train elephants for battle. She was captured by Nguyen forces in 1802, along with her husband and teenage daughter. All three were executed, the women by being crushed by elephants.

Nguyen Thi Minh Khai (1910–1941) co-founded the New Revolutionary Party of Vietnam in 1927, which was a predecessor of the Communist Party of Vietnam. Khai was a secretary to Ho Chi Minh in Hong Kong. She was jailed by the British in Hong Kong and again by the French after her return to Vietnam. She was executed by firing squad in 1941.

Vo Thi Sau (1933–1952), joined an anti-French guerilla unit as a teenager. When she was 14, she threw a grenade at a group of French soldiers, killing one and injuring a dozen more. Two years later she was captured by the French. She became the first woman to be executed at Con Son Prison on Con Dao Island, in 1952 at the age of 19.

Some streets are named after former emperors. Some former kings even get more than one street named after them, one using their official royal name and another using their birth name.

Dinh Bo Linh (924–979), also known as Dinh Tien Hoang, was the first emperor of Vietnam following 1,000 years of Chinese dominance. He and his son were killed in their sleep by a palace official, who claimed to be inspired by a dream.

According to legend, Le Loi (1384–1433), also known as Le Thai To, had a magical sword, which brought him one victory after another until Vietnam was freed of Chinese rule. Le Loi became emperor in 1428, the founder of the Later Le dynasty.

Nguyen Hue (1753-1792), also known as Quang Trung, was the second emperor of the Tay Son dynasty. He was considered a ruthless military leader, overthrowing the Later Le dynasty as well as rival feudal houses in the south and the north. Although Nguyen Hue died relatively young, aged 40, he’s credited with adopting the Vietnamese chu nom characters as the official written language, replacing the traditional Chinese script. He also introduced the identity card system to help govern the population.

Ham Nghi (1872-1943) was the eighth emperor of the Nguyen dynasty, who ruled for only one year, from 1884 to 1885. He was later exiled to Algeria, where he married Marcelle Laloe and had three children. He’s buried in the Dordogne region of France.

Some streets in Ho Chi Minh City are named after Vietnamese poets, such as Nguyen Dinh Chieu (1822–1888), and scholars, such as Mac Dinh Chi (1272–1346). But most street names honour those who fought to secure their country’s right to rule itself.

Hai Ba Trung (the two sisters Trung), are Trung Trac (12–43) and her younger sibling Trung Nhi, daughters of a general. The Trung sisters defeated their Chinese overlords in the 1st century, and Trung Trac ruled as queen for three years before the Chinese returned in force and resumed control.

The sisters, both martial arts experts, were propelled into action when Trung Trac’s husband, Thi Sach, was executed by the Chinese, who had ruled the region for 247 years. According to the legend-like story, the two sisters gathered a mostly female army, which freed 65 citadels from Chinese control.

Prince Tran Hung Dao (1228–1300), whose original name was Tran Quoc Tuan, repelled three major Mongol invasions. He defeated Kublai Khan, who at the time ruled one-fifth of the earth’s inhabited land and was the grandson of the notorious Genghis Khan.

Pham Ngu Lao (1255–1320) was one of Hung Dao’s generals, assisting his prince and father-in-law’s battles against the Mongols.

Only a handful of foreigners have streets named after them, including French scientists Loius Pasteur (1822–1895), who developed the principles of vaccination and pasteurisation, and Alexandre Yersin (1863–1943), who discovered the pathogen that causes bubonic plague.

Jesuit priest Alexandre de Rhodes (1591–1660) is also honoured, along with his Vietnamese contemporary Han Thuyen. Between them they developed quoc ngu, Vietnam’s modern Romanised script, by transcribing the characters used in ancient times. The colleagues are honoured with streets that run along either side of the April 30 Park, between the Reunification Palace and the Notre Dam Cathedral. The park is named after the day the Vietnam-American War ended in 1975.