If Ho Chi Minh City is Vietnam's largest city, then where is Saigon? Actually, the two are different names for the same city!
Choosing to call Vietnam's largest city either Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon can be a sensitive matter, mostly because it gives reference to what the city was called before the Vietnam War. Although as a foreign visitor you won't be held accountable, choosing which name to use could potentially show political leanings for Vietnamese people.
Is It Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon?
Saigon, or Sài Gòn in Vietnamese, was merged with the surrounding province in 1976 and renamed Ho Chi Minh City to celebrate the reunification of north and south at the end of the Vietnam War. The name comes from the communist revolutionary leader credited with uniting the country.
Although Ho Chi Minh City (often shortened to HCMC, HCM, or HCMc in writing) is the new official name of the city, Saigon is still used daily by many Vietnamese — particularly in the south. Despite official mandates, the label "Saigon" is shorter and is used more often in daily speech.
The newest generation of Vietnamese youth growing up under the current government tends to use "Ho Chi Minh City" more often. Their teachers and textbooks are careful to use only the new name.
While traveling in Vietnam, the best policy is to match whatever term the person to whom you are speaking uses.
Sometimes Both "Saigon" and "Ho Chi Minh City" Are Correct
As if not confusing enough, sometimes both names for the city can be correct! Southern Vietnamese people living in the suburbs of the city often refer to their area as part of Ho Chi Minh City, while Saigon is used in reference to the urban heart and areas such as Pham Ngu Lao around District 1. This is because the surrounding provinces were not a part of Saigon before the merger and name change in 1976.
Again, age and background are often considerations for which term is used. Younger people growing up in other parts of Vietnam may prefer to say "Ho Chi Minh City" while residents of the city still use "Saigon" in all but formal or governmental settings.
Considerations for Saying Saigon
- The airport code for Ho Chi Minh City is still SGN. Read more about flying into Vietnam.
- Saigon is still used as a label for District 1, the center of Ho Chi Minh City.
- New hotel developments often opt for "Saigon" in their name rather than "Ho Chi Minh City."
- Some bus stations still label signs and tickets with "Saigon."
- The river flowing through the city is still named the Saigon River.
- Vietnamese people living overseas who fled at the end of the war usually say "Saigon" for political reasons.
Considerations for Saying Ho Chi Minh City
- In Hanoi and the north, you'll more often hear "Ho Chi Minh City."
- All government publications and productions use "Ho Chi Minh City."
- All official documents and writings should use "Ho Chi Minh City."
- Places in the province surrounding Saigon, far from District 1, are often referred to as being "in Ho Chi Minh City" rather than "in Saigon."
Traveling to Saigon
The cheapest flights to Vietnam most often arrive in Saigon. Despite not being centrally located, the city serves as Vietnam's travel heart. You'll have plenty of interesting options for getting from Saigon to Hanoi and all other points in Vietnam.
Regardless of what you choose to call the city, you'll have an interesting time in Vietnam's busiest urban center. Nightlife rages a little harder in Saigon than in Hanoi, and Western influences flourish a little faster. The pho flows freely. Southern Vietnamese people claim to be a little friendlier and more open than their cohorts in the north, meanwhile people in the north think the southerns are out of their minds.
But then again, lots of countries with a north-south cultural divide argue the same!