What’s in a Street Name?

I have been lucky with the street names surrounding my life in Saigon. My elementary school was on Nguyen Du Street.

Then my children’s school was on Tu Xuong Street. These are names of poets and writers who can inspire school children. We now live one block from Pasteur Street and one block from Alexandre de Rhodes Street. So every day walking to and from work, I can be reminded of the great contribution of this great scientist and the man who developed the Vietnamese alphabet, respectively.


The last regime almost had a system while naming the streets. The centre of District 1 had street names of national heroes like Le Loi and Nguyen Hue and Ham Nghi. Part of District 3 was reserved for poets and writers like Ba Huyen Thanh Quan, Tu Xuong, Ngo Thoi Nhiem, or Ho Xuan Huong. But there were also oddities such as John F Kennedy Square in front of the Notre Dame Cathedral.


Reflecting History and Context


After 1975, many of the street names were changed.

An interesting change was Phan Thanh Gian Street, which was changed to Dien Bien Phu Street. In 1862, Phan Thanh Gian represented King Tu Duc to negotiate with France but failed and as a result Vietnam handed over three provinces to France, starting the French colonial rule in Vietnam. In 1954, Vo Nguyen Giap won the decisive battle in Dien Bien Phu and as a result France withdrew from Vietnam, ending its colonial rule here for good.


It would have been even more appropriate to name this street Vo Nguyen Giap Street. But the legendary general was still alive and the protocol was not to name any streets after people who were still living. So maybe Dien Bien Phu Street was appropriate enough. But recently, Phan Thanh Gian has been officially honoured again by the current historians and is no longer considered a traitor.


Petrus Ky was another Nguyen Dynasty individual whose name is being honoured again by the current historians. My high school was Petrus Ky High School and it was changed to Le Hong Phong High School.


Personal Memories and Identity


I understand that every regime changes the street names after its own heroes. But those of us who have lived through different regimes often reminisce on the old names and the memories associated with them. I brought my French friends to visit my father who had lived through three different regimes. They asked him about the places and the streets they heard from their parents who had lived here during the colonial era. My father drew a map of District 1 and the street names were from this period, the Republic of South Vietnam’s time and the current time: Norodom, Taberd, Duy Tan, Le Duan and so on.


Of course the big name change was that of our city. Politically the name change from Saigon to Ho Chi Minh City made perfect sense since after all it was Operation Ho Chi Minh that ended with the Liberation of Saigon. However, for many of us, Ho Chi Minh can be our great hero but Saigon has always been our city. I am happy that now we can use both names interchangeably, but whenever I return to this city by plane, my packages are always checked-in with SGN and I know that I am coming home.