by Erik Harms
The streets of a city, when studied carefully, can unfurl like the pages of a history book. In Vietnam, the history of street names is particularly revealing, because the names themselves have changed with successive precolonial, colonial, post-colonial, American-sponsored, anti-communist, communist, and what might now be called “late socialist,” “post-reform era,” or, perhaps most accurately, “post-anti-capitalist” forms of authority. Every regime, it seems, wants to issue its own street names, and attending to the changing names can suggest the changing priorities of those different ruling regimes. But streets also hold special meanings to the people who walk them—it is important to remember that longtime city residents do not always follow the prerogatives of the regimes that rule over them. For example, if you meet someone living in contemporary Ho Chi Minh City who remembers life before 1975, they are likely to know the following little joke that pokes fun at the hidden meaning that lurks behind the history of Saigon street names:
“Nam Kỳ Khởi Nghĩa tiêu Công Lý. Đồng Khởi vùng lên mất Tự Do”
“The Southern uprising came at the expense of justice. The insurrection surged and freedom was lost.”
The joke is a classic example of Vietnamese wordplay. It plays on the fact that a major thoroughfare that previously bore the name of “Justice” (Công Lý) during the Vietnam War was renamed “Southern Uprising Street” (Nam Kỳ Khởi Nghĩa) after reunification. Another road, formerly called “Freedom” (Tự Do) was renamed Insurrection Street (Đồng Khởi). The critique implied in this everyday wordplay, of course, is a biting indictment of the socialist revolution: an uprising and an insurrection came at the expense of justice and freedom.
If city residents have the capacity to make jokes like these, then one might assume that they also often hold multiple street maps in their heads. For this reason, knowing the older names of streets can be a useful tool as one seeks to engage city residents with memories of the past. In other words, invoking old street names is an ethnographic method that helps draw people into bygone eras. When trying to speak of earlier times, the mere mention of a street’s previous name can productively evoke historical memories or bring up spatial associations that have been otherwise buried under the accumulated layers of history that fill the physical and temporal space between the present and the past. Trying to reconstruct the history of street names in a city like Saigon is also an inspiration for opening up history books, looking at old maps and wandering into the history of the city.
Notes on Saigon Street Names
For the study of street names in Ho Chi Minh City, two sources are especially useful. For the French period, at least until 1943, the best source is the Guide Historique des Rues de Saïgon [Historical Guide to Saigon Streets] (S.I.L.I., 1943). The Guide Historique was written by André Baudrit (1896-1969), a true believer in the French colonial mission civilisatrice. Baudrit relished describing the exploits of the mostly French personages after whom nearly all the streets were named. He was so unflinchingly proud of the French colonial project that his book reads like a labor of love, a celebration of the city’s admirals, officials, mayors and other founders who have been inscribed in a landscape of memory masquerading as a grid of streets. The book also reads like an encyclopedia of French colonial development in the form of an alphabetical list of street names.
For the period after the French, the most useful source is Đường phố Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh [Ho Chi Minh City Streets]. (2001, Culture and Information Publishing House). This book was compiled by the prolific historical and literary researcher, Nguyễn Q. Thắng, and the historian Nguyễn Đình Tư. The latter, incidentally, once claimed in a newspaper interview that he conducted his historical research during down time during his job repairing bicycles after 1975. Now that’s a passion for history in the face of life’s struggles! The book largely follows the same format as the 1943 Guide Historique, with each entry providing a short description of the road itself, and a short history of the different names held by each road during different historical periods.
Important Roads in Phú Nhuận
For our research into wards 13 and 14 in Phú Nhuận, there are several key roads that circumscribe the wards. Everyone in the wards knows these roads, and they play a central role in the way people orient themselves to space. The roads are: Lê Văn Sỹ, Huỳnh Văn Bánh, Đặng Văn Ngữ, and Trường Sa. Follow-up posts will discuss each of these streets, and the histories they reveal.