The Origins of Saigon
Nghia M. Vo
         For centuries, the present day central and South Vietnam were populated by the Chams and Khmers respectively. From the twelfth century onward, Prey Nokor was a small and secondary fishing village on the Khmer kingdom's eastern seaboard. As their southern and main port of Mang Kham (Ha Tien) became threatened by bandits and the Siamese, the Khmers turned their eyes to Prey Nokor that in time grew into their most important trading post and commercial port.

         A Vietnamese princess by marrying the Khmer king Chey Chettha II in 1618 gave the chua Nguyen a reason to establish a tax collecting office in Prey Nokor in 1623. The town grew in wealth and size as it attracted many more Vietnamese settlers who gradually displaced the Khmers from their lands. They came in as individuals, isolated families, or as part of a military don dien. There were also civilian don dien where inhabitants did not have to do military duty. Khmers, Chams were enrolled into the program because of shortage of manpower.

         The implementation of the don dien or military settlements allowed the anchoring as well as the expansion of Vietnamese communities in the Mekong delta. Troops would settle in a certain area where they worked part time as soldiers and the rest of the day on their fields as pioneer farmers. The community would then receive an influx of settlers-mostly poor people, convicts, or prisoners of war-who were sent in to populate the region. The presence of Vietnamese soldiers formed a protective and stabilizing force in the building of the new South as the Chua Nguyen vied to become a steady power broker in the volatile and anarchic region. From 1500 to 1800, as the influence of the Cham and Khmer kingdoms waned, there was no major power center from Nha Trang (central Vietnam) to Ligor (Malaysia). It was a fluidly region with constantly shifting political allegiances.

         Two emerging powers-Vietnam and Siam-stepped up to fill the void in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Confrontations between these two forces increased with time resulting in major battles and territory gains at the expense of the Khmers. Each Vietnamese intervention into the Khmer empire usually at the Khmer King's request increased the power and reach of Saigon's local generals since Hue-the central power-located 600 miles away-could not immediately intervene.

         The Saigon-Gia Dinh area thus became the melting pot between natives (Chams, Khmers) and non native people (Vietnamese, Chinese, Siamese), between political entities (Vietnam, Khmer, Ha Tien, Siam), religious (Catholicism, Buddhism, Hinduism), and ethnic forces (Vietnamese, Khmer, Chams, Chinese). All these forces ended up clashing and fighting against each other for a role and an influence in the area. They affected the status quo of the region as well as the building of Saigon, the new power center of the Mekong delta and an important commercial, political, and military city. The fact that whoever held Saigon basically controlled the whole new South further polarized all these forces.

        Please read the rest of the story in THE WOMEN OF VIETNAM.