Saigon was originally part of the kingdom of Cambodia and, until the 17th century, was a small port town known as Prey Nokor. As more and more settlers moved south it was absorbed by Vietnam and became the base for the Nguyen Lords.
Saigon was captured by the French in 1859, and named the capital of Cochinchina a few years later. The city served as the capital of the Republic of Vietnam from 1956 until 1975, when it fell to advancing North Vietnamese forces and was renamed Ho Chi Minh City by the Hanoi government.
The official government census only counts those who have official residence permits, and, today, as many as one-third of the population could be living here illegally. Some of these illegal residents lived in the city before 1975, but their residence permits were transferred to rural re-education camps after reunification. Many have simply sneaked back into the city, although without a residence permit they cannot own property or a business.
Explosive growth is evident in a slew of satellite suburbs beyond the centre and a glut of high-rise buildings, joint-venture hotels and colourful shops downtown. Downsides include the sharp increase in traffic, pollution and other urban ills, but a more openminded new generation may infuse HCMC’s chaotic growth with a more globally conscious attitude.