Behind Some Saigon Streets, There Are Some Extraordinary Women: Part 1

By: Hang Doan

In Saigon, there’s a story and a person behind nearly every street name. They range across every economic and social class in the country, from those who lived during the Chinese millennium, to those who made their marks during the French colonial era.

Among these characters, women played an important role, but the roles they had were many. Here you’ll find poets, rebel leaders, revolutionary fighters and street vendors.

Famous Women

The streets named after famous women immortalised in history books include Hai Ba Trung, Huyen Tran Cong Chua, Ba Huyen Thanh Quan, Ho Xuan Huong, Doan Thi Diem, Vo Thi Sau, Mac Thi Buoi, Bui Thi Xuan, Nguyen Thi Minh Khai, Co Giang, Co Bac, Nguyen Thi Nghia, Nguyen Thi Dieu and Nguyen Thi Nho.

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Hai Ba Trung, literally translated as “the two Trung sisters”, was named after the Trung sisters. They are among the most popular heroines who fought against foreign domination.

Their names were Trung Trac and Trung Nhi, and they led the first national uprising against the Chinese conquerors in AD 40, and then went on to rule the country for three years.

The sisters were born into a military family. Their father was a prefect of Me Linh, a rural district of Hanoi. They studied the art of warfare and other fighting skills from a young age.

In AD 40, the two sisters, after successfully repelling a small Chinese unit from their village, assembled a large army, consisting mostly of women. Within months, they had reclaimed around 65 citadels from the Chinese, and had liberated Nanyue, the ancient kingdom that covered parts of northern Vietnam.

They became queens regent of Nanyue and managed to resist subsequent Han attacks for over three years.

Their reign was short-lived, however, as the Chinese gathered a huge expeditionary army under the veteran general Ma Yuan to suppress the rebellion. The Trung sisters were defeated in battle in AD 43.

The story of the Trung sisters is usually ended with the quote, “Giặc đến nhà đàn bà cũng đánh” (When the enemy is at the gate, the woman goes out fighting).

A Sex Symbol

Ho Xuan Huong (1772-1822) may be the most interesting character in the list of streets named after women. One of Vietnam’s greatest classical poets, she is sometimes dubbed the sex symbol of Vietnamese poetry.

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Her name means “spring essence” (in Vietnamese, xuan huong — Ho is her last name). She was born at the end of the Later Le Dynasty (1428–1788) and wrote poetry using chữ nôm (southern script), which adapts Chinese characters for colloquial Vietnamese. Xuan Dieu, a prominent modern poet, dubbed her "The queen of Nôm poetry".

She is believed to have married twice as her poems refer to two different husbands. In one of the marriages, she was the second-ranked wife, or a concubine, of a local official, a role that she was clearly not happy with.

In a Confucian society where males dominated, she was a rebel, a feminist, and the candid voice of a liberal female. She lamented the miseries of concubines, spoke of the desire of women and boldly discussed various aspects of religious life, social justice and equality, including sexual freedom.

She was famous for poems with unusual irreverence and shockingly erotic undertones for her time. She was humorous, independent-minded and resistant to societal norms, especially through her socio-political commentaries and her use of frank sexual humour and expressions.

Almost all her poems were double entendres with hidden sexual meaning. Here’s an example:

“My body is like the jackfruit on the branch:

Its skin coarse, its meat thick

Kind sir, if you love it, pierce it with your stick

Don’t fondle around, or sap will stain your hands.”

("The Jackfruit")

On the surface the poem is about jackfruit, a popular fruit in rural areas. As a traditional kitchen trick, people pierced the unripe jackfruit along its core with a stick and kept it in an enclosed area to speed up the ripening process.

But considering the details about the skin, the meat, the stick, the fondling and the sap... people can guess what she was really talking about.

Revolutionary Roads

The Nguyen Thai Hoc - Co Giang junction is located under the Ong Lanh Bridge in District 1. Not many people know that these intersecting streets are named after a couple with a tragic love story.

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According to Ho Chi Minh City Streets, a book by Nguyen Q. Thang and Nguyen Dinh Tu, Co Giang (Miss Giang), or Nguyen Thi Giang, met and fell in love with Nguyen Thai Hoc, an anti-French revolutionary, in 1929.

Nguyen Thai Hoc was captured and executed by the French colonial authorities after the failure of the Yen Bai mutiny.

After witnessing her lover’s death, Co Giang wrote a letter to his spirit and then shot herself dead.

In 1955 the Saigon regime renamed the street, formerly known as Douaumont by the French since 1920, in Co Giang’s honour.

A street that runs parallel with Co Giang is called Co Bac (Miss Bac), named after Giang’s younger sister. She was among the Vietnamese revolutionaries in the Yen Bai uprising.

When the uprising failed, she was sentenced to five years in prison by the French.

Street Vendors

Saigon’s streets are not only named after famous people. Vendors came to some of these streets to open their small businesses before they were named. Gradually, the streets were named after these vendors.

Ba Hat (Mrs Hat) Street in District 10, Ba Ky and Ba Lai streets in District 6 and Ba Hom Street in Binh Tan District are some examples. No one knows where these ladies came from and when they died. It is said that these streets were named several hundred years ago.

According to researcher Nguyen Dinh Tu, Ba Lai (Mrs Lai) was a vendor in the Chinatown. When the French established Cholon (Chinatown), the street that ran through her stall was named after her.

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When Ba Lai moved her stall to District 6, the name was used for another street in District 6.

Today many vendors set up their stalls on Ba Hat Street and work hard everyday to make ends meet. Perhaps they don’t know that someone like them is now immortalised on their street.

The way Vietnamese people named their streets is a reflection of their personality: they’re open-minded, warm-hearted and liberal; everyone is welcomed here in Saigon, and everyone gets a place and recognition in our crowded city.

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