There is an oft seen cityscape of Saigon. In the foreground sits the greenery. If the lighting is right and the angle correct, you should be able to make out mangrove palms, tall sweeping grasses, waterways and patches of jungle. And dominating the man-made background, the triumvirate: The Bitexco Financial Tower, Saigon One and Times Square. The image of modernity.
It's iconic, the kind of vista you would think can only be taken from one vantage point. But it's not. In the five or so days I spent exploring the area now known as Thu Thiem, I found scores of locations offering up a similar shot.
But it's also a vista that is about to transform itself. At the beginning of the year the bulldozers moved in. Houses, shops, public buildings and markets from the four wards making up the Thu Thiem peninsula were razed to the ground. And the communities living there were moved on. And now within a few years the largest unfettered patch of greenery in this metropolis may be a distant memory. In its place will be something equivalent to Saigon South, but in the centre of the city.
For an area that is supposed to have been emptied, there is still a surprising amount of activity. Drive down Luong Dinh Cua, the thoroughfare leading from the now defunct Thu Thiem Ferry, to its intersection with Tran Nao, and you'll see it for yourself. Much of the area is rubble, people’s abodes and businesses knocked to the ground. But large numbers of individual properties remain standing. And people, motorbikes, bicycles and cars are everywhere. Not in the abundance of the past. But there is still a presence that exhibits human life at every turn.
“They've gone everywhere,” replies one female homeowner when asked about the relocation of the local community. “All over the city. They got paid a few hundred million each and it was enough to find something new.”
Her papers weren't in order. So, she's been soldiering on until she can arrange a deal. Elsewhere we find a house that has just been given the all clear. On its roof stand three men, mallets in hand, knocking their way through the concrete, brick and tiling. And to the side sits the bulldozer, its presence ominous, waiting for the moment it can cut its way through the remains of this property.
For some, giving into the developers is like striking gold. They’ve held onto their hovel-like properties for years and waited. Waited for the compensation. For others it’s like a wrench, having their soul extracted from beneath them. Within hours whole lives, memories, loves, hates and woes, all reduced to rubble.
Against the Grain
That the transformation of Thu Thiem is finally underway marks an important stage in the life on this city. In the 1930s the French looked to develop this area, but after extensive surveys they chose to let it be. Formed from the sediment of two great waterways — the Saigon River and the Dong Nai River — except upon its edge, much of the marsh-like land is unsteady. It is below sea level, too, making it prone to flooding. Extensive flooding.
Left untouched, during wartime Vietnam Thu Thiem became the impossible-to-control jungle area on the edge of downtown Saigon. A hideout and a hotbed of resistance, the thick mangroves concealed canals and long grasses, making much of the area impenetrable.
Now Thu Thiem is at the heart of the city’s struggle to reinvent itself, the final piece to be resolved. Look on a map and you’ll understand why. Sat between District 1 and District 9, this is downtown Ho Chi Minh City but it remains wild, an anomaly.
The development that should in the next decade transform this swamp into a mixed residential, commercial and leisure hub, should already be underway. But reinvention in this country requires one set of interests to play itself off against the other. The playing has yet to reach its natural conclusion, meaning that despite all the good intentions, the majority of this area remains intact. At least for now.
Into the Wild
Heading down the non-highway section of Tran Nao, the road winds its way out of urbanized Thu Thiem, across the newly completed East-West Highway and into the swamps. Parts have already been cleared. A foray out here reveals soft, quicksand-like ground that has yet to be prepared for development — the story goes that the land here would need to be raised by two or three metres. With 700 hectares of land making up the peninsula, that’s a lot of soil. The water in here is tidal, too, like the Saigon River. Adding yet another challenge to the already overfull pot.
Elsewhere the land has yet to be cleared and nature continues to thrive at its own pace. I head down a path off Tran Nao and find myself driving through mangroves. The foundations of two former properties line the side of the path before it winds its way up to a bridge. The bridge has been destroyed making the route impassable.
Further on I take another side road, this one leading me to the temporary relocation area built for residents of An Loi Dong, the ward on the far side of Thu Thiem that sits opposite District 4 and District 7. Once a bustling port village with residents making their living out of the river, like elsewhere the majority of An Loi Dong has been reduced to rubble.
“We’ll be here a few years yet,” says a woman selling coffee who lives in the temporary, fort-like structures. “They’re going to build an apartment block for us, but I think it will take another five years or so.”
Further on into the swamps down another path through the mangroves I come across a woman in tears. During the night her house, already knocked down but now rebuilt into a temporary shelter, has once again been destroyed. She has two children with her and a neighbour is helping her to rebuild the roof.
It’s difficult to be sure of the true story, but what is clear is that she has nowhere to live. So she has camped out on the land that once belonged to her family, only to find herself in an ongoing battle. Time and time again her shelter has been knocked to the ground.
It’s heart wrenching, biting. I try to give her money for food, she refuses. I end up giving something to her oldest daughter instead. It’s not much. But it’s a week’s worth of provisions from the market.
“We have no money, no work any more,” she moans. “We fish and get food from the jungle.” She then asks me for help. Again and again. It’s not about money it’s about her livelihood.
Rounding the end of Tran Nao and driving through the port in An Loi Dong, I explore the paths heading into the mangrove, finding two pagodas, before taking the river road back towards the East-West Highway and the tunnel.
It is here that I discover yet another unsightly image of destruction. I count a total of nine pagodas and one church on the peninsular. All have been left standing, given mercy, except one that has been partially knocked to the ground. The altars and incense burners remain. All else has been destroyed.
In Vietnam, reverence is given to the religious buildings of the country’s major religions — Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism and Caodaism. So, to see such a building, in an obvious state of semi-destruction, is a surprise.
And yet there’s something about this temple, a shrine to Thien Hau (Mazu), the goddess of the sea, which says much about Thu Thiem. There is a desire to knock it to the ground and rebuild, to create something entirely new. To reinvent. But it hasn’t quite happened yet.
Progress. That’s what they call it. And by almost universal consent, in this country it’s deemed necessary.
But it doesn’t come easily and even Mazu, as she looks over the river and the sea, is holding strong.