Fri, Jan 25, 2019 - Page 9 News List

‘Redefine the skyline’: how Ho Chi Minh City is erasing its heritage

More than a third of the Vietnamese city’s historic buildings have been destroyed over the past 20 years, but critics hope it could learn from mistakes made by other fast-growing Asian cities before it is too late

By Nick Van Meade  /  The Guardian, HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam

Illustration: Mountain People

“People don’t realise what they’ve lost,” Candy Nguyen said as she peered through the locked gates of what was until recently the historic Ba Son shipyard. “Many don’t even know what was here before.”

Ho Chi Minh City’s oldest and most important maritime heritage site is hidden from the street by high blue hoardings peppered with slogans such as “Never still” and “Redefine the skylines.”

It is the largest development project in the city’s central District 1 neighborhood, with a cluster of partly constructed 50-story apartment blocks jutting above the fence. Volunteers for the Saigon Heritage Observatory, such as Nguyen, have not been allowed in since building work began.

All said that the shipyard — founded in the 18th century by Gia Long, who would go on to become emperor — and its unique industrial architecture have been completely destroyed.

Renders for what will replace it show rows of upmarket townhouses between the tall glass and steel towers, as well as a yachting marina on the Saigon River: luxury living for the few.

“It used to be so beautiful,” Nguyen said as we walked the Ba Son perimeter, a constant stream of scooters flowing around us. “I cried when I first heard we had lost the trees. My mother used to take me this way to school and the trees used to give shade and oxygen. People used to collect tamarind and sell it … until last year when they cut the trees down.”

Ho Chi Minh City — known as Saigon until reunification in 1976 — has long had a reputation for being international and cosmopolitan, particularly compared with the one-party state’s political capital, Hanoi, in the north.

As the economic capital of communist Vietnam it has always been the place to make money, but with a population of 8.1 million — and set to grow to more than 10 million by 2026, according to the latest UN estimates — the pace of change in this dynamic city has accelerated.

Heritage experts have said that virtually no historic buildings are safe from the wrecking ball.

Ba Son is being transformed into Golden River, an upmarket development marketed as a “city within a city.”

It is a project from Vinhomes — part of the huge and ubiquitous Vingroup conglomerate, which has fingers in everything from real estate to retail and hospitality to healthcare. Chairman Pham Nhat Vuong, who founded the company as an instant noodle producer in Ukraine in the 1990s, was Vietnam’s first billionaire. He remains its richest man.

Among the villas, golden fences and palms of one nearly completed section of Golden River, a billboard promises a new branch of Vinschool and signs announce Vinmart convenience stores. All that is left of the former shipyard is a pair of barnacled anchors, a cannon and some planks of aged timber — now decorating the upmarket Myst Dong Khoi Hotel.

“Ba Son had a rich history, but they have destroyed all of it,” Nguyen said. “We are losing the character of the city.”

A kilometer and a half to the northeast lies another Vingroup development, Central Park, with the Landmark 81 skyscraper at its heart, surrounded by 17 apartment towers. This so-called supertall became the highest building in Vietnam, and 14th highest in the world, when it was completed last year.

Shoppers entering the Vincom Center mall at its base are greeted by a blast of air conditioning, and a glitzy showroom featuring a bright yellow Lamborghini Huracan supercar and three different Bentley models. There is a Vinmec hospital, a Vinpro electronics store and a Vinsmart phone dealer. Vinmarts are located in the base of every tower.

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