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

“There is so much of it that it’s become ordinary and people don’t even think about it,” he said. “When I see awnings and junk around a house, that’s good, because that means the building is being well-used and isn’t in as much danger of being demolished. If the house is cleaned up, it’s not a good sign.”

Even being designed by Ngo Viet Thu himself is no protection. A villa of his in District 3 is vacant apart from a live-in caretaker.

“It’s on a hot street,” Schenck said. “There’s lots of land. It’s going to go.”

Ngo Viet Thu’s son, Ngo Viet Nam Son, is also an architect, and lives and works between Ho Chi Minh City, the US and Canada.

He said that he believes his hometown must learn from the mistakes made by other fast-growing Asian cities before it is too late.

“We’re not the only city to experience this growth and we should learn from these experiences,” he said. “But this city hasn’t taken that lesson yet. In Ba Son, they could have made a very nice area, a cultural and green space for the city — something like Pier 59 in New York, or Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco — but instead they destroyed it.”

“Developers don’t realise that when they destroy historic buildings, they are losing a potential economic gain, and if you consider tourism, then people want to see the old city to get a sense of place,” he said. “Preservation can contribute to economic value.”

He looks to Shanghai, which shares similar geography — a historic center facing what was mostly vacant land across the river — and political conditions. There, the historic center is largely protected, while the Pudong marshland east of the river has been developed as the financial district.

“We should preserve District 1 as our old downtown — some new building, but the priority should be to preserve,” he said. “Then Thu Thiem in District 2 over the river can be the international financial district.”

Instead, Ho Chi Minh City has two separate masterplans, with the one for the historic west foreseeing a wall of skyscrapers marching down the river. The new developments are often built on raised land to protect them from flooding, while ironically blocking rainwater from flowing freely into the river and so causing more floods elsewhere.

They also do not provide much in the way of public space. A new green space in the Central Park development, also built on land reclaimed from the river, is watched over by security guards who ask if users are residents. There is a ban on unaccompanied children under 12 and pets, and signs warn people to safeguard “etiquette, order, safety and aesthetics.”

Amid all the concrete and glass, there appears to be a belated appreciation of heritage among the city’s younger people.

“Vintage” cafes are popular, even if they are often located inside modern air-conditioned buildings, as are vintage dresses and fashions.

“Heritage is trendy now, but I worry it is just a bubble,” Nguyen said. “It may be popular for a year, but then I don’t know who will be with us after that.”

“Ultimately I am optimistic that more people will learn and become interested and get involved, but do feel frustrated that sometimes people just don’t care,” she said.

This story has been viewed 2849 times.

Comments will be moderated. Keep comments relevant to the article. Remarks containing abusive and obscene language, personal attacks of any kind or promotion will be removed and the user banned. Final decision will be at the discretion of the Taipei Times.

TOP top