Colonial architecture fades in Vietnam, and residents mourn
When Mr Nguyen Viet moved back to Vietnam from Britain in 2014, he was hired to write design guidelines for a redevelopment project in downtown Ho Chi Minh City.
He had just earned his master’s degree in urban design and planning, and was eager to make an impact.
But before he could finish writing the guidelines, a building on the project site — a 1929 art deco apartment beside the former Rue Catinat, once a central artery of French-colonial Indochina — was demolished.
“What I realised is that they have very little power,” Mr Viet, 28, said of his fellow urban planners. “The fates of the buildings were being decided by someone else.”
The buildings along the Rue Catinat, now Dong Khoi Street, helped this sprawling city of about 8 million, formerly called Saigon, earn the nickname “the Pearl of the Orient”. Colonial-era travel writing describes tree-lined boulevards flanked by grand hotels with wide verandas.
They also formed the backdrop for The Quiet American, the Graham Greene novel set during Vietnam’s war for independence from France in the early 1950s, and for indelible images of the Vietnam War.
But when Ho Chi Minh City’s property market perked up after a slump that followed the 2008 financial crisis, dozens of prewar buildings — spanning the colonial to modernist eras — were razed to make room for new ones. As the city’s modest skyline grows, residents are watching with a mixture of awe and trepidation.
“There’s been a lot of destruction, especially in the last five to seven years, I would say, and mainly by these huge, huge, huge developments,” said Mr Hoanh Tran, design principal at HTA+Pizzini Architects here and a former historic preservation consultant in New York City.
Today, many of the city’s remaining colonial-era apartment blocks are mixed-use and charmingly dilapidated, with an entrepreneurial buzz that lures stylish retailers and mom-and-pop vendors alike.
A prime example is 151 Dong Khoi St, a colonial-era building with yellow concrete walls and tiled wall mosaics. Its ground level has an arcade — once the entrance to the Catinat-Cin movie house — where vendors hawk greeting cards and inexpensive artwork. But its upper levels house L’Usine, a cafe and lifestyle boutique, and Galerie Quynh, a commercial art gallery that would not look out of place in Paris or New York.
Tearing these old buildings down, Mr Tran said, rips holes in the city’s social fabric.
“If it happens a lot, then in a decade you won’t recognise this place,” he said.
The historic downtown already presents a striking contrast to its former self. Its colonial-era cathedral, post office and opera house now sit near glittering malls, apartments and office towers. A handful of 35-plus-story skyscrapers have appeared since 2010, and an 81-story building is being constructed by the private conglomerate Vingroup.
Statistics on demolitions are scarce, but the Ho Chi Minh City Urban Development Management Support Center, a French-Vietnamese research agency, found that at least 207 colonial-era villas in two of the city’s 24 districts were demolished or significantly altered from 1994 to 2014.
In the past few years, several thousand residents have started to network on new Facebook groups dedicated to celebrating and protecting the city’s historic buildings, several participants said.
The groundswell appears to reflect a wider trend: Although Vietnam’s governing Communist Party bans private media and aggressively punishes internal dissidents, the rise of social media has enabled millions of Vietnamese to discuss hot-button social issues online without much fear of reprisal.
Thousands of Vietnamese flocked to Facebook last year, for example, to criticise a government plan to cut down and replace 6,700 trees in Hanoi, the capital. City officials eventually backed down.
“A lot of young people would like to be part of a movement,” said Dr Nguyen Duc Hiep, an environmental scientist in Australia and a visiting researcher at Ton Duc Thang University here.
“They don’t want to watch and let the authorities decide what should be done; they want to have a voice,” said Dr Hiep, who is also an administrator of a Facebook group dedicated to vintage shophouses.
The public outcry here has largely focused on a plan to overhaul the Saigon Tax Trade Center, a 1924 department store that was drastically transformed over the decades, but whose interior still has wrought-iron balustrades, an intricately tiled floor and grand staircase, and other original design features.
The grass-roots advocacy has focused on those features, but aesthetics are not the only motivating factor: Some residents feel protective toward the building because they remember visiting it as children.
“It is the history that the Saigoneers want to keep,” said Mr Tuan A Phung, honorary consul general of Finland in Ho Chi Minh City and the leader of a 2014 online petition to save the building. “The feeling, the atmosphere, memories.”
Later in 2014, the Culture Ministry asked the city’s governing People’s Committee to step in. And last year the tax centre’s owner, the state-owned Saigon Trading Group, sent local officials a conservation plan for its scheduled redevelopment work.
But Mr Phung said he worried about the plan, which proposes to remove the vintage design features and later reinstall them, because the details were not publicly released.
“They don’t have the habit of being responsive” to public feedback, he said of the company’s executives, who did not respond to interview requests. “Instead they’re responsive to the boss, which is the People’s Committee.”
Equally contentious is a plan by Vingroup to build a mixed-use development in Ba Son, a military-controlled naval complex at the edge of downtown.
In a brief statement, Vingroup said the project would include commercial, residential and “heritage preservation” elements, including a section with the original Ba Son Shipyard.
But the makeover risks treading on a key symbol of Vietnamese nationalism.
The naval complex was developed during the Nguyen dynasty and hosted a 1925 labour strike against French industrialists led by future President Ton Duc Thang. In 1993, the Culture Ministry declared the shipyard a national historic site.
Architects and other experts say privately that the project’s historical resonance, powerful developer and military association make it politically delicate. And they wonder aloud if most of the site’s historic buildings will be sensitively renovated, or even retained.
Mr Nguyen Hong Tien, a Construction Ministry official in Hanoi, said Vingroup’s previous projects in downtown Ho Chi Minh City have benefited the city’s economy and aesthetic.
However, he added, “If we just see the immediate benefits of new development, then in the future we cannot restore what we have lost.”
Mr Tim Doling, a historian in Ho Chi Minh City who profiles threatened properties on his website, Historic Vietnam, said the recent loss of so much urban heritage had diminished the country’s appeal for tourists.
“The key to tourism is creating stories around urban landscapes, and people come here wanting to do Graham Greene tours,” he said. “Most of the stuff associated with Graham Greene is gone.”
On that list, he said, is the 1929 apartment that was demolished in 2014, and another historic building along the old Rue Catinat that was replaced by a Vingroup mall.
By Mike Ive - The New York Times - February 25, 2016