Vanishing heritage

Ongoing development projects (above) in Ho Chi Minh City with its rising skyline; and the Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica, also in the Vietnamese city.
Ongoing development projects (above) in Ho Chi Minh City with its rising skyline; and the Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica, also in the Vietnamese city. PHOTOS: NEW YORK TIMES
Ongoing development projects in Ho Chi Minh City with its rising skyline; and the Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica (above), also in the Vietnamese city.
Ongoing development projects in Ho Chi Minh City with its rising skyline; and the Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica (above), also in the Vietnamese city.
Vietnamese are up in arms over plans to overhaul the Saigon Tax Trade Centre (above), a 1924 department store whose interior still has wrought-iron balustrades and a grand staircase.
Vietnamese are up in arms over plans to overhaul the Saigon Tax Trade Centre (above), a 1924 department store whose interior still has wrought-iron balustrades and a grand staircase.

Residents and urban planners are unsettled by the demolition of colonial buildings as Vietnam races towards modernisation

HO CHI MINH CITY • When 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, 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 on Rue Catinat, now Dong Khoi Street, helped this sprawling city of about eight 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 verandahs.

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, 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, and mainly by these 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 Street, a colonial-era building with yellow concrete walls and tiled wall mosaics. Its ground level has an arcade - once the entrance to the Catinat-Cine 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.

Statistics on demolitions are scarce, but research agency Ho Chi Minh City Urban Development Management Support Centre found that at least 207 colonial-era villas in two of the city's 24 districts were demolished or significantly altered between 1994 and 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.

Many flocked to Facebook last year, for example, to criticise a government plan to replace 6,700 trees in Hanoi, the capital. City officials eventually backed down.

The public outcry here has largely focused on a plan to overhaul the Saigon Tax Trade Centre, 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 grassroots advocacy has focused on those features, but aesthetics are not the only motivating factor: Some residents feel protective towards the building because they remember visiting it as children.

Mr Tim Doling, a historian in Ho Chi Minh City, said the recent loss of 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. Most of the stuff associated with Greene is gone."

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 05, 2016, with the headline 'Vanishing heritage'. Print Edition | Subscribe