Elijah Ferrian searches for the potential solution to the swiftly evaporating presence of Saigon’s historic architecture. Photos by Vinh Dao.
When one talks about heritage, what is really being discussed? If we go by the dictionary definition of the word, we are considering something that is handed down from the past, as a tradition, a property that is or may be inherited; a special or individual allotted portion.
Just what does heritage mean in Ho Chi Minh City as we stare in disbelief while brilliant architectural marvels ever-increasingly crumple to the earth at the hand of churning machines and mind-boggling negligence? Why should we as residents of Saigon care about the dissipation of one of the most engrossing aspects of the city itself? Why should the Vietnamese people boast unending pride at possessing one of the most beautiful time capsule cities in all Southeast Asia? How can developers and entrepreneurs combine the rapid growth of “Asia’s other tiger” with the serene beauty of a storied history?
Understanding history, engaging in healthy dialogue, procuring creative solutions and changing the way we think about and value cultural heritage are of utmost importance at this time.
Ever since the global economy ramped back up post-2008, Saigon’s real estate market has been steadily devouring large swathes of the cityscape. Sprawling development projects, in an effort to modernise the city and bring it up to visual speed with some of its perceived competition in the region, have been swiftly razing and redeveloping plots where one-of-a-kind colonial and modernist structures once stood.
The Saigon Tax Trade Centre, which was built in 1924 as the Grands Magasins Charner, and was one of the only surviving large department stores of its kind outside Paris, is probably the most famous case of heritage destruction that the city has encountered.
Tim Doling, a historian, writer, heritage tour guide and producer of the phenomenal website Historic Vietnam, carries out detailed research on hitherto undocumented historic buildings, with a view to harnessing the heritage value of the urban landscape for tourism.
“Ba Son Shipyard was arguably Vietnam’s greatest maritime heritage site. It originated in 1790 as the Chu Su royal navy workshop of Nguyen Phuc Anh (later Emperor Gia Long) and was upgraded by the French in the period 1861-1888 to become one of the largest shipbuilding facilities in East Asia.” Doling explains.
“It was equipped with one of the largest dry docks in the world and served for many years as the headquarters of the French navy in the Far East. In recent years, many travel and tourism experts had expressed the hope that its old buildings might one day be transformed into an important leisure and heritage complex, along the lines of New York’s South Street Seaport – just the kind of shot in the arm which tourism badly needs here. The eventual decision of the authorities to bulldoze every last heritage building and maximise profit by building luxury apartments on the site was spectacularly short-sighted and serves to illuminate the complete lack of creative thinking in Vietnamese urban planning today.”
While many are familiar with these famous examples, Doling explains that other recent casualties like 11 Me Linh square, originally built in 1867 as the first French Chamber of Commerce, bulldozed to make way for a Hilton Hotel, and 213 Dong Khoi, an elegant art deco apartment block mentioned in The Quiet American and recently replaced by a faux-colonial extension to the town hall, are only the tip of the spear when it comes to this rapid loss of heritage architecture.
It’s not just public buildings, either. There are many private villas that are beautiful reminders of a lost age. A time before cookie-cutter high rises and copy-and-paste development projects smeared the landscape of Vietnam’s multi-cultural economic hub.
There is a concentration of colonial-style villas all throughout District 3. Take a stroll down Tu Xuong street and allow your eyes to creep behind the veil of the bustling city, and be rewarded with gorgeous structures jutting out from their camouflage.
Elsewhere, there are dilapidated gems hiding out from the cruel evolution of a city transforming into something else entirely. Some are owned by multiple families, some are endangered by renovation projects, and others still stand as a testament to the strong will of the city’s culture and inhabitants.
Take Nha Hang Dong Pho, for instance, the famous Vietnamese restaurant that specialises in Hue cuisine. Lamborghinis and Ferraris are regularly parked outside of this modest colonial home. A visual juxtaposition of the current state of the city. A great representation of integrating a modern business with a historic structure.
An example of a seemingly constant endangered property is Cung Van hoa Lao dong, Former Cercle des Officiers, 47 Le Duan. It is a marvel to observe. It used to sport tennis courts, was the site of the first public swimming pool in Saigon in the early 1930s and is the oldest public space for sport in the city. In the past there was a cafe where you could watch people playing tennis. The building contained within could be an exceptional host for virtually any business or idea one could muster. Rumours swirl that it is only a matter of time before it too falls to the rapid development process.
The more one digs into the architectural history of this city, the more bittersweet the story becomes. Luckily, there are many people devoted to documenting and retaining the rich architectural history of Saigon.
Daniel Caune is one of sixteen members of a non-profit organisation called Heritage Observatory. The team is determined to identify cultural and historical heritages via a crowdsourcing and open data heritage mapping platform, which will soon constitute a specific database, providing a data archive that is free for all to use. They are preparing a new feature that will allow real-time reports and notifications of heritage sites that are at risk, and create a lengthy, accessible paper trail of data to keep all concerned with heritage preservation informed.
The idea is that a lot of what is happening to Saigon’s heritage is happening because not enough people are educated on what is going on, nor about the history of all of the fantastic buildings that residents and tourists alike take for granted. Each time we pass by a beautiful colonial or modernist structure, we marvel at the craftsmanship, but we don’t know why that building is there, what its story is. This project aims to compile all the necessary information to change the way we all think about heritage sites.
One of the aspects that has not been talked much about is how many of these properties are being bought up by wealthy real estate prospectors, and left to sit for years with no preservation being enacted. Or worse yet, they destroy the homes as soon as they purchase them.
“Why do people just sit on the houses?” Caune responds. “Maybe they just see an asset, an investment. What I don’t understand is if you can afford to buy these very expensive houses, why can’t you put USD500,000 to just renovate it? If you buy the most expensive house in Saigon, why would you not use it to advertise your company or your wealth? It doesn’t make any sense. There’s no education about what these things are. It’s just the Ferrari of houses.”
Essentially, people are buying the most expensive home that they can, because they can, with no deeper understanding of how culturally significant these properties are.
Caune drives a point home that is at the crux of this entire conversation: if the narrative behind each building is widely understood, it would only help these properties survive. In the current steamrolling of the economic juggernaut that is Vietnam in the modern world, perhaps the other side of this coin is that tourism rose 26 percent from 2015 to 2016 in Vietnam. It’s an integral part to the rise of the economy, and there are plenty of people that would love to take advantage of the beautiful history that these heritage locales offer.
“If the government were to develop the idea of providing the narrative behind the buildings, it would help tourism. There’s one part that is missing, and that’s where Heritage Observatory fits. We need perhaps to summarise for tourists and provide an easily navigable map for all of the locations around the city.”
There are so many stories that have sadly been lost, but so many still that live on through the structures that are still standing today.
Luckily, in true Vietnamese entrepreneurial fashion, there has been a rise of Airbnb properties that are blending business with heritage, and it might be just the solution the buildings need.
Integration & Future
Back in 2014 when Airbnb first came into the Vietnamese market in Ho Chi Minh City, there was nothing like it previously. In just a couple of years the amount of hip properties available for travelers took off, and for entrepreneur Landon Carnie, it’s been his business since he got involved. He develops properties to be used on the Airbnb marketplace.
“I particularly choose older buildings, and handle the interior design, transforming these older places into traditional living spaces.” Carnie explains. “Once we design it and contract it and build it, the spaces turn out amazing. It’s a great product if you can match the inside with the old rustic look outside. A worn down, historic building, and when you walk inside it’s classic French colonial with all the modern amenities.”
Airbnb is an online marketplace and hospitality service that enables people to lease or rent short-term lodging including vacation rentals, apartment rentals, homestays, hostel beds or hotel rooms. The company does not own any lodging; it is merely a broker and receives percentage service fees (commissions) from both guests and hosts in conjunction with every booking.
It’s not the easiest gig in the world. The buildings are old, but the value in preserving them far outweighs the extra headaches that come with water issues and structural damage. These kinds of buildings will more than likely never be built again, especially considering the modern trend of housing developments in contemporary Saigon.
“Vietnamese contractors are doing everything new in the IKEA style,” Carnie says. “They’re cheap to put up, and they’re pretty easy to rent. Lots of high rises. The demand from the local population is that they want something really stylish, modern, but convenient, with easy access to where they’re getting to. I think that what’s happening now is it seems like everything’s gone back to the 1980s. Minimalistic design. Obviously they can do what they want, but It’s disappointing to see these buildings destroyed for money. People are giving up their own history to be ‘modern’. I just don’t think that everyone understands the value in historical structure. People see ‘modern’ as a big skyrise, and they see that as Singapore, and they want to become that.”
The irony is that the priceless value in Saigon’s unique identity, separating it from a more sanitary city like Singapore, is deeply rooted in its architectural heritage. A solution could also be in integrating existing structures into contemporary plans, like what was promised at Ba Son shipyard.
“There has been a few examples of not doing that.” Carnie says. “McDonalds on Nguyen Hue tried to keep part of the old structure. They kept the outside of the historical building and built a modern glass structure within. They’re maintaining some of it, mostly around the main tourist hubs. We can kind of blend the old with the new. And that’s exactly what I’m doing. One of my oldest properties had an open ceiling, and they had this water gutter system leading from the roof to the drain. I had to carefully remove that, add in a glass ceiling, redo the drainage system and made it all external. The aesthetic is still preserved.”
Hopefully with more people taking on Carnie’s attitude on the development level, folks fighting the good fight at Heritage Observatory will be able to really gain momentum to motivate the government to take this issue seriously.
The fact of the matter is that these heritage buildings are a major part of the identity of Saigon. The future isn’t in moving on from these structures, but in learning more about them, preserving them as carefully as possible, and getting developers and entrepreneurs to understand that they can be a valuable asset to a business.
No heritage, no history.