From economic lifelines to environmental disasters and back, Brett Davis explores the history of canals in Saigon. Photo by Vinh Dao

In the late afternoon, the nature strip along the Nhieu Loc – Thi Nghe Canal in District 1 is bustling with couples taking a stroll or sitting on the benches which line the revitalised waterway, or getting in a workout on the many public exercise machines.

The rather pleasant and bucolic scene was recently unthinkable, as only a few years ago the city’s canals were places people could not get far enough away from. Over the last 150 years these inner-city waterways have gone on quite a journey of their own.

In his exhaustively researched book Exploring Ho Chi Minh City, historian Tim Doling details how in the 1860s, at the time of the French occupation of Vietnam, central Saigon was crisscrossed with a vast network of canals.

These waterways were used by merchants to transport goods efficiently from the surrounding countryside to destinations within the city and to what was then the neighbouring settlement of Cho Lon (the western end of modern day District 5).

At the time Saigon was home to only little more than 50,000 people, yet the canal system played an important part in the city being one of the key trading hubs for the French colony of Cochinchine.

Modern residents of Saigon might be surprised to learn that some of the city’s best known streets were once all, or partly, waterways. The so-called ‘Grand Canal’ ran from the Saigon River along what is now the pedestrian-friendly Nguyen Hue Street.

Much of Ham Nghi Street was a canal, known as the ‘Crocodile Bridge Canal’, stretching to roughly where it bisects with Pasteur Street. The lower reaches of Pasteur were also a waterway leading from Ben Nghe Creek (which separates Districts 1 and 4) to what is now Le Loi Street.

From that point, the ‘Junction Canal’ ran north along Le Loi (and connecting to the ‘Grand Canal’), Cao Ba Quat and Nguyen Sieu streets before turning along Ngo Van Nam Street and emptying back into the Saigon River.

The demise of the canals in Saigon, however, was not long in coming after French colonisation. Concerned about the spread of tropical diseases, and complaints from the new European residents about the smell from the waterways due to their being used as a dumping ground for all kinds of refuse, saw them steadily filled in and turned into roads.

Despite the initial intentions of the French colonial masters to retain the system of canals, the filling work started in 1863 with the ‘Junction Canal’. The last of them to go was the ‘Grand Canal’ which was filled in between 1887 and 1889 to allow for the extension of what was then called Boulevard Charner to the Saigon Riverfront.

The canals in the Cho Lon area, where there were almost no European residents, lasted somewhat longer. The local residents were less concerned with the sanitary conditions and managed to keep most of the waterways for another 35 years before they, too, eventually succumbed.

Yet some of the canals circling the city remained, and over the next hundred years as the city grew, became putrid, polluted scars on the growing metropolis’s landscape. The houses in these areas, not surprisingly, were almost entirely consigned to the city’s poorest residents.

The Nhieu Loc – Thi Nghe Canal, once known simply as Thi Nghe Creek, was by the 1960s simply being referred to as Kinh Nuoc Den, or ‘Blackwater Canal’, such was the state it was in.

Separating the northern edge of District 1 from Binh Thanh and Phu Nguong Districts before meandering through District 3, the canal flooded in the lightest of rainfalls and helped spread water-borne diseases such as typhoid, dysentery and cholera.

By the mid-1980s, city officials could no longer ignore the issue, and set out to find a solution. It was to be the start of a long and tortuous process. Various ideas were brought to the table over the years, including one proposal to build an elevated highway over the canal to reduce traffic congestions.

In 1999, Boston-based engineering firm CDM Smith presented a feasibility study on the canal’s restoration using Japanese aid funding. Subsequent studies and reports were prepared as well as a resettlement action plan. In the end 7,000 households were relocated.

Finally, in 2003 work began on an ambitious project to construct 70 kilometres of sewers, drains and other infrastructure to reduce flooding, and to rehabilitate the canal. Much of the funding came in the form of zero-interest loans from the World Bank, and the project was finally completed in 2012 with a price tag of almost half a billion dollars.

Since then, upgrades have also been completed on the Tan Hoa – Lo Gom and Tau Hu – Benh Nghe Canals. These projects had similar funding from the World Bank, but came in with a much lower budget and in a much shorter time-frame.

The economic and social benefits are not hard to see. At the official opening of the Tan Hoa – Lo Gom Canal in April this year, Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang said: “Residents used to suffer from frequent inundation and serious pollution. Now, housing values increase, diseases are controlled, social welfare and public services are improved and the region’s face has changed significantly in a short time.”

Efforts have also been made to replenish fish stocks in the canals, however the eagerness of recreational fishermen in the city is not particularly helping the matter. Fishing is discouraged but remains legal. Public awareness campaigns have also been conducted to implore residents not to use the waterways as a dumping ground.

It has been an incredible effort to rehabilitate the city’s canals, and it can only be hoped new generations see the value of keeping them this way.