100-year-old Saigon railway building fate up in the air

By Huu Cong   July 8, 2020 | 11:33 am GMT+7

A dispute is brewing between HCMC and the transport ministry over the fate of a colonial building that once served as Saigon’s railway headquarters.

he Hoa Xa complex at 136 Ham Nghi in Ho Chi Minh Citys District 1 seen from above in this photo taken in September, 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran

The Hoa Xa complex at 136 Ham Nghi in Ho Chi Minh City's District 1. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran.

Last year city authorities had proposed a conservation plan for the Hoa Xa complex at 136 Ham Nghi Street in District 1, which comprises two buildings, one L-shaped and the other rectangular.

In a letter to the Ministries of Transport and Finance, they had said the city "would like to take over the Hoa Xa complex for preservation."

The bigger, L-shaped building would be used as the central control center for the Metro Line No.1 that is close to completion, and the rest would be connected to the metro’s underground space and house historical railway artifacts, the letter said.

But the proposal was shot down by the Vietnam Railway Corporation (VNR), which owns the complex.

Originally known as the Bureau du Chemin de fer (railway office) of the Indochina Railway Company, the building was the headquarters of the Ministry of Transport and Post of the South Vietnam government before 1975.

In the letter, the city had said further, "If the two ministries and VNR agree, the city will organize an international competition for a design concept for the Ben Thanh central station area."

The VNR said in a reply that all assets on the land plot at 136 Ham Nghi belong to it, and this has the imprimatur of the finance ministry.

The city has issued it a land use right certificate for the complex for 50 years, or until January 1, 2046, it said.

In the event, the law does not allow the city to take over the property.

The facade of the complex, which stands in front of Saigons iconic Ben Thanh Market. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran

The facade of the complex, which stands in front of Saigon's iconic Ben Thanh Market. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran.

Nguyen Duc Hiep of the Australian Department of Planning, Industry and Environment, a conservation expert who has studied HCMC’s urban planning, sided with the city and made a fervent call for conserving the complex.

Saigon was the first place in Indochina to get a railroad (on December 27, 1881), he said.

Besides its value as an architectural heritage, the complex stands for the golden age of the railways in the last century, especially in Vietnam.

In other major cities in Asia such as Mumbai in India, Taipei in Taiwan, Jakarta in Indonesia, Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, Singapore, and Bangkok in Thailand, old train stations are treated as an architectural heritage of historical value that must be preserved.

"The value of a city does not lie in soulless modern high-rise buildings, but in the unique cultural and historical architecture it can retain. That is an aspect that could make it appealing to both visitors and investors."

If for commercial purposes VNR wants to make changes to such a historical asset, it would be a wrong move for the corporation itself in the long term because failure to keep such a historical building would be a huge loss for the people of Saigon since it had been an icon of the city.

"If VNR agrees to join the plan to preserve the complex, it will create a beautiful image for itself that no marketing campaign can better," Hiep said.

A photograph of the Hoa Xa complex in 1926.

A photograph of the Hoa Xa complex in 1926.

Ngo Viet Nam Son, a veteran architect and design consultant, said HCMC should add this complex to the list of buildings that need to be conserved so that it has legal backing to protect it.

"Once there is a clear legal framework, the city could negotiate with VNR to use the complex as a museum in line with preservation plans. Then it will not matter who manages the complex because it is conserved."

While it is understandable that VNR wants to hold on to the complex since it is a legacy of the railroad industry, it needs a clear boundary for VNR to maintain the status quo for the entire Hoa Xa complex and desist from building anything for commercial purposes on the vacant land inside, he said.

The city could offer it land elsewhere if it needs, he added.

 
 
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