Delayed project traps 1,000 families in slum along HCMC's metro line

By Dinh Van   May 22, 2024 | 03:20 pm PT
Beneath Ho Chi Minh City’s new elevated metro, 1,000 households along Van Thanh creek have been stuck in dilapidated homes for two decades after plans to relocate them were suspended.

Last Sunday morning, after a heavy rain the day before, Nguyen Tien Thanh and his son rushed to gather trash, plastic bags, and Styrofoam boxes floating in from Van Thanh creek behind their single-story, one-room house.

Their dwelling sits where an alley off Binh Thanh District’s Xo Viet Nghe Tinh Street meets the water.

On the pitch-black water full of solid domestic waste that emits a foul odor, everything from spent beer cans to large, soiled mattresses float by.

The son of Nguyen Tien Thanh collects garbage floating in from Van Thanh creek behind their house in HCMCs Binh Thanh District, May 2024. Photo by VnExpress/Dinh Van

The son of Nguyen Tien Thanh collects garbage floating in from Van Thanh Creek behind their house in HCMC's Binh Thanh District, May 2024. A metro pillar could be seen behind him. Photo by VnExpress/Dinh Van

Built on the canal bank and protruding over the stagnant water are dilapidated houses roofed with corrugated iron resting on wood plank walls that lean on crooked stakes.

The sight is in stark contrast to the Landmark 81 building, currently the tallest in Vietnam, a high-end apartment complex lurking in the background just 500 meters away.

The elevated track of the long-delayed and highly-anticipated Metro Line No. 1, set to open years late this July, runs along the creek, just above the head of Thanh and his boy.

Thanh, 48, said his family has lived here since before 1975, and his late parents left the house to him.

In the early 2000s, he was informed that his approximately 80-sq.m house was to be cleared for a project aiming to clean up Van Thanh creek and beautify its embankments.

But since then, although the city around him has been modernized, including the metro tracks above, nothing has changed in Thanh’s poverty-stricken neighborhood. The canal remains a festering cesspool and its immediate environs are as forlorn as ever, perhaps even more so than they were in the past.

"My son is almost as old as the [beautification and modernization] project’s suspension," Thanh said.

Garbage flows on Van Thanh Creek right under the elevated metro tracks as the the Landmark 81 building could be seen from afar. Photo by VnExpress/Dinh Van

Garbage flows on Van Thanh creek right under the elevated metro tracks as the Landmark 81 building could be seen from afar. Photo by VnExpress/Dinh Van

In addition to the foul smell, on days with high tides and heavy rains, the creek’s trash flotillas flow into Thanh's house, causing hygiene issues and health risks.

During sunny seasons, flies and mosquitoes proliferate throughout the house.

The home has been deteriorating for a long time, and the cracks in the walls continue to grow and multiply.

But Thanh has been unable to obtain permission from local authorities to repair his home as it falls under the purview of the already-approved canal project, which prohibits owners from making large-scale changes in interest of leaving major modifications and renovations to the project, which is slated to dislocating and re-settle the households elsewhere.

In the years leading up to 2020, authorities had announced that once the metro line was completed, the area would be cleared – and households compensated and moved to new homes in other residential areas – to proceed with the creek renovation project. But the plans were interrupted by the pandemic.

After the pandemic waned, the plan remained only ink on paper, and still now 4 years later in mid-2024 no concrete physical progress has been made.

"Now all I need is fair compensation, and I then I’ll move immediately, as we have been living in makeshift houses for too long," Thanh said.

About 30 meters away, 16 members of Nguyen Thi Cuc's family also suffer the pollution of Van Thanh creek while awaiting compensation and clearance of their single-story house.

Cuc recalls the creek being clear and surrounded by lush trees, providing cool shade in the past, but it has become vastly and increasingly polluted by domestic waste for over a decade now.

Initially, Cuc tried to collect floating plastic bags and trash to keep them from polluting the area, but the amount of waste has escalated so much over the years that she could not keep up her volunteer good work anymore.

"I've gotten used to it here, but visitors can’t stand the smell from the polluted creek," she said.

Nguyen Thi Cuc watches the polluted flow in Van Thanh Creek from her house. Photo by VnExpress/Dinh Van

Nguyen Thi Cuc watches the polluted flow in Van Thanh creek from her house. Photo by VnExpress/Dinh Van

Thanh and Cuc’s families are among 1,063 that live along the 1.5-km-long Van Thanh creek, which is part of the Nhieu Loc - Thi Nghe canal system. The waterway originates under Dien Bien Phu Bridge where the Nhieu Loc and Thi Nghe canals meet. It then flows through Binh Thanh District’s wards 19, 21, 22, playing a crucial role in the area’s water drainage system.

In 2003, HCMC planned to clear 820 houses to renovate this area. Twelve years later, the creek in HCMC was slated for beautification to enhance the landscape around the metro line. But both initiatives were, and still are, indefinitely postponed, citing a lack of funding.

In 2018, the HCMC People's Committee called for private investment to renovate several canals through the build-transfer method. This included the Van Thanh creek renovation project. Investors were to be compensated with land funds.

However, that plan encountered difficulties in attracting investors, forcing the city to switch to public investment.

A metro train conducts a test run above Van Thanh Creek in Binh Thanh District on Agust 29, 2023. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Tung

A metro train conducts a test run above Van Thanh creek in HCMC's Binh Thanh District on Agust 29, 2023. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Tung

In April, the renovation of Van Thanh creek was included on a list of three key projects that the city’s Department of Construction proposed adding to the master public investment plan for 2021-2025.

The department estimated the total compensation cost of the project at over VND4.9 trillion, including 1.2 trillion for construction, consulting, and project management.

The plan slated the project for completion by 2028, with land clearance to be carried out first.

Nguyen Tien Phuoc, chairman of the People's Committee in Ward 21, which the creek flows through, said that next week district representatives will meet with households subject to relocation to agree on a clearance and compensation scheme to accelerate work on the creek renovation project.

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