News - August 7, 2023 | 03:46 pm PT

Overburdened Da Lat is falling apart

Nguyen Dinh My, 55, was one of the first people to plant flowers in greenhouses in Da Lat.

He could never have imagined then that the method, which was considered the future of agriculture, would come to curse the hill town’s environment forever.

The Hue-born My represents a generation who fled the horrid hot weather of their central Vietnam hometowns in the 1950s looking for new lives in the cool Central Highlands town. They were first to establish the Thai Phien flower village legacy in Da Lat.

27 years ago, My was a pioneer of Da Lat’s greenhouse flower gardens. The method was introduced by several foreign companies to plant imported vegetables and flowers. It guaranteed twice the output compared to crops planted outdoors, as the weather factor was no longer a problem.

My started with 300 sq.m of greenhouses and expanded it to 8,000 sq.m five years later. His distribution network grew nationwide and he made enough money to build a big house and take care of his children’s education properly.

Greenhouses became the trend in Da Lat in the 2000s, when it was known as "high-technology agriculture." Lam Dong Province, home to Da Lat, drafted a development plan in 2004 just for the method.

With the authorities’ endorsement, greenhouses mushroomed, and evolved from bamboo frames like My’s first greenhouses, to solid iron constructions.

"Everyone jumped in as they saw the profits," My said.

Greenhouses cover Da Lat City in this photo taken in 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran

Greenhouse dream shattered

More than a decade after adopting the method, My and many of his colleagues became well off financially. They built bigger houses and many could also afford cars.

For years, greenhouses kept showing up in local authorities’ socio-economic reports as a proud accomplishment of applying technology to agriculture.

But the accomplishment came with a price as the face of Da Lat has been deformed.

The city famous for its green cover of pine forests now looks more white from above, thanks to the prevalent greenhouses, which now cover 2,907 hectares of land and account for more than 60% of the city’s flower and vegetable cultivation area.

For My, he realized it’s hotter in the greenhouse due to radiation, and pesticides sprayed on his flowers also linger longer.

His initial hype about the method has subsided, but "I still need to make a living," he said.

Zooming larger, the livelihood of all Da Lat is under threat.

The city has suffered more regular and more severe floods in recent years.

Most recently on June 23, many streets downstream of the Cam Ly Stream were submerged by half a meter of water after half an hour of downpour. The water rushed into people’s houses and swept away cars.

Floods triggered by heavy rains in downtown Da Lat City on June 23, 2023. Photo by VnExpress/Hoai Thanh

Landslides have also become a common threat to the city.

The Institute of Geosciences and Mineral Resources has counted 210 sinking and landslide spots in Da Lat, mostly along roads.

According to the institute, 10% of the city’s area faces "very high" landslide risk, 42% face "high" risk, 45% face "medium" risk and only 3% has "low" risk.

The city has suffered damage worth nearly VND126 billion (US$5.3 million) from natural disasters including landslides in just over 10 years.

On June 29 and 30, Da Lat experienced landslides in 13 spots across the city, including one that buried seven people and killed two of them, damaging many houses.

The aftermath of a landslide in downtown Da Lat on June 29, 2023. Photo by VnExpress/Hoai Thanh

Nguyen Mong Sinh, former Chairman of Lam Dong Union of Science Associations, said greenhouses are the main cause of floods, erosion and soil degradation in Da Lat.

"There's no place to absorb water, so rainwater will form strong flows outside the greenhouses, causing erosion anywhere it flows."

Khieu Van Chi, a 67-year-old engineer who has lived his entire life in Da Lat, said a lot of the city has been lost.

Chi said certain reservoirs in Da Lat have been covered up or narrowed to give space to greenhouses, and houses.

"There’s no more place to store water," Chi said, explaining the severe floods in the city.

Architect Ngo Viet Nam Son, who spent years studying Da Lat’s urban planning, said when the French set up the city, they paid a lot of attention to utilizing the river network and building more reservoirs to reduce the impacts of flooding, given the city’s hilly terrain.

Housing and urban development were a second priority, but the city’s original design has not been preserved, Son said.

"While irrigation infrastructure has not been invested in, Da Lat is seeing constant house construction."

The tiny city has also become overloaded with migrants.

Besides My and his central Vietnam fellows, Da Lat has also received waves of migrants from Hanoi and northern provinces, and even HCMC. Waves that Da Lat was not prepared for.

The original plan for Da Lat in 1923, drafted by French architect and urban planner Ernest Hébrard, was meant for a city with trees. The 30,000-ha city was then home to 1,500 people and it was planned to be able to host up to 50,000 people.

Da Lat is now 39,000 ha and its population has jumped to 240,000, 160 times more crowded than a century ago, and five times more than its designed capacity.

Many migrants have built houses in Da Lat without a license, and authorities have not found a suitable solution to the problem yet.

Besides migrants, Da Lat has also drawn increasing tourists, and as a result the number of tourist accommodation facilities has risen to 2,400. That’s a four-fold increase between 2006 and 2022.

With more houses and hotels, forest coverage in Da Lat has dropped from 69% of the area in 1997 to 51% in 2030. In downtown Da Lat, pine forests shrank by half over a decade, from 350 ha in 1997 to 150 ha in 2018, according to Lam Dong’s Agriculture and Rural Development Department.

Before too late

Authorities have begun to discuss plans to rescue Da Lat in recent years.

Lam Dong’s vice chairman Pham S late last year announced a plan to phase out greenhouses in Da Lat by 2030, and to revive outdoor farming in efficient ways.

The province also has plans to develop satellite urban centers in nearby districts to ease the burden on Da Lat.

My is aware of the negative impacts that greenhouses have rendered on Da Lat, but all he could do was move his away from the city. He has bought more land in Lac Duong District, around 23km from downtown Da Lat, to set up more greenhouses.

Pham Linh, Phuoc Tuan, Dang Khoa