Urban drama: Thu Thiem residents fight for their homes after planning map goes missing

By Gia Chinh   May 9, 2018 | 04:43 pm PT
Urban drama: Thu Thiem residents fight for their homes after planning map goes missing
Nguyen Thi Hong (R) and her neighbor from Saigon's Thu Thiem examine a map in a Hanoi guesthouse in an effort to fight for their homes which had been taken for an urban development project. Photo by VnExpress/Gia Chinh
The community from Saigon have traveled to Hanoi 12 times in the last four years in search of answers.

Over 30 people from Ho Chi Minh City have been shacked up in a guesthouse in Hanoi since April 30, paying VND1.8 million ($80) per night in total for four rooms.

Nguyen Thi Hong, 73, and three other women were poring over a black-and-white map, which spanned the  length of their bed, in one of those rooms one day in early May. Hong occasionally reached for another document scattered around the room for cross-examination.

Across the room, five other people were having their mid-day siesta after spending a morning knocking on authorities’ doors to find out the fate of their homes, 2,300 kilometers (1,400 miles) away.

The group originally lived in houses that were caught in the crosshairs of HCMC's plans to build the Thu Thiem new urban area in District 2. The area is touted to eventually become one of the biggest international financial and commercial centers in Southeast Asia.

However, the story doesn’t stop there. Some families claim their houses were not included in the original relocation plans, citing the original Thu Thiem planning map drawn up in 1996.

Subsequent maps released by the city have included their houses on the demolition list, and authorities are now saying they have lost the original map, a story that has made local headlines.

The missing map has sparked controversy, but some officials say it never existed in the first place. However, one architect claims he has a copy of the map.

VnExpress has caught up with this group of people who left their homes back in 2014 to come to Hanoi in search of answers.

Daily life, a thousand miles from home

“When we first came here, we stayed with people who were helping us out. They only charged us for electricity and water. However, we moved into this guesthouse because we could fit more people in and cook our own meals. The rent is a bit high though,” Hong said.

As the eldest, Hong is tasked with feeding the entire group. Every day, she goes to the market and buys four kilograms of rice, which she cooks in two large pots in two different rooms.

“Our meals often consist of vegetables, broth and boiled eggs. We are all poor, and we had to borrow money just to catch a ride to Hanoi. We have to limit our living expenses as much as possible to save up for travel fees,” Hong said.

At night, they would map out the roads to take to go to officials' houses on Nguyen Gia Thieu Street, Hoan Kiem District, 11 kilometers from their guesthouse, the next morning. They would calculate their bus fares and how long it would take to walk to their destination.

“We had to leave at 5 a.m, catch at least two buses and walk three kilometers just to get to the officials' houses before they left for work,” said Le Thi The, 72. "So they could see us seeking for help."

After making themselves seen by the officials at around 7 a.m., they would get on a bus to travel three more kilometers to Hung Vuong Street in Ba Dinh District, which is home to several government buildings.

At 11 a.m, they would be dropped off back at their hotel by local police.

“The police officers are actually really nice. We talked all the way back to the hotel. One even jokingly told us ‘see you guys again tomorrow’. It might be a small gesture, but it made us feel more at home,” said Ho Tuan Thua, 42.

After lunch, Thua and the group would return carrying banners calling for authorities to process their complaints.

“We had to wait at some officials' houses until midnight several times just to have our voices heard. I fainted twice due to low blood pressure and prolonged exposure to the sun,” Hong said.

The villagers of Thu Thiem take the same journey day after day, come rain or shine. They've split into four groups, so when one group embarks on the trip around Hanoi, the other three can rest up before jumping into the fray the next day. They say they will only stop when HCMC authorities come to Hanoi and provide them with answers.

Four years, 12 trips up north

As she tied up her white hair, Hong said that her family's five houses in An Khanh Ward, District 2 were not included on the demolition list on the 1996 map, but subsequent maps said they were.

“In 2012 and 2014, we received two relocation orders. After we had discussed the matter with HCMC authorities hundreds of times but to no avail, I packed my bags and traveled to Hanoi to find an answer,” Hong said.

In 2016, work on the Thu Thiem new urban area was suspended to address public concerns.

“No other relocation orders have been sent since, but dirt and soil have been piled up around our houses instead. The dirt has created a mini valley around my house, which now floods easily after heavy rain,” Hong said.

Hong is actually one of the lucky ones. Thua and his extended family of 30 members were relocated into temporary housing because six of their houses were reclaimed by the city.

“Authorities sent us several reclamation orders, but we ignored them. In June 2013, 500 people turned up at our house with another reclamation order. I had my sick mother and two pregnant women in the house, so we had to comply,” Thua said.

Le Thi The, one of the first members of the group to arrive in Hanoi, said the group has made the trip to the capital 12 times since 2014, with each visit lasting around four months. Most of them are elderly and no longer work. Their younger, healthier relatives stay in HCMC to work and finance the trips to Hanoi.

All they want is to take a look at the original 1996 map, which was reportedly approved by the PM at the time, but their wishes have been denied over the years. HCMC officials just told local media last week that the original map had gone missing.

“After four years of traveling back and forth from HCMC to Hanoi, we are all exhausted, but we will not stop until we get an answer. We are overjoyed that the news of the missing map has been making headlines," Thua said, feeling hopeful for the attention she and other affected people are receiving.

"I just want all this to end quickly so I can go back to my family,” Thua said.

Nguyen Hong Diep from the Government Inspectorate told VnExpress that about 30 people have traveled from Thu Thiem to Hanoi to seek an audience with authorities.

“We feel truly sorry for these people, but we're trying our best,” he said.

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