Yet another Saigon ‘super project’ cages residents in limbo for 20+ years

By Duong Trang   October 29, 2018 | 11:58 pm PT
Yet another Saigon ‘super project’ cages residents in limbo for 20+ years
Unable to build houses, citizens of the Thanh Da Peninsula resort to fishing and planting crops on their land instead. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran
Not far from downtown Saigon, thousands of Thanh Da Peninsula residents live ‘without any right’ in their own houses.

Confusion and misery have been their constant companions for more than 20 years now, as they live in slum-like conditions, unable to repair their own house or build new homes on their land.

In a fate similar to families in the Thu Thiem Peninsula, which is tied up in a massive plan to become the city's new commercial center in District 2, people in Thanh Da of Binh Thanh District have “lost” their properties to the grandiose Thanh Da Eco Urban Area project conceived of by the city authorities.

For decades now, these small, rundown shanties of these families have struck a stark contrast with the skyscrapers in District 1, just across the Saigon River.

‘We have no right’

Le Van Hai's family has been living on a spacious plot of land in the peninsula's Residential Area 1 for many generations.

But, for more than 20 years now, life has descended into misery. They can neither sell parts of their land to improve their living conditions, nor renovate and expand their run-down house.

Pointing at the garden behind his house, Hai said the plot of land had been passed down in his family from the time of his great-grandparents, and is home to his family of four - his wife and two children. He can’t even raise his house’s floor to prevent flooding during heavy rains or high tide without asking for permission from the authorities through a very inconvenient process.

"It's our house yet we have no right here. We wanted to build a small shack for our children to live in, but even that was not allowed. Not only my family but everyone here wants the project to be implemented soon. We are tired and confused from having to wait for so long."

Along the long, narrow, winding alleyways full of potholes that lead to Residential Areas 3 and 4, rows of rundown houses lean on each other as if they could collapse at any moment. The residents here are said to be the ones suffering the most from the suspended project.

According to many young people who were born in this neighborhood and grew up here, they’ve seen nothing change for the better.

No further dragging

At a meeting of the legislative People's Council of Ho Chi Minh City last July, the city's Chairman Nguyen Thanh Phong acknowledged that the project had been dragged on for too long, and made people frustrated.

"I pledge that the People's Committee will resolve this project for good instead of letting it drag on any longer," he said.

Earlier this month, the city's Construction Department proposed two options to address the problems facing Thanh Da residents.

In a document submitted to the People's Committee, it said the first option would be to task the Department of Planning and Investment and related departments with selecting an investor, through bids, to start work on the Thanh Da New Urban Area Project as soon as possible, using the original land use plan that had already been approved and announced.

The second option would have the city review the original plan and reevaluate the project's feasibility. Based on this, the city would either adjust or scrap the current yearly land use plan for Thanh Da, enabling residents to split their land or get temporary construction permits.

Of the two options, the construction department has recommended the second one as it would meet the needs and safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of locals affected by the delayed project.

Please do it before I am gone

The majority of Thanh Da residents have rejoiced at the recent move by the construction department.

"I'm already 77 years old and not long for this world. If the city allows us temporary construction and to split our land, I'll be very happy. However the city needs to speed up. I worry that I might not be able to wait for long," said Le Van Thinh, a local resident.

Thinh, who has spent his entire life on the peninsula, has witnessed many ups and downs the city has gone through. He knows better than most the suffering of residents living in the project area.

However, Nguyen Van Binh, Vice Chairman of Binh Thanh District's Ward 28, said he had yet to hear of the construction department's proposal.

He told VnExpress that while waiting for the city to implement a long-term solution, both the district and the ward have in many instances tried to create favorable conditions for Thanh Da residents to repair and renovate their houses, but these efforts did not help.

"We really hope that the city will soon have a plan to radically resolve this so the people's lives can become stable soon," Binh said.

'Return our lives to us'

The Binh Quoi-Thanh Da urban area, spread over of 426 hectares (1,053 acres), was planned to become an eco-urban residential area with natural landscapes, resorts and shopping centers. Once completed, it would become a new center for knowledge and new technologies. It would have a population of 45,000, three times that of Ward 28's current population.

This "super project" was first approved by the city in 1992, and in 2004 the city repossessed land in the Thanh Da Peninsula and allocated it to the Saigon Construction Corporation, who was supposed to be an investor.

After the corporation failed to begin implementation, the city asked another company to step in. Nothing happened.

The project was forgotten for another decade until Ho Chi Minh City in late 2015 appointed Vietnam's Bitexco Group and the UAE's Emaar Properties PJSC as joint investors with a capital of over VND30 trillion ($1.28 billion).

Under this new arrangement, the project was supposed to be implemented over 50 years, with primary construction work being completed within five years from the date of signing.

In mid-2017, Emaar Properties PJSC withdrew from the project and the city has asked the government to approve Bitexco as the project's sole investor.

The long suffering residents still don’t know what’s in store for them.

"Don't let us continue living in anxiety for long as the project has already been dragged on for over a quarter of a century," said Thinh, the septuagenarian.

"It's not just me, everyone here wants the government to soon resolve this for good. If they build an urban area and give us reasonable compensation, we will hand over the land immediately.

“If not, they should scrap the plan and return our lives to us."

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