Dubious development plans put Da Lat’s future at stake

By Ngo Viet Nam Son   April 24, 2019 | 11:32 pm PT
Dubious development plans put Da Lat’s future at stake
Concrete buildings in the downtown of Da Lat in this photo taken in March 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran
Da Lat is perfect the way it is, and any changes made should respect its status quo or else it will be gone forever.

More than half a century ago, a poor college freshman traveled from the town of Hue in central Vietnam to Da Lat in the Central Highlands, almost 800 kilometers (500 miles) away.

He moved to Da Lat to join the Architecture College there. The first person he met in the new place was a girl studying in secondary school who was helping her family to sell rice.

"Could you tell me the way to this rented house?" he asked her, showing the address.

After she did, the young man asked one more question: "How much for one kilogram of rice?"

"Two dong," she said, showing two fingers.

He did well in college and tutored the children of the town’s rich families, including the girl who sold rice. He became a frequent visitor at her house, and many years later they got married.

This was the story of my parents.

Later, whenever they had a fight, no matter whose fault it was, either my mother or father would show two fingers, and the other would take that as a sign of peace to stop the argument.

My father, Ngo Viet Thu, once said that it was for my mother that he had a successful career as an architect since he always told himself to try his hardest to be worthy of the love she had for him.

After finishing college in Da Lat, he continued to study at École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts (National School of Fine Arts) of PLS Research University in Paris, France.

One of his achievements my mother was most proud of was in 1955 when she was the first person to receive the news that my father had won the Grand Prix de Rome, a French scholarship for arts students that allowed them to stay in Rome for three to five years at the expense of the state.

The prestigious award had been extended to architecture in 1720, music in 1803, and engraving in 1804. It was later abolished in 1968 by Minister of Culture André Malraux.

The news spread around Da Lat and across the country. Many people, including officials, came to my grandparents’ house in Da Lat to congratulate them and my mother.

When returning from France, one of the first things my father did was to help develop Da Lat.

He used to tell me that it is a difficult task to build master plans for a place like Da Lat because the core value of the town is not buildings but nature.

My parents later moved from Da Lat to Ho Chi Minh City, and as a little boy I was taken to Da Lat several times. But it was not until I was in secondary school that I actually fell in love with the town.

That moment came one early morning when I woke up in Da Lat. I opened the window and what I saw was mist all over the place. I felt like I was lost in some fairy land. Mist became a wonderful artist in my eyes. Every building I saw covered in mist somehow turned into a castle.

Da Lat is for me a land that is very beautiful and romantic with people so kind.

But it has gradually been losing those particular characteristics. And humans are behind that loss.

One of the things about Da Lat that has concerned me recently is the new plan for its center: It could turn Da Lat from a shy girl with blushing cheeks into an unfriendly urban girl.

[Editor's note: Da Lat authorities have announced plans to restructure the town's center where Hoa Binh Theater sits next to Da Lat Market. The plans include demolition of the historic Hoa Binh Theater to make way for a new commercial center, relocation of Dinh, the former provincial governor's palace built by the French in 1910, to build a luxury commercial and service area, and turning the area around the Xuan Huong Lake into a hub for hotels, tourism services and public places. The plan has generated controversy and debate over heritage conservation.]

That scheme will not be able to offer any benefit to Da Lat's economy, culture, history or environment.

First of all, in terms of economics, it is necessary to distinguish between building plans for the center of a Central Highlands tourist town and a real estate project.

Why do I call this a real estate project? Because it uses public lands for commercial projects, puts away the Dinh that sits on a hilltop and replaces it with a multistory hotel, and demolishes Hoa Binh theater to make way for a commercial center right in the heart of Da Lat.

Houses and buildings between Xuan Huong Lake and the Da Lat Market, some of which stand on public lands, will also be pulled down.

If the authorities clear the site, pay compensation and then hand those public land lots over to investors, the investors will enjoy all the benefits because they will be in possession of prime lands with great views whose market value will skyrocket.

Clearing the site will be a burden on the state budget. What locals and tourists get will not be much because they can enjoy such commercial services anywhere in the country.

But the fact is there is no need for such large-scale property projects like multistory hotels and shopping malls to make Da Lat attractive to tourists.

The area that includes Dinh, Hoa Binh Theater, Da Lat Market and nearby routes leading to downtown should be turned into a pedestrian area and that will surely be attractive and romantic.

What needs to be done is plant more trees, repaint old buildings, encourage local people to tile their roofs or set up gardens there, hide the metal water tanks, and plant more trees and flowers in front of their house.

If Da Lat can do that, the face of its center will become even more beautiful and appealing and at a totally affordable cost.

Any person visiting Da Lat would want to walk around its quaint, pretty streets to enjoy the cool air and look around.

If we restructure the town with a community-centered project that allows local residents to take part by creating conditions for them to renovate their neighborhood and run their own businesses right at home, including commercial and accommodation services, and turn streets like Nam Ky Khoi Nghia, Bui Thi Xuan and Ba Thang Hai into walking streets, Da Lat would be able to benefit over the long term.

While locals will have a steady income, tourists will have the chance to enjoy Da Lat in an authentic community, the government can collect taxes on those services and not have to spend much on investment, and public lands will still be in the hands of the town authorities and can be renovated into community projects such as museums, multipurpose theaters and libraries.

And last but not least when discussing economic benefits is tax revenue.

The government can indeed get a large sum by selling public lands, but it is possible it will not even be enough for upgrading public traffic infrastructure to match the modern works carried out by private investors, and in the end no one can tell if the exchequer gained anything from the deal.

In terms of history, the plan is a strategic mistake.

The history of developing Da Lat dates back to more than a century ago. The town has a French enclave in its south where the French built villas for relaxing during the colonial period, but don’t forget it also has a Vietnamese area: the area around Hoa Binh.

Though it was later developed by the French, the Hoa Binh Area had been carved out by locals long before that when they set up the town’s market. Destroying this area and turning it into a modern commercial area would mean we only value the French corner, and this would be hugely unfair to the legacy of our forefathers.

A tourist town should be able to tell its visitors lots of interesting stories, including how it was born and developed, what events it went through along the way. If we demolish and rebuild, Da Lat will have no soul and tourists will be traveling long distances only to see it is a clone of Singapore or Ho Chi Minh City.

As for environment, those who have lived in Da Lat or have a thing for this town know that the most important factor about the town is its cool climate and the mist, also a specialty of Da Lat.

The town could preserve them only if it reduces concrete buildings and plants more trees. Da Lat has already lost part of its legacy as it is really rare to see mist there these days.

Da Lat is not suitable for large concrete projects because since the beginning it has been a town set in a forest, and what makes it distinctive is its environment, landscape, culture, and history and it should not become a copy of any other city.

The solution to fixing the problems of Da Lat is to grow more trees and add more ponds and lakes. Developing the town in a way that removes trees and adds more concrete buildings and air conditioners will heat up Da Lat and could put paid to mist forever.

I really hope that when developing Da Lat we carefully consider each and every move, and do not follow the thinking applied to big cities like HCMC, where developers try to use whatever spaces they can for their projects, so that Da Lat remains the romantic and poetic city I used to know.

When we look at the town’s center from a broader perspective, we can see that everyone can benefit from it and, most importantly, we can retain the core values of a resort town.

If we rush to adopt inappropriate development plans, later on we might have to spend a lot of money and effort. However, who can tell if we can then fix all the mistakes we have made?

*Ngo Viet Nam Son is a Vietnamese architect with 30 years of experience in design consultancy and architectural planning. The opinions expressed are his own.

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