Downfall: Death of a Saigon landmark, in the era of glass and concrete

By Dien Luong   December 11, 2016 | 11:57 pm PT
Downfall: Death of a Saigon landmark, in the era of glass and concrete
High-rise buildings are popping up at a fast pace in Ho Chi Minh City, sometimes at the cost of old, iconic structures. Photo from VnExpress Photo Contest/Than Tinh
As consumerist lifestyle takes over, heritage preservation becomes a ‘luxury’ concern.

The Saigon Tax Trade Center is dead.

Long before barefoot men wielding sledgehammers delivered the final blow in early December, they had reduced the colonial structure to a shadow of its former self: hollowed out, paint chipped away, a cracking and crumbling façade.

Sipping a cup of coffee in a Western-style café just a few blocks away from the site on the very first day of demolition in October, Tran Huu Khoa, a 27-year-old Vietnamese architect, recalled his futile efforts to salvage the building. Khoa created a petition that called for the preservation of the center, which was originally built in 1880, after city authorities announced plans to raze it in 2014.

The city itself has a majority stake in the Saigon Trading Group (SATRA), which owns the land that houses the Tax Center. SATRA has already released sketches of the coming 40-story skyscraper complete with shopping mall, offices, apartments, a hotel, helipad and a direct link to the city’s first subway line.

Khoa's petition drew nearly 3,500 signatures from architects, researchers and students. In the end, SATRA announced that they would preserve and incorporate certain historical elements of the Tax Center into the coming glass and steel monolith.

The decision came as no surprise to Khoa.

“The more people get caught up in a consumerist lifestyle, the more heritage preservation becomes a ‘luxury’ concern,” he told VnExpress International. “It would be impossible to expect millions of people in Ho Chi Minh City to concur that they need heritage, not shopping malls.”


Saigon Tax Trade Center was once a popular shopping place for more than a century. Photo by VnExpress

Once regarded as the “Paris of the East,” the city’s colonial architecture is quickly being erased by a development boom that favors high-rise, luxury buildings. Over the past two decades, over half of all pre-1975 villas have been demolished or defaced in the downtown area, according to the Urban Development Management Support Center. 

Many of the old buildings which have already been destroyed, some dating back to the 19th century, were privately owned. At the moment there is no official recognition of the heritage value of such buildings, much less a mechanism by which to protect them.

At a meeting last week between Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc and the Vietnam Business Forum -- a consortium of international and local business associations and chambers of commerce -- members of the Tourism Working Group pointed out that in Vietnam, “the protection and promotion of cultural and heritage sites is less developed and there are even instances of sites being damaged by neglect and aggressive commercial development.”

Leading the drive to advocate for the preservation of HCMC's historic buildings (or, at least, document their destruction) is Tim Doling, a British historian fluent in Vietnamese and French who opted to retire in Ho Chi Minh City.

“In the continued absence of effective heritage recognition or protection, the landmarks which gave the city its charm and its citizens their sense of identity are being replaced by swathes of unrelenting glass and concrete ugliness,” said Doling, who published a Vietnamese and English-language guide to the city's historical sites.

Colonial architecture has defined cities in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia for decades even after the French pulled out of Indochina in 1954. But hundreds of historic buildings across the region have been knocked down as governments capitalize on rising land prices.

"You can see throughout East and Southeast Asia the destruction of history in the name of modernity," said Mike Douglass, a Singapore-based expert on globalization and urbanization in Asia. "Years from now when its industrial phase is over and the experience economy of urban services and tourism become the main sources of HCMC's economy, the historical buildings will be gone, and it will be too late to bring them back."

Developers counter that the drive for preservation benefits wistful tourists and no one else. The city, they say, needs to move on and spruce up its image, an argument that's caused experts to cringe.

“The point is that they're not trying to retain anything as part of the new development, that's the key problem,” said Doling, who noted that historical preservation can be a tough sell in HCMC's present economic climate. “Persuading them that the long-term benefits associated with the preservation of heritage can be equally rewarding is quite difficult when you could immediately get this massive amount of money.”

Meanwhile, experts point to research elsewhere in the world that has shown very clearly that heritage tourism generally attracts older, wealthier people who stay longer, take part in more cultural activities and spend more money.

“Development and heritage preservation are not enemies,” Emmanuel Ly-Batallan, the French consul general, told a group of reporters touring the residence of the French consulate in Ho Chi Minh City. “Preserve it, renovate it, keep the spirit of the place, and you will sell a little story to your customers,” he said, standing in front of the 19th-century building that will soon be eclipsed by the skyscraper being built next door.

He also emphasized that most of Ho Chi Minh City's heritage sites display a unique architecture that, first and foremost, is Vietnamese, rather than French.

Doling and several expat friends have created Facebook groups where they post thousands of historical and current photos of heritage sites in Ho Chi Minh City -- a heritage that Doling says belongs to Vietnam alone.

But at the end of the day, the effectiveness of the preservation of historical architecture in Ho Chi Minh City in general lies in the awareness of the issue among Vietnamese people, foreign experts say.

“Many of the members of the various Facebook groups I'm involved in are overwhelmingly young Vietnamese people,” Doling said. “And they've suddenly realized that for many years this history has been denied to them and they want to know about it, this is their heritage, it's very important. Heritage gives people a sense of place above all else, a sense of identity, which I think many people can understand.”


Bank Saigon Building Circa 1940s (front view) photographer unknown. "Now" taken September 18, 2016. Photo by Paul Blizard

Khoa, the young Vietnamese architect, said his plan in the long run is realistic and grounded.

“We just cannot blame the authorities and developers for all that has happened,” he said. “The buck also stops with the masses; it is their materialism-driven lifestyle that has fueled our loss.”

Khoa believes Facebook, which has around 35 million users in Vietnam, offers the best hope of rallying support for changing popular attitudes about urban development.

“Only when people know how to appreciate nature can they get away from materialism,” Khoa said. He has also joined volunteer groups that seek to raise awareness among students about protecting the environment and heritage.

Khoa said he has felt a bit “lonely” in his advocacy for this cause. “Many of my colleagues are also trapped in materialism and see no need to fret over the loss of colonial heritage in this city,” he said.

“I just don’t care. I know what I’m up to and where I’m going.”

Related news:

Saigon dooms hundreds of old villas to demolition

Vietnam recognizes colonial finance fortress as national monument

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