The slum in the heart of Saigon

By Thanh Tung   March 17, 2023 | 08:00 pm PT
Hundreds of families have lived for decades in cramped, dank, shanty houses in Ma Lang, considered a prime location in Ho Chi Minh City.
The slum in the heart of Saigon

Vo Thi Cam Thoa lives with 11 other family members in a house measuring just 15 square meters in the Alley of 245 Nguyen Trai Street in Ma Lang.

Ma Lang is a 6.8-hectare (16.8-acre) area in District 1 bounded by Nguyen Trai, Cong Quynh, Nguyen Cu Trinh, and Tran Dinh Xu streets.

Before 1975 it used to be a cemetery. That changed in 1980-82 when people who had left for new economic zones in rural and mountainous areas returned to the city due to extreme poverty there.

Many of them settled in Ma Lang in makeshift tents and houses.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s the neighborhood became notorious for drugs, and the name Ma Lang became synonymous with some of the most feared gangsters in HCMC.

It now has 530 tenements each measuring less than 20 square meters, which house street vendors, scrap collectors, motorbike taxi drivers, masons, and all types of workers who earn a living by doing manual jobs.

The slum in the heart of Saigon

Thoa climbs to the attic of her house using a ladder placed in the alley outside to save space inside.

Thoa is a vendor and has been living in Ma Lang since 1986 after she got married.

“Even when I moved in here when I was 19, I heard that the area would be cleared. Now I’m 56, nothing has happened.”

Nevertheless, with the future being uncertain, people do not dare fix their houses, she explains.

The slum in the heart of Saigon

Ma Lang has a dense network of alleys and crannies where the sun does not filter through.

Motorbikes are parked outdoors since there is no space for them inside the cramped houses.

The slum in the heart of Saigon

Nguyen Ngoc Tan, 67, is unable to work after suffering a stroke. He had lost all his papers when fighting in the Vietnam War.

Tan grew up in Ma Lang.

After the war ended in 1975 he left for new economic zones, and when he returned the government provided him with a tenement.

But he still does not have an ID card or house ownership papers.

“I’ve kept waiting and waiting for a paper to prove I’m a Vietnamese citizen,” he says.

The slum in the heart of Saigon

The four-member family of Nguyen Quang Hai, 51, lives in a house that is a mere four square meters. They pay a rent of VND2 million (US$84.78) a month.

The slum in the heart of Saigon

Hai works as a motorbike taxi (xe om) driver and helps his wife carry vegetables to a wet market nearby every morning.

Together they earn VND300,000-400,000 a day on average, which they say is enough for accommodation, cooking gas and school fees for their two children.

The slum in the heart of Saigon

Tran Thi Lan, 70, cuts vegetables in her six-square-meter apartment in which she lives with her bed-ridden older sister and their children.

The cabbage is for an eatery that sells stir-fried noodles run by their children.

The slum in the heart of Saigon

Lan’s granddaughter, Nguyen Tran Ngoc Tram, is seven years old.

The slum in the heart of Saigon

Duong Duc, 80, lives with nine family members in an apartment measuring six square meters.

Duc says her family rents the place for VND4 million. Her children sleep upstairs at night and her grandchildren sleep with her on the floor.

The slum in the heart of Saigon

With the project called off, the people of Ma Lang have mixed feelings.

“Now we do not know for sure if we can continue to live here or there will be another project,” the woman in red T-shirt says.

At a meeting with District 1 authorities in 2017, a Ma Lang resident said: “The city owes us an apology. Thousands of people here have lived in limbo for over a decade not knowing when that project will be executed.”

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