By 2 p.m. in a scorching afternoon in November – one typical of Saigon’s wet season, a public meeting hall in Binh Thanh District had already been packed. The attendees were residents of the Thanh Da Peninsula, district leaders and officials from the city’s urban planning department.
The people were there for “A Public Consultation of Residents Affected by the Binh Quoi – Thanh Da Urban Planning Project”, according to the red banner that hung above the stage, and they were quick to voice their frustration at delays to the project while delegates dutifully took notes.
Sitting in the center row, Ngo Thi Mai Xanh, a 70-year-old war veteran turned outspoken representative of Ward 28, calmly waited until it was her turn to speak. “After all these years, how long do you think we can put up with the waiting?” she asked, looking directly at the delegates over the brim of her glasses.
“Here we are on the edge of dazzling Saigon, but the living conditions are worse than in the countryside,” she added.
After living in limbo for more than two decades, Xanh and her neighbors said they have had enough.
Thanh Da, a peninsula bordered by the Saigon River in Binh Thanh District, is a green area lying about 6 miles from the city center.
The only way of getting to the peninsula was via the Thanh Da channel, but the city has recently launched a river bus service to cater for residents’ growing needs and to boost tourism.
Throughout the dry season, tourists and city dwellers flock to Thanh Da to enjoy a brief summer getaway, leaving behind the stress of traffic, pollution and concrete buildings. They come to Thanh Da for the eco-villages, the fishing ponds with their bamboo canopies and "organic" picnics from food havens scattered along Binh Quoi Street, which stretches the entire length of the peninsula.
Being detached from the bustling streets of Saigon fills Thanh Da with a serenity that exists nowhere else in the city, so it's no wonder ecotourism thrives here. Seeing the potential, the city has devised a plan to turn the peninsula into an urban center that promises to be both modern and nature-friendly.
That plan was dated in December 1992.
Ngo Thi Mai Xanh remembers the exact dates when new decisions concerning the Binh Quoi – Thanh Da development project were made, which have come on average every three years since 1992, but most of the officials who made the decisions have either retired or been promoted. Basically nothing has changed, and the residents’ hopes of a life-changing opportunity have waned.
“After all these years, the road that was promised from my house to the river has not even been built, and street lamps are non-existent,” she said. “The longer we have to wait the more difficult it is for residents here to accept land clearance.”
In 2004, the city selected the Saigon Construction Corporation as the main investor in the project. Relocation decisions were settled on, but no further progress was made, so the city decided to offer it to other bidders.
Things began to look up two years ago, Xanh told Vnexpress International, when Vietnamese multi-industry corporation Bitexco and Emaar Properties PJSC from the UAE won the contract.
Both groups are real estate giants, with Bitexco known for the construction of Saigon’s tallest skyscraper - the Bitexco Financial Tower, and Emaar for the famed Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world.
The eco-urban project was estimated to be worth around $1.4 bln, according to Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper, with a development span of 50 years.
Bitexco's site plan for the urban development of Thanh Da peninsula. Photo from Bitexco's website.
The vision, as depicted on Bitexco’s website, is to turn the 426-hectare (1,053-acre) zone into an ecological urban area housing 41,000 to 50,000 people, along with a resort, golf course, casino, mini airport and more.
The plan also includes the construction of two bridges connecting the peninsula with the Thu Thiem urban zone and Thu Duc District.
Yet just when Xanh’s neighborhood was starting to celebrate the latest twist, Emaar Properties abruptly pulled the plug, leaving Bitexco as the sole investor.
In an email reply to Vnexpress International, a representative from Bitexco group confirmed the group plans to follow through with the Binh Quoi - Thanh Da project, adding that it was still in the preparation phase, which includes "the compensation process, land clearance and research on the latest technological innovations to ensure the construction of a smart, green, clean and modern ecological urban area."
There was no mention of progress, the postponement of the project or compensation disputes, which for the giant corporation, is not uncommon. These subjects were also brought up during the public consultation in Ward 28.
Drone image of Thanh Da Peninsula. Thu Thiem urban area can be seen on the other side of the river. Bitexco group plans to build a bridge connecting Thanh Da to Thu Thiem and another to Thu Duc District. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran
A rural living in the urban jungle
Xanh and her husband, Le Thanh Tuyen, 76, grow organic vegetables on their 48-square-yard piece of land which they sell for less than $50 per month. The lot, Xanh said, was initially intended for their first son.
The city’s long-term plan for Ward 28 means that residents here cannot do anything to their estates. That includes a ban on construction of new structures; changing the land use; partitioning; acquisition of a red book, and further development of agricultural land, Xanh explained, while holding a stack of notices from local authorities.
Only those with a red book - Vietnam's certificate of land-use right, are permitted to do any work on their homes, and those that don't hold this vital piece of paperwork run the risk of having their houses demolished even if they just carry out vital repair work.
(Vietnam does not technically allow private land ownership but grants land-use rights, which confer the same rights as freehold status.)
About a mile from Xanh’s garden, a new detached house belonging to a young couple was recently torn down for that reason. A mobile number has been stuck on the blue gate as a contact point to sell the plot; their neighbors didn't even have the chance to get to know them.
In this neighborhood, it has become the norm for many generations of the same family to live under one roof, as most families are unable to pass down or divide their land among their children. Xanh’s neighbor Quynh Thi Hoa, 58, lives with all of her daughters, their husbands and their children.
Her family of nine shares one toilet. Her daughters, both with little families of their own now, live next door in makeshift structures without basic necessities.
Two years ago, her second daughter decided to build a concrete one-story house despite the risk of demolition. Though owning a red book, Hoa said they are not allowed to divide ownership of the land among their three daughters either.
Due to the cumbersome administrative procedure to acquire the red book, many families seek help from agents, which results in high commission fees. “My children were told that they need to have their own red books [to build a house], but they can’t afford them,” Hoa said.
Her family is among the poorest in the neighborhood. They rely on 0.3 hectares (0.8 acres) of farm land and livestock to make ends meet, and Hoa said the family has not had a stable income for more than 12 years.
“Local authorities encourage us to grow rice and not to abandon the land, saying that if the land is not cultivated, we will not be compensated for it,” Hoa said. “In this day and age, old people like us still farm, but the youngsters aren't interested.”
“The land here is not that fertile anyway, so we don’t earn much from growing vegetables,” she added.
Many families in Ward 28 rely on farming to make a living, but the soil is contaminated and water is scarce. The city plans to develop ecotourism in Thanh Da, so some residents want to move into the tourism business. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Nguyen
During the public consultation, many residents complained about the difficulties of making a living from farming in Thanh Da, despite the peninsula being widely regarded as a green zone.
Among the complaints, issues regarding environmental pollution, regular flooding, underdeveloped infrastructure and lack of access were brought up.
Pham Hoang Chau, 72, another resident of Ward 28 who has been living here since the 70s while working as a civil servant, recalled the time when the Saigon River started to look contaminated. “Around 2003, I’m sure,” Chau told Vnepxress International. “I remember my fish died en masse at the time.”
In 2003, about 14,000 gallons of oil was reportedly spilled into the Saigon River. Local farmers reported major losses due to the spill. “I received around $130 in compensation after the incident,” Chau said.
“[The peninsula] looks like a plain of reeds, even though we are in the middle of the city,” Chau laughed. “We have a lotus pond, a morning glory pond, and then the rice fields, but you can’t actually grow anything.”
“You’ll not make a profit because the soil is polluted and the river is polluted,” Chau added. “I understand policy is policy but we need to live as well, no?”
Ngo Thi Mai Xanh (70), speaking at the public consultation of residents afffected by the Thanh Da - Binh Quoi urban planning project.
The environmental impact of construction
A number of landslides have been reported in Thanh Da over the past decade due to the construction of hotels, resorts and other residential structures on the river bank that have weakened the land and sped up the watercourse. Illegal sand mining, waterway traffic and rising tides were also cited as the main causes, according to a topological survey of the river reported by VnExpress in 2003.
But things have started to change in recent years, and local authorities are trying to improve conditions in the area by building an embankment and reinforcing the dyke.
“Since 2011, the situation has largely improved,” Xanh said. “I remember how I used to have to go out in the middle of the night and wake up my neighbors so we could block the floodwater from entering the neighborhood.”
Drone image of Phuc Long Port, Thu Duc District. Heavy traffic on the Saigon river is one of the reasons for soil erosion. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran
The weakened land here means that any further construction, especially high-rise buildings, will have to take into account the environmental impact on both the landscape and the people.
The plan for the ecological urban area, however, is still pending. Vietnam’s current land law stipulates that any project that is unable to acquire the land-use rights or complete the compensation process within three years should be either canceled or modified.
But as residents continue to wait, local authorities were unable to provide any clear details on the progress of the project during the public consultation.
District leaders in Binh Quoi did not respond to Vnexpress International's request for an interview.
Up to now, Xanh, the 70-year-old war veteran, remains a vocal representative of residents in her neighborhood in Ward 28. She has submitted numerous reports and spoke at many public consultations, urging district leaders to do something with the plan.
“When I was the head of the neighborhood, I tried to set an example by abiding by the law and following the paperwork process,” Xanh said.
“But I’m retired, and I’m tired, so we just risked it all to build that,” Xanh added, pointing to a new tin hut which was put up a month ago for the old couple to rest during their time in the garden.
Xanh and her husband, both veterans of the Vietnam War, were awarded their plot of land for their contributions to the revolution. “They granted us this lot,” she said, “but we are unable to do anything with it.”
Xanh and her husband, Le Thanh Tuyen (76), in their 48-square-yard garden. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Nguyen
Xanh and her husband in their home about half a mile from their garden. "In 2003, they threatened to demolish the garden, so I showed them all of our certificates that recognize us as war veterans who contributed to the revolution, so they gave in," she said.
About a mile from Xanh’s garden, a new detached house belonging to a young couple was torn down because they did not have construction permission.
Huynh Cong Ut (62) his wife Quynh Thi Hoa (58) with their youngest daughter and granddaughter in front of the family's makeshift home. The family of nine share one toilet.
“[The peninsula] looks like a plain of reeds, even though we are in the middle of the city,” Pham Hoang Chau laughed.
Neon lights from the high rises in Thu Thiem urban area, one of the richest districts in Saigon. On the other side of the river, Thanh Da residents are used to living in the dark. "The road that was promised from my house to the river bank has not even been built yet, and street lamps are non-existent,” Xanh said.
Story by Bao Yen
Photos by Thanh Nguyen