In Saigon, rural life clings to Southeast Asia's future financial hub

Thu Thiem's urban transition portrays the stark contrast between what the city used to be and what it wants to become.

Just across the river from Saigon’s central business district lies Thu Thiem Peninsula.

The 657-hectare (1,623-acre) area in District 2 is set to become one of the biggest international financial and commercial centers in Southeast Asia

After two decades of redevelopment, the once flood-prone swampland has been vastly transformed into the "Thu Thiem new urban area", with apartment buildings going up and roads being laid. New bridges and a river tunnel have also been built to connect the new hub with other districts.

A Google Earth video of Thu Thiem peninsula.


However, in scattered parts of the peninsula where land has been cleared but construction has yet to start, life is thriving. Slums have emerged next to the new high rise buildings and buffalo graze the vast grassland in Thu Thiem Park. Incomplete, flooded roads have become either playgrounds or open-air swimming pools for kids from the poor neighborhood. At sunrise and sunset, people pour in from the other side of the Saigon River to enjoy the fresh air and quiet atmosphere against the backdrop of the southern metropolis.

Thu Thiem in the middle of its rural-urban transition portrays the stark contrast between what Saigon used to be and what it wants to become.

Before urbanization takes over, photographers Cuong Tran and Thanh Nguyen have set out to capture the remaining pieces of Thu Thiem’s daily life in an attempt to preserve what will soon be fragmented memories of the land.

A rooster crows at a campsite where construction workers live. It was brought in by migrant workers from the Mekong Delta, where the animals are used as nature's alarm clocks. Photo by Cuong Tran.

A boy takes a nap while waiting for his parents to finish up for the day. They have traveled all the way from the Mekong Delta to the city to sell flowers, fruit, vegetables and other goods. Photo by Cuong Tran.

A man and his daughter take a rest under Thu Thiem Bridge. This is an open air café where hammocks are hung out as seats instead of plastic stools. Photo by Cuong Tran.

A man looks for steel leftover from demolished houses. It took the city 10 years to move out 15,000 households to make room for the new urban project. They were reportedly paid VND30 trillion ($1.32 billion) in compensation. Photo by Cuong Tran.

Drinks stalls are set up around Thu Thiem Park for people to enjoy the relaxing atmosphere in the afternoon. Photo by Thanh Nguyen.

Construction of new roads is underway. The new urban area promises to become “a new sustainable city in harmony with the natural landscapes of Thu Thiem, providing open space, utilities and public works for its residents," according to authorities. Photo by Thanh Nguyen.

Luong Dinh Cua Street in Thu Thiem after the rain. Photo by Thanh Nguyen.

A tourist takes photos on the river bank where locals are busy fishing. “I have been to Saigon several times, but I never knew there was this tranquil space right in the middle of the city," said Huong Thuy, a visitor from Hanoi. Photo by Thanh Nguyen.

It is also a popular romantic hang-out for many couples in town. Photo by Cuong Tran.

Workers from the construction sites play volleyball at sunset in Thu Thiem. Photo by Cuong Tran.

Kids practice their penalties after the rain. Photo by Cuong Tran.

A family chatting in a campsite after a long day. Photo by Cuong Tran.

Duc Toi, a 52-year-old man who has been herding buffalo on Thu Thiem for the past five years, lights a bonfire to keep him and his cattle warm. Even though he leaves them to sleep outdoors, none of the animals have ever been stolen. Photo by Cuong Tran.

People take a break from their morning exercise to enjoy the view of the city from Thu Thiem Bridge. Photo by Thanh Nguyen.

Photos by Cuong Tran, Thanh Nguyen

Story by Nhung Nguyen