A long overdue development project has left residents in one of the city’s biggest slums in limbo for the past 17 years.

Ma Lang, District 1, Saigon. Photo by Thanh Nguyen/VnExpress

It's a sunny Thursday afternoon and a police van is patrolling an alley at the corner of Nguyen Trai Street in Saigon. 

Along the small alleyway, the brightly colored houses are wide open, as 90s Vietnamese pop songs are pulsing out of family-run cafes. On the surface, Alley 245 Nguyen Trai looks like any other Saigon backstreet.

Yet it has the reputation of being one of the most shady areas in this metropolis of over 12 million people, and used to be home to the city's biggest drug lords.

Situated in the middle of Saigon’s District 1, Ma Lang is a 6.8-hectare (16.8-acre) quadrangle bounded by Nguyen Trai, Cong Quynh, Nguyen Cu Trinh and Tran Dinh Xu streets.

Property developers often refer to it as a “golden" area due to its prime location, which is just a few steps away from the crowded tourist district.

In this tiny but densely populated neighborhood live some of the city’s poorest  families — 1,424 of them in total, according to official statistics, whose fates are intertwined as they await a future soon to be decided by the city’s authorities.

The blueprint for Nguyen Cu Trinh Center. © Bitexco group.

The city started planning the development of Ma Lang way back in 2000, but it was not until 2006 that Bitexco Group, a multi-industry corporation known for its real estate development and construction of Saigon’s tallest skyscraper — the Bitexco Financial Tower, officially took over the project.

On their website, the group describes the project as a “mix-used development”, meaning that once completed, the slum neighborhood will be turned into a high-end complex with residential, retail and office spaces, as well as a hotel and a hospital.

The concept is simply beyond the imagination of Ma Lang's residents, many of whom live under the poverty line in houses as small as 5 square meters (54 square feet). The local district estimates there are at least 530 houses in Ma Lang under 20 meter squares.

“The living conditions are dire, but there’s nothing we can do,” said Quy, a resident. “It’s been like this for the past decade.”

Families who need to renovate their houses do so reluctantly, as relocation notices could arrive in a matter of months, but in all probability, years.

The city’s plan to spruce up Ma Lang is long overdue. Despite the handover to private contractors, the construction work, scheduled to start in 2012, remains on hold.

Compensation payments have been the main source of dispute, as with thousands of other urban planning projects in both Saigon and Hanoi, but what frustrates many families here is the uncertainty of the project.

Just last month, a meeting between officials in District 1 and Ma Lang residents resulted in a heated debate concerning the progress of the project.

Like many of his neighbors, Quy said he has no idea where his family would move to as it all depends on how much money they receive in compensation.

Three options have been laid out for the residents: on-site resettlement, relocation to a new site or financial compensation.

The first option, though ideal, will not be applicable for many. Hong, a resident of Alley 168 Nguyen Cu Trinh, said while residents in her alley are mostly leaseholders with a Red Book that gives them the right to use the land, people on the other side of the neighborhood in Alley 245 Nguyen Trai are mostly migrants from other provinces.

As a result, most have been living under temporary housing contracts for decades, which automatically disqualifies them from the on-site resettlement plan.

Ma Lang is known for its cramped, bleak alleyways. Alley 245 Nguyen Trai was once notorious for drug dealing, but local authorities have clamped down on it over the past few years.

Before 1975, Ma Lang was a cemetery filled with unkempt graves. That changed from 1980 to 1982 when southerners who had left for New Economic Zones in rural or mountainous areas returned to the city due to extreme poverty. Many of them settled in Ma Lang, living in makeshift tents and houses.

During the late 90s and early 2000s, the neighborhood became notorious for its drug trade, and the name Ma Lang became synonymous with some of the most feared mobsters in Saigon. “There are so many small alleys that are interconnected here, so if there was a robbery the police were never able to catch the thieves,” said Hong. 

This is partly the reason why local authorities decided to shut the main entrance from Alley 245 to Cong Quynh Street in 2001, cutting it off from the tourist area in Bui Vien District while inadvertently, perhaps, sealing off the neighborhood.

“It has made our lives miserable,” said Quy, pointing in the direction of the old Cong Quynh entrance. 

“The kids have to walk the long way round to get to school, and if a fire breaks out there's only a narrow alley for all of us to get out of here,” added Quy, referring to a huge fire that burned down three houses a few blocks from his home in May.

Despite the notoriety that never seems to die down, Ma Lang has slowly transformed into a much calmer neighborhood, as the drug lords, to quote Quy, “have all been washed away”.

It might also have something to do with strict surveillance, with police posts scattered roughly every 100 meters along the narrow alleyway. 

Despite all this, Ma Lang remains a poor neighborhood, and the city’s plan may offer a way out of poverty for many of its inhabitants. “I’m dreaming of a better place than this [10m2] house,” said an old teacher on Alley 245 Nguyen Trai, who wished to remain anonymous.

The 62-year-old from Ben Tre Province has been teaching neighborhood kids since 1988, when she decided to move to Saigon after her mother died. “The families around here are poor and don’t have enough money to send the kids to pre-school, so I’m teaching 6 and 7-year-old children first-grade Vietnamese to prepare them for primary school.”

The teacher has a temporary 30-year contract on her house, but not the permanent Red Book. Like many residents in Alley 245, she hopes the compensation will be enough for her to be able to afford a house in District 7, where her daughter lives. “I really hope I will be able to continue teaching the kids,” she said.

This special class, run by a retired 62-year-old teacher, is for children from neighborhoods in and around Ma Lang whose parents cannot afford to send them to preschool, despite living in the city center.

Outside in the cramped alleyway, a group of people are in the middle of an argument. “An inch of land is worth an ounce of gold,” Quy says, looking at the group and shaking his head.

The four young men, looking out of place in their smart office attire, stand awkwardly in the murky alleyway while curious passers-by stop to listen in on the argument. The men are surveyors sent by the project contractor, who, according to local residents, has been taking measurements over the past few days in order to calculate possible compensation payments for the to-be-evicted families.

In fact, the houses were surveyed a month ago, but residents have disputed the findings, leading local authorities to send a new team of surveyors to work directly with the people.

A relocation plan for Ma Lang was recently set for September 2018, but this is not the first time a moving date has been mapped out. “I have a feeling that this time it's for real,” said Tam, a resident of Alley 245 Nguyen Trai.

Regardless of its problems, Ma Lang is still home to thousands of people, many of whom were born and have lived here all their lives. “I think I would really miss the neighborhood if I had to move out. I just can’t imagine moving out of District 1. I've lived here for more than three decades,” Tam added.

A house under renovation in Alley 245 Nguyen Trai. "Over the past decade, we have been looking forward to the development project, but we have no idea when it will start," said Tuan Anh, a resident of Alley 245. "We don't dare to spend money renovating the house, even though its in an abysmal state, because we might be forced to move out at any time."

Despite being dubbed a "golden" area, many houses in Ma Lang are only around 4 or 5 square meters in size. Residents have to make use of all available space. This house, for instance, is home to more than two families, and is divided by this tiny staircase.

Despite the notoriety, Ma Lang is a densely populated area. Many families here cannot afford to send their children to kindergarten or preschool, so they stay at home instead.

Hong, from Binh Dinh, has been renting a place in Ma Lang for more than 10 years. She works as a scrap dealer. "The rent is really high here, about VND2.5 million ($110) per month, but I understand because it is in the city center. If they relocate the neighborhood, I will move somewhere else," she said.

Remnants of a funeral chapel in Alley 168 Nguyen Cu Trinh. Ma Lang used to be a cemetery filled with unkempt graves and makeshift tents.

Because of their tiny houses, Ma Lang residents have to make use of all available space, so they leave their bikes and other belongings outside.

The houses in Alley 168 Nguyen Cu Trinh are double the size of the houses on the other side of Ma Lang in Alley 245 Nguyen Trai.

Three sisters and their families share this 20-square-meter (215-square-foot) house. The sisters have been living in Ma Lang since they were children. "We are afraid that the compensation payment will not be enough for us to get a new place," said Thu, the elder sister. "We will miss this place if we have to move. Anyone who's lived in Ma Lang will try to return, no matter what."

Story by Bao Yen. Photos by Thanh Nguyen. Video by Nhung Nguyen, Duc Huy