Where have Saigon's green spaces gone?

From above, it becomes immediately visible that the lush parks and gardens are now isolated in the sprawling and dense cityscape.

For a city with a tropical climate, Saigon could have a much different look. It used to in the past.

Over the last decades, the thick, dark green foliage has given way for buildings and roads. Its skyline is now defined more by monolithic towers than by trees.

The most drastic phase of change could be from 1998 to 2008. In a news story published in 2009, urban planners conceded that half of the city’s green spaces had been sacrificed for residential, commercial and public projects.

A Google timelapse video confirms how fast such spaces have been swallowed by roads and buildings.

Today, this is a city of 12 million people, including migrants, and 130,000 trees, all gasping for fresh air.

In March, the Administration of Technical Infrastructure under the Ministry of Construction warned that Vietnam’s biggest cities have only two to three square meters of green area per person.

That is a third or less than what the World Health Organization has recommended for a healthy urban life.

Many modern cities around the world try to ensure at least a per capita green space of 20 square meters. Vienna reportedly has an impressive ratio of 120 square meters.

The Vietnamese first learned about the notion and necessity of parks and green spaces for cities from the French during the colonial era.

“The definition of ‘parks’ was not included in Saigon’s old vocabulary.” Nguyen Thi Hanh, a Vietnamese researcher from University of Orléans, France, wrote in an article published two years ago. “They used the word ‘vuon’ (garden) to describe the tree-covered areas, such as Vuon Ong Thuong (now Tao Dan Park), and Vuon Lai (now the crossroad of Ngo Gia Tu and Su Van Hanh). Then the French came and brought with them a new perspective on the urban green space.”

The Saigon Zoo and Botanical Gardens and the European Cemetery (now Le Van Tam Park) were then built by the colonial government to protect the city’s ecology and to serve the people’s recreation needs.

As the city evolved, more public green spaces appeared in different parts of Saigon.

But then many of them disappeared.

But then many green spaces disappeared.

“After 1975, the green area in Ho Chi Minh City tended to scale down as a result of the wars and the prioritized economic development,” Hanh observed.

As more trees continue to be felled for urban projects, it remains to be seen how small the green area will eventually shrink to.

But for now, these exclusive aerial shots could be enough for a general picture. They show the city’s parks and garden as small pieces in the dense urban puzzle – besieged and vulnerable, but at the same time luxuriant and resilient. 

According to the World Health Organization, green spaces such as parks, sports fields and wetlands or other ecosystems, represent “a fundamental component of any urban ecosystem.”

“Green urban areas facilitate physical activity and relaxation, and form a refuge from noise. Trees produce oxygen, and help filter out harmful air pollution, including airborne particulate matter,” it said in a post on its official website.

It warned that recent estimates show that physical inactivity, linked to poor walkability and lack of access to recreational areas, accounts for 3.3 percent of global deaths.

Green spaces are important to mental health and access to green spaces can reduce health inequalities, improve well-being, and aid in treatment of mental illness, the organization said.

In Ho Chi Minh City, droves of health-conscious people flocking to innercity parks before and after work have been common scenes.

The city now has 22 parks scattered across its core districts, some more famous and better maintained than others.

There have been mixed messages. Local authorities have promised that, within this decade, they would double the total area of all parks and plant 7,000 additional trees every year.

But at the same time, some of the existing parks continue to be threatened every time the city needs some extra space for new parking lots or transport projects.

In the meantime, find below a closer look at eight of the most treasured green spaces of Saigon.

Gia Dinh Park

Intersection of Go Vap, Tan Binh and Phu Nhuan Districts

Transformed from a golf course in 1978 to one of the biggest green spaces in Saigon, this "urban green lung" has been scaled down several times in the past decades.

Nguyen Thi Hanh, the researcher, referred to it as the most apparent victim of urban development and overpopulation in her article.

Near Tan Son Nhat airport, the park has shrunk to 32 hectares for the expansion of surrounding streets.

Hoang Van Thu Park

Tan Binh District

An oasis of calm also near the airport, Hoang Van Thu Park is a triangle of 10 hectares surrounded by three major roads that are often congested. Not to mention another street that runs right through it.

As traffic jams keep worsening in the neighborhood, the park has been mentioned again and again in proposals for street expansion.

Saigon Zoo and Botanical Gardens

District 1

Opened in 1865, Saigon Zoo and Botanical Gardens is one of the original green spaces that stand the test of time.

Now the eighth oldest zoo in the world, the zoo by the Nhieu Loc-Thi Nghe Canal is the home of both local and important animals, as well as many plants and trees.

Even those who are against the idea of animals as spectacle admit that the botanical parts of the place are cool, literally.

Retirees and office workers take over the zoo before 7 a.m. for a run or tai-chi, when it's free for all.

Leafy April 30th Park viewed from behind

April 30th Park

District 1

The leafy April 30th Park has long offered green shades for pleasant walks in downtown Saigon.

The 3.5 hectare open space is surrounded by the city’s most popular attractions, including the Independence Palace, the Notre Dame Cathedral and the Central Post Office.

Dubbed the largest open-air café in town, this is where young people come for guitar strumming, tea sipping and chitchatting.

The trees and lawns inside the Independence Palace also blend well into the park, forming a much-needed patch of greenery not far from the downtown high-rise buildings.

Tao Dan Park

District 1

Right behind the Independence Palace, this two-century-old park is the favorite outdoor gym of many Saigon generations.

It is also the favorite hangout for songbird enthusiasts.

The iconic Ben Thanh Market is a short walk away. On the other side is the War Remnants Museum, another popular tourist attraction.

September 23rd Park

District 1

Almost all tourists know about it.

The park stands between the backpacker precinct and Ben Thanh Market. It now houses Saigon's first underground market catering to tourists. 

From above the myriad buildings appear to be attacking the park from every direction. 

The city's first metro line will also start here. That would be history repeating itself considering the park used to be part of the original Railway Station in the 19th century.

Le Van Tam Park

District 1

Pictures like this justify the nickname Saigon's Central Park.

Even though it's much smaller than the world-famous New York icon, this symmetrical six-hectare park is also boxed in by four major roads. There's no lake, but there's a fountain if you're keeping score.

It was transformed in 1983 from the European Cemetery built by the French.

That year those with family members buried in these cemeteries were instructed to make arrangements for their reburial within two months, according to Tim Doling, the author of the walking tours guidebook "Exploring Ho Chi Minh City." Unclaimed remains were cremated and relocated.

The park now is famous for hosting book festivals and spring flower markets.

And of course for being the city's factory of ghost stories.

Le Thi Rieng Park

District 10

Before 1983, Le Thi Rieng Park used to be one of Saigon’s biggest cemeteries. Now it's a rare green space in the densely populated District 10.

A metro line will run through the park.

Photos by Quynh Tran

Story by Nhung Nguyen