HO CHI MINH CITY — Once an architectural gem emblematic of Vietnam’s era as a French colony, the Tax Trade Center with its iconic Art Deco facade is now mostly rubble.
Despite a petition drive spearheaded by a growing historic preservation movement, the building was demolished in recent months. In its place, developers plan a 43-story complex with a connection to the first subway line in the city.
The Tax Center, built in 1924, is one of many historic buildings in the last 20 years that have been razed or severely altered, according to a joint French-Vietnamese government research center.
Preservationists say developers and government officials are intent on making this city modern and care little for the vestiges of its colonial past. But destroying so many historic buildings, they warn, makes the city less livable and less attractive to tourists — which could undercut economic growth the government hopes to foster.
“The more people get caught up in a consumerist lifestyle, the more difficult it is to address what are considered ‘luxury’ concerns like heritage preservation,” said architect Tran Huu Khoa, 27, a leader of the petition drive that couldn’t save the Tax Trade Center. “But I’m optimistic that a strong civil movement is growing in Vietnam.”
The Heritage Observatory website launched in late January, open to anyone who wants to call attention to any threatened historical building in any Vietnamese city. The information will be relayed to government and civil groups who could intervene.
The government has no such system in place. Researchers, historians and others involved in architectural preservation say a comprehensive inventory is a critical first step in raising awareness about the value of historical architecture.
“We cannot preserve or protect anything if we don’t know where it is,” said Daniel Caune, the French software developer behind the website, who has worked in Vietnam for seven years. The Heritage Observatory already has 130,000 historic photos with captions archived.
Caune is also developing an iPhone app that would prompt users to take photos of heritage sites they visit, simultaneously educating them and using geolocation to place the sites on a map.
Caune is counting on Facebook groups such as “Saïgon Chợ Lớn: Then & Now” which has 5,500 members who post historical and current photos of heritage sites in Ho Chi Minh City. Caune and Tim Doling, a British historian and the creator of the Facebook group, say Vietnamese young people are in the forefront of the preservation movement.
Kevin Doan, an architect in Ho Chi Minh City who is an organizer of Heritage Observatory events, said food shortages and housing were the main concerns after the war ended. “Now that the economy has opened up and people of the older generation have some money, they consider building a new house to be a big improvement.”
“But more and more young people are registering for heritage preservation organizations,” he said.
Young people are getting involved despite the risks associated with openly opposing their government. The arrest of a well-known current-events blogger who went by the moniker “Mother Mushroom,” shows that a crackdown on dissent remains a threat.
Caune hopes Heritage Observatory will serve as a comprehensive catalogue of historic buildings, regardless of whether they’re targeted for destruction.
“This isn’t just a heritage issue, it’s an economic issue,” said Mark Bowyer, who runs the website rustycompass.com, and has written extensively about Vietnam’s tourism sector. “Saigon’s reckless heritage destruction hurts tourism — but even worse, it hurts the city’s livability, its global brand and in turn, its long-term economic interests. Heritage is no longer a niche interest for foreigners in Vietnam.”
An Pham, 18, an engineering student working with Caune to put the first sites on Heritage Observatory, pointed to Hoi An, a town in central Vietnam, as an example of what can happen when historical sites are preserved and promoted for tourism.
The town center, Hoi An Ancient Town, is a UNESCO world heritage site. It is owned by the state, which declared it a national cultural site in 1985. The long-term plan is to link it to nearby Cu Lao Cham Biosphere Reserve and designate the area Vietnam’s first “eco-town.”
Late last year, a $1.5 billion development, New Hoi An City, opened on beachfront property adjacent to the town limits. It includes condos, shopping malls and offices. Developers are promoting it as “The heart of Vietnam tourism.”
Vietnam’s century-old French villas and colonial-era government buildings are a draw for the 8 million tourists who visit the country every year.
“Even in France we don’t have so many examples of the beautiful wrought-iron railings and staircases that you see here,” said French Consul General Emmanuel Ly-Batallan.
Heavy roofs are designed to withstand typhoons and large windows placed strategically to catch the breeze. The consulate, now dwarfed by a skyscraper under construction, is considered one of the best-preserved examples of the architecture of Cochinchina, the French name for southern Vietnam.
A proposal from Ho Chi Minh City’s Council for Planning and Architecture to limit demolition of privately owned villas to those deemed to have little historical and cultural value, is currently awaiting approval from city authorities. The biggest hurdle would be setting aside funds to help owners maintain historic buildings. Many owners demolish villas reluctantly, saying they are dilapidated.
Last summer, for example, a centrally-located villa with rows of carved columns and arches was partially demolished before neighbors pleaded with local officials to intervene. Tuoi Tre newspaper reported the owner spent 10 months seeking permission to tear it down before he started demolition. The villa is still standing, partly destroyed, while the owner awaits a decision from the government.
Owner Pham Cong Luan told Saigon Giai Phong newspaper the demands of modern life and lack of concern by local officials make the villa hard to maintain.
Protests and petitions often have little effect, particularly when the developer is wealthy. The Ba Son Shipyard, built in 1790 for the Vietnamese royal navy, was demolished in 2015, even though it had been designated a national heritage site.
It was sold to private corporations for development. A riverside complex with luxury housing surrounded by a park, a cultural center and a transportation hub is under construction where it used to stand. Multiple 60-story skyscrapers also are planned.
“In the eyes of many people worried about heritage conservation, that [destroying the Ba Son shipyard] situation kind of summarized what was wrong in the city,” said Doling.
A $5 billion bid from the South Korean development company EUNSAN for the shipyard was turned down in favor of a bid from Vinhomes, the largest real estate development company in Vietnam, for an undisclosed amount. Pham Nhat Vuong, the founder of Vingroup, which is the parent company of Vinhomes, became Vietnam’s first billionaire in 2013, according to Forbes.
Historic preservation can be a tough sell in Ho Chi Minh City’s economic climate. One of the city’s oldest churches, Thu Thiem Parish — built in 1875 — also is slated for demolition to make way for a $1.2 billion development.
The petition to save the Tax Trade Center, which garnered 3,500 signatures, gained enough public attention that developers promised to save certain elements of the building and add them to the façade of the new skyscraper.
The Tax Center’s double staircase, resplendent with intricate handmade Moroccan mosaic tiles, was one of the leading examples in the world of the French colonial fascination with the art of North Africa. The owners also agreed to preserve the original mosaics from inside the building, but the staircase was destroyed and the tiles were removed without saying what will be done with them.
As the trove of historical architecture dwindles, the momentum for protecting it is building.
“There’s no reason to destroy it all,” said An Pham, the engineering student. There is plenty of room in the city for both historic buildings and new development, he said. “But people believe they can’t make any money from heritage sites.”
This story was produced in collaboration with Round Earth Media www.RoundEarthMedia.org a non-profit organization supporting young foreign global correspondents.