From sleepy north-of-Saigon backwater to a new city, the expat area of Thao Dien has developed beyond recognition. Words and Photos by Nick Ross
Giang is taking me on a tour of Thao Dien. But we’re not doing a who’s who of the wealthy expat area of Saigon that we know today. This is the Thao Dien of the past, one that has gone from being a small outpost on the other side of the Saigon River to a new hub on the edge of Saigon.
According to paperwork on display in the 80-year-old Thao Dien Temple on Street 41, the hamlet was originally called Ich Phu. Established in 1852, after the arrival of the French it was incorporated into the newly formed province of Bien Hoa. That was in the 1860s. In 1893, boundaries were once again redrawn. This time Ich Phu found itself integrated into the newly formed district of Thu Duc. Accessible only by boat until the 1961 completion of the Saigon Bridge, no-one quite knows when the name Ich Phu was lost — by the time Giang moved there in 1973, it was already a name of the past.
“There was no highway,” he recalls of his early days in the area. “When you came over the bridge you had to turn left. Then the road wound round what is now Duong 38 until it stopped at Thien Nga Swimming Pool. People who came over the bridge only came for the swimming pool.”
Set in what is now the Thien Nga Compound at 78 Xuan Thuy, we go inside and walk round the back. Shaped like a swan — thien nga means swan in Vietnamese — the pool is still there 40 years later, except that now it’s part of the compound. Some of the buildings next to the pool are from the pre-1975 period, but most are newly built. The only age-old remnant is the ancient banyan tree sitting at the entrance to the pool.
“Most of the hawkers who came to this area would walk over the bridge and come to the swimming pool,” he adds. “This was where you could get your street food.”
42 Years and Counting
Like millions of citizens of 20th century Eastern and Central Europe, Giang has seen his fair share of changing boundaries. After the war An Phu Ward was created to cover the area we now know as Thao Dien and An Phu — Thao Dien itself was given the name Thanh Binh. In 1997 the boundaries were changed once again. The ward of Thao Dien was created, Thanh Binh was lost and the district of Thu Duc was divided into District 2, District 9 and Thu Duc.
When Giang first arrived, the peninsula that now forms Thao Dien was divided into settlements. Lang Bao Chi, or the media village, stood on the east side. Next door was Lang Ngan Hang, the banking village, which in the late 1980s was converted into the An Phu Superior Compound (APSC). To the southeast stood Cu Xa Canh Sat, a development inhabited by the city’s police, and right next door on what is now the streets of Nguyen Cu, Do Quang and Nguyen Van Huong was the Cu Xa Bo Ngoai Giao, an area housing people who worked for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
In between the various settlements were fields — “because of all the flooding, it was always difficult to grow crops here,” says Giang — and a network of mangroves and canals known then as Rach Dua. This forms much of today’s area that floods at high tide. Unlike elsewhere on the non-Saigon side of the river, most of the peninsula was deemed safe — the US Army had a huge warehouse just at the bottom of the bridge.
However, it was only in the mid-1990s that foreigners unable to afford the villa rental in APSC, an area originally constructed for employees of BP, were allowed to live in houses outside of the compound. By the late 1990s new houses started being built. Now the desire to build is in overdrive.
In Search of History
After leaving Thien Nga Compound we go in search of old houses.
“Drive slowly,” says Giang, “I’ll spot them immediately. The really old houses are the ones that have sunk into the ground. All the others have been built up much higher.”
The first we come across are in the Nguyen Cu area of Thao Dien. Lying below street level, one house still has its old address signage up from right after the war — 1014A Khu Thanh Binh. With a tiled front and iron window detailing typical of 1960s Saigon, it looks like it’s about to be either repaired or knocked down.
“Most of the houses have already been knocked down, raised or rebuilt,” explains Giang. “The problem with the land here is the flooding. It makes the land unstable, and constantly moving.”
I see the results of this one road down on the narrow section of Nguyen Van Huong. One house has sunken so low into the ground that you can see quite clearly where the water level rises.
“It happens every autumn, right?” I say to one of the residents.
“No,” he says. “It’s happening right now. This is the flooding season.”
Both he and Giang point out a concrete barrier that has been built to fend off water from the street.
“Does it work?” I ask.
Next door in a Quan Com Binh Dan — a cheap rice restaurant — they take me inside and show me cracks in the wall. Because of the flooding and the land, the foundations are unstable.
“We want to repair it,” says one of the inhabitants, “but it’s too expensive. The only way to do it properly is to knock the whole house down and start again.”
It reminds me of a house I used to rent nearby in the former mangrove area of Rach Dua. It had gaping fissures in one of the outside walls, and so unstable were the foundations that the floor in the lounge was sloping inward. When we moved out we cited bad architecture as a reason for finding other accommodation. But the problem is that much of Thao Dien is built on former mangrove. Like Thanh Da Island next door, it’s sinking.
It makes me wonder about all the new developments that are sprouting up in the area. Will they, too, have foundation issues? I do know that the developers in nearby Thu Thiem are raising the land by 3 metres to prevent flooding. But this leaves another problem. When all the natural waterways have been built upon and disrupted, where will the water go? You just need to look at the 2011 floods in Bangkok, a city also constructed on mangrove. A bout of non-stop heavy rain caused the Thai capital to be flooded for weeks.
In the Phu My Hung area of Ho Chi Minh City, another district built on reclaimed swamp, it has meant cracks in the sidewalk and tarmac as land moves around beneath all the concrete and water searches for a place to flow. Mangrove roots help stabilize the land and prevent soil in unsteady areas from breaking down, yet take them away and the land starts to fall apart, no matter how much concrete you put on top. This is why mangroves are now being replanted all around the world to stop coastal erosion.
When the co-founder of The Deck and Mekong Merchant Anna Craven-Smith-Milnes made the transition to Thao Dien in 2000, she moved into a house “at the end of a very muddy road”. Together with her partner, Lawson Johnson, she still lives in the same property.
“Lawson moved to Thao Dien in 1993 to live in the Lang Bao Chi area,” she says. “It took about 40 minutes to get here on a motorbike from District 1, through small villages and streets which are now the highway, across a single lane bridge and then into Thao Dien Road which was a roughly paved road up to the [APSC] compound. Everything off Thao Dien was dirt track.”
Thao Dien at the turn of the century was a very different place to the one we know now, the one that during rush hour comes to a near standstill. According to Anna, the area was quiet and charming with no shops except the An Phu Supermarket. Most of the land on either side of Thao Dien Road was undeveloped and the area after Lang Bao Chi was paddy fields and scrubland, all the way around to the Saigon Bridge. The loop that has become Nguyen Van Huong didn’t exist.
“Lang Bao Chi was full of Vietnamese journalists,” she adds. “It had a very cute and quaint feel to it — a very friendly and quiet neighbourhood.”
Her permanent attachment to Thao Dien started in 2002 with the opening of Mekong Merchant. Starting off as a furniture shop, with three small tables at the back for weekend breakfasts, in 2005 she transformed it into a full-blown café. This was followed by the opening of The Deck in 2007, which was converted from a run-down coffee shop into a restaurant and bar.
“To begin with people thought we were mad,” she says. “But gradually they came… The biggest challenge when we first opened was trying to convince our friends to stay in Thao Dien for dinner. They were not used to this and if they went out, it was always into District 1. Now there are more than 30 restaurants locally and going into District 1 for dinner is a bit of an effort.”
A Brighter Future?
It’s not just standalone restaurants and fast food chains that have entered the area. Shopping malls, supermarkets, a soon-to-be-completed metro line and high-rises are also sprouting up. The latest addition is the new Vincom Mega Mall. Set on the main highway next to the Masteri, a soon-to-be-completed apartment block complex, it represents everything that this area aspires to — modern, trendy, consumerist and new. It comes with a top-floor ice rink, a well-populated food court and its own cinema complex.
Next door in An Phu, newly built areas have sprouted up and as I write, Tran Nao Street is being raised one metre and widened into a highway. Further on is Thu Thiem, where developers are in the early stages of building a new city directly opposite the CBD in downtown Saigon. Like much of Thao Dien and Phu My Hung, the development is being built on mangrove.
With Thu Thiem, An Phu and Thao Dien located so close to the city centre, it makes logical sense to build Ho Chi Minh City out to the north, an area that due to the swamps has for the last 150 years been widely ignored. Yet it’s not something that excites the likes of Giang.
When we start talking about the past his eyes light up, his smile widens and his body becomes more animated. His memories are nostalgic yet tinged with sadness. In a few years’ time this area will never quite be the same.