The development in Saigon is not just eating up green land and turning it into high-rises, it’s also annihilating the city’s history. Words by Matthew Cowan. Photos by Bao Zoan
If you look to the right as you cross Phu My Bridge from District 7, you’ll see a triangle of land jutting out into the Saigon River. It’s just about the only large parcel of land surviving that hasn’t fully met the wrath of the bulldozer. Given the more scenic vista of the Saigon skyline on the opposite side of the bridge, this landmark tends to go unnoticed.
But if you do look, you’ll see verdant swatches of mangroves, swamps and coconut palms clinging to life amid the growing squeeze of development and heavy industry. If high-rise apartments are the bullies, then nature is surely the bullied as development’s march to the river is approaching its final phase.
Now, the Van Thinh Phat Investment Company (VTP) plans a US$6 billion modern urban development over 118 hectares called Saigon Peninsula, which will include a theme park, luxury riverfront villas, premium apartment complexes, office buildings, a deluxe hotel, shopping centres and an international cruise terminal. VTP has partnered up with Malaysian developers Pavilion Group and Genting Group to bring the plan to fruition.
“The site has a quite high ecological value,” says Dang Thanh Long, executive director of Vietnam Green Building Council, referring to the mangroves lining the riverbanks. “So it will be a big loss to the environment.”
Racing the Dozer
I decided to get a closer look before the bulldozer beat me to it, after a tip-off from a friend who told me the site had once been a US naval base. From a distance, there’s nothing obvious to suggest there was ever a base here, although from the bridge, a small outpost at the river mouth, visible to the naked eye, hints at otherwise. Hoping there might be evidence of the war at ground level that can’t be seen from a height, I set out on a mission.
My mission would eventually take me three attempts. The first one was viewing it from Phu My Bridge. The second was across land by motorbike, which turned out a fruitless pursuit as the few remaining tracks eventually led to very swampy dead ends. And the third by boat, thanks to the kindness of some local fishermen curious as to why a foreigner would be so eager to ride a boat past shipyards, piledrivers and dredgers.
On the Other Side
At the very tip of this triangular-shaped headland there’s a small navigational tower — number 62 to be precise — painted in familiar red and white stripes with a red beacon on top that signals to vessels in the night they’re entering or leaving the Saigon River.
The tower stands in the garden of a small dwelling. The dwelling could be the home of a live-in caretaker, but most likely it’s an office of some kind. Detached from the dwelling stands a small enclosed tower, maybe a crow’s nest, or a place where a government official might take up position during a storm to keep watch for emergencies among the boats plying the river. On this day, the regularly scheduled afternoon storm clouds that roll in across the city this time of year were still far away, offering one possible explanation as to why there wasn’t anyone there.
The garden is well-kept and from the outside, the buildings seem well-maintained. Someone obviously cares for the place. From memory there were flowers in bloom and the usual assortment of tropical plants, bananas and coconuts, with their fronds flapping in the gentle morning breeze. Among them I recognised some flame trees, but I could be wrong as they were without their distinct fire-coloured flowers that give them their name.
Still, this little point at the confluence of the Saigon and Lon Tau Rivers, idyllic as it sounds, won’t be making the top 10 list of travel websites any time soon.
Mui Den Do
This place, known as Mui Den Do, is the perfect vantage point for surveying the river traffic from the East Sea or from any of the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of waterways that make up the pastiche of the Mekong Delta.
During the war, the Americans recognised Mui Den Do’s strategic position and commandeered it. In fact, half a century ago this year, the site became a US naval base and was known as Nha Be US Naval Support Activity Base.
At that time, Mui Den Do was at the northern-most point of what was known as the Rung Sac Special Zone. It stretched down to Can Gio and included what is now known as the Can Gio Mangrove Forest. In total, it covered 1,256 square kilometres of tidal mangrove swamp and close to 5,000 kilometres of connected waterways. The road down to Can Gio is still called Rung Sac to this day.
The zone was a heavily contested swathe of territory because of its strategic location. The waters of its rivers and estuaries, flowed out past Vung Tau, as they still do, before emptying into the East Sea only to return on the changing tide. Anyone controlling the zone, especially the Lon Tau River, controlled the flow of supplies coming in and out of the Port of Saigon.
Go O Moi
Just as I’d almost given up hope of finding war-related remnants at Mui Den Do, I happened upon a historic site not 200 metres from the Saigon Peninsula development security gate on a road called Depot Dao Tri. Its name is Go O Moi, or in English Go O Mound.
On the morning of Nov. 23, 1966, it was the site of a battle between US-backed forces and heavily outnumbered resistance fighters — one side 400 strong, with helicopter support; the other a minor detachment of men with small arms.
At the site, where apparently a network of underground tunnels once existed, three young guerrillas — Nguyen Van Ba, Le Van San and Ho Van Nhai — are immortalised as martyrs who fought back and killed six of the attacking force, but were eventually outnumbered and overcome.
A moving tribute inscribed on the monument reads:
The heroes fall, the spirit will shine, the battle of O Moi mound showed the bravery of Nha Be’s soldiers and people who never backed down to fight for our country’s liberation.
Finding What Matters
Although I wouldn’t realise it until later, at Go O Moi I had found what I was looking for. It wasn’t the remains of an old military sign or building left over from the war. It was something more profound hidden behind a clutch of nipa palms where the din of development is muffled by thick vegetation and given over to the sounds of a few remaining bird species and critters that inhabit the place.
It occurred to me that here still remains a place of battle after all these years. Fifty years ago the three local Nha Be soldiers made the ultimate sacrifice fighting in a battle for what they believed in. Today, it appears battles are still being waged. Not of life and death such as those that confronted the martyrs on that fateful day in 1966 — nor should they be compared as such — but battles shaping livelihoods, the environment and Vietnam’s development.
Families living and working here do so amid a different kind of enemy. Container trucks and cement mixers rumble past around the clock spewing carbon monoxide and dust particles into the air and into lungs. Unsealed roads have become quagmires from monsoonal rains. Some sections look as though small artillery shells have detonated, such is the width and depth of crater-sized potholes.
To make matters worse, with every passing vehicle, a grey slurry of cement, oil and dirt threatens to cover anything or anyone within range. When I stopped for a drink, one trader selling meat lain out on a trestle just a metre or so from a passing cement mixer, shook her head and pointed to the road in front of her shop and told me it was ugly and dirty.
Yet, Nhan Nguyen, founder of local non-profit organisation Green and Clean, offered an alternative perspective when asked what the general feeling might be among the Vietnamese people towards projects like Saigon Peninsula.
“It’s about the local population and what they want,” he said. “I think that any developing country — the government and population — want to see that their country is advancing, developing and getting closer to the developed nations. I think the Vietnamese really like this type of project because it’s a symbol that their country is getting better.”
That evening at home, I found myself pondering over my experience and arrived at the symbolism of the three martyrs lying in the Go O Moi memorial. Half a century on, they’re still playing a role. To me, they symbolise the past, present and future of Vietnam. Of the battles against the odds, the battles for a decent livelihood, and the battles going on over the environment and development.
On a banner that hangs at the Go O Moi monument it says:
Always remember those heroes, invalids and martyrs who sacrificed their lives for the liberation, protection and building of our country.
As the new Vietnam relentlessly builds on its past, literally and figuratively, it’s worth taking the time to consider the words on the banner and hope that the developers of Mui Den Do, 50 years after the battle at Go O Moi, remember them too.