The die has been cast for the oldest communal gathering space in Thu Thiem. I went to the last party.
|A troupe of actors performs at the"ˆDinh"ˆ(communal prayer center) in An Loi Dong, a hamlet that has been razed to make way for the Thu Thiem New Urban Zone. Every year, the community here has gathered at the building, which most agree is the oldest in the District. The owner says it will be destroyed before the end of the year.
When the shiny new tunnel opened under the Saigon River, last year, I decided to ride out to the southern wilds of Thu Thiem.
Ventilation fans hummed overhead. Motorists proceeded along neat, well-marked lanes at a reasonable pace.
I emerged, on the other side, onto a grand 8-lane highway flanked by billboards covered with computer renderings of condo towers, shopping centers and skyscrapers"”the New Urban Area that the Sasaki Design firm began dreaming up a decade ago.
Beyond these lay a flat expanse of swamp, demolished hamlets and water coconut palms.
Tran Nao offered the only road into the place"”a bone white stretch of asphalt that disappears under a reflective skim of water when the tide comes in.
On that afternoon, a handsome couple took wedding photos behind an old Volkswagon bug loaded up with cans.
As the main highway disappeared behind me, lone fisherman and tile foundations emerged from the bushes.
I followed a lone motorist into what looked like an old barracks, complete with a vehicle port. Mangy dogs ambled through the weather-beaten white buildings, dodging the occasional rock fired from rubber band slingshots by groups of idle kids.
They were, I was told, the last holdouts from the surrounding neighborhoods, people who had sold their land to the state, but hadn't found anywhere to go.
Back on Tran Nao Street, a handful of women sorted trash at an improvised dump. Suddenly, the road ended and huge rusting tankers rose up out of the gray water of the Saigon River. Vendors crouched in the wreckage of old houses and shrubbery, emerging only to sell coffee, cigarettes and bottled drinks to dredgers that pulled ashore on small skiffs and motorboats.
Some seemed to have set up small tents, sheds or old furniture on the flattened homes.
Downtown Ho Chi Minh City came into view as I passed through the lonesome skeleton of An Loi Dong"”a people's committee building, a sterile looking box called "The Temple of the Five Elements" and a padlocked church. A war-era compound seemed to house a functioning seafood processing factory. In the grass beyond, a small wooden sign had been posted in the weeds with the word "danger" misspelled in spray paint.
Beyond it, the road itself seemed to collapse into mud and puddles. When it seemed that there was nothing left to see, a pair of red concrete pillars inlaid with the words "Dinh An Loi Dong" beckoned from the green.
Wet jungle had nearly scabbed-over the pink and turquoise broken down lots that once made up the village.
At the end of the cement road, across a narrow pitched bridge, a large building (dilapidated with age, but tidy from care) appeared behind an iron fence propped up by painted concrete tigers. A banyan tree dominated the broad, peaceful courtyard.
Teo, a man so thin, he seemed to be made of rope stepped out of the shade of a corrugated tin roof and invited me to "cúng" (make an offering) as though my arrival in the desolate place had been expected.
Under the pitched tin roof that housed a concrete stage and a huge collection of bearded icons, Teo counted out nine sticks of incense and lit a red candle for me.
He disappeared into the dizzying array of bearded gods, carved Ibises, dramatic broze spears and twinkling altars.
As I bowed before each altar (five, in all) he hammered a bell, filling the space with a deep, dark sound.
When it was over, Teo invited me to drink tea with his wife, Lan, on the veranda. A pile of freshly dug ginger and lemongrass sat piled on an old metal desk.
Lan seemed the opposite of her husband"”soft and round, with pale white skin and worried eyes. She smiled easily.
Teo said he had worked as a cyclo driver in Pham Ngu Lao for a while. Lan was an orphan.
Their only child died young. Hardship and time had taken most of their teeth and something in their eyes. But they seemed at peace in the swamp.
Four years ago, the couple asked the owner of the Dinh (communal prayer center) if they could become its caretakers.
When they needed anything, they hopped on a single rusty bicycle and pedaled into the An Phu. The rest of their time was spent cleaning the icons and keeping the grounds pretty at the edge of the stream.
Two years later, the neighborhood started getting cleared out to make way for the future.
Hundreds of households had once surrounded the Dinh. Now, it was down to the Dinh and a lonesome matchbox house a few hundred meters down the road.
(I tried to go see them but was kept back by dogs.)
Over the next several months, I continued to visit the couple"”mostly for the peace.
Theo insisted that the Dinh had been given a pass for its holiness.
"It's been here for 200 years," he would say over and over again. The little I could discover about the place suggests it's the oldest structure on the peninsula"”likely built in the early 20th century.
But I somehow accepted that it would remain forever. I even began to picture it surrounded by the computer-rendered mega-city.
"Come on the rằm tháng Giêng (the first new moon of the Lunar Year)," he kept saying.
The few holdouts and squatters I'd seen along the roads had disappeared along with the cigarette stands and scattered furniture.
It felt as though the whole world had forgotten the place, the couple and their icons.
During one visit, after a particularly bad storm, the stream had risen up to knee height leaving a muddy high water mark all around the building.
Despite the isolation, Teo has kept the place tidy and growing. He planted papaya trees at the edge of the property and kept the courtyard swept, always remembering to mention the big party that would take place after the full moon.
I left work early on Monday and drove through muddy water to find the place resurrected. Former villagers who had scattered north into District 2 or across the river into District 7 crowded the grounds eating roasted corn and drinking beer.
An acting troupe appeared at sunset and began donning dusty costumes. At seven they mounted the stage in the building while men in blue silk gowns poured shots of red rice wine and passed them back into the audience.
Scores of children crowded in between the benches transfixed by the beat of a barrel-sized drum and the whine of a snake charmer's flute as the gods of the four directions danced across the stage in glittering costumes and white make-up.
In the back room, adults slipped money into a metal box and went into the darkened back room to prostrate themselves before the icons. Incense filled the space.
No one I spoke to could explain the story behind these figures"”instead, they all said that they had come to this place because it was where they were from.
In the kitchen, 80-year-old Nguyen Thi Lun (aka Mrs. Bay) sat on a stool next to a massive wooden table piled with food. Her late husband's family owned the Dinh for five generations. Three years ago, she handed over care of the place to a whispy man named Tran Van Xay who was beating a drum in the theater"”though Teo and Lan took care of the day to day.
Like every year before it, the revelers would stay up all night singing and dancing. But most believed this would be the last time.
Lun said she was certain the place would be torn down, a fact that Teo continued to deny as he smoked long cigarettes and urged me to stay for the pig slaughter that would take place at midnight.
Then, for the first time since I'd met him, he dropped his optimism.
"Help us," he said placing a hand on my shoulder. "Help the Dinh."
I nodded, smiled and ran out of the house into the carnival chaos outdoors.
Two of Lun's 14 children sat on a stone bench under the banyan tree, surrounded by red-faced drinkers and smirking circles of teenagers.
Binh, a truck driver in Denmark, said his mother had raised him in the house, but he knew the place would be gone soon.
His sister, a nail stylist in Melbourne, agreed.
Why were people here tonight?
"Because it's a full moon," she said.
But why had she come? Why had anyone ever come at all?
"It's fun," she said blithely as she pushed a crisp $100 Australian note into the hand of her friend from Toronto, who pushed a $100 Canadian bill back at her.
The music had reached a feverish pitch and the crowds all warned of bandits on the road. The tunnel would close at nine and I knew, after years in Vietnam, that no one could do anything for this Dinh.
So I left.
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