It’s hard to find a better photo to show the plight of trees in Ho Chi Minh City - bullied and annihilated by concrete, literally.
A tree is squeezed between two houses No. 394 and No.396 on Le Hong Phong St., HCMC. Photo courtesy of Tuan Kiet/VNN
This tree, a dipterocarpus alatus, has cast its shadow on this stretch of Le Hong Phong St., District 10, between houses No. 394 and 396 for more than 50 years. And now the owner of house 396 wants it dead.
Being an honest citizen, Cao Hoang Chi requested the Parks and Trees Company (PTC), a state-owned business that takes care of, as its names implies, all parks and street trees in the city, to fell the tree.
“The tree presses against the wall of my house, chipping a part of it. During heavy rains or strong winds, it shakes my house,” wrote Chi in his request form, as quoted by the Phap Luat TP. Ho Chi Minh newspaper.
“My family, too scared for life, has to rent another house to live because the rainy season is coming, and we’re not sure when the house will collapse.”
Chi’s human-vs-tree case sounded pretty snappy and the tree’s fate looked doomed as does that of all trees in the city, which saw its areas of parks halved to 535 hectares in 2010 from 1,000 hectares in 1998 - out of the 44,030 hectares of urban space.
According to the PTC, the city's green space per capita is about 0.7 square meters. It should be 7-9 sq.m by national standards. The equivalent figure is 105 sq.m. in Hong Kong, 60 sq.m. in Singapore, and 43.9 sq.m. in Kuala Lumpur.
There have been sanctioned massacres of trees in the name of urban development. There have also been assassinations of street trees carried out by those who think they are blocking the entrance to their business.
The PTC has reported cases of street trees being killed by chemicals, by removing their bark, clipping their roots, or simply felling them.
Planting new trees is not easy either.
“We often face protests as soon as we dig a hole,” another Phap Luat report quoted a PTC official as saying.
In this view, apparently some other houses adjacent to house No. 396 also encroach illegally on the sidewalk. Photo courtesy of Tuan Kiet/VNN.
“Sometimes we have to plant and replant a seedling multiple times. And when it finally survives and grows, it is sabotaged.”
Chi’s house encroaches on public land. While he didn’t build the house, it is impossible to believe he did not know this. And while he’s disappointed at the authorities’ reply, he’s not pessimistic.
The tree on Le Hong Phong St., it turns out, never was the aggressor.
“The tree was planted… before the house was built,” Phap Luat quoted a report by the city Department of Transport, which somehow is the boss of PTC, as saying.
Moreover, house 396 illegally eats up 2.5 meters (8.2ft) of sidewalk. “The construction surrounding the tree does not exist in the approved house plan,” the report said. The department proposed that local authorities should force the home owner to “remove the illegal construction that is affecting the tree.”
“I will remove the illegal construction area only if other violators [on the same street] do the same,” Chi told Phap Luat.
The number of houses similarly encroaching on sidewalks along Le Hong Phong Street is huge. It is easy to find a couple more trees sandwiched between houses on this street - as well as elsewhere in the city. And law enforcement is notoriously poor.
Two trees are sandwiched between houses on Le Hong Phong St., District 5, HCMC. Photo courtesy of Tuan Kiet/VNN.
Indeed, the People’s Committee of District 10 admitted that back in 2005 it had ordered the former owner of house 396 to knock off the construction on the public area. Fast forward 10 years, nothing has changed except that the house has been sold to Chi. Therefore the chance that the committee could force almost all houses along Le Hong Phong St. to return the occupied public land is almost nil.
The tree survives for now, but the shrinking tree canopy continues to be affected by rapid urbanisation and land greed while city dwellers keep complaining about the polluted air, heat, and groundwater depletion.
Meanwhile, what else can Chi do? He can wait for a strong wind to knock down the tree; that does happen sometimes here and there in the city. He can hope the city will suddenly want to cut down thousands of trees, including those lining his street, like the authorities in Hanoi almost did early this year.
Or he can just Google “How can I kill a big tree?” in Vietnamese and most likely find plenty of suggestions. He will not be the first to want to kill a tree.
* Editor's note: The view is personal and does not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Thanh Nien News.