Can't stay, can't leave: in HCMC big landowners remain mired in poverty

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Bui Dung Minh, 50, raises a small flock of ducks to earn extra money as his paddy fields are too exhausted to produce good crops

Bui Dung Minh owns 9,000 square meters of land in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam's largest city, but his family of five still lives in poverty.

He and other residents in Binh Quoi, part of a peninsula 10.5 kilometers from downtown, have not been willing to invest in their lands or been able to sell them after the city designated the area for an urban project 20 years ago.

The project has changed hands many times though it remains on paper, leaving people trapped in their own land.

"Many nights I look across the Saigon River and see lights and villas in new urban areas in District 2, and I wish some day it will be the same in my own land," Minh, who makes some money from a flock of ducks, says.

"It is sad to think about it: 20 years ago it was just the same across the river, wild and poor; now it is busy and luxurious over there, but still wild and poor here."

His lands are exhausted after being used for growing rice for a long time, and only yield around 2.7 tons per crop.

"It's hard to make a living with that."

But with the urban project hanging over the land, no one wants to make a long-term investment in their land, he says. "We just try to make enough for the next day as we will have to leave anytime."

Half of the 450-hectare area of Ward 28, Binh Thanh District, is arable land.

The cost of farm labor has increased so much that many families grow rice without bothering to plow or weed their fields.

Sometimes families pick wild vegetables to sell to restaurants for some extra money, but they are not always available.

There are also some ponds for breeding fish, but few invest in them either since the initial amount as well as regular expenses are high.

Most young men have left the area to find other jobs and only old people are staying back with their fields.

The quickest way to earn money selling the land -- is not possible either.

When his wife was once sick he tried to sell part of the land to pay for the hospitalization, but no one was interested since the land was set for acquisition.

Though the government allows people to transfer or gift their land, the paperwork involved is too complicated for anyone to ever successfully do it.

"It is such a big disadvantage."

Minh's neighbor Ha Quoc Tan, a real estate broker, has no work around home.

He hardly feels pride in being a city man since the area does not look urban at all.

In the 20 years since the project was announced, houses and public buildings have been damaged, but no construction work was allowed until recently, and even for that people have to go through a plethora of paperwork.

Many houses suffer constant flooding since their floors cannot be raised.

"No one can believe this area is part of a city. Well, I live in a ward in a district adjacent to the city center, but it looks like I'm in a remote area," Tien Phong newspaper quotes Tan as saying.

Most roads in the area are muddy paths. "A pregnant woman will deliver a baby if she traverses these roads," he jokes.

Thanh Da, the peninsula that the area is situated in, is connected to the city by one single bridge. It was upgraded last year, but is still too narrow and suffers from severe traffic jams every evening.

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