Ferry set to cross over

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But city folk call for it to be maintained as tourist attraction

Passengers on a Thu Thiem Ferry that connects Ho Chi Minh City's District 1 and District 2. Municipal authorities will close the ferry later this year after an under-river tunnel opens to traffic in November.

Whenever Dang Dinh Dat remembers his grandfather, he remembers taking the Thu Thiem Ferry to go across the Saigon River just for fun.

It was the grandfather's way of entertaining his little grandson.

The 25-year-old employee of a British company in Ho Chi Minh City has rarely taken the ferry since his grandfather died in 1995.

Like Dat, thousands if not millions of people in the city and surrounding  areas have fond memories of the Thu Thiem Ferry that has been a part of their lives for a long time.

It has also been a landmark and an icon of the city for a long time. Not for much longer, though.

Authorities in the rapid-growing HCMC have decided to close Thu Thiem Ferry by the end of this year.

A new bridge has opened to traffic nearby since 2008 and an underground tunnel is set to open in November, offering alternative connections between District 1 and 2.

While there are many people who have considered the closure of the ferry a certainty, and even a little late in coming, there are many more who are sad about the development because the ferry holds a special place in their hearts.

Before the Thu Thiem Bridge opened for traffic in 2008, many people had to use the ferry as a fast connection between the city's downtown area (District 1) and District 2's Thu Thiem Area. Otherwise, they would have to take a detour, via the Saigon Bridge, of some 8 kilometers.

Golden age

Hai, an 81-year-old resident who has been living in Thu Thiem since he was born, still remembers the steam-engine ferries operating at the place in the 1940s.

"But not many people used it. They just went by boat which was cheaper," he said.

After the Vietnam War ended in 1975, there were four ferries operating at the place alongside private boats.

Captain Nguyen Thanh Hung, 53, has been working at the ferry station since 1975. He said there used to be much fewer passengers after the war when the Thu Thiem area, then part of Thu Duc District, had only three small hamlets of farmers.

"The farmers took the ferries and boats to the city center to sell their produce and buy necessities," he said.

Since 1985, many smugglers chose the ferry as a safer entryway into the city than roads where there were more regular police patrols. The development or roads and other aspects of rapid urbanization saw a mushrooming of riparian communities and more passengers begin using the ferries, he said.

Tran Quang Dang, 55, who has been an engineer at the ferry for 36 years, said since traffic increased on the Saigon River waterway accidents went up as well, and municipal authorities banned private boats in 1990.

"The ferry has four new ferries and we have seen a continuous increase in the number of passengers since then," he said.

Old ferryboats

According to the HCMC Bridge and Ferry Company (HBFC), there used to be 238 ferries at one time carrying more than 40,000 people a day.

However, the number of passengers has reduced drastically over the past three years after the Thu Thiem Bridge opened some two kilometers away.

"The company has operated at a loss since there are just 4,000 passengers a day," said Nguyen Cong Dan of HBFC, adding that they have suffered losses of more than VND200 million (US$9,600) per month since late 2009.

"The Thu Thiem Underground Tunnel will open soon and the closure of the ferry would help us avoid such losses," he said.

The Thu Thiem Tunnel is expected to open to traffic on November 20. The six-lane tunnel is almost 1.5 kilometer-long will run 24 meters under the water surface and will be South East Asia's longest tunnel under a river.

Nguyen Duc Chinh, director of HBFC, said he would support the idea to maintain the ferry for tourists.

"It would be really sad to close the ferry because it has been a part of the city's daily rhythm and a cultural feature," he said, adding that the company had proposed the idea to the municipal authorities.

The HCMC People's Committee has requested the Transport Department to consider transforming it to a tourism ferry, he added.

After more than 30 years of working at the ferry, Captain Hung said it would not easy for him to quit the job.

"I have been attached to it since I was young. Anyway, it's life. The ferry's closure means the bridge and underground tunnel offers better transportation," he said.

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