An impoverished graveyard community clings to its meager livelihood as city authorities plan redevelopment
Huynh Van Hai, 67, at his house adjoining a cemetery in Ho Chi Minh City's Binh Hung Hoa A Ward. His wife (L) washes and dries scavenged plastic bags on the graves that come up into their backyard. More than 300,000 residents are living in the neighborhood, surrounded by graves while a plan to gentrify the neighborhood hangs in the balance.
Sixteen years ago, Huynh Van Hai sold his house in bustling Tan Binh District and migrated to the sprawling, graveyard slums of Binh Hung Hoa.
"No one wanted to reside here among the graves," said the 67- year-old carpenter who retired last year due to a respiratory disease. "But I could afford to buy a house here with little money."
Hai lives with his wife and his 47-year-old son in a house no larger than ten square meters, in a small alley off the Kenh Nuoc Den Street.
A cemetery packed with more than 100 graves (small, for Binh Hung Hoa) sits just beyond his back door.
Behind their home, Hai's wife hangs recycled plastic bags on the graves to dry.
"She earns a little more than VND10,000 (US$0.5) a day [selling the bags]," he said. "I have to rely on her."
She draws water through a narrow pipe, jammed 20 meters or so into the ground, to wash the dirty bags she's collected in the streets. They use this water to wash, cook and drink [after boiling].
"We have got used to drinking this water," Hai said. "What else can we do?"
A town of last resort
At one time, Bing Hung Hoa was nothing more than a tranquil stretch of lotus ponds and farms.
Few people lived here. After the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, poor city residents, like Hai and his wife, began migrating into the area, digging tubewells for lack of central plumbing. Around the same time, private families, pagodas and churches began buying up property and burying their dead.
The fragmented collection of burial grounds spans three wards of Binh Tan District: Binh Hung Hoa, Binh Hung Hoa A and Binh Hung Hoa B.
In recent years, local newspapers have parroted government officials in saying that groundwater pollution in Binh Hung Hoa is the most serious in the city. No one is sure whether the pollution should be attributed to a long history of scrap metal smelting or the decomposition of thousands of bodies.
But, bodies and migrants continue to inhabit the area. For many here, the graveyard provides their only livelihood.
Today, as many as 300,000 residents live above roughly 70,000 dead.
The living conditions in Binh Hung Hoa have concerned city authorities for years.
Since 2006, the municipal administration has instructed concerned agencies to relocate the bodies buried in Binh Hung Hoa Cemetery to Binh Chanh District's Da Phuoc Cemetery and several other zoned cemeteries in the city.
They planned to develop a new residential zone, featuring shopping malls, hi-end housing and public parks.
The city gave district-level authorities until September 2008 to clear the site.
After they failed to do so, the city issued another decree, calling for the dead to be relocated.
Most recently, the HCMC Department of Natural Resources and Environment and Binh Tan District People's Committee, the district government, have proposed a detailed plan to prevent further burials by this month's end. The cemeteries are expected to be cleared to make way for shopping malls and parks by 2015, according to the plan.
The plan will cost around VND1.44 trillion ($73.8 million). That sum includes money meant for displaced residents - both living and dead - and mitigating environmental contamination.
It is unclear where the dead will go.
Some may be reburied elsewhere, others may be incinerated and have their ashes stored in a large house to be erected on the site of the former cemetery.
Nguyen Trong Nghia, deputy chairman of Binh Hung Hoa A People's Committee, said they have met with locals and the relatives of the buried to discuss plans to upgrade the neighborhood.
"We are still in the discussion stage," he told Thanh Nien Weekly. "Most people prefer a plan to remove the graves and keep the houses."
The way it is
The Binh Hung Hoa A Ward No. 5 office is appropriately situated between a house and a cemetery.
A statue of the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy looms over the nearby crossroads where locals pray for salvation for the dead. The neighborhood happens to be one of the most densely populated, by the dead.
"Graves here outnumber houses, five to one," said Nguyen Huy Hong, head of Unit 69 of Binh Hung Hoa A's neighborhood No. 5.
Nguyen Dong Danh, another local official, recalled a time when the neighborhood was plagued by robbery and drug smuggling.
"It's hard to imagine, but there are some areas buried under a thick carpet of syringes [discarded by drug users]," Danh said, adding that a police crackdown beginning early last year has helped alleviate these problems.
Now, he says, the major concern is groundwater pollution caused by a possible contamination from decomposing bodies.
"Some bring in water from surrounding areas to boil and drink," Danh said. "Most use tubewell water. It's scary but everyone seems to have gotten used to it. Anyway, they have no other choice."
Boiling off the dead
A dirt road snakes through a river of gravestones. Some are old and others are new. Some bear crosses while others are surrounded by some small Bhuddist figurines of the Goddess of Mercy. In the midst of it all, Huynh Van Hien, 82, sells incense at a makeshift stall.
His wife, Dang Thi Tam, 80, used to help him, before she suffered a broken pelvis in a traffic accident, some eight months ago.
Before that, the couple sold vegetables at the Tan Binh District's Ong Ta [now Pham Van Hai] Market before resettling at the site 13 years ago.
It was the only place in the city the couple could afford to buy a house.
Despite their home's proximity to a cemetery, Tam said she wasn't worried about using well water because "everybody here uses it."
Her biggest concern was how to make ends meet.
Tam complained that, since her injury, the family earns less than the four dollars a day they used to survive on. The couple has five children; all are working elsewhere, trying to eke out a living.
"We wouldn't know what to do if they clear the cemetery," she said.
Tam's granddaughter, 26-yearold Huynh Thi Kim Thao, said they simply boil their water, no problem.
"Some residue remains at the bottom of the kettle after boiling water. That's all," she said as she lulled her five-year-old son to sleep in a hammock tied to the old house.