Out with the old, in with the new

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Foreign tourism experts lament the loss of colonial buildings, but is the loss theirs to mourn?


A construction worker takes a break after work in downtown Ho Chi Minh City. Many old French-style buildings across the city are being knocked down as the municipal government gives developers the go-ahead to build new high rises, considered important symbols of modernization.

Sometimes, Nu looks at the construction site on Le Thanh Ton Street, opposite the city library, and fondly remembers La Fenêtre Soleil, a Parisian-style café and a favorite of both foreigners and locals.

But then she looks again and reality crashes in: It has been two years since the café and the old colonial building that housed it were surrounded by fences, cement and heaps of sand. The façade is cracked and crumbling.

It has been two years and Nu, who sells soft drinks and English guide books on the sidewalk in front of the building, has come to terms with foreigners passing by without even glancing at the place, which she said used to attract customers like a magnet.

"It's a great pity because I think in time it will be regretted that such a building has gone," Nu told Vietweek. "What makes me even more disappointed is that nothing has been built to replace it. Now the site is just nothing but a mess to passers-by."

Many old French-style buildings across Ho Chi Minh City are being knocked down as the municipal government gives developers the go-ahead to build new high rises, considered important symbols of modernization.

Almost two years after Givral Bakery, the café that had long been a gathering place for international war correspondents and Vietnam's legendary spy Pham Xuan An, was demolished, those who find colonial architecture visually appealing in HCMC again bemoaned the loss of other less well-known buildings all over Saigon.

"Saigon's stock of real heritage buildings is fairly modest - especially after recent demolitions," said Mark Bowyer, a tourism expert who founded Travel Indochina and runs the website www.rustycompass.com.

"Great world cities create a balance between old and new that Saigon has so far neglected," Bowyer told Vietweek.

"The heritage buildings have already been crowded out"¦ Time is definitely running out for Saigon to achieve a better balance."

"˜In the name of modernity'

French colonial architecture has defined cities in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia for decades, even after the French pulled out of Indochina in 1954.

But hundreds of historic buildings across the region have been knocked down as governments cash in on rising land prices and rush to build skyscrapers.

"You can see throughout East and Southeast Asia the destruction of history in the name of modernity," said Mike Douglass, an urban planning professor at University of Hawaii.

"Years from now when its industrial phase is over and the "˜experience' economy of urban services and tourism become the main sources of HCMC's economy, the historical buildings"¦ will be gone, and it will be too late to bring them back," Douglass told Vietweek.

Foreigners are often nostalgic for colonial architecture.

"Many of us, particularly those of us who work in tourism, find it very sad," said Tim Russell, a British expat who runs a tour operator in HCMC.

"It breaks my heart to see so many lovely buildings being knocked down."

But the real question should be, according to Russell, whether the Vietnamese are as disappointed as many expats, or whether they would prefer "new" things.

"We have to develop," said Khuong Van Muoi, chairman of the HCMC Architect Society, a local think tank.

"The city's economy will die if we just focus on preserving the old things," Muoi said.

"They want the city to remain as primitive as it can be to lure foreign tourists? Don't be too extreme"¦ The city needs to move on and spruce up its image."

But Muoi, who is also an architect, said the city government would be committed to sustaining the preservation of major French colonial architecture. Every building demolition would be put under strict scrutiny and have to get city hall's go-ahead, he added.

"I feel sympathetic to someone who would regret the loss of several old buildings. But I believe they are just of nostalgic significance.

"Don't treat Vietnamese as if they are irresponsible for their own cultural and historical heritages. We respect our history and know how to preserve it."

Development land

But Muoi also said several developers have been slow to build new buildings after knocking down the old ones, leaving downtown packed with heaps of rubble.

"Such a mess is inarguably an eyesore," Muoi said. "The city government has urged the developers many times to expedite their work and will assist them in doing so."

But other tourism experts were less than thrilled either way.

"The next generation of Vietnamese will regret the excesses of heritage destruction currently under way." Bowyer said. "This battle has been playing out in cities around the world for decades and we know how it ends.

"Cities where developers always win, lose their unique character."

And French buildings are not the only ones under threat. Many old Chinese and Vietnamese shop houses in District 1, some decades and even a century old, are also being torn down.

A row of such shop houses near Ben Thanh Market was recently destroyed after Tet, Vietnam's Lunar New Year, and people who live and work in the area had different reasons to regret the loss.

Loi, a vendor who sells corn in front of the row, said he had lost part of his livelihood in the demolition.

"I don't care much about the row being knocked down. The thing is that my sales have been falling since its demolition," Loi said.

Asked what will be replacing the row, Loi only shrugged his head.

"I have no idea. But"¦ perhaps just another skyscraper."

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