The long goodbye

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Demolition of Givral Bakery points to a lack of historical preservation efforts


A foreigner takes pictures of the famous Givral Café, now in ruins before its demolition. A new commercial complex will replace the historic landmark, raising worries that urban planners aren't paying enough attention to historical preservation

Givral Bakery has been dressed for death.

Already prepared for  demolition, the bakery and café, opened in 1950 on Dong Khoi Street [formerly the Rue Catinat made by famous Graham Greene's The Quiet American], is now a shadow of its former self: hollowed out, paint chipped away, the façade already beginning to crack and crumble.

Givral had long been a gathering place for international journalists during the war. Graham Greene and a slew of other writers and journalists were said to have frequented the legendary café and Vietnam's legendary spy Pham Xuan An was also a regular customer.

But with a new commercial mega-development slated to replace Givral and a slew of other historic buildings on the block, those who remember the area fondly, whether from the war years or in modern times, are not only nostalgic and sentimental for its passing, they are also debating whether or not enough is being done to preserve historical landmarks as the city develops.

Jim Caccavo, who lived in a block from Givral and Eden as a Red Cross volunteer and Newsweek Photographer from 1968-70, said that while the old dilapidated façade needed to go, the entire building did not.

"It should be replaced with something similar in structure, perhaps, but more modern and up to date," said Caccavo, who works on his local Historical Preservation Committee in Los Angeles.

Dr. Nguyen Trong Hoa, President of the HCMC Institute for Development Studies, agreed that the whole structure shouldn't be torn down.

"Demolishing everything and rebuildling would be easy. But a good architect would be happier with the challenge of creating something new out of an old structure."

Caccavo found it encouraging that the city planners are not going to allow anything in the area to be built taller than the city hall building.

"This may be the guidelines city planners may want to consider for newer buildings, especially in historical areas. Is there any reason why a new Givral cannot be given its old spot in the new building?"

Indeed, many locals would be happy if that were the case, but it is not in the cards.

In 2008, the HCMC People's Committee, the municipal government, approved the retrieval of the entire block bordered by Dong Khoi, Le Thanh Ton, Nguyen Hue and Le Loi streets in District 1.

Hanoi-based property developer Vincom has envisaged transforming the 7,300-squaremeter lot, which was home to Givral café, Xuan Thu bookstore, Passage Eden, and other offices and boutiques, for a new development project.

Vincom says it will build a complex of shopping centers, high-end apartments, hotels and an underground parking lot at the block.

Down and out

Pham Thanh Phu, a 47-year-old newspaper vendor in front of Givral, lost part of his livelihood when the bakery closed on April 2.

"My foreign clientele has tumbled since the café was knocked down. Many friends of mine who used to work at Givral have gone. It is so sad," Phu said.

Stationed at the corner since 1997, Phu said the city was losing an important landmark.

"Just take a sit at the Dong KhoiLe Loi corner for a day, I bet you cannot count how many foreigners stop to take photos of the relics of the demolished [Givral] café."

"Even in my sleep, I still can hear the sound of the café being torn down."

Memory lane

Givral holds a special place in the hearts of many Saigonese.

Tran Thien Chuong spent part of last Sunday saying farewell to a café that had been an anchor in his life for years. It was where Chuong's mother had been buying him cakes for his birthday since second grade, almost 13 years ago.

Now a sophomore at university, Chuong felt like he was losing an old friend

"The best cake I ever had was the one my mom treated me at Givral when I aced my high school entrance exam five years ago," Chuong told Thanh Nien Weekly.

"Next month will be my birthday and I don't know where I'll buy a cake. I'm not excited anymore now that the [Givral] café is gone."

For Trinh Thanh Lan, a young mother who lives a block away from Givral in the house she grew up in, the bakery's cakes also have a special meaning.

When she was five, her father brought her there to try her first cream cake.

"He said it was the best cake in the city."

"Every time I pass by the bakery, I still look into the glass to see the cakes and I wish I had the money to buy all cakes for my parents. Although I've now had cakes at a lot of different bakeries, I still remember the smell of the first cake at Givral."

Nearby on Dong Khoi Street, Xuan Thu bookstore is also destined for the same fate as the old café.

"It is hard to imagine that some day a grandiose skyscraper might replace this beloved bookstore," said 33-year-old Vo Huong Quynh, a lecturer at Ho Chi Minh City's University of Education.

"I went there whenever I was in the mood: beautiful Sundays, stressful moments," Quynh said.

"Will I ever find and feel the same atmosphere as Xuan Thu? Whatever happens, I'll never forget this place."

Global vs. Cosmo

Dr. Michael DiGregorio, former program officer for the Ford Foundation, told Thanh Nien Weekly there were two kind of modern cities. He said a globapolis was a global city that looks and feels like all other global cities whereas a cosmopolis was global city that remains localized, rooted in its own history.

Many are worried Ho Chi Minh City may turn into the former.

"What you see in a globapolis is steel and glass office buildings, shopping malls, apartment towers, and gated communities that are often called "˜international'. But they are "˜international' in the same way that the old colonial concessions were international: they are a world separated from the real life of cities in which they exist," Dr. DiGregorio said.

By contrast, DiGregorio said the cosmopolitan city holds on to its own identity. It does this by preserving historic buildings, from government offices to houses that represent the city's history, he said.

But Dr. Hoa from the Institute for Development Studies said there would be some difficulties in preserving the historical legacies of the southern economic hub.

"Works recognized by the federal government as cultural or historical heritages of the country are actually easy to preserve," Hoa said.

"But for architectural legacies that have not been officially recognized, even though they are significant hallmarks in the minds of the city's people, we are still drafting conservation regulations."

"While the regulations are still in the making, it will be very difficult for the city government to turn down projects based on historic relevance," Hoa admitted. It would take two to three years to complete the regulations on preserving architecturally historic places in HCMC, he said.

However, he also pointed out that foreign tourists should not just consider HCMC a museum only here to conserve historical period pieces.

"Life moves on. The city needs to spruce up its image to look more polished up."

"˜The people I never knew'

DiGregorio said that while he considered HCMC a cosmopolitan city, he warned that the danger is the idea of "international as separate from the life of the real city."

"Vietnamese cities may be dirty; they may have a lot of problems with infrastructure; the housing stock may not be the best. But for some strange reason, we love them. We feel life all around."

DiGregorio recalled a line in a poem, Tu Ay (Since Then), written by Vietnamese poet To Huu, in which he says, "I miss the people I never knew."

"I understand that. There are people we meet everyday. We see them in the parks and sidewalks. And if we never saw them again, even though we don't know who they are, we would miss them," DiGregorio said.

"I would hate to see Vietnamese cities lose this feeling of being and belonging, because once it is lost, it cannot be replaced."

Twelve days after the Givral café was hollowed out and prepared for demolition, a 60-year-old man was sitting in the park in front of the abandoned façade, sipping a glass of beer.

"I'm sitting here to watch them destroy the café," the man said, declining to be named.

"I started hanging out at the café when I was 17. My life has since endured a lot of losses. The fact that Givral is gone has added another sad memory to my life," the Saigonese man said.

"A new café could be built on this spot. But for me, Givral cannot be replaced."

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