Following widespread opposition to the planned demolition of a historic municipal building to make way for a new office center, a Ho Chi Minh City official announced that portions of the structure will be preserved.
Pham Thanh Kien, chairman of the District 1 People’s Committee, first proposed knocking down and replacing the district headquarters at a meeting with the city chairman Le Hoang Quan on November 17.
Kien said the district wants to use an expected budgetary surplus of VND1,545 billion (US$75.5 million) this year to build a new, larger administrative center at 45-47 Le Duan Street, which faces Diamond Plaza.
The colonial era structure was built in 1876 at the command of Rear Admiral-Governor Victor Guy Duperré (30 September 1874 – 30 January 1876) to provide social and recreational facilities for high-ranking members of the French armed forces.
The planned demolition of the structure was first reported by local news website VnExpress before spreading to foreign blogs where many expats criticized the idea as akin to the destruction of the Tax Center to make way for a subway station.
Le Truong Hai Hieu, vice chairman and spokesman for the District 1 People’s Committee, met with Thanh Nien
on Tuesday to say there had been a misunderstanding.
A motorbike sails past the District 1 People’s Committee center, one of the oldest French buildings in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Trung Hieu
Hieu said the city never planned to knock down the entire office at 45-47 Le Duan.
Hieu said the city only plans to conduct work in the area at No.45, which is currently rented out to a bank and the portion of the campus which faces Nguyen Van Binh Street, which the US added in the late 1950s.
“That part does not have as much historical value,” he said, repeating an earlier comment.
“We have to be clear about the extent of the construction and the value of each part of the house,” Hieu said.
He said No.47 will be preserved and developed into a museum or a gallery to house exhibits on the city's history.
Many who opposed the measure found this new plan unacceptable..
Tim Doling, a chronicler and tour guide who writes a blog called Historic Vietnam, told Thanh Nien News via email that several beautiful old buildings have already been torn down on that section of Le Duan and the former Cercle des Officiers is now the city’s oldest surviving French civic building.
“Its architecture is very typical of the colonial civic architecture of the 1870s, with spacious exterior verandahs and shuttered windows,” he said.
A man walks past the sign of the District 1 People's Committee headquarters, which is one of the oldest French-built buildings in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Trung Hieu
After the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the US came in and turned the structure into the Justice Department for the Saigon government and added another two-story house to the rear of the campus.
The building has served as the District 1 People’s Committee since the Vietnam War ended in April 1975.
Doling said he understands the city government's need for more space.
But “couldn't these new premises be provided somewhere else, so that they do not have to destroy or deface a 138-year-old heritage building located right in the center of the city’s main tourist area?”
He said the same question could be asked about the plan to build a new HCMC Government Center behind the current HCMC People’s Committee building, right in the historic heart of the city.
That project has already involved the demolition of a beautiful old art deco apartment building at 213 Dong Khoi Street and may yet require the destruction of another old building that dates back to 1888 at 59-61 Ly Tu Trong Street, he said.
Tim Russell, a Briton who lived and worked in Vietnam for 10 years and now works as the director of sales and marketing at a travel agency in Thailand, said Ho Chi Minh City is doing such a poor job of preserving the vestiges of its colonial past it makes the city’s once famous nickname 'Paris of the East' sound like “a sick joke.”
Russell said Vietnam markets itself using the slogan “Timeless Charm,” but the city seems intent on destroying what little charm it has left.
“Without buildings such as this, visitors have no sense of the city’s past and it will become just another boring modern metropolis,” he said.
A staircase in the District 1 People’s Committee building, which is the oldest French-built municipal building in Saigon, present-day Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Doc Lap
Russell said the city can learn from Paris, which has preserved its historical center while allowing modern construction to take place on its outskirts.
Singapore, he noted, made some bad early decisions about preservation, but is now trying to preserve every historical buildings it can.
Director Pham Thi My Hoa of the Flight Travel Company wrote on a tourism forum dedicated to preservation that the district center is one of the few heritages she can proudly take foreign visitors.
When she read about the planned demolition on an expat website a week ago, many of the comments unsettled her sense of national pride.
One, she recalled, suggested that wars weren't necessary for Vietnam to destroy its resources -- it is doing so all on its own.
According to Doling, many foreigners from Britain, Ireland, the USA, and Singapore are concerned about the ongoing destruction of the city’s heritages because the same thing happened in their countries in the past.
“We want our Vietnamese friends to know about the mistakes we made so [they] can avoid making those same mistakes here. Heritage buildings are not sustainable – once they are gone they are gone forever,” Doling said.
A District 1 leader told VnExpress that the remodeling doesn't violate any rules since it has yet to be designated an artistic or cultural relic.
“If it had been designated [a historical landmark], we wouldn't dare suggest this proposal,” the official said.
The Cercle des officiers in the early 20th century. Photo courtesy of Saigoneer
Doling, who wrote a walking tour book, Exploring Ho Chi Minh City (2014), says such a designation could come soon.
The Center for Prospective and Urban Studies (PADDI), an agency set up by Rhône – Alpes Region and HCMC, has begun work on a project with the Ho Chi Minh City Institute for Development Studies to compile a registry of old buildings and draw up zoning and regulations to preserve them.
He said historical preservation does not necessitate sacrificing economic development because it can increase property values and tourism.
Visitors to HCMC now spend an average of two nights in town and do little more than visit the Post Office, the Cathedral, the War Remnants Museum and the Palace.
For this reason, the district center and other heritage buildings could be developed as tourism resources to increase the amount of money and time visitors spend in town, he said.
Nguyen Quoc Ky, general director of Vietravel, said he has asked the HCMC Tourism Association to meet with the city Tourism Department to express these concerns.