How is it going in Saigon

Myth "Saigon" disappears

The charming colonial buildings achieved literary fame as the backdrop for Graham Greene's famous Saigon novel "The Quiet American". Today they are tourist attractions and are part of every sightseeing program. But they are in danger.

A tangle of construction cranes towers over "Saigon", today Ho Chi Minh City, into the sky. The skyline grows and grows. It is the largest Vietnamese metropolis and one of the fastest growing cities in Asia. Like many locals, Tran Trong Vu is dismayed by this rapid development. Historic quarters are rigorously leveled for the new skyscrapers. "The buildings have a cultural value. We should preserve them and not replace them with high-rise buildings," he appeals.

Place of longing: The Hotel Continental, in which Graham Green resided

Easy game for investors

Many fear it won't be long now, and Ho Chi Minh City is no different from any other Asian megacity. "Everything looked French in the 1960s and 1970s, now we're becoming more and more American: McDonald's is on every corner," says Hiep Nguyen, who grew up in Ho Chi Minh City and has written several books on his homeland's architectural legacy Has. "A street that is deprived of its history is worthless," he adds.

The destruction is most visible in the city center. More and more young people are drawn here; they want a modern environment, living space and space to work. A legitimate need. But Nguyen points out another aspect: "It's about a lot of money and about the interests of investors."

Construction sites everywhere: A new residential complex is being built on 3300 hectares

Where is the monument protection?

Financially strong investors have long since secured coveted fillet pieces in the city center. Construction sites are now spreading on plots with old villas and historical public buildings. Most recently, the leveling of the "Ba Son" port on the Saigon River caused outrage. The building complexes from the French colonial era had to give way. The Vincom Group is currently building a new residential area there. Pham Nhat Vuong, the company's boss, is the richest man in the country. He is often referred to as the Donald Trump of Vietnam.

The city administration has now registered over 1000 buildings that were built between 1887 and 1954, during the period of French colonial rule. Including the famous city theater, the post office or the Notre Dame cathedral. Ho Chi Minh City adorns itself with these buildings: they are all tourist highlights. There are also some of Graham Greene's old haunts on Rue Catinat. Today the street is called Dong Khoi and brands like Hermès and Chanel have moved into the shops.

Resistance stirs

There are no reliable figures on how many of the historic buildings have already been destroyed. Fanny Quertamp from the urban development company PADDI suspects that 50 percent of the colonial buildings in the city center have already disappeared. Resistance is building up against the pace at which this process is progressing.

A rarity soon? Saigon Municipal Theater, opened in 1899

Daniel Caune, a video game developer, is privately committed to preserving the colonial architecture. With its "Heritage Go" app, which is still in progress, locals and tourists alike are to be made aware of the architectural treasure. When users point their smartphone at one of the old buildings, they receive photos and information about its history. The app is not yet on the market. "I want people to be aware of their historical legacy," explains Caune. He is a member of the "Heritage Observatory" initiative, which records and archives buildings from the colonial era.

Concern about tourism

The city administration is also pursuing this goal and developing a plan to record the colonial architecture. A daunting task that will take years. The preservationists have no lobby in the up-and-coming metropolis. "The demand for economic success and progress puts us under tremendous pressure," says Tuan Anh Nguyen, the head of the architecture working group at the Ho Chi Minh City Authority for Urban Development.

This is another way of closing vacant lots: new luxury shopping center in colonial style

Many of the investors buying valuable land in the city center don't care about historical heritage, he adds. He wants an urban development plan to be in place quickly to stop this development. And cites Old Montreal in Canada as a model. The protest of the residents and the commitment of a city planner led to the historic old town of Vieux-Montréal being completely protected as early as 1964. Instead of demolition, buildings were restored and the district has developed into a popular tourist attraction over the years.

Irony of history

Investors have built a medieval French town, the "French Village", with turrets, battlements and cobblestones in the tourist town of Da Nang on the delta of the Han River. Monument protection doesn't work, but the French Middle Ages as a Disney variant do. Wrong world.

Architect Ngo Viet Nam Son assumes that Ho Chi Minh City will lose millions of tourists when the French flair disappears in the streets of "Saigon". It is, he says, like sawing off the branch on which you are sitting.

jv / jta / lto (AFPE)