The fall of Saigon – by demolition

The colonial city that enchanted Graham Greene is disappearing as developers tear down its historic buildings in the name of modernisation

Helen Clark
Wednesday 12 January 2011 01:00 GMT

From his motorbike taxi stand outside the city's opera house Nguyen Van Dung gazes at the empty building site surrounded by a high security fence. For decades the corner was occupied by the historic Eden building but now it has been pulled down in the name of progress.

"Vietnam cannot compare to Singapore or Japan when it comes to tall buildings or five-star hotels. We should conserve what we have first," says the 62-year-old, who has worked this spot in the centre of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) for 20 years. "Vietnam just sees the benefits in the short term. In the long run we'll lose some traditions."

In its last days the Eden was no beauty. It was greying, mouldy and long past its prime. But history was embedded in every one its blue-green shutters, and some fought to preserve the building that housed the Givral Café, famous as a hangout for spies during the Vietnam War.

Amid protests over what residents claimed was inadequate compensation, the building situated opposite the equally historic Continental Hotel – where Graham Greene once drank and wrote – was finally torn down last month. The 1930s French-built block, located on one of the city's prime streets, became the latest in a series of historic buildings to be demolished and replaced by the shiny new constructions preferred by the Vietnamese authorities. A shopping centre, hotel and office complex built by property developer Vincom will now occupy the space where the Eden once stood.

Among those who tried to save the Eden was Nguyen Trang, who grew up in one of the building's apartments with the Givral Café below. Its customers included Pham Xuan An who worked as a reporter for Reuters and Time magazine while spying for the North Vietnamese. He later became head of the country's secret service and joked that he should be titled General Givral, given the time he spent in the café.

"Pham Xuan An used to sit in there and watch, every day. It was a hotspot during the war," says Ms Trang, who created a website and Facebook page as part of the struggle to preserve the building with its Art Deco apartments."It was such a beautiful, meaningful building," she says.

The Eden, whose residents watched as scenes from the 2002 film of Greene's novel, The Quiet American, were filmed in the square below, is just the latest victim of the fast-paced development that has taken place during the city's past 10 years of rapid growth. Vietnam's tallest tower, the 68-storey Bitextco, was completed recently but some believe it will never be viable. Dust emanating from building sites is one of the biggest air pollutants in many cities.

Many of the city's now lost old buildings housed restaurants and bars that catered to the city's growing middle class and expatriate population. The top class French restaurant Camargue and Vasco's, a popular bar, opened in a large building with a courtyard about 10 years ago. But both had to move as the seemingly inevitable wrecking ball arrived three years ago. Vasco's relocated to another old building that was used as an opium refinery during French rule.

District 5's Chinatown has lost many of its old shop premises in recent years and only one block is now regarded as an "old quarter". Many of the other properties built by Chinese merchants have gone the way of the colonial buildings.

Australian Mark Bowyer, a travel agency owner who worked in Vietnam in the early 1990s when the economy was first opening up after years of state-controlled stagnation, recently completed a photo gallery of some of the city's historic buildings threatened by the tidal wave of development.

"The last few years in Saigon have been particularly distressing," he says. "The first big office towers were built in the mid-90s. During the last five years there's been a real move to wiping out the colonial architecture, some of the buildings that give the city some uniqueness and charm."

Opinion among the residents of Ho Chi Minh City is mixed. Many are also cautious about speaking out against a government that is not renowned for encouraging free speech. People are generally loathe to discuss politics, but most acknowledge that when efforts are made to fight the authorities, the authorities almost always win. "You can't fight the government, that's it," said Ms Trang, who moved with her mother to a new apartment block in 2003, although the family had kept their Eden flat as a rental property.

Others, especially younger people, appear more relaxed. Le Thi My Uyen, 22, whom I interviewed on Nguyen Hue street close to the Eden building said: "We cannot live without history." But she admitted her favourite destination was a new shopping centre built by Vincom that replaced another colonial block: "I like to go window shopping in big department stores with friends. I can hang out there and have coffee or go bowling too."

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