A bland future for Saigon's main street?

| 06 Jul 2014
, 1 Comment
06 Jul 2014

Dong Khoi St is Saigon's historic main street. It's witnessed the city's changing fortunes since being carved out by French colonials in the 19th century. Throughout the decades of political strife that engulfed Vietnam after World War II, the physical character of Dong Khoi St barely changed. A visitor to Saigon in 1990 or even 2000 could walk a street barely altered in architectural terms since 1960. But that's now changing rapidly as the demolition of historic buildings threatens to rob Dong Khoi St of its unique architectural heritage and character.

Each of Saigon's post World War II political shifts has been marked by a name change to the city's main street, now known as Dong Khoi St.

The French colonial elite inaugurated the street as the Rue Catinat, a strip of upscale boutiques and cafes named after a naval ship that besieged Danang in the 19th century.

In the 1950s, at the start of the brief, two decade existence of US backed South Vietnam, Rue Catinat became Tu Do St (Freedom St). In the years that followed, the tone changed as new businesses, mainly bars and clubs, opened to service the huge influx of American military personnel.

213 Dong Khoi St, Saigon
Photo: Mark Bowyer 213 Dong Khoi St, Saigon

The decadent freedoms that played out on Tu Do St were probably not what South Vietnam's President, Ngo Dinh Diem, a pious Catholic, had in mind when the street was renamed marking liberation from French colonial rule.

After the communist victory over South Vietnam in 1975, there was yet another name change. Tu Do St became Dong Khoi St (Total Revolution St). It was shuttered for a grim fifteen years as Saigon's new hardline rulers applied stiff medicine to rid the city of its freewheeling capitalist ways.

Fortunately for Saigon and Vietnam, the medicine failed.

As soon as the ideological screws were loosened in the early 1990s, Dong Khoi returned to form, flourishing again as a centre of commerce and entertainment. Vietnam's economy began to boom with it.

While street name changes marked the arrival of new rulers to Saigon, the street itself changed little over the decades. Colonial era icons like the Notre Dame Cathedral, the Continental Hotel and the Opera House dotted the short run down to the Saigon River. And they were complemented by apartment blocks, shophouses and cafes that played bit roles in Saigon's action packed history.

During my twenty-plus years living in and visiting Saigon, narrow tree-lined Dong Khoi St has been an oasis of relative quiet and order in a sea of motorcycle fumes, horns, construction noise and general chaos,. It's one of a handful of Saigon streets that can be negotiated on foot. And until recently, a walk along Dong Khoi St was an enjoyable journey through Saigon's architectural heritage and history.

But Dong Khoi St's character is being hacked away by demolitions that seem hard to justify on economic, city planning or heritage grounds.

Another demolition has just been polished off.

213 Dong Khoi St, a 1930s deco building at the corner of Le Thanh Ton St, once the strip's most prestigious apartment block, recently became the latest victim of the Saigon wrecking ball.

213 Dong Khoi St, Saigon
Photo: Mark Bowyer 213 Dong Khoi St, Saigon

It's an excruciating experience watching a fine old building being gradually picked apart - not least because, based on past experience, we have a fair idea of the kind of characterless pile that will replace it.

In a twist that Orwell's ghost would appreciate, Saigon marks a heritage building for execution by surrounding it in hoardings with images of other heritage buildings and promises of a "civilised, green, clean and beautiful city".

With images of heritage buildings, the sign reads
Photo: Mark Bowyer With images of heritage buildings, the sign reads "A civilised city - green - clean - beautiful." Then the bulldozers move in.

Not long after, the building is turned to dust.

There are no signs indicating future intentions for the 213 Dong Khoi St site. Local press reports have said that the former residential apartments will be replaced by an expanded government presence.

In demolishing residential apartments in favour of shopping centres and government buildings, Saigon's city planners are flying in the face of long accepted planning wisdom that residential accommodation is key to a vibrant downtown.

It wouldn't have taken a whole lot of imagination to turn 213 Dong Khoi into Saigon's most prestigious apartment complex again. Or into an international standard, historic hotel, the likes of which remains absent in the city. (I haven't forgotten the Continental and the Majestic but they seem condemned to forever under-perform on their potential).

213 Dong Khoi St, Saigon
213 Dong Khoi St, Saigon
213 Dong Khoi St, Saigon
Photo: Mark Bowyer 213 Dong Khoi St, Saigon


213 Dong Khoi St, Saigon.
Photo: Mark Bowyer 213 Dong Khoi St, Saigon.
Both of these historic buildings have now been demolished. 213 Dong Khoi is on the right.
Both of these historic buildings have now been demolished. 213 Dong Khoi is on the right.
213 Dong Khoi St
Photo: Mark Bowyer 213 Dong Khoi St
213 Dong Khoi St, Saigon
213 Dong Khoi St, Saigon
213 Dong Khoi St, Saigon.
Photo: Mark Bowyer 213 Dong Khoi St, Saigon.

Despite four or five decades of neglect, 213 Dong Khoi remained a handsome building - and a building with a viable economic future.

In Vietnam and elsewhere, demolition and construction seem to have their own incentives. Large amounts of money are at stake. Preservation can never compete - no matter the economic or heritage merits. That's the tragic part. There's a certain senselessness to it all.

Of course no city develops without big changes to its physical landscape - including the demolition of historic buildings. But Dong Khoi St isn't any street. It's the historic heart of the city. It deserves special consideration. Like other areas of District 1, it has the potential to mark out Saigon as a unique city for the long-term.

And calls for preservation of French architecture shouldn't be confused with misplaced colonial nostalgia any more than calls for the preservation of Roman ruins should be viewed as advocacy for ancient Roman rulers. These buildings have been woven into Vietnam's story in the sixty years since the French left - as they were part of Vietnam's story during colonial times. 

While many cities are scratching their heads trying to find ways to recover lost heritage and atmosphere, Saigon seems hellbent on destroying the rich atmosphere it retains - built in part around these old buildings.

Vietnamese are taking increasing interest in the kind of city that their new found prosperity is delivering. Young entrepreneurial Saigonese are rushing to open cool cafes, studios and boutiques in the city's old apartment blocks.On several occasions while photographing Dong Khoi's condemned buildings, I've been approached by locals decrying the lack of heritage sensibility in city planning

There is only one other grand old apartment building left on Dong Khoi St - at 26 Ly Tu Trong St. And it too is facing demolition along with other historic buildings on the same block.

Dong Khoi St's last remaining apartment block. Next in line for demolition.
Photo: Mark Bowyer Dong Khoi St's last remaining apartment block. Next in line for demolition.
Dong Khoi St's last remaining apartment block. Next in line for demolition.
Photo: Mark Bowyer Dong Khoi St's last remaining apartment block. Next in line for demolition.
Next in line for demolition.
Photo: Mark Bowyer Next in line for demolition.

Few with an interest in Saigon's heritage and long term future as a city of character, like the look of what's unfolding architecturally. It's not a question of heritage idealists standing in the way of the city's architectural and economic development either. As much as anything, this is an economic argument.

As cities become the defining unit of national economies, getting the delicate balance right between heritage, public space, office towers and liveability are major challenges. It isn't too early in Saigon's economic development for these considerations to be factored - especially in the downtown area. Downtown Saigon attracts world class rents and property prices. It deserves world class architecture and planning.

Dong Khoi has lost many of its finest buildings - only to see them replaced by structures of dubious aesthetic and commercial value. We can only hope that there's a change of thinking before the wrecking ball takes out its next Dong Khoi target - the street's last apartment building at the corner of Ly Tu Trong St.

Mark Bowyer
Mark Bowyer is the founder and publisher of Rusty Compass.
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1 comment so far

Great article Mark. As you may recall, I lived in 26 Ly Tu Trong until recently and getting the boot from that wonderful building was my main reason for leaving Saigon for Phnom Penh. I once knew a Vietnamese architect who told me he wouldn't be happy until every last French era building was demolished. Looks like his dream is coming true but, as you ask, what are they replacing them with? Thanks for the good articles. Tom Hricko

  • Tom
  • Ho Chi Minh City
  • Tuesday, 08 July 2014 19:38