It would come as no surprise to the visitor to Saigon today, the speed of its development. It is rapid to say the least. For a city that was in a time warp for decades, it is even more remarkable that so much could change is such a short period of time. Despite the advent of the global financial crisis the government and relevant ministries have put the development of Saigon’s infrastructure into fourth gear. On the contrary, in fact, the past two years has seen an explosion and realisation of projects that were no more than sketches on a drawing board, seemingly only months prior.
From Vietnam’s tallest tower at 70 storeys, to the demolition of many of the city’s colonial buildings and to the razing of entire districts to make way for massive new developments, housing, shopping malls and office towers, the city now known as Ho Chi Minh City is changing in face and character before ones eyes.
For those of us that have lived a life in Asia, this is nothing new. In the past two decades we have all seen the cities of Beijing, Shanghai, Bangkok, Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur rapidly develop at a pace unheard of in the West. And who are we to begrudge and lament these changes that brings about economic prosperity and improved living standards for all concerned? Alas, this is not entirely the issue, but the question is always raised, time and time again, can a city built upon ancient traditions and customs modernise whilst still maintaining its core architectural and cultural merits? We like to think this is achievable but in reality this is rarely ever the case.
Thu Thiem District is Saigon’s answer to Putong, on paper at least, for the moment. The area sits directly opposite the downtown area with it ever increasing high rises. A new tunnel and bridge now links the two, although the old ferry service remains for the time being. To wander this area is to step directly into the Mekong Delta.
The area is waterlogged, lush and home to a range of people from the countryside whom have settled here due to the cheap housing. It is a far cry from the hustle and bustle and modern life that lies directly opposite it. That is all about to change with the planned development of Thu Thiem into a prosperous, modern zone of universities, technology centres, apartments, luxury villas, resorts and nature parks.
Ngu Hanh Mieu Cay Duong pagoda in An Khanh commune of Thu Thiem sits in the middle of this development. Lying directly on the banks of the river this sacred site will be demolished to make way for riverside developments. In April it held its grand farewell with its last annual festival in homage of the sea goddess of the same name. Having played host to this festival for one hundred years it is hard to see how these ancient traditions can be saved or even relocated. The people who partake in the ceremony are elderly as the young simply have little interest in maintaining the customs and traditions of their forefathers.
Vietnam is undergoing rapid change. That is not to say that this is a bad thing but we should all be aware that what is there today may not be with us tomorrow.
Perhaps all the more reason to visit this country now. It remains a fascinating place and with a little foresight and planning the experience of the last pagoda at An Khanh commune will remain there to see elsewhere in the country. We just may have to travel a little further to find it!
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Images taken from the last annual festival of a local district pagoda on the banks of the Saigon river. The pagoda and entire district is currently being demolished to make way for modern developments. These scenes have been played out for 100 years and will now be relegated to history.