A characteristic of District 3 is its large number of detached villas dating from the French occupation, built due to a class divide in Vietnamese society with differing rules for the French and the Vietnamese.
The system that taxed the Vietnamese on property width did not apply to the French, whose merchants settled their houses on higher ground in well-planted streets and avenues, following a similar pattern to New Orleans.
Many of these villas were built and occupied by French rubber planters in the area known as the “rubber plantation district”. It is bordered by Nam Ky Khoi Nghia, Nguyen Dinh Chieu, Le Quy Don and Vo Thi Sau Streets.
The villas were built close to the offices of the rubber companies. Even today Nam Ky Khoi Nghia is home to the Rubber Research Institute of Vietnam and the Vietnam Rubber Group.
A Vital Component
A visitor to the city speeds past District 3 from the airport without realising or fully understanding its importance to the history of the city.
The pattern of these large houses on large plots of land is not an easy fit with the modern metropolis. Their somewhat profligate use of land is hard to integrate with the need for density; to house more people as well as businesses.
Nevertheless, they are an important part of the city’s history. Ho Chi Minh City is not the first city in the world that has had to deal with this issue of integration of villas into the city fabric, as many Western cities have had to grapple with the problem, too. In my own home town of Auckland, many beautiful large inner merchant houses were razed to make way for the university situated in the city. Auckland is poorer for it.
In the particular case of Western cities, most wanton destruction occurred 30 to 50 years ago before it was realised that removing the memory of these villas also damaged the quality of the city environment. It was realised that cities must, above anything else, give a wide range of choice to their inhabitants of buildings to use and enjoy.
A city needs to embrace its whole history rather than just the parts it happens to like at a particular point in time. Fashions for buildings change and the most vulnerable structures are those less than 70 years old. The veneration period begins at around 100 years.
A New Model?
There is though, a way forward and a model that Ho Chi Minh City can follow. First, a properly conducted survey of these structures must be completed. This will determine the quality of each structure.
Second, a classification system is needed to determine which buildings should be protected or refurbished. This needs to occur quickly as many of the old villas are under threat. Saving them all, while desirable, is unlikely in the present and future rapid growth of Ho Chi Minh City, but if there are some agreed criteria for preservation and retention, this will give certainty to both the community and the owners.
This system has worked well in other jurisdictions and I understand that the Ho Chi Minh City Institute for Development Studies has issued a draft decree detailing a system of classification for old villas, but it has not yet been enacted by the city due to a lack of agreed criteria.
It is not enough to merely protect these buildings, but there is a need to repurpose them and reuse them so that they can continue to play a role in the past, present and future of the city.