Vietnam may be one of the fastest growing economies in the world. Yet some residents in Ho Chi Minh City are at the cusp of eviction as authorities draw plans to develop the land beneath their feet.
HO CHI MINH CITY — Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon, is home to 13 million people. Each of those 13 million people jostles for space in the economic hub of communist Vietnam, one of the fastest growing economies in the world.
Vietnam’s changing face is largely thanks to its government’s open policies towards foreign investment. Just a few weeks ago, Vietnam PM Nguyen Xuan Phuc told the Financial Times that the country looks to bolster its private sector within just two years, determining to make private businesses the country’s major economic driving force.
Such move, once inconceivable in communist Vietnam, simply follows the footpath of its neighbour China, a parallel in both economic and political fronts.
Within a decade, Vietnam witnessed a rapid economic transformation, yet at the same time, the country’s inequality is increasingly widened.
Roughly 210 super-rich individuals in Vietnam had a combined wealth of around $20.72 billion in 2014 — an equivalent to 12 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, or half of Ho Chi Minh City’s GDP.
The gap between the rich and the poor is best illustrated in the urban landscape of Ho Chi Minh City.
Clusters of informal settlements made up of houses as small as 3 square metres (m2) — smaller than the size of a double bed — lean into the shadows of freshly-built skyscrapers and high-end complexes.
Bureaucracy, corruption and development plans on hold have left Ho Chi Minh City’s inhabitants in limbo for decades.
Thach Thuong (pictured above) is Khmer from Tra Vinh and has been collecting scrap in Ho Chi Minh City since five years to support himself, his wife and daughter.
“I have been doing this for over 5 years now, and before that I was a bricklayer. I earn around VND 300,000 to VND 400,000 ($13 - $17) per day. One kilo of scrap metal can sell at around VND 6,500 (30 cents),” Thuong says.
“I like this job more than bricklaying. We can rest whenever we want, and we earn more money, although I'm often injured while working here.”
High-rise residential buildings tower over informal settlements in Ho Chi Minh City's District 4.
In 2006, local authorities planned to turn the urban Nguyen Kieu islet into a big park. Many residents were relocated to other areas.
After 11 years, the park still has not been completed and informal settlements continue to pile on top of each other next to a heavily polluted canal.
Nguyen Thi Le, 49 in Nguyen Kieu islet, District 4
"My name is Nguyen Thi Le, I was born in 1969, and I'm unemployed. My husband, too. I moved here when I got married in 2005; my husband has been living here for more than 49 years.
It’s mostly labourers who live in this neighbourhood. Most of them have been here their entire lives — like my husband. They usually earn a few cents per day by sorting through garlic to sell.
But for the past decade, my husband and I have lived on the charity of our neighbours. They often cook extra for us.
I have diabetes and pneumonia, which I guess must be due to the water and air quality here.
There used to be an open-air toilet for the entire neighbourhood right next to my house. It was only demolished last year.
They’ve been talking about a plan to clear this land for so many years, but nothing has changed. If they clear it, we would have to find a new place to live in."
Ma Lang, District 1
Tran, 6, and her cousin Bi, 7, hang out in the small alley leading to their house in Ma Lang.
The neighbourhood is always dark, even if it’s sunny during the day.
Ma Lang is a 6.8-hectare (16.8-acre) quadrangle in the middle of Ho Chi Minh City’s central urban district.
A drug-plagued neighbourhood, once home to some of the city’s most notorious drug lords, the quadrangle is often referred to by property developers as the “golden land,” due to its prime location, next to a street popular with tourists.
Though to be transformed into a posh urban complex, this densely populated neighbourhood houses some of Ho Chi Minh City’s poorest families — 1,424 of them. And for the past 18 years, they have been living in the same limbo which holds the city’s development plans in a vice.
Ma Lang is now under strict surveillance with police posts every 20 metres.
Quynh Thi Ngoc Chau, 58, in Cau Muoi market, District 1
"My name is Quynh Thi Ngoc Chau. I'm 58-years-old, and I sell cigarettes.
There are five women living in this house [2.5 m x 6 m]: me, my two sisters, my daughter and her baby girl; All women. The house used to be my parents', though I have only been living here for over 20 years.
This used to be a very crowded wholesale market, but a few years ago, they decided to move the market to Thu Duc. So it's mainly a residential area now. The people here are mostly vendors who go to Thu Duc market at around 8 or 9 pm and return home the next day early in the morning.
In this neighbourhood, when it rains, there’s a flood as high as your knee. And it smells so bad because of untreated sewage.
The main source of our family's income is this dry cleaning shop. We earn around a few hundred thousand dongs per month (less than $50), just enough to feed the family.
I also sell cigarettes, but who comes here to buy cigarettes, really?"
Note: Cau Muoi was also among Saigon's notorious drug dealing districts, where petty crimes and gambling were rampant. Grim tales of how the mafias rule the neighbourhood are retold from time to time, but locals say most of them have vanished due to old age.
Nu, Oi hamlet in Binh Chanh district
"My name is Nu. I was born in 1993.
"There are five people living in this house: my parents, my husband, my baby and I. We come from An Giang province, down at the Mekong Delta.
I guess they're planning to turn this area into an international school. Many residents here have already been ordered to move, but we'll just have to keep waiting in the meantime.
This whole neighbourhood, of around 30 to 40 families, is essentially owned and rented out by two landlords. They provide electricity and water, but it's quite expensive.
It's been like this for nearly 20 years already, but nothing has changed much.
My husband is a bricklayer. I stay at home to help my mom. There was no job at the Mekong Delta, so we came to the city. Probably we'll just move back to the countryside and grow rice again if we have to leave this hamlet, since we don’t know where else to go."
Note: Most residents living in the area are from the Mekong Delta area, coming to the city to work as labourers. This makeshift neighbourhood — unnamed and unmapped — used to comprise of a few hundred residents, the majority of whom left after local authorities ordered them to leave to make room for the construction of an international school.
Oi hamlet, Binh Chanh district
A man, who wishes to remain anonymous, sits at the ruins of a home recently demolished to make room for the construction of the aforementioned international school.
The families of Nhi, 3, Ngai and Bo, 3, who stand behind the broken wall, are also located on the hamlet in areas that will be razed for the school’s construction.
Thach Thi Thanh, 12, in District 2
"I start working early in the morning at 7 am and come back at 5 pm. I have learned to read a little bit at my neighbour's. I never went to school."
Thach Tay Xaphia, 36, in District 2
Xaphia, Thanh’s mother, is a 36-year-old Khmer who also works as a scrap collector like her daughter.
Between her, her husband and their eldest daughter Thanh, they earn less than $50 per day to provide for a total of six people.
“When I go to work, my younger kids stay at home. No one looks after them, they hang around in the neighbourhood by themselves. They know only vernacular Vietnamese and Khmer. Only Thanh, the eldest, can understand my husband and I when we speak to her in Khmer,” Xaphia says.
“When I used to live in Tra Vinh, I used to harvest rice for other farmers, but it didn't earn much, so we came to the city. This is better, but we can't really afford to send the kids to school, and my entire family is illiterate. Except for Thanh, she knows some words since she is sometimes taught by our neighbour when she comes back from work in the evening."
Ngo Thi Xuan Lan, 61, in Ngo Gia Tu complex, District 10
"My husband and I are veterans of the war in 1976. We have been living in this apartment complex since 1982. It doesn't have a house number, since it's basically an extension of a half-space landing on the staircase leading to the first floor of the building. The living space itself is only around 3 m x 1.5 m.
Our 30-year-old daughter and son, who is still in school, also live with us.
When we first moved here, our neighbours took pity on us, so they told us to ask for the permission of this ward's president to set up an extension on the staircase to build a house here, which is this wooden part.
It was an informal permission, so it’s not usable now.
I honestly don't know what would happen if they clear this complex. I know for sure we won't be compensated because technically we don't have legal papers to live here.
We make a living by selling grocery stuff. But it's not much, plus the goods take too much room in this tiny apartment.”
Note: Ngo Gia Tu complex is also under the city's urban development plan. It used to have a complex dynamic, with frequently reported petty crimes and drug dealings.