|Saigon River, Thu Thiem, District 2, Ho Chi Minh City|
Sharp eyed readers will recognize this is a sister image of a time when I was contemplating dead boys far from home deep in the Mekong Delta. Now I am thinking about a new kind of destruction, this time current and in my backyard.
The Saigon River is the main water supply for Ho Chi Minh City, yet this boat and this waterway—all distant cousins of the mighty Mekong River will simply not exist in a few years.
This is the destruction of Saigon in the slow inexorable march of progress. The area in particular is Thu Thiem a huge undeveloped area that juts into the river, a fat green finger pointing towards the South China Sea where the river surges to meld with the ocean. Today’s destruction of Saigon isn’t with guns anymore; now it’s with developers and their cement because the wealthy need condos.
Once upon a time the city was full of thriving canals that carried passengers and commerce from the sea inland to Saigon and beyond. Thi Nghe Canal and Ben Nghe Canal in what is now District 3 and District 4 respectively were in use for at least 200 years before officials cemented them. Unsurprisingly, given how many waterways have been filled in, Ho Chi Minh City during the rainy season floods badly and brings the city to a standstill. What’s left of urban waterways are mostly black water sewage outstreams that look and smell exactly as such. Folks fish in them and the government has stocked some of the canals with shit-eating fish, but it’s a Band-Aid solution for something requiring surgery.
Sitting in the small wooden boat pictured above, we are a slash of cheerful blue; almost like a reflector vest in an environment that is steadfastly green or brown. Our boat has totemic eyes painted on it to ward off sea demons and evil river sprites. Inside, our profane beer cooler sits alongside an altar to both Buddha and Thien Hau, the goddess of the sea. Some dimwit wrote an authoritative article about how there are no animals and certainly no birds left in Saigon because they’ve all been eaten. Had this fool left his District 1 five-star and headed mere moments south—to the river—he too would have been delighted at the flapping water fowl almost close enough to touch across a boat’s wood prow. He too would have seen plenty of signs of life in moored fishing boats, fishing nets and small crab traps laid along the banks, and small groves of bananas. And if he had removed his designer sunglasses he likely would have seen small wood houses with thatched roofs dotted here and there among the swamps, most with a curious, but silent, dog standing on an embankment.
As we sit chatting in the boat, sliding through District 2, I think of the Chinese river pirates on the payroll of the French authorities, Hell’s Angels of the colonial waterways. They soon gave way to river boat patrols of the North and South Vietnamese and the Americans during the last war, before giving way again to poor fishermen and women reclaiming their right to a post war—but meager—existence among the mangroves and muddy brown water.
Now the developers are staking their claim and vast swathes have already been cleared arcing out from the centre.
Here’s a thought. New homes must be built, fine, but instead of choking off some of the last remaining urban waterways, why not develop better passenger river service to ease Saigon’s notorious traffic? Promote tourism and even eco-tourism (birdwatchers rejoice) in the area and—instead of taking the illegal boat ride that we did—register and licence the fishermen and women as drivers, operators and guides.
Condos for money now or preservation for tourism money for the long term. But it shouldn’t be an either/or proposition. The government could actually have both.
Now that’s a thought.