Some insiders have recalled their memorable experiences with one of Ho Chi Minh City’s major canals in different phases, spanning from the 1940s to its miracle “rebirth” in the past few years.
Ha Minh Thai, 79, a Vietnamese man who has lived in France for the past 30 years, recently returned to the Nhieu Loc-Thi Nghe Canal, which snakes through District 1, District 3, Phu Nhuan District, Binh Thanh District, and Tan Binh District.
Right after getting off the plane, he was eager to visit the canal, where his family lived during the 1940s and afterward.
To the old man’s delighted surprise, the canal has changed beyond recognition.
The house along the canal section in Tan Binh District which was home to several generations of Thai’s family has vanished without a trace.
In 1943, Thai moved with his family from the northern province of Nam Dinh to Saigon (the former name of Ho Chi Minh City), where they settled along a Nhieu Loc-Thi Nghe Canal section in Tan Binh District.
Despite his old age, Thai distinctly remembered that the neighborhood was green and fresh during the late 1940s and early 1950s.
“Locals would fetch water from the canal for daily consumption and drink uncooked canal water stored in earthen jars in front of their homes. I never had an upset stomach from drinking the water,” the septuagenarian recalled.
Thai also cherished the times when he and his childhood friends would bask in the pure, refreshing canal or go fishing along the waterway.
The canal, which spans roughly 10 kilometers in length, was teeming with aquatic life back then.
Catching fish and peddling along the canal provided Thai’s parents with a decent livelihood during those years.
Fish caught from the canal were in good demand as they were cheap and nourishing, the old man said.
Picking fruits and leaves yielded by the trees grown along the canal also gave Thai’s parents extra income.
A section of the Nhieu Loc-Thi Nghe Canal near the Saigon Zoo and Botanical Garden was green and fresh during the early 20th century. Photo: Tuoi Tre
Pollution takes a toll
The Nhieu Loc-Thi Nghe Canal’s pollution plague began after 1954 and lingered well into the 1960s.
Locals began to feel the heavy toll that pollution took on their lives.
Tran Thi Hoan, who is over 80 now, lived along the canal from 1954 to 1975.
“Some years after my migration from the north to Saigon in 1954, the canal changed for the worse. The foul odor was tolerable initially, but it grew into a relentless obsession during the 1970s,” she recalled.
Hoan and Thai said they would wake up to new neighbors, who were taking shelter from the war-torn areas in shabby slums and stilt-houses which soon riddled the canal.
Hoan further recalled that people took up a new job of rowing sampans along the canal and scavenging for scraps or anything usable or even small amounts of money which stilt house inhabitants accidentally dropped into the murky water.
The country was reunified in 1975, but the Nhieu Loc-Thi Nghe Canal was far from being revived due to tremendous financial and social difficulties back then.
The slums further mushroomed along the waterway, worsening its pollution to an alarming extent with all the garbage that residents dumped into it.
The canal turned seriously polluted in the 1960s.
According to Le Van Nam, the city’s former chief architect, the Nhieu Loc-Thi Nghe Canal’s startling pollution level and its inhabitants’ wretched living conditions were a nagging grievance among generations of municipal leaders. A project to revamp the canal and its surroundings was given high priority attention.
The project was divided into two phases, with the first phase, from 1993 to 1998, seeing revamps made to the canal and its neighborhood.
The second phase, spanning from 2002 to 2020, is the implementation of an environmental hygiene project.
In 1992, around 900,000 people, or 25 percent of the city’s population then, called the canal home.
“The project’s scale is mind-boggling. The project has directly impacted nearly 11,500 households with almost 69,000 members, and indirectly affected over one million others,” Nam noted.
The project has faced challenges, including vehement objections from inhabitants regarding site clearance and relocation.
A former member of the project’s relocation board still remembered an old man who was holding a can of petrol, threatening to set himself on fire to protest against his family’s forced relocation.
His team was also driven away by a group of residents armed with knives, who forcefully claimed the team had to kill them first before proceeding with the site clearance.
The project implementers later eased tension by working out more reasonable compensation rates.
“We also took into careful consideration the relocation of inhabitants to apartment buildings or suburban areas. The relocation might hurt their livelihood, as most of them eked out their living by peddling in their neighborhood on the ground,” the member explained.
Several of the project’s packages were also plagued by tardiness and inadequacy brought about by Chinese contractors, he added.
“The inadequate, sluggish progress caused official development assistance costs to skyrocket, aggravating the debt burden,” he said.
“That also took a devastating toll on the inhabitants themselves. Many of them filed complaints as scores of construction sites remained incomplete year after year, seriously hurting their business and lives,” the former board member elaborated.
The canal has finally been brought back to life and is now considerably greener and fresher, though rampant fishing and littering remain looming threats to its new facelift.
The vegetated banks of the "revived" Nhieu Loc-Thi Nghe Canal is now frequented by strollers and morning exercisers. Photo: Tuoi Tre.