A 20th-century building in downtown Ho Chi Minh City, believed to be the last remnant of Saigon’s early railway system, has found itself at the heart of an ongoing debate about how the city should preserve its past.
The building in question, the current headquarters of the Saigon Railway Company, sits across from Ho Chi Minh City’s iconic Ben Thanh Market, with its main entrance facing Quach Thi Trang Roundabout and a separate entrance overlooking Ham Nghi Street. Inaugurated during the French colonial period in 1914, the same year as the opening of Ben Thanh Market, the building was originally known as the Bureau du Chemin de Fer (Railway Bureau), belonging to the Indochina Railway Company.
In a recent proposal, the Ho Chi Minh City People’s Committee suggested that the building be handed over to the municipal authorities for preservation and be converted into a museum detailing the history of Vietnam’s railway system.
The state-owned Vietnam Railways Corporation (VNR), however, objected to the proposition, citing the building’s current designation as the headquarters for four of the organization’s agencies.
Relocating the agencies would hurt VNR’s bottom line and affect its current investment and development plans, it said.
Famed architect Ngo Viet Nam Son disagrees with such claims, opining that using a historical site as a corporate head office is not financially sound and suggesting that the municipal authorities provide the VNR with a new site for its headquarters.
Complicating the issues, documents from 2007 obtained by Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper show the railway industry once had the intention of converting the building into a modern office tower.
A center for integrated management
Ho Chi Minh City’s Management Authority for Urban Railways (MAUR) has sent its own proposal to the municipal People’s Committee, proposing the building be transformed into a center for integrated railway management.
MAUR would use the larger, two-story structure in the building as a central railway station which would transform the nearby underground metro area into a public transport hub, according to the proposal.
The building's second and smaller component would be used as a center for integrated management for the lines of the urban railway system.
Ho Chi Minh City already has plans to develop at least eight metro lines.
The city’s metro line No. 1, whose construction is expected to hit 85 percent completion by the end of this year, will run from Ben Thanh Market to the New Mien Dong (Eastern) Bus Terminal in neighboring Binh Duong Province.
Its underground Ben Thanh Station will be an interchange for several upcoming metro lines planned in the southern metropolis.