A dispute is brewing between the HCMC government and the national governments transport ministry over the fate of a colonial building that once served as Saigon’s railway headquarters.
In 2019, HCMC authorities proposed a conservation plan for the Hoa Xa complex at 136 Ham Nghi Street in District 1, which comprises two buildings, one L-shaped and the other rectangular.
In a letter to the Ministries of Transport and Finance, they had said the city "would like to take over the Hoa Xa complex for preservation."
Originally known as the Bureau du Chemin de fer (railway office) of the Indochina Railway Company, the building was the headquarters of the Ministry of Transport and Post of the South Vietnam government before 1975.
Under the city’s plans, the bigger L-shaped building would be used as the central control center for Metro Line No.1 that is close to completion, and the rest would be connected to the metro’s underground space and house historical railway artifacts.
In the letter, the city had said further, "If the two ministries and VNR agree, the city will organize an international competition for a design concept for the Ben Thanh central station area."
But this proposal was shot down by the Vietnam Railway Corporation (VNR), which owns the complex. The VNR said in a reply that all assets on the land plot at 136 Ham Nghi belong to it, and this has the imprimatur of the finance ministry.
Besides, the city has issued it a land use right certificate for the complex for 50 years, or until January 1, 2046, it said, and the law does not allow the city to take over the property.
|The facade of the complex, which stands in front of Saigon's iconic Ben Thanh Market / Photo courtesy of VnExpress|
Nguyen Duc Hiep of the Australian Department of Planning, Industry and Environment, a conservation expert who has studied HCMC’s urban planning, agrees with the city’s proposal and said that the government should conserve the complex.
Nguyen said that Saigon was the first place in Indochina to get a railroad (on December 27, 1881 and that buildings value for architectural heritage was immeasurable., The complex stands for the golden age of the railways in the last century, especially in Vietnam.
|A photograph of the Hoa Xa complex in 1926
In other major cities in Asia such as Bangkok, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Mumbai, Singapore and Taipei, old train stations are treated as an architectural heritage of historical value that must be preserved.
"The value of a city does not lie in soulless modern high-rise buildings, but in the unique cultural and historical architecture it can retain. That is an aspect that could make it appealing to both visitors and investors."
Nguyen of the Australian Department of Planning, Industry and Environment said that, "If VNR agrees to join the plan to preserve the complex, it will create a beautiful image for itself that no marketing campaign can better" and that If VNR wants to make changes to such a historical asset, it would be a huge loss for the people of Saigon since the building is an icon of the city.