A view of Xuân Hương Lake in Đà Lạt City. — VNS Thanh Hải
One of my favourite children’s books growing up was Virginia Lee Burton’s The Little House.
The story features a personified house in the countryside, sat upon a hill surrounded by fields, allowing the house to see the sun rise every day and starts twinkle every night. But as the years go by, the stars are blocked by skyscrapers as the area becomes a city, making the house very sad.
I was reminded of this story when authorities of Lâm Đồng Province recently announced plans to revamp downtown Đà Lạt City.
According to the plans, the Hoà Bình Theatre, built in 1929 in the heart of the city, will be demolished to make room for a shopping centre. Đà Lạt Market will be rebuilt into an area with a traditional market, a square and pedestrian streets.
Xuân Hương Lake area will host a series of hotels as well as travel and accommodation services.
Most notably, the Provincial Governor’s Palace on Dinh Hill will serve as a premium shopping centre with a ten-storey building in the middle. The old palace will be relocated to a new place, unknown yet.
If this plan comes to fruition, I’ll be just as sad as the house in the story.
Why should the “new” Đà Lạt look just like any other big, bustling city? Why replace the old, romantic city and its trees, lakes and flowers with soulless buildings?
The city and Hồ Thiệu Trị, the architect who made the plan, argue the facelift will improve the quality of services in the area and create new places for tourists to spend money. They say the planning will attract more investment into Đà Lạt. They cemented their point by citing the fact that Đà Lạt’s infrastructure lags behind much of the country and buildings like Hoà Bình Theatre and the Governor’s Palace are degraded.
But I think it was their fault historic works became degraded in the first place. Why didn’t they protect the buildings before it was too late?
The French founded Đà Lạt in 1893 and turned it into a retreat due to its pleasant year-round weather. The city has some 2,000 French-style buildings and used to be famous for its density of green trees and forests. Many people rave about the city’s peaceful atmosphere, harmony with nature and unique architecture.
The importance of buildings like the Hoà Bình Theatre and the Governor’s Palace to communal life in the city is undeniable.
Đinh Ngọc Tâm, a home designer who spent much of her childhood in the city, said she would never forget the days when she went walking in the streams, drawing at abandoned ancient villas or watching the stars from a hill.
“Those days were so important to me that I strongly believe that if I were to have grown up in another place, I would have become someone else totally different,” she wrote.
That’s the Đà Lạt I know – the city of thousands of pine trees, the city of fog, an ideal hideaway from the hustle and bustle city life – who would like to come to Đà Lạt if it’s a copy of Hồ Chí Minh City?
Urban planners and developers always justify demolition by saying tearing down older buildings is necessary in the name of development. But many cities across the world have shown development doesn’t mean having to replace iconic historical buildings.
Suzhou, a city in the east of China and Spain’s Bilbao are two such examples, having preserved historic landmarks while also developing economically.
The contrary has been going on in Việt Nam.
Ba Son Shipyard in HCM City, built in 1790 for the Vietnamese royal navy, was demolished in 2015, though it had been designated a national heritage site. It was sold to private corporations for development.
One of HCM City’s oldest churches, Thủ Thiêm Parish - built in 1875 - is slated for demolition to make way for a US$1.2 billion development.
While Hà Nội has put more efforts into retaining its old charm, many of the city’s Francophile architectural legacy is gone. Between the late 1980s and 2008, the number of French and European-style villas in Hà Nội dropped by almost half, to under 1,000, according to research by Thi Nhu Dao at the Université Panthéon-Sorbonne in Paris.
Nguyễn Thị Hậu from the Việt Nam History Association said modernisation is not contrary to preservation and there’s no battle between heritage and urban development. The battle is between policies and views, between preservationists and investors.
I agree with her. If authorities and urban developers say by changing a city’s face, they can provide better services and attract more tourists, they should think again. Destroying historic buildings only makes the city less livable and less attractive to tourists.
A city can change and become more populous and wealthier, but what makes it different from others is its character, lifestyle and unique heritage. Preserving buildings is not simply about the appearance of a city. It’s about protecting the places that give life more meaning.
If the authorities and the public consider a city’s heritage public asset, then together with investors they must come to a consensus on what can be done to renew their city while also keeping its cultural value. If the authorities don’t love the city as much as the people, we will have difficulties in protecting heritage buildings. But open and transparent conversation can help ensure all voices are considered and the public interest is maintained.
Luckily, there’s a happy ending to the story I mentioned at the beginning of this piece. In the end, a crew of movers comes to the rescue, lifting the little house onto a truck trailer and transporting her back to the country where she becomes happy again.
I hope authorities in Đà Lạt can satisfy those in love with the old city, and we can all have a happy ending. — VNS