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Walltop residents build informal community in Huế

Update: October, 13/2018 - 09:00
A wooden ladder used by residents living on the top of the royal wall system in Huế. — VNS Photo Phước Bửu
Viet Nam News

Phước Bửu

THỪA THIÊN-HUẾ — A little girl wearing a school uniform parked her electric bicycle on the street beside the royal wall in the city of Huế and shouted, her eyes cast upward. Seconds later, a man came down from the top of the wall to grab the bicycle. He quickly stepped back up to the area from which he had come.

The little girl was returning home from secondary school and her father helped her take the heavy bicycle back to their home, which is located on the top of the wall, said a nearby vendor. They acted more quickly today to avoid the lens of the reporter.

They didn’t want to be quoted — and neither did the vendor. They avoided press because they were living illegally on the wall’s top and they did not want other students to know about their children’s secret living situation.

The wall, which was built by the Nguyễn Dynasty (1802-1945) to protect the citadel in the city, is occupied in many sections by both legal and illegal residents. Many of them settled down on the wall’s top after they lost their homes during the war and after floods. Several others did so because they wanted a chance to stay in the city after they left their poor rural home villages.

Those residents have different ways of occupying the wall. The majority of them have built concrete structures, breaking part of the wall to make entrance alleys. Many others construct temporary houses on top and erect wooden ladders to reach them. Others have made use of collapsed sections, clearing the debris for housing or demolishing the wall themselves to construct homes.

Authorities in the central province of Thừa Thiên-Huế, where the city is located, said that those residents who have lived on the wall’s top since before 1976 are considered as legal occupants.

There were several causes for this legal recognition, including the turmoil before Liberation Day in 1975 and the misunderstanding of the Nguyễn Dynasty’s role in Vietnamese history. From the end of the dynasty in 1945 until the 1990s, the dynasty was blamed for the country’s failure in defending against the French colonists and the royal buildings were destroyed intentionally in a campaign aiming to erase the signs of the feudalist era over which the dynasty presided.

Later, the pace of occupation of the wall began to slow. But in 1999, when the heaviest flood in local history hit the province and swept away boat homes and land, many others took up residence in the wall.  

Those residents have been considered illegal since the wall was recognised as world heritage by UNESCO in 1993. Since then, the province’s authorities have attempted several times to relocate the residents.

However, many wall-top residents refused to resettle in an ill-built apartment block in the city’s Hương Sơ Ward. By 2011, local authorities had managed to evacuate only 220 families. A newly-released report by the provincial People’s Committee said there are 4,200 households with 15,700 residents living on the wall top and several heritage sites in the citadel.

At a press briefing earlier this week, Hoàng Ngọc Khanh, chief of the committee’s office, said local authorities had a plan for evacuation and resettlement of those 4,200 families, starting next year.

“The committee is strongly determined to evacuate those residents lodging at the heritage sit and the removal of wall-top residents is the top priority of the plan,” Khanh said, adding that the evacuation work would cost VNĐ2.8 trillion (US$120 million).

The committee at the same time will develop a 73ha residential zone in Hương Sơ Ward to resettle those residents. Khanh said this job would consume VNĐ1.4 trillion ($60 million) more, making the total cost of the project VNĐ4.2 trillion. The committee has prepared funds for part of the total cost from local government’s budget while it is also calling for investment from the central government, he said.

Most of the residents were delighted to hear of the resettlement plan, which will help them move out of their uncomfortably small homes, where waste disposal is difficult and the alleys become smelly.

“I support totally the evacuation plan and have dreamed of a better life from the plan,” said Đoàn Thị Huệ, a resident living on the wall section in the city’s Thuận Lộc Ward. Huệ, a 71-year-old retired primary school teacher, said she had been living in this community since she was born.

“It is not comfortable to live in this small house, especially because of the odour from inescapable waste water,” she said. Huệ, who is working in the ward’s women association, said that almost every woman in her community expected to be resettled to a better place.

Trần Lượng, 77, said he had emigrated from a rural area and worked as a manual worker for his entire life, so he had grown used to living on the wall top. “I’m okay over more than 45 years dwelling here. But I expect the resettlement will be good for my children and my grandchildren,” he said.

The residents’ great expectations, however, could make the resettlement project more complicated. The costs could be higher than what was projected, because all residents interviewed said they wanted to move to a single land plot of their own, not to an apartment complex.

 “I will definitely refuse to move to an apartment,” said Lượng. Meanwhile, Huệ affirmed that she would not be happy with an apartment and would rethink her opinion on the removal if one was offered.

Trần Văn Thức, 80, one of the residents living near the wall who has used space on top for farming, said his cultivation on 3,000sq. m of wall top soil is legal as he was a member of a cooperative formed by local authorities to grow crops on the wall from 1976 to 1991.

“I need sound funds to return the land. I also want local authorities to create new jobs for me, my wife and son,” said Thức.

If these demands increase the cost and disrupt the plans, the city of Huế will lose another chance to meet its full commitments to protect the relic and to improve life for residents like the little girl who hides her home from her peers. — VNS

An alley in the area where residents broke part of the wall and cleared the debris to take land for housing. — VNS Photo Phước Bửu
Vegetables at a site where nearby residents made use of soil on the top of the wall to cultivate. — VNS Photo Phước Bửu

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