The vanishing villas of Dalat

(No.3, Vol.4, Apr-May 2014 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

An abandoned train station in Xuan Tho

In all of Vietnam, there is no other city that boasts a system of about 2,000 French villas like Dalat. But Dalat has failed not only to effectively exploit this huge asset, but even to preserve it.
Mr Nguyen Xuan Tien, now Chairman of the People’s Committee of Lam Dong Province, said when he was still a Vice Chairman:
‘Every time we pass the Tran Hung Dao Road or come to the Le Lai area, the wretched condition of the villas makes us feel guilty toward the country and the people for not being able to protect and effectively market this asset of immense material and cultural value that belongs to the state. All of us – the administration of the province – are more anxious than ever to save the villas. We think now is not the time for blaming each other for the unfulfilled responsibility, and will do our best to solve the problem, once and for all, and quickly!’
I tried to find an ‘intact’ villa but failed miserably: all are so faded and saggy that I could not imagine the splendour and glamour of their glorious days. In many villas, people use the space to grow pigs and chickens. Most of the valuable (both culturally and moneywise) French villas of Dalat have become makeshift condos. In the Le Lai area, some villas are shared by the first ‘invaders’ with all sorts of characters, including some prostitutes. In other places, they sliced up the land to sell to vagabonds who settled in sneakily. It’s told that in the 1990’s, the villas on Le Lai Street were occupied only by a few lock breakers, and the population was less than 10 persons. But now they house over 60 households with a few hundred mouths. Strangely, many of these invaders are officially registered as legal occupants of those very villas.

An abandoned villa on Nguyen Du

A villa in Trai Ham
Photos: Nguyen Hang Tinh

As for those villas that have legally become privately owned, they become monstrous patches of queer colours: blue, red, white and yellow, unmistakable signs of territorial marking. Of course, once people own part of a villa, they would not hesitate to paint it the way they choose, modify it, and perhaps even destroy it to build something new and utterly out of context, without thinking of the historical, cultural and artistic value of the old building.
I went to see the officials of Lam Dong Department of Construction, Housing Trade and Development Company of Lam Dong, the People’s Committee of Dalat City, Dalat Tourist. They all blame the past for the same reason: slack management for too long a time, and now the situation is too far gone to change.
1978 was the first time Lam Dong Province assigned nine villas on Le Lai Street to the Dalat Tourist for tourism development. These villas have been invaded by over 60 households, and none of the villas is intact; cracked walls, leaking and shattered roofs and dilapidation are seen everywhere. The 16 beautiful villas that the province authority assigned to this company in 1991 as capital for the DRI Joint Venture are now in ruins, with back cavities instead of doors and windows. The occupants are now birds, bats, snakes, centipedes, prostitutes and drug addicts. 28 families have built houses in their territory or occupied the basement and annexes, and opened pass ways between them.
Mr Vo Linh, director of Dalat Tourist, and chair of the board of DRI Joint Venture, explained why these 16 villas are left untouched: ‘Our company has left these villas untouched because of the sudden death of the owner of the partner company, which led to financial difficulties, followed by the financial crisis in the region. There is another reason: although the province assigned these villas to us, but in reality until now we haven’t got the rights on the land. How can we call naked houses without premises villas? How can we do business with that? Who would dare to invest in that? And the reason we don’t have the rights yet is because the authorities were not determined to clear away the 28 households who live in the villas.’
At the same time, Mr Che Anh, director of Housing Trade and Development Company of Lam Dong said, ‘Many foreign customers proposed to rent a whole bunch of some villas, but we have no villa that satisfied the customers’ requirements.’ He added, ‘if only the villas were cleared to be owned by the state in the proper sense, and the infrastructure ready, then the customers would line up without us inviting.’
For a long time, many companies from Ho Chi Minh City also came to wake up Dalat’s villas, but for delicate reasons they all gave up. Recently, many other companies in Ho Chi Minh City have also shared the opinion that if Lam Dong Province were more open, more brave and more determined in promoting and publicly auctioning for leasing or selling the villas, then only in a short time these architectural masterpieces could be saved.

By Nguyen Hang Tinh
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