D5 Apartment Tower Goes From Ghostly to Glam Digs
The traffic—motorbikes crowded with too many occupants, blue buses teetering like ancient mammoths, the odd cyclo rolling by in hopes of finding a client—swarms and ceases at the intersection of Hong Bang and Do Ngoc Thanh streets in District 5, HCMC’s Chinatown. Up until recently commuters who passed through this intersection in the evening were met with an eerie sight: three towers, tall and slender as incense sticks, rising unlit into Saigon’s neon skyline. These towers, known to locals as the “Ghost Towers” of Thuan Kieu Plaza, were abandoned and left to their fate close to 20 years ago.
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Every town has a dilapidated house that serves as a gauge of bravery for the neighbourhood kids - whoever can get the closest without getting ghost cooties wins - but when that haunted house towers 33 floors above anything surrounding it, the game changes.
Houses that are rumoured to be haunted can languish unsold in the real estate market for eternity but the land that Thuan Kieu Plaza once occupied was too valuable for developers to ignore. Situated in a prime location in District 5, the project was initially valued at more than US$55 million, according to the real estate news website, realestatevietnam.com.vn.
Then in 2013, the development team An Dong Investment JSC won the right to renovate the buildings for the price of VND600 billion, according to reporting by Thanh Nien News.
In November 2017, after four years of stops and starts the towers were officially transformed into The Garden Mall, a flashy new commercial and residential centre with shops and events to draw in a younger crowd. The complex features a tropical garden with 200 bird sculptures which, according to reporting by Vietnam Breaking News, reflects the hopeful Vietnamese idiom, “Dat lanh chim dau”, or in English “Where there is good land, the birds will come and settle.”
Scandals and Smoke
Completed in 1998, Thuan Kieu Plaza became the first high rise apartment complex in HCMC, yet the development failed to live up to its promise of becoming an emblem of new wealth in Vietnam. According to reporting by Kenh14 in June 2017, the towers contained a commercial centre, 648 apartments and various other facilities for the residents. Initially, the project drew a fair number of occupants, but one by one the people and businesses left, and in their wake only a murky spire of debt and urban legends remained.
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Thuan Kieu Plaza was built for an expected influx of Hong Kongese after Britain transferred sovereignty to China in 1997, but the immigrants never came and the apartments were purchased by Vietnamese buyers instead. However, the building’s low ceilings and insufficient airflow, made the Vietnamese quite literally sick. Occupants eventually moved out, citing illness and respiratory issues amongst their complaints. Worse still, the towers were allegedly cursed with bad feng shui. Historically, feng shui, a pseudoscience originating in China, has been used in Asia to orient structures in a propitious way. The design flaws in the Ghost Towers proved fatal.
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From the moment they were built the design of the russet coloured towers has been compared to the smoldering embers of incense sticks. In Vietnamese culture, incense carries an important role. It acts as the connection between the human realm and that of the spirits. When a loved one dies people burn three incense sticks because, according to incensetravel.com, odd numbers have a “greater mobility towards the infinite”. The travelling smoke supposedly assists spirits that need help moving on to the next realm.
Legend holds that the towers, like incense, acted as a beacon to lost souls, known as vong hon in Vietnamese. In Vietnamese culture, it is said that vong hon live in a parallel world to ours until they manage to find salvation. These spirits can be people who die suddenly and don’t realize they’re dead, people who stay behind to exact revenge or in some cases they can be people who die far from home and without heirs.
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One such spirit is the famous apparition of a Chinese woman who allegedly roamed the buildings prior to the rebuild. She could be seen late at night crying in the halls, the collar of her traditional cheongsam dress buttoned tight around her throat. Other coverage reports unconfirmed stories involving mysterious fires, a scandalous murder-suicide and the outright cursing of the building by workers who were killed in construction accidents.
A New Centre for Saigon’s Youth
Standing outside The Garden Mall, five months after its grand opening, it is easy to see the pains that An Dong Corp took to erase the eerie stories from the past. Now, rather than incense sticks, the towers resemble shoots of bamboo reaching towards the sky.
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In emailed responses translated from Vietnamese, Nguyen Hoanh Anh, Brand Director at The Garden Mall, wrote that the concept of The Garden Mall is to create a modern green garden for young people in the city. Weekend events, festivals and street shows attract thousands of people, Nguyen wrote.
Saigon Signature, The Garden Mall’s management service, describes the complex on their website as “an exciting civilized playground for the youth and whoever loves street arts to keep in touch, learn, and exchange experiences.”
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Mention of Thuan Kieu Plaza is noticeably left out of both descriptions but that is hardly surprising. The Garden Mall is geared towards HCMC’s youth, many of whom weren’t yet born when the saga of Thuan Kieu Plaza began, and it isn’t in the best interest of the investors and developers to bring up reminders of the past.
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The new space consists of 3 commercial floors replete with the typical shopping complex offerings. However, two areas change the space from just another mall to a destination. Vietnam’s first Phuong Nam “book city” is located in the complex and, according to The Garden Mall’s website, contains more than 500,000 books. However, the crown jewel of the development is definitely the Theatre de Cho Lon—a space dedicated to the traditional performing arts of Vietnam.
#iAMHCMC’s staff writer Tran Thi Minh Hieu attended an event in February at the newly finished Theatre de Cho Lon. She described the experience: “[S]ome parts of the mall on the third floor were not completed, it was rather dark and quiet. I did feel as if the place had been abandoned for some time and was being renovated.” However, Tran “could tell that this is a historical place and it carries the pride of a culturally rich Saigon.”
As night falls in Saigon, the ceaseless bustle in Cho Lon continues. Visitors linger around the entrance to The Garden Mall which now carries few reminders of its notorious past. Against the backdrop of the starless sky the towers’ incandescent green spotlights soar optimistically upwards, no longer beckoning vong hon but instead acting as a beacon for Saigon’s youth. Whether or not it will be successful remains to be seen.
Video source: Hoang Anh Nguyen
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