It’s unbelievable that a city of Saigon’s size might still possess undeveloped, riverfront land straight across from downtown. But that’s the case. Saigon has been curiously slow to capitalize on the prime acreage of District 2’s Thú Thiêm ward… but it hasn’t forgotten it entirely. We visited while the area’s most prominent tenants were still grassy hillocks and nuns. Five years later, things would surely look a lot different.
Saigon is growing rapidly. New skyscrapers and towering apartment blocks are sprouting up in every district of town. New highways, new temples, new subway lines. So, the lack of construction on a patch of land as tantalizing as the riverside Thú Thiêm district is difficult to explain.
But they’re coming, those drooling, greedy-eyed developers. During our walk around this section of town, still overgrown with weeds and ominously devoid of people, it was like watching a violent storm growing on the horizon. The rain hasn’t started, yet, but just look at those clouds. Look how everything is being cordoned off, and how the locals are being kept away. And [plop plop] there are the first drops: the metal skeleton of a new building going up; access roads being cemented; Heineken billboards. The construction storm is on its way, and nothing is going to stop it.
That’s right, nothing is going to stop it… not even sweet little nuns! Directly across the Saigon River from the Bitexco Financial Tower, occupying one of the most delicious slices of land in Saigon, is the Hội Dòng Mến Thánh Giá Monastery. We entered the monastery’s gates, hoping to see the church and maybe an nun or two. But we weren’t expecting to find a large and active community of them.
Once inside, we were greeted by an elderly nun, who spoke the cutest English imaginable and barely reached my belly button. The sisters were currently being called to service in the church, and we were shocked by their numbers. Our guide told us that around 300 nuns still live in the monastery, which has been in this location since 1840. They have a farm and spend their days educating children. We toured their barn to see the milk cows, and a couple hairless Indian Pariah puppies that had just been born.
There is no doubt in my mind that the sisters are going to have to fight to keep their monastery, and that they’ll lose. There’s simply too much money to be made in this real estate. Thú Thiêm, and the other large swaths of District 2 which are still undeveloped, are set to change drastically. If we visit this ward few years down the line, I bet we wouldn’t even recognize it. I just hope the sisters are provided a suitable new place to live and work.
Location: Hội Dòng Mến Thánh Giá Monastery