SAIGON (1954-1960)/ 13. Personal account of a bac di cu
Doan Thanh Liem is one of the immigrants from the North (bac di-cu). In June 1954, 20 year-old Doan first moved from Hanoi to Haiphong and stayed in Haiphong for a month. In July, when the Geneva Accord was still half-signed, he took a French military ship with about 800 people. They arrived at Cap Saint Jaques (Vung Tau) port after 3 days, and docked at Dragon Wharf, Saigon. They were brought to a temporary resettlement camp at Ton Tho Tuong Elementary school in Tran Hung Dao1.
Doan was among the first groups of immigrants to settle at Saigon. The school, where the resettlement camp was, is located very close to the city centre. It is also only 1000m away from the wharf where they docked. As a result, he had the privilege to enjoy the facilities of the city centre, including the Dai Nam Cinema under construction and more importantly, the Ben Thanh market.
He was permitted to move to the dormitories in the Gia Long all-girls school after admitted to the Saigon University, though only for a short period of time. After the students return to the school, he moved to the camp at the site of the original Main Prison of Saigon (Kham Lon Saigon), which was demolished in 19532. The location of the camp is surprisingly close to the administrative centre of Saigon. It is next to the Ho Chi Minh City Supreme People’s Court and very close to the Independence Palace, where President Ngo Dinh Diem lived. This shows that the government was in lack of land to properly settle the huge number of immigrants and were forced to use this piece of land even if it may possess danger to the government in case of any protest or riots occuring in the camp. The living condition was also unpleasant in the camp. Doan recounted that 8 person were cramped in a small tent. The sun at noon was so strong that everyone in the camp had to escape from the camp to the nearby office, where there were many trees, to hide under the shades. After staying in the camp until the spring of 1955, he was moved to the dormitory of the Minh Mang University, which is fully equipped with beds, electricity and water.
The account of Doan shows that the early resettlement of refugees within the Saigon city centre exhausted the schools, public facilities and vacant land for setting up shelters. Refugees were forced to move from camps to camps when each facility returned to their original use. The resettlement camps seemingly brought insignificant impact to their respective sites as soon as the original use of the buildings are restored. However, setting up of resettlement camps provided the opportunity and buffer for a change in land use in particular cases. For example, after refugees moved away from the original site of the Main Prison, President Diem decided to build the National Library and Universities and Literature Department3. The transition from a socially unfavourable infrastructure to highly public facilities is smoothened by the camp as the place is recognised as more socially acceptable in the process.
- Doan, Thanh Liem. “Câu chuyện Di cư vào miền Nam của tôi.” [My story of migrating to the South] Dan Chim Viet Online, 19 Jul. 2014, http://www.danchimviet.info/archives/88970/cau-chuyen-di-cu-vao-mien-nam-cua-toi/2014/07. Accessed 18 Dec. 2016.
- Doling, Tim. “Old Saigon Building of the Week – Ho Chi Minh City General Sciences Library, 1970.” Historic Vietnam: Tim Doling’s Heritage Portal, 15 Sep. 2014. http://www.historicvietnam.com/general-sciences-library/. Accessed 17 Dec. 2016.
- General Science Library. “Lịch sử hình thành.” [History] Thư Viện Khoa Học Tổng Hợp, https://www.thuvientphcm.gov.vn/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=290&Itemid=1002&lang=vi. Accessed 17 Dec. 2016.