The Story of the Loc Hung Vegetable Garden, Part 3: “We just want to find a solution”

Over the past few weeks we have been looking at the story of the expropriation of the Loc Hung Vegetable Garden in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam. The operation took place in January 2019 and saw the forcible eviction of thousands of residents and the destruction of over 500 homes. Today, nearly two years later the residents of Loc Hung continue to await justice.

Last week we heard from a 13-year-old resident of the garden who faced harassment at school. This week we are talking to Tran Minh-Thi, a local music teacher, who shares about her own experiences and reflects on the broader situation for children from the garden.

What is your connection with the Loc Hung Vegetable Garden case?

I was born and grew up in the vegetable garden and have lived here for over 40 years. My paternal grandparents migrated south to live and farm on the land. They passed it down to my parents, and myself and all my siblings all worked on the land as well until January 2019, when the demolition happened. My nieces and nephews also live and work on this land, so it has been in my family for four generations now. There are a lot of us – more than 70 in total – my grandparents had five children and my parents had 11, so with extended family it’s almost like one hundred.

At first, we farmed on the land, but because the local government hadn’t built infrastructure the garden would flood every time it rained, to the point that only land on higher ground was suitable for farming. We chose to raise livestock like chickens, but this wasn’t suitable either because of the flooding. So, like many Loc Hung residents, my parents built some houses for workers and students to rent to subsidise their way of living.

These houses were all demolished by the government. Only my parents’ house remains because it is on the edge of the area and wasn’t included in the demolition. Anyone who could afford to rent elsewhere has left, those who cannot afford it are all living in my parents’ house – 26 people all sharing one building.

How have things been recently? Have there been any problems?

Ever since the demolition, the authorities have always monitored the residents and put guards on the land to guard the area. We are not allowed to go near the land. Especially in the first few months, we really missed our old homes and the area we grew up in, but when we tried to get close to the land the authorities would push us away and scream at us. The authorities have not yet removed the Statue of Mary on the vegetable garden land – it’s a religious statue and they don’t dare to do that yet. Every time we try to get close to the statue to pray, the authorities set up a loudspeaker to disrupt the prayers.

An unidentified man threatens parishioners attempting to return to their homes as uniformed police look on.

They spread rumours and sent fliers to the schools and neighbourhoods nearby saying the vegetable garden is public land and the people have no right to it. They say the government will build a school complex there, and the compensation has already been set. People are very frustrated and confused.

Things escalated around Christmas Eve 2019. On that day, we went back to the land and tried to put up a tent so that we could gather and pray for a Christmas [church] service. Immediately we were attacked by local police and guards – several people were injured, including myself. At least three people were detained for a couple of hours.

Afterwards we returned to the land to put up a small nativity scene. The police attacked us again, damaging the nativity scene and breaking the statues of Joseph and Mary. This was very upsetting – the statues meant so much to us and we saw their destruction with our own eyes.

How have the authorities’ policies impacted children’s wellbeing in the Loc Hung Vegetable Garden?

It has had a tremendous impact on the children, they are very traumatised. They witnessed their parents being beaten and their homes demolished in front of their eyes.

A mother from the community carries her two children.

I myself saw something I can never forget – a mother carrying her four-year-old toddler in one arm while with the other hand she tried to save her possessions. As she was doing this the police attacked her and grabbed her child. She ran after them but they held her down and took the child away to a government-run childcare centre, which also built on land confiscated from the vegetable garden. Earlier that day [the day of the demolition of the vegetable garden], the police had sent a notice to all the schools and childcare facilities in the area telling them to close. Because of this, there were no childcare staff at the centre that day – it was the police that took him there and kept him there.

The mother had to go to the centre and find her child and try to get him back. It was a struggle to get him back because the police were using the childcare centre like a detention centre. The child was very traumatised; after he was released I asked him how he felt and what happened, he said: “I saw police beat my mother; my home was destroyed. They destroyed our home.”

Afterwards, the adults tried to organise a prayer service for the children to give them a sense of normalcy and to make them feel loved and feel better. That was all they could do.

We have heard of one school student who was humiliated and pressured by his school. Has this happened to any other students?

A few kids from the Loc Hung Vegetable Garden went to a school across from the garden – they faced similar harassment. Their teacher spoke to them in front of whole school, saying “Tell your parents this is public land, you have no right to be there. The government will build a better school for you, so if you want to go to that nice new school, you need to stay away from the land and tell your parents the same thing.” This happened several times to several children.

The children, frightened that they would be expelled if they didn’t obey the school authorities, went home and begged their parents not to come close to the garden or to confront the authorities or they won’t be allowed in the school. They would cry a lot.

This has all impacted the children in a critical way. Now they have lost their homes, everybody has had to move out to other areas. Rent is very expensive because demand is high, so many have had to move very far away from their school. Before they could walk to school and go home for lunch or for a nap or to do their homework. Now they live too far away and their parents have to take them to school. They can’t come home for lunch, so their parents take them to buy food if they can afford it, or look for a place offering free lunch.

The kids are exhausted, and they feel humiliated because they have to rely on a free lunch now. Their whole lives have been disrupted, and because of the travel time back and forth, they have less time to study. The school environment is noisy [so they cannot do their homework there as well as they did when they were able to go home], so they are not doing well at school.

As a teacher I am very worried. I teach further away so it hasn’t happened in my school, but I have heard about it from the parents.

Are students able to attend school now? Are there any barriers?

The school cannot hold kids back a grade because it will look bad for them, so they let them progress to the next grade even though they are falling behind. They don’t care if they understand or not. The school haven’t even offered tutoring even though the children are obviously falling behind.

What would you like the school and the government to do?

For the children, the main problems are their financial difficulties and commuting to school. I wish the school would offer tutoring or support for the affected children. More practically, I wish that they would waive the fees or discount tuition fees, so it is less of a burden for the parents.

As for the authorities, we would like the Ho Chi Minh City authorities to agree to sit down and have a straight talk with us, to listen to us, and give us an opportunity to present the legal basis for our land ownership so that we can resolve our grievances. No-one has agreed to do this in 20 years. We don’t want to oppose the government, we just want to find a solution.

What can the international community do?

We are grateful to have received support from people both in Vietnam and abroad since the demolition happened. Please continue to pray for us, and to raise awareness on the world stage. I believe international attention will be enough pressure to push the city authorities to sit down and talk with us, so this can move forward. It has been going on so long without any sign of hope. Even just a meeting to break the ice would be very helpful. We have a right to land and we have received no support or no compensation. We just want this resolved.

Click here to read the first instalment in our series on the story of the Loc Hung Vegetable Garden.

Click here to read part two.