Permanent Informality

By: Duong Huynh


When you’ve owned and lived on a piece of land for 30 years, you would think that there is some formality regarding your rights over it. To be fair, if you were the residents of the graveyard neighborhood in District 8 of HCMC, you have as many rights as the guy next door who’s been peacefully buried in his grave for the past few decades – no formal access to water, sewage systems, or infrastructure. And why not? Being residents of a graveyard, you wouldn’t need too much of that – unless you are alive.


Water collects in unsanitary puddles after rainstorm


Ho Chi Minh City, known by many as Sai Gon, represents for many migrant workers a ray of hope towards a stable economic future. Roughly 3 decades ago, a group of those seeking work in the city found their way to the cemetery that runs along the Rach Lao channel in District 8, HCMC, without many other options. The cluster of makeshift shacks and houses is now dubbed Graveyard Hamlet by outsiders and inhabitants alike.


Many of the low income working class are self-employed


While a small portion possess land titles, most are renting or borrowing land within the vicinity of the cemetery. However, the renting and borrowing take on the most informal shapes since the land technically belongs to the families of the deceased.


Despite proper claim and ownership of a small group of tenants over the land, no water infrastructure can be established due to the fact that it is a cemetery – land not zoned and regulated for habitation. With no way to dig wells or run pipes to provide for their water needs, tenants turn to water vendors outside of the living cluster to purchase water by the cubic meter. At 12,000 to 15,000 VND (or 60 to 75 cents) per cubic meter, water takes up a large part of tenants’ daily income. 


A tenant preparing dinner in a makeshift washing area


Some resourceful and less impoverished tenants have taken to buying water in bulk and running them through makeshift pipe systems to provide for their daily washing needs. Unfortunately, infrastructural issues do not end there. As is the case with informal living clusters across poor neighborhoods the world over, many of the homes are built out of scraps of corrugated iron, plastic, and wooden posts. Without plumbing infrastructure, the tenants also have to venture far off site to take care of personal hygiene needs in informal facilities that are practically dumping grounds.


A few homes belonging to the most impoverished in the Hamlet


Despite major drawbacks in living and economic conditions, life bravely moves on in the Graveyard Hamlet. Braving health hazards, many members of this community work at home to sift through garbage and disposed items of all sorts in order to gather plastic bits to be sold to recycling factories. Some work as seamstresses, and the physically abled men often work as motorbike cab drivers or construction workers.


Two generations next to piles of plastic scraps – the family’s major source of income


Without property ownership or access to education, all generations in this community face an uncertain future. Thirty plus years have passed since the first inhabitants arrived here – who is to say that the dismal picture of today will not continue far into the future?


Without access to education, the children can only stay in the area all day
Yes! Those are graves and tombstones the kids are sitting on


Vietnam shares the common biggest challenge to formalization of informal housing as many other developing countries – murky land claims. The legal loopholes of property ownership present quite a convenient backdoor through which well-connected players can engage in lucrative deals. Take the recent case of Ecopark’s April seize of privately owned agricultural land.


Unfortunately, not many have the same privilege


We’ve seen this scene many times before – mobster-like men dressed in civilian clothing barraging through tenants’ homes as police stand and watch. After all, you really cannot claim guilty by association for these scenes of brutality.


Hey, they’re not one of us!


Some cases represent formalization of land claims in favor of huge construction projects, while others involve the seizing of formally owned land straight from the common people’s hands. However, one thing is certain – profits must be gained, no matter how desperate the measures.


Gotta have moarrr!

1 thought on “Permanent Informality

  1. Pingback: AHI: United States » Not growing food, growing people: Part 1, cultivating the jobs desert

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s