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Ho Chi Minh City: Trees a crowd

Vietnam’s biggest city is home to thousands of trees, whose days are numbered — in more ways than one

Ho Chi Minh City: Trees a crowd
Image: James Draven

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The urban oasis is a little different in Ho Chi Minh City. Tao Dan Park is bisected by a large road, plied by the city’s notoriously manic traffic, and overarched by a series of gaudy, illuminated gateways in perpetual abstract celebration. The green space either side of the road is dotted by hundreds of tropical trees, each with a different three-digit number painted neatly on its trunk: 199, 200, 201…

“Numbers? What numbers? I’ve never noticed numbers on the trees,” says Minh, the hotel concierge at Sofitel Saigon Plaza, when I question him.

These numbered trees are everywhere though. Huge dipterocarp trees, planted hundreds of years ago in the French colonial era, line wide boulevards, and streets each with their own singular purpose: Book Street, a street of tea shops, another of al fresco pool halls, a market square exclusively peddling knock-off North Face apparel. All are shaded by numbered trees.

They are one of two things that strike me as unusual in HCMC: the numbered trees, obviously, but also the plastic, penguin-shaped dustbins, which stand on street corners all over the city.

The latter, my on-foot exploration reveals, seem to have escaped from Ho Chi Minh City Zoo —where the highest density of these garbage-gulping refuse receptacles can be found — and waddled across town, unlike the tigers that pace disgracefully small enclosures here, and the zoochotic, over-grooming Asiatic bears that bob and sway and swing their heads. 

The adjoining Botanical Gardens hosts a selection of oscillating, neon-lit, dollar-chasing fairground rides. Among the lurid sea of coloured balls on sticks that nod like tulips around the lake, and next to the dodgems, and by the crocodile enclosure, are trees all neatly stencilled with white-paint digits, numbered in hundreds and thousands. Buttress roots prop up tree number 1255. Tree 1392 is misted by a fountain. A poker-straight palm trunk has ‘534’ daubed on it.

There’s a more permanent fairground in Le Van Tam Park, on the corner of Vo Thi Sau Street and Hai Ba Trung Street, where, day and night, groups of teenagers practice dance routines and middle-aged people do frantic aerobics to the pulsating beat of Bluetooth boomboxes. It’s here I spot a lycra-clad retiree doing star jumps beside tree 100.

“The trees are numbered?” asks an incredulous barmaid in the legendarily lascivious nightclub Apocalypse Now — doubt etched onto her perfectly shaped brow. “Are they? Really? I don’t know anything about that.”

Nobody seems to. It’s become a minor obsession to me by now, and I’ve asked scores of people about the city’s numbered trees. Not only can I not find an explanation from anyone — from hotel staff to tour guides and even a policeman — but it’s also clear that most people haven’t even noticed them. It seems everyone is so preoccupied by keeping an eye on the crazy traffic that floods the roads and pavements that they don’t ever have time to look at the trees, unless they’re off-road, ducking a branch on the back of a scooter.

Road (and footpath) rules are established by order of size here: pedestrians give way to pushbikes, which yield to motorcycles, which give way to cars, which yield to trucks — it’s all a matter of which vehicle will do the most damage. But these mammoth trees budge for nobody.

It’s only after lengthy research upon returning home that I’ll find out the meaning of the numbers stencilled on the city’s trees. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, it’s a government initiative to manage the rate of tree planting, and to help urban planners avoid roots expanding and damaging footpaths, or branches falling onto power lines, for example. A log, as it were, of potentially troublesome trees.

Judging by the roadway widening (read: pavement trimming) schemes reported in HCMC’s local press, one might assume that these trees’ days are numbered in more ways than one.

Recently, hundreds of trees were felled to make way for Thu Thiem 2 Bridge, and there was a mass arboreal cull on Le Loi, to create space for the city’s much-needed first subway system. A second line is planned through Tao Dan Park, and 102 trees en route to the airport are also due to get the chop.

As I exit the Ho Chi Minh Museum in District 4, I notice the slender trees that line the street here are numbered in diminutive double digits — 58, 35, 23… On semi-somnambulant autopilot, I single-mindedly step into the street and negotiate the traffic with the ease of a local, swerving swarms of scooters. I’m on a mission. I find myself still in one piece on the other side of the road, in front of a rather singular tree with a solo digit neatly painted on its trunk: number 1.

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