Kris à Genève

A Canadian living in Switzerland

The Road to Nowhere

with one comment

Like Saigon, Binh Phuoc province and its capital Dong Xoai are developing at a rapid rate. But the theme of development is different in the two areas. Saigon seems to be racing to catch up with the overdue infrastructure needs of its bursting population. By contrast, there is no visible population pressure in Dong Xoai, and the development seems prompted more than anything by the province’s overflowing coffers. Record rubber prices mean a windfall for the government, not necessarily from taxes (no one seems to pay them in Vietnam), but from the revenues of the state-owned companies that dominate the province’s rubber sector.

Here are a couple of photos of a grandiose project just outside of Dong Xoai town. The first photo shows the sign and cleared land for a new university; the second shows clearing and levelling for an adjacent residential development, centred around a couple of high-rise residential blocks. It is difficult to convey by words or photos why these developments, or at least their footprints, seems out of scale with Dong Xoai, other than to say that Dong Xoai town only has two main roads and perhaps a dozen buildings of over five stories in height.

With the seemingly over-the-top scale of public development projects in mind, I will jump to an obscure reference before linking back to development in Binh Phuoc.

Do you remember the 2008 US presidential elections and all the laughs we enjoyed at Sarah Palin’s expense? Well, I thought of her recently when looking at another of Binh Phuoc’s development projects. You may remember hearing during the 2008 campaign about Palin’s involvement in Alaska’s “Road to Nowhere” when she was governor of Alaska. In short, it was a highway that ended in a cul-de-sac, pursued by Alaskan politicians such as Palin because it was to be funded by federal money. This was nothing new for Alaska, which receives the most federal transfers per capita of any state. For every tax dollar the average Alaskan sends to Washington, he receives $1.19 in return (see article).

Like a mini-Alaska, Binh Phuoc has its own Road to Nowhere. I discovered it while jogging one evening: a grand, empty, freeway-sized road that snakes along a lake north of the town, Ho Suoi Cam, branched by several dead-end spurs. The road was completed last year and looks top-notch. Roads in Asia are often dodgy because the builder received a fixed sum from the government for the contract and then skimped on the quality and quantity of supplies. This one seems the genuine article, down to a well-tended flower garden that runs the full length of what I have seen of the road. Notice the construction and the extensive lighting in the next two photos:

The last photo also shows a rare sight on the Road to Nowhere: a motorist. I have been on the road on several occasions and seen a grand total of one car and a handful of motorbikes.

The last photo shows not only a motorbike, but also a section of road that sits in a low, wet section of land. We interviewed a farmer who lives 100m off the road. When the road plan received approval from the province, part of the farmer’s land was expropriated. Roughly where I am standing to take the above photo, the land used to be rice paddy.

This ex-rice paddy hints at the real purpose of the road. The province commissioned the road, awarding one contract to build the road and another to develop the roadside lots into expensive residential plots. The official motivation for the road was to relocate population from Dong Xoai town. But this is a silly argument, as Dong Xoai is not overpopulated, and the prices of the roadside plots are hardly accessible to anyone who might be suffering from unsatisfactory living conditions in town.

My uninformed opinion is that the Road to Nowhere is an example of a common problem for average citizens in Vietnam: land grabbing by the elites. The country’s legal code names the government as the sole owner of land and allows it to expropriate any land from its occupants  for projects that benefit the public good. As the country’s pace of development has quickened, well-placed businessmen, government officials and Communist Party members have accumulated extra capital to invest and recognised a major profit opportunity in the state’s powers of expropriation. Briefly, someone proposes to the government a development project for houses, schools and whatever else “for the public good.” The state expropriates the necessary land from public uses or private occupants, compensating them at 10% of the actual value. When it comes time to execute the development plan – oops, no schools or houses, but maybe a golf course or some expensive condos.

In the case of the Road to Nowhere, I suspect the idea was to expropriate and resell farmland at a profit to the development project, award some public funds in the form of a road contract to a well-connected businessman, and to allow a developer to sell the cheaply acquired land as overpriced roadside lots. Population relocation and future expansion do not seem to factor, as this huge, empty road has no visible development projects anywhere along its length. And it is not as if it hosts a small trickle of traffic in anticipation of a heavier flow in the future: it is empty.

As part of the real estate development, here is a rusty sign showing a planned lakeside community. The Road to Nowhere is the main road show winding along the lakeside.

The direct translation of the title of the development is “Dong Xoai Forest Park Borough,” so maybe “Forest Park Estates” or “Forest Park Community.” The green zones indicated on he map translate roughly to “land along the lake” (dat ven ho) and “forest park land” (dat lam vien). Here is the current state of the development just beside the road:

I have been mostly critical of the road, but I actually enjoy walking on a big, new, empty road. You can skip along the dotted lines, walk blindfolded down the middle of the street, or just sit in the middle of it and enjoy the silence. It is an oddly pleasant feeling to be alone on a road – usually such a loud, people-unfriendly place. In addition, the road offers some great views of the lake. In the evening young couples come up here to cuddle and smooch at sunset. Here is a photo of the view.

Lastly, the rarest of photos: the only car I have seen on the Road to Nowhere.


Written by Kris Terauds

March 31, 2011 at 00:52

One Response

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  1. Road to nowhere reminds me of the 1960’s BC Railway to Dease lake back in Wacky Bennetts era. Build it and they will come (mining and forestry). They never did and the line was abandoned. Again a great story. Stafford

    Stafford Reid

    March 31, 2011 at 04:09

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