(Continued from Mả Lạng 1: Saigon Massacre)
Deep in the heart of a glistening, pulsating, glamorous city known for a century as The Pearl of the Orient exists a strange and dark twisting, turning beast with many dank and hoary legs, reaching out into the very lifeblood of the city.
It transcends space and time, delving deep down into the very ground where it shares a common thread with that which came before. It even shares the same name. It is called Mả Lạng.
Chiều giông Mả ngụy cũng giông.
Hồn lên lớp lớp bềnh bồng như mây.
Sống thời gươm bén cầm tay.
Chết thời một sợi lông mày cũng buông.
Thương thay Mả ngụy mưa tuôn…
A tempest eve, Mả Ngụy also gales
Spirits rise like waves floating into clouds
Live by the sword in hand
Die with no trace of even an eyebrow
Sorrowful Mả Ngụy, rain drenched…**
The word Mả Lạng ̣(or Mả Loạn, Mả Ngụy) may sound pretty in English, but in Vietnamese, it means forgotten graveyard. It is also the name of a tiny neighborhood in Saigon, located directly under the glittering lights of the luxury sky scrappers and business buildings.
For the longest time, everyone knew about the massive cemetery that was once an area used by the military of the day to give their troops the chance to practice stage combat. It went from a fairly benign flat, grassy plain and sprang into a sinister wild jungle in less than a decade.
There the jungle was to remain, right up against a populous city that was growing in every direction, except towards that dense jungle. In fact, people avoided it like the plague.
If they had to travel to the other side of the jungle, they took the long way around it rather than cut through the dark, creepy as fuck wildness, that surely had to have been the vigorous product of a botanical carnivorous corpse feasting.
I mean, what could possibly be better fertilizer for the trees than 1,831 fresh corpses, jumbled together in one large pit?
The local people, endlessly tortured by the incessant wailing and moaning of the restless souls, re-designated an existing đình làng ̣(a type of temple for an all-purpose veneration of various entities and demi-gods) to assuage and care for the lost spirits. The temple, named Thành Hoàng Bổn Cảnh, was built in 1802 and was perfectly situated within the vicinity of the mass grave site. It remains today, at Hẻm 528 Điện Biên Phủ, quận 10, TP.HCM, in continuous use for the same purpose—to assuage the dead.
But that was 180 years ago. Today, things are very different.
Modern-day Mả Lạng
Time is the greatest equalizer of all human endeavors and foibles, great and small. After about a hundred years, nobody was left alive who had first hand knowledge of this massacre. Add another 85 years to that century, plus a war which resulted in much more gruesome deaths and ways of dying, and that huge jungle next to the thriving city became an exciting new area to develop and put to good use.
In 1975, after communist north took over the southern republic, there was a huge exodus of northerners to the area, who knew nothing about the history of the place.
But the postwar era was a chaotic time. The war was over, but its toll on the people from both sides were devastating. The mental illness was a kind of incessant torment of the soul still living, that could find no peace. Add to that the mistrust both sides had with each other plus the deep destitution of the populace and the result was a catastrophic and deep mass depression that lasted for decades.
Local people who had any ties to the old government, which was most of the population since there was a draft in place that took most of the able-bodied males into military service, were uprooted and sent to other parts of the country to find other means of sustenance.
Those who were able to survive in the new environment stayed and did subsistence farming. Those who could not get used to the new environment eventually found their way back to the city of their birth.
Living with the Dead
(The images above are of people currently living in a cemetery from a different part of Saigon. This was also what happened at Mả Lạng 45 years ago)
With no home to return to, huge numbers of the newly homeless began to congregate around the cemetery area, where nobody else wanted to live. In effect, they began living on top of the cemetery, using boards, planks, and tarps to flank the raised sides of the tombs, and cook, eat, sleep, play right on top of the graves.
In an effort to put good land to use, the local government ordered for the undergrowth to be cleared, the trees razed to the ground, and the raised tombs to be carted off, along with whatever remains still remained inside the tombs.
Then, they ordered tiny 160 sq ft shacks to be put up in long winding rows, with tiny alleys in between the tiny houses for access. It was here that local officials housed the entire Mả Lạng indigent population as a temporary stopgap to solve the problem of the homeless in Saigon.
Now, the place looks like this:
The richest of these Mả Lạng residences live in a fairly large 160 sq ft box. The rest live in divided homes that are half that size, or smaller. Most homes are occupied by at least four adults and a handful of children. Some homes have more than 12 people of multi-generations, all crammed up inside an area the size of an average American half-bath.
The Vietnamese call heroin the white death. With grinding poverty and hopelessness as their only directive, Mả Lạng of the late 1970s and 1980s quickly turned into a heroin hot spot where everyone was either selling heroin or using heroin—or both.
There was a sophisticated heroin distribution system which used the citizens as a way to smuggle heroin into the area, and from there, it was propagated out to other cities by runners.
Entire families were part of the drug ring, from grandparents to grandchildren. At a certain point in the history of the Mả Lạng neighborhood, at least 80% of the population was addicted to heroin.
It was a bleak existence, almost as if the dead had cursed the living progeny into a 200-year long hell. The long-dead was underground, piled together like cord wood, dumped into a shit hole, and forgotten. The living-dead was above ground, piled together like sardines inside tiny crypts looking out onto darkened alleyways, also forgotten. A classic karmic cycle had been initiated by the massacre and this was the consequence of those actions.
It took almost 30 years to eradicate heroin from the alleyways of Mả Lạng, but eradicate they did. Then, they began to renovate the areas around Mả Lạng. Schools and community centers with parks were built. Churches and temples were erected. Hospitals were also being constructed to service the population.
It was at this time that the land was dug up to put sewer pipes and to lay foundations for various buildings. During one such construction, a team of Korean builders discovered a shallow pit filled with thousands of human bones.
They were in the process of putting up a hospital building (Bình Dân Hospital, translated as Commoner’s Hospital), and were clearing out the ground to sink pillars and to lay the foundation. It seemed then to be a best guesstimate as to a portion of the final location of Mả Lạng.
The hospital ended up being built across the street from where the bones were dug up, perhaps in a futile effort to avoid desecrating such an ominous spot, but it didn’t matter. Saigon was such a densely thriving city that it didn’t take long before other buildings and businesses got built on top of the bone pit.
Nobody knows what the Korean construction workers did with all the bony remains. I assume they took it to a nearby landfill and re-interred the bones, but I have not been able to locate any news on that subject.
Now, some of the best hotels are built in and around that area. One of the ritziest of those is the Pullman hotel.
This is not a plug for that hotel. Let me repeat. I am not advertising for this hotel, nor was it the one I stayed at during my previous visit to Saigon.
This is the Pullman Saigon. It is a 5-star first class hotel for the wealthiest of travelers.
This is what it looks like from Mả Lạng.
Ten years ago, there was an edict by the government to do an imminent domain for this entire area to gentrify the place. The slums would be replaced with a new hospital complete with the most up-to-date medical technology to serve the population that lives in and around District 10. Everyone had been forewarned that this would occur, and all are aware of this mandate.
They are waiting still, in their above-ground crypts.
**The poem above was written around the time of the massacre, and was fairly widespread. Sadly, after 180 years, only the first stanza can still be recalled. The last line, which should have been the first line of the second stanza, is not even complete. If I ever find the entirety of the song, I will repost it on here.
Mả Lạng – khu siêu ổ chuột giữa trung tâm Sài Gòn
Xây bệnh viện Sài Gòn 1.000 tỷ đồng tại khu Mả Lạng
One thought on “Mả Lạng 2: The Underbelly of Saigon”
Wonder if the that which is below would ever be tainted with the delight of the life and exuberance above. Making it a mildly healing place.