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Charting the Flow of the Nhiêu Lộc Canal From Start to Historical Start

When I fall in love with an album, I seek out the artist's first mixtapes and demos. When I come to admire a poet, I hunt down their early poems and chapbooks. I even linger over the old highlight reels of my favorite football players' college games. Understanding where something starts allows me appreciate it more. So it is with the Nhiêu Lộc–Thị Nghè Canal.

This led me to research the canal’s history: It was built along with the city’s other canals in the 19th century to connect with the Mekong Delta for travel and trade and help control floods. Its past is as murky as the swamp lands it was cut into, but some interesting details and anecdotes have floated to the present, including the fact it once had numerous branches and reports that Gia Long amassed troops on its shores when preparing to attack Gia Định.

The Nhiêu Lộc–Thị Nghè Canal in 1955. Photo by Raymond Cauchetier via Flickr user manhhai

In addition to this historical start of the canal, I wanted to know of its physical start and thus made a trip up to Út Tịch Street in Tân Bình where the nine-kilometer-long waterway begins. I once lived nearby, so I knew what to expect of the rather lackluster start, the commotion-choked neighborhood surrounding it, and recent reports that it had become filled with trash.

The timing of my visit coincided with an announcement that an ongoing dispute between cleanup crews and the city had reached a temporary solution, and they would begin removing the collected sludge-quarrels of trash and hyacinth that had been collecting for months. I watched the crane-fitted boats gather the snarls of stink for an hour, and based on the limited progress they made, had little faith the waters would be cleaned any time soon.

I returned six days later, expecting confirmation of my growing frustration with the city’s inability to get anything done. From the perpetually delayed metro to the persistent refusal to preserve large trees and Long Thành airport woes, it’s easy to be discouraged. So I was stunned to arrive and find the clean-up crew had made a noticeable dent. Where there was funk and folly, now clear water flowed. It’s still not clean (I did see a fish dying beside a staled caravan of styrofoam) but it's much better and I expect it will only get better. I’m now assured that the canal remains true to what it was since its beginning: a means to make life better for people in Saigon.

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