For many years until recently, the only thing of note inside the Vietnamese Village in Santa Lourdes that once hosted a Vietnamese community in the mid-90s was a modest restaurant that served authentic Vietnamese dishes.
Once a bustling community that freely intermingled with the local population, the village popularly referred to as Viet Ville was eventually abandoned as most of its residents returned to Vietnam.
The restaurant, now managed by a group of local entrepreneurs organized as the Palawan Savers’ Club (PSC), was doing well riding on the wave of a burgeoning tourism industry until the pandemic struck and the sector suffered its heaviest blow.
Today, the historical Viet Vill is undergoing a massive makeover in brave defiance of the pandemic’s blow on the local tourism sector. It opened its doors this week to locals with a bid to become the newest tourist haven in this part of town. Viet Ville is no longer just an authentic Vietnamese restaurant. PSC members who are behind the restoration project are pinning their hopes on tourism’s comeback to become a major landmark.
“It is risky, but we have to prepare now because the tourists will come back,” said May Aldritt, a representative from the Viet Ville management, during the inaugural walk-through on Saturday evening around the rustic ruins of the village.
Throwing in millions in led lighting and fixtures alone, the local entrepreneur group aims to rehabilitate the 13-hectare complex banking on its historical significance that launched the “eternal friendship” between the Philippines and Vietnam.
Now being primed to cater to travelers, particularly culture-buffs, a four-day bazaar is being staged here featuring at least 26 Palawenyo vendors from December 27 up to the 30th.
“There is no assurance that we will have tourists [because of the tight travel restrictions], but [even local] families can enjoy coming over, walking around, and learn about the Filipino-Vietnamese culture we somehow forgot,” said Peter G. Sing, founding member of Palawenyo Savers Club (PSC), a group of local entrepreneurs overseeing the renovation.
The short span of time it took to develop the place was led by a group of women members of PSC.
“Credit for this instant development goes to PSC’s all-women management team led by May Aldritt. These Power Palawenyos know nothing about lighting, construction, landscaping nor architecture, but they pulled this off in 21 days. Imagine what this place will look like a year from now,” Sing said.
The relaunching of Viet Ville from a commonly known Chao Long restaurant to a historical destination spot in the city has opened job opportunities and the area’s potential to attract tourists amidst the pandemic crisis.
The preparation ran for 21 days including site development to the improvement of the spots such as putting lights and clearing the area in aim to open a walking tour experience for visitors.
“We received a lot of help from contractors, we also helped to generate a lot of employment by the hundreds. Malaki ang naitulong lalo na ngayong pandemya at holiday season,” Aldritt said.
Aside from giving job opportunities to individuals involved in the preparation, the management also wanted to support the local livelihood of merchants by providing free spaces for 26 booths and free transportation from Robinsons Mall to the Viet Village and vice versa to make it accessible for the locals.
The merchants to occupy spaces came from different lines of businesses such as food, plants, local artisans, and agricultural products. Aldritt also said the management tried to come up with a good mix of businesses to cater to the different interests of the buying public.
“It is our help to spur local economy kaya walang bayad ‘yong ating booths. To make it convenient for our buying public, we have arranged free transportation. Anytime between 10 a.m. and 10 p.m., meron nang sasakyan na aalis kapag puno na, may several multicabs na magpapalit-palitan para lang ma-encourage na pumunta rito at matulungan natin ang ating merchants,” Aldritt added.
Different activities will also be conducted through the run of the Viet Village Market such as acoustic night, spoken poetry contest, and the battle of the bands.
The village is owned by the Apostolic Vicariate of Puerto Princesa and the restaurant known as Viet Ville was managed by PSC since 2015. Aldritt believess that investing in the soft development of the village could also help the total economy through the opportunities it could open to the public.
“We’ve been managing the restaurant primarily since 2015, tapos it’s just now that we felt it’s right, let’s just do something — nothing major. May impact na rin naman pero soft development ang tawag namin diyan. We need to help, we need na buhayin natin this place, in doing so, we can help the local economy,” she said.
Sing added that they have laid down the plan for the development since Bishop Pedro Arigo requested them to manage the village and restaurant but issues of property and permit made the delay.
“When then Bishop (Pedro) Arigo requested the Palawenyo Savers Club to manage the restaurant and help manage the village, we submitted a plan which in several millions of developments. But there are lots of things na usually nangyayari, including issues on property, permits and all. Na-delay nang na-delay,” he said.
“Kaming investors nag-alala, kung magkakaroon ng property issue, what happens to our investments, structures? So when we decided to do this on the first week of December, simple lang ang mindset, let’s develop it na hindi tayo matatakot na mayroon tayong structures na magagalaw. We simply beautify the place, we lit it up, inilawan natin,” he said.
Sing stressed that this is only the start of the development in the area, aiming to host an annual festival of lights in Puerto Princesa. This is also their preparation as the new destination for tourists for the comeback of the tourism industry after its hiatus due to the pandemic, pointing out that “it is a long answer to the dream to make this historical place a destination.”
To give more appreciation to the significant spots in the village, the management will introduce the 30-minute walking tour along with a tour guide to further explain the relevance of each area to the lives of the Vietnamese people who once lived in the village.
Through continuous developments, Sing added that they aim to put an art hub within the village and will call different art contests by February 2021. Plans such as a library in the forest, theatre in the forest, and bar in the forests are also being eyed in the area.
“Matagal ko ng pangarap simula noong nag-retire ako noong 2009, saan ako puwedeng maglakad na maraming puno? Iyong totoong park, hindi sementadong park. Here it is now, we will make that a reality for Palaweños, for people in Puerto Princesa, and for the guests of Palawan,” he added.
Tourism despite pandemic
Aldritt said that even opening a destination in a time of pandemic is risky, but it is also a preparation for the return of the tourism industry.
“Because the tourists will come back, they will definitely comeback. It is not only for tourists outside Palawan, we are talking of Palaweños. Your families will enjoy walking around, it is the start. Kailangan kasi we prepare, hindi pupuwede na kapag nandyan na, saka tayo—kailangan tayo mismo ang market natin,” she said.
The PSC believes that tourism will have to come back “sooner or later” and Sing added that they are betting on that.
“Tandaan natin na dito pa lang sa Palawan ay mayroon na yata tayong isang milyon dito. Kung meron man lang na 200,000 doon sa isang milyon na merong mapupuntahan na iba sa Puerto, that’s good. At saka noon ko pa sinasabi na ang ating lugar, Puerto Princesa, matagal ng nangangailangan na mag-develop tayo ng ibang destinasyon,” he said.
Romancing the ruins
Tran Dung Minh, 52, with his five children and a Filipina wife, was among only about five Filipino-Vietnamese families that live in the village.
In 2019, Minh temporarily housed the 10 Vietnamese fishermen who were convicted here for illegal fishing, before they were sent back to Vietnam. Minh also receives a small stipend from the Vietnam Embassy for helping out jailed fishermen undergo fair trial by providing translation services as he is fluent in Filipino and Vietnamese languages.
“The boatmen need my help. Like them, we all take risks to survive,” Minh said in an earlier interview.
In its prime, the community thrived with its own restaurant, markets, shops, a vast children’s playground, as well as a Catholic chapel and Buddhist pagoda.
“In 1996, there was a total of 150 houses built. Then in 1997, they added 50 more houses,” said Joseph Estrada, an accredited tour guide by the Department of Tourism (DOT) from Samahan Gabay Turismo ng Palawan.
In 1997, the national, provincial, and city governments, the Western Command (WESCOM), through the efforts of the Center for Assistance to Displaced Persons of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), inaugurated the village and relocated the Vietnamese nationals who were then being housed in a processing center in Barangay Bancao-bancao.