Monday 29 October 2007


Vietnam's impressive economic development dominates headlines. Alongside the staggering growth rates, the country's economic powerhouse, Ho Chi Minh City, is at the beginning of a construction binge that looks disturbing at best.

I'm not sure how many Asian cities I've heard described "once the Pearl of the Orient". Shanghai, Canton (Guangzhou) Saigon, Hanoi, Phnom Penh Penang come to mind. There are others. The Orient clearly once had many many pearls. Now though, it seems no city makes the claim.

Most Asian cities gave up on being beautiful decades ago. Asia's achievements in development and poverty reduction are impressive. And it isn't surprising that development has taken precedence over aesthetics in cities of rampant poverty and

Rapid development has taken its toll however and as a new phase of development in Asia begins, many city governments are rediscovering the ultimate economic and lifestyle importance of attractive, functional, liveable cities. Unfortunately, for the moment at least, it seems that Ho Chi Minh City is not one of them.

In this city, formerly known as Saigon, any resident old enough will wax poetically about Pham Ngoc Thach St, Le Quy Don St or the Rue Catinat of the fifties and sixties. Despite being embroiled in a horrible war, by all accounts, the Saigon was a handsome city of tree lined boulevards, gardens, villas and parks. After the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, the city's architectural development froze. Building was largely confined to shacks and small extensions built to cope with an increasing population. They were tough years in a country shattered by decades of war and frozen by hardline Communist economic policies.

The city I discovered on my first visit in June 1990 was a very rundown version of the city the Americans left
in April 1975. It wasn't pretty but it had an appealing scale to it. Many French era architectural marvels lurked behind the makeshift shacks that normally faced the streets. And you could get around - the traffic consisted mainly of bicycles and motorcycles. Cars were a rarity.

Plenty changed in Ho Chi Minh City after the city began opening up to the outside world in the 1990s. But it was
n't until the last few years that the city's physical character started to change at a dramatic pace. The pace of change has now moved into top gear.

Most Vietnamese naturally applaud the development and the improved living conditions they now enjoy. There is also plenty of support for the "modernisation
" currently under way. There is however increasing unease about where the city is headed and what kind of place it might be for the next generation of Vietnamese. A more prosperous future seems assured. But what of the city?

Despite being surrounded by vivid examples of appalling city planning throughout Asia, Ho Chi Minh City seems to be on a blind fast track to join the world's great lost opportunities of city planning and development. In some ways it's more distressing since there are so many cities from which Saigon could learn. Drive down any major street of the city and you'll find a bizarre mix of structures emerging on tiny pieces of land with little or no architectural merit and frequently at the expense of far more attractive structures.

What is most tragic abo
ut Ho Chi Minh City is the the increasingly evident gap between what the city could be and what it looks likely to become. Some enlightened planning could make Saigon a very attractive city still. It's not yet too late, but the clock is ticking and the bulldozers are moving. So what should be done?

The French era layout around which Saigon evolved was never built to handle the population it currently serves. It is hopelessly inadequate for the city's future. That leaves 2 options - put much of the new city into new areas (the long argued "official" plan), or clear the old city and start again (a scary thought).

In practice though, neither is happening. Instead there is a seemingly under regulated construction boom in the centre with mainly unattractive commercial buildings going up everywhere - with little or no improvement to roads and transport infrastructure.

Simultaneously, the new cities of Districts 2 , 7 and beyond gather momentum also.

During the ma
ny years I have lived in this city, the talk on the street has always been that the "new" city would be created in new areas across the Saigon River - Thu Duc and Saigon South. It seemed very sensible. There is plenty of development going on in these areas too. But District 1 and the other picturesque historic parts of the city look likely to lose their charm.

Near my house in Tan Binh district, a 10 story office building is going up in the middle of residential area where the street width is less than 5 metres. Gridlock at the end of the street is normal already. When the new building comes on line, things will be far worse as cars and motorbikes jam
this tiny lane. There are no car spaces in the new building and no real space for cars on the streets. And that story is indicative of what is going on across the city - construction everywhere gorging the narrow streets with large commercial buildings at the expense of the old and without any accompanying infrastructure.

There seems to be little consideration of how the already jammed roads and barely existent public transport will carry the tens of thousands of new commuters to these buildings.
Saigon has almost ground to a halt. I recently bet a taxi driver that I could walk the further 2 kilometres to my house faster than he could drive. Sure enough, I won. The 5 kilometre journey from my home to city centre takes 10 - 15 minutes in the late evening and between 40 and 70 minutes in the day time. I can walk to the centre faster than I can drive 50% of the time.

But walk you wouldn't. If Saigon's roads are dangerously dysfunctional, the city's footpaths are virtually unusable. Parked motorcycles clog the pavements and where there is an open patch, the overflo
w of motorcycles from the busy streets will frequently fill the gap at high speeds. The pavements are also favoured by motorcyclists travelling at speed the wrong way up one way streets. A relaxing city walk is not an option in this city.

There are no easy answers of course. A city with an economy growing at 10+% will face any number of bottle necks as well as a daily temptation to adopt easy short term fixes. The challenges the city faces are not confined to managing rapid development though. Corruption and kickbacks are also feeding the city's despoilment as its officers and those state companies sitting on prime land seek to carve off a slice of the economic boom for themselves.

Still the great aesthetic and atmospheric opportunity for the city continues to be in and around District 1 - the city centre. Even now, this area has few high rise buildings. Most of district 1 consists of lowrise shophouses that have a wonderful scale to them. If they were preserved and renovated
and developed by the region's best planning minds, these shophouses could underpin an attractive district of boutiques, small business spaces, apartments, restaurants and other public facilities. There is still plenty to work with - although increasingly, the rows of shophouses are interrupted by unsightly mini high rises of up to ten stories with frontages of around 4 metres.

Of course Saigon needs its big commercial buildings. Putting them in District 1 makes no sense from an infrastructure and planning perspective however. And an opportunity to create a great city for its residents and visitors will be lost also.

What seems to be lacking is an integrated view of the city. Each piece of land seems to be viewed purely as an isolated opportunity to bring a huge cash windfall without any consideration of the creation of attractive functional integrated spaces. Just as disturbing is the lack of public space and the seeming disregard for this in current planning. Ho Chi Minh City's district 1 has no significant public parks by any regional or global standard. Nor does it have significant recreational spaces for restaurants, bars, shopping and walking. Yet it could.

Saigon's growth obsession has produced lots of wealth and opportunity
for its people - who are of course still poor by any measure. It will take a visionary, clean and assertive city government to reign in the current binge to ensure an attractive, functional city survives for the next more affluent, educated and demanding generation.