How big is Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam? Any newcomer to this sprawling conurbation would be forgiven for thinking it infinite, especially if they find themselves in the labyrinthine, haphazard sprawl of its periphery. In reality of course, the city (known to most locals by its historical name, Saigon) has its limits, even if those limits are constantly being redefined.
Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) is growing— and growing rapidly. Current projections posit an expansion of the municipal population from approximately 9 million residents to 13.2 million by 2025, with almost all the growth occurring in suburban or peri-urban areas. Development is therefore outward rather than upward, in spite of an increase in the construction of high-rises.
Development in the colonial and initial post-colonial period clung to Saigon’s infrastructure: its canals, roads, and early tramlines (which are no longer in existence). Post war urbanization followed no such pattern, as the rural population swelled the city’s periphery with a series of ad hoc, favela-esque constructions in the surrounding wetlands. Over time, these unplanned additions were integrated into the city’s infrastructure, imbuing HCMC’s architecture with a chaotic texture.
The surrounding wetlands restricted development to some extent. This led to large scale drainage of wetlands in Phú Nhuận district and, subsequently, large scale development. Other areas proved more problematic, and a similar wetland in District 2 has resisted development efforts. Though criss-crossed by highways, the lush wetland of Thủ Thiêm has provided a stark contrast with the development lying beyond. That is, up until now.
There are ambitious plans afoot for Thủ Thiêm. The 737 hectare site is to be completely transformed into HCMC’s new central business district, incorporating a new international airport and port facilities serving the Dồng Nai River. It is a fundamental realignment of the city, relocating its epicenter from its historic heart in District One. Indeed, resistance to development in Saigon’s historic quarter is one of the reasons that population growth is more noticeable in the municipality’s periphery. To some extent, Thủ Thiêm represents a response to this. But more than anything, Thủ Thiêm symbolizes a break with the past. It is the new Vietnam: dynamic, outward looking, and eager to unburden itself of the shackles of history.
Questions are already being raised about inclusivity. It is unlikely that the proposed homes for 130,000 residents are going to be in the affordable bracket. Conservative figures for the projected number of jobs created by the scheme (350,000) are likely to silence such critics. A harder question to answer is whether the redevelopment of a large wetland area will have any significant ecological impact. The master plan makes allowances for the preservation of some areas, as well as the construction of managed wetlands. Whether these design decisions are purely aesthetic or will have actual value as green infrastructure assets remains to be seen. For the time being, the project continues apace, part of the larger ambitions of the rapidly developing Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
Thủ Thiêm invites a question familiar to Saigon’s citizens: what is the price of progress? Is your city developing outwards or upwards? How is development affecting your city? Share your thoughts and stories in the comments area below.
Credits: Images by Joey Donovan. Data linked to sources.