HCMC Dining Guide

Friday, October 8, 2010

Consumption v. Construction

Now that I've readjusted to the energy of Saigon after a relaxing weekend in the Delta, I've decided to focus on some of the oddities of life here in the next couple posts. With a metro population of over 9 million (thanks Wikipedia!), Saigon is obviously a massive metropolis. The greater city area is expected to have a population of 20 million by 2020, thanks to Vietnam's rapid population growth and the fact that a huge majority of the country is under the age of 35. After almost a month here it is clear that, despite Vietnam's explosive economic growth, the rate of construction has not kept up with the rate of consumption. In simpler terms, the government has not been able to build things fast enough to handle all of the new things people are buying and demanding.

Exhibit A in this subject is grocery stores. There is one near our house and I can guarantee you that no matter what time you go it will be an absolute madhouse. Monday morning around 10 am? Chaos. Mid-day Thursday? It's a zoo. Grandmas with sharp elbows jab their way down the aisles. Many people are utterly oblivious to the fact that other people may actualy be in the store - even saying "excuse me" in Vietnamese (sin loy!) usually doesn't work. I learned quickly that you basically have to just plow your way through if people are in the middle of the aisle.

The concept of lines, or queues for our British friends, isn't widely accepted as a valid social norm. For example, there is a little station in the produce section where you have to get your fruits and vegetables weighed and priced before you go to the main checkout line. The first time I went there I dutifully stood where I thought the line was, but then I realized people were just walking up and throwing their produce in front of people who were there first and grabbing it whenever the workers had weighed it. Now I do the same. There is no concern for who may have been there first, it's just a free for all to see who can get their bananas or eggplant back first. Checkout is a little better, although if you leave even the slightest opening between you and the person ahead of you someone will dive in like a hawk and snag the spot. As a consequence of all of this, I will most likely act like a complete dick the first time I go to a store whenever I go back to the States, where there is at least some courtesy in the shopping lanes.

The point I'm trying to make is that there aren't enough grocery stores to keep everyone happy. If you go to another store you will be greeted with the same image of mass carnage. There are lots of people with money to buy lots of stuff, but there simply aren't enough stores to keep up with the demand.

Infrastructure is another area where construction has been horribly outpaced by the sheer number of motorbikes, cars, buses, and trucks pouring onto the streets of Saigon every day. At rush hour here the roads are clogged with vehicles of all sorts. Many motorbike drivers even resort to driving on the sidewalk to get around jams at red lights. This is the most annoying, and also one of the most dangerous, things about the city. If Vietnam becomes rich to the point where more people can afford cars, as opposed to motorbikes, the city will turn into a giant parking lot. And there really isn't any room to expand roads - businesses and apartments line every street, so I'm not sure what city planners would do if they wanted to widen roads. The view while waiting at a red light today looks like this:
Imagine if all of those bikes were cars.

Sticking with roads, the main one leading to part of Saigon's port is a shining example of something that needs to be upgraded. The road is only two narrow lanes wide, and both sides are chock full of trucks either heading to the port to pick up goods or heading into the city to deliver goods. Driving on it, then, is a nightmare, with motorbikes weaving between traffic and convoys of huge trucks crushing your dreams of attaining any sort of speed. People are buying food, electronics, clothing, etc. at a growing rate, meaning the port will keep getting busier, but the route used to connect the people to what they want is terribly outdated.

Now, the government seems to able to get things done when it puts in some effort. Examples are the beautiful new skyscraper in District 1, the massive new bridge over the Saigon River, the highway I discussed in the previous post, and the bridge over the Mekong near My Tho.

As I've said before, these projects are absolutely world-class. But, despite their impressiveness, they are still not big enough to provide enough office space or traffic lanes for the growing number of businessmen and cars in Vietnam. Corporations and the government will have to work extremely hard to ensure that Saigon doesn't outgrow it's surroundings anymore that it already has. Power failures do happen in certain parts of the city from time to time, becuase there is so much demand for electricity. A growing class of young professionals will demand more cars and luxury goods (an issue I'll discuss in my next post), especially as the internet and TV show them how much the Western world has. The forests of construction cranes that litter large sections of the city's skyline show that planners are trying to keep up with the money that is flooding into Saigon, and I'm very interested to see how the city looks five years from now: will it be a gridlocked, overcrowded mess, or a highly functional global metropolis?

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