HCMC Dining Guide

Friday, March 25, 2011

The Future of Saigon

With a population that is expected to reach 15 million by 2020 and a local economy that has expanded at upwards of 20% a year recently, Saigon is rapidly outgrowing its current footprint. Aging infrastructure is beginning to crumble under the weight of this social and economic growth. Every day around 100 cars and 1,500 motorbikes are added to the already chaotic flow of traffic. Rapidly growing demand for luxury goods - the flow of consumer goods through the city's port has increased 30% over the last year - is placing huge strains on the antiquated electrical grid.  Unplanned neighborhoods have resulted in slap-dash drainage systems that are simply overwhelmed by the torrential rains that visit the city on a daily basis during the wet season. All of this means that huge traffic jams, lengthy power outages (we had a 6 hour one the other day), and severe street flooding are chronic problems for many residents here.

So, how should a government go about solving these problems, in the meantime making the city even more attractive to foreign investment and tourism? Answering this question is very difficult. One easy solution, at least for the traffic problem, is to build highways. There isn't a single proper highway in the city, so every type of vehicle imaginable fights for space on the narrow streets - at night, tractor trailers bringing in supplies from the port lumber down a few main arteries, kicking up dust and dirt into the eyes of the moto drivers that flit around them like flies around an elephant. New highways would provide an alternate route for trucks, something that would make everyone involved happier.

Fortunately, the local government has recognized this need. According to the Vietnam News, by 2020 the city will add "three belt roads, seven express highways, two main urban boulevards, and four sky-roads with 25 tunnels and bridges." Whether or not all of that will actually come to fruition is anyone's guess, but the first highway is actually nearing completion: the East-West Highway, which will cut across the city, connecting National Highway 1A (which runs all the way up to Hanoi) to another highway east of the city. This road includes a tunnel connecting Districts 1 and 2 under the Saigon River. Here is a decent map of the city, with the highway route in red. (Quan means District.)
You should be able to get a larger image by clicking on it.
Highways alone, however, will not solve Saigon's traffic woes. Almost every road and sidewalk in the city needs to be significantly widened. Even during non-peak hours the streets can be horribly congested, and walking is usually an exercise in frustration, as motorbikes and cars have little concern for pedestrians, especially on the streets that don't even have a sidewalk. The problem with simply widening everything - other than how expensive that would be - is that the city is very densely-packed. Widening even a few major streets would require the demolition of hundreds, if not thousands, of buildings. Such an undertaking would irrevocably alter the face and character of Saigon, while forcing the relocation of thousands of residents. Since that obviously isn't a very viable solution, officials have instead placed major importance on the idea of New Urban Areas. There are two of these in Saigon - Phu My Hung, in suburban District 7, which I will cover in another post, and Thu Thiem, in District 2. The latter of these is arguably the more ambitious, although it has barely gottten off the ground thus far. Still, it's significance is worth discussing.

Thu Thiem New Urban Area will sit on the Thu Thiem Peninsula, which sticks out into the Saigon River like a tongue, in District 2. As of right now, this area is largely scrub grass, with the exception of a major road and some expensive expat housing along the river. In 15 years, however, planners expect it to look something like this:
The ambitious plan includes thousands of residential units, a stadium, parks, canals, lakes, an international convention center, and financial and business districts. All of this is supposed to be laid out in a planned, logical manner, in contrast to the random, often nonsensical layout of the current city. Thu Thiem, which is currently barely connected to the city, would subsequently be tied into the grid by the to-be-completed tunnel on the East-West Highway and probably a few more bridges. A subway line is also expected to connect the two areas. (The subway is supposedly going to have two lines in operation by 2015, but I think it will be more like 2020.)

The upshot to such a plan would basically be the creation of two distinct cities within one: the crazy, cramped, distinctly Vietnamese current city, and the hyper-modern, fully globalized Thu Thiem area. Such a reality would probably be rather bizarre to experience first-hand: simply by crossing the Saigon River one could go from a raging Asian megacity to a (hopefully) clean, thoughtfully laid-out area of modern living.

It should go without saying that accomplishing all of this will be difficult. Vietnam's economy - and Saigon's in particular - has been growing spectacularly for the past decade, but there is no guarantee that such growth will continue. There is also a history here of hugely ambitious projects going nowhere; there are several empty lots in District 1 that were supposed to be skyscrapers by now, and the previously mentioned subway doesn't really seem to be going anywhere (although the project did just get a huge loan from the Asian Development Bank). Finally, Vietnam has a reputation as one of the most corrupt countries in Southeast Asia. An economic crash, shortage of foreign investment, or cronyism could easily trip up the project. As of right now the New Urban Area is still in the land-clearing phase, so the future is far from certain. However, if all goes according to plan, this view of Ho Chi Minh City from above the Saigon River:
will look as dramatically different in 15 years' time as these two shots of Shanghai, a city that, in just two decades, has transformed from a river town with its best days seemingly behind it, to one of the largest cities in the world and a glittering showcase of China's incredible economic growth.
Shanghai, on the Yangtze River, in 1990
Shanghai in 2000.
At some point in the future I'll write about Phu My Hung, which is far more developed than Thu Thiem, so there will be pictures of tangible development. I also hope to eventually get some pictures of the highway and tunnel project as well. Until then, enjoy.


  1. really interesting post. where did you get all the info from? the two pictures of shanghai you posted are crazy, can't believe so much can change in 10 years! also, is that first picture a view from our apartment???

  2. Thanks! That pic is from your apartment! Snagged a few shots before we left for Singapore. The info is all on the internet, you just have to do some digging...

  3. Saigon is suffering a strangled economy from the Commie Government from Hanoi (Northern VN ) ,it'll never be like Shanghai because Hanoi doesn't want SG to progress further than HN look at shanghai changing landscape after a decade and look at Sg's plan in 15 year's time from now... i twill be very low rise and boring , not that bold and glamorous like SH , they will make sure it will stay that way , those bunch of thieves from Hanoi

  4. Anonymous has a really good point. What is really interesting to me is, Saigon is the largest commercial hub of Vietnam. It is Vietnam's financial centre, its most populated metropolis, receiving the most FDI and foreign tourists, over 2x more than that of Hanoi... yet, all the tallest buildings are being built in Hanoi, which, from an economic standpoint, doesn't make sense. One has to wonder why the government prioritizes one city over the other.

  5. That is indeed odd - Hanoi has the Landmark Tower and the proposed Vietinbank Tower, both of which are way taller than anything here in Saigon. I think it will be interesting to see if the Thu Thiem area actually comes to fruition as planned. Seems rather silly to restrict the development of your most important city, whatever the political reasoning is.