HCMC Dining Guide

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Biggest Saigon Stories of 2011

Time to begin the year-end style posts with a rundown of six major stories (in no particular order) that came out of the city this year.
1. The opening of the Thu Thiem Tunnel and the East-West Highway

the open road
This long-awaited addition to Saigon's traffic infrastructure was finally completed on November 20th, ushering in a new era in the city's transportation history. The highway connects the expressway that runs down to the Mekong Delta that starts southwest of the city to the Hanoi Highway, in the city's northeast. Running along the canal that separates several districts, this new road allows trucks and supply shipments from points south of Saigon to bypass the city center, hopefully removing some of the largest vehicles in the country from the cramped, crowded streets here.

The tunnel, which was featured in a post from last week, is the longest in Southeast Asia, and is an example of where this city may be in another decade or two. These projects are also significant because they have finally provided a road link between the Thu Thiem Peninsula, in District 2, and the city center. Despite its location directly across the river from downtown, much of District 2 is completely undeveloped, thanks to a historic lack of connectivity to the rest of the city (Until a few years ago there was only a ferry and a bridge that isn't exactly conveniently located.). Local government authorities, as well as real estate developers, have big plans for this peninsula (the Thu Thiem New Urban Area), and the opening of the highway means construction can finally get going. This area is expected to be a new financial, business, and residential center within 10 years, and it will be just a few-minutes drive away from District 1.

2) The Closing of the Thu Thiem Ferry
A demolished house near the ferry's old entrace
Closely linked to the previous story is the de-commissioning of the Thu Thiem Ferry, which had for decades been the most convenient way to get from District 1 to 2. In a recent series by Tuoi Tre News (link here) the history of the ferry is traced, and its origins go back centuries, although it only began transporting vehicles in the 1930's. Tickets for the ferry cost just a few thousand dong, meaning anyone could use it. The termination of its service is yet another example of how the new is destroying the city's heritage piece by piece. A tumbledown neighborhood dependent on this link to the city is anchored near the ferry's old pier on the District 2 side of the river, and now that the ferry is no more this poor area has been cut off, meaning authorities can proceed with their demolition of it in preparation for the development of the previously mentioned Thu Thiem New Urban Area. Money quote from one of the ferry articles: "In the last days of the historic Thu Thiem Ferry, Ms. Tu - a fish seller for the last 30 years - anxiously asked the ferry staff if she could use the tunnel for her business.

Like many of the poor people in the city, Ms. Tu gets around by bicycle, a mode of transport that is banned in the state-of-the-are Thu Thiem Tunnel." These people made their livelihood in District 1, but there is no easy way to get there now; though I suppose this doesn't matter much, since the bulldozers are already on their way.

3) The deepening presence of Western fast-food chains
KFC is already a national institution, and may very well be the most popular kind of food in the city. Pizza Hut has numerous outlets, and Domino's is making inroads. This year, Subway and Baskin-Robbins joined the ranks of Western fast-food chains in Saigon. (Apparently BR opened here in the early 1990's, but was so expensive compared to people's income that it quickly failed.) Subway now has two stores, and I'm sure there will be multiple BR shops soon. Two Burger Kings are opening at the airport, in what is surely the opening salvo in a coming hamburger-chain war. The big question remains: when will the Golden Arches appear on Saigon's streets?

It remains to be seen whether or not authentic Vietnamese cuisine will be able to withstand a coordinated onslaught by Western food chains and advertising. The chains that are here are massively popular; their outlets are actually considered luxury dining options. Many of my students said they go to KFC for a special meal on their birthday, and they often express surprise at the fact that I love eating at cheap Vietnamese places. 2012 will undoubtedly see the arrival of more chains - will they dominate the city's dining scene, or will the family-run operations be able to hold their own?

4) St. James Inflationary Blues
This year, another topic besides traffic and the weather was added to the list of subjects anyone, be it an expat, a tourist, or a native, could talk about: inflation. Vietnam recorded the highest inflation rate in Asia in 2011, and prices for everything have risen steadily every month, although the government did get things somewhat under control towards the end of the year. Sadly, this improvement will likely be undone by the upcoming Tet holiday, when demand for all goods skyrockets as people prepare for huge family meals and house renovations to welcome in the new year, which traditionally causes prices to soar.

Prices for food and real estate have risen particularly dramatically, impacting people at every income level: the poor are having more trouble buying food to eat; and the luxury apartment market, which includes numerous under-construction projects, has come to a standstill, leaving developers and investors out in the cold. The state bank says it will get things back to normal next year, but no one knows if that will actually happen. If the inflation rate continues to rise unabated, this next year could be a costly one for Saigonese.

5) The opening of Kumho Link

Developed in the skeleton of a failed shopping mall, Kumho Link is probably the closest you can get to Singapore without leaving the city. This spotless (and, it must be said, sterile) space that connects the Intercontinental Hotel to the ANZ Tower on the corner of Hai Ba Trung and Le Duan features around a dozen restaurants, and one grocery store. The variety of of the restaurants is what makes this place most intriguing: options include Thai and Korean eateries, a Subway, a Japanese dessert cafe, and the previously reviewed Brotzeit, which features German beer and food. The cleanliness and diversity of Kumho Link, all contained under one roof, is unique here, and could be a signal of what's to come as Saigon's restaurant scene continues to modernize and diversify.

6) The quickening pace of construction

2011 saw Saigon's construction boom kick into high gear, despite global and national economic problems. District 1 is obviously a focal point for many projects, with the Saigon Times Square (in the first picture) and the One Tower slated for completion in the first half of next year, the Eden Center (middle picture) set to open at the end of the year, and work beginning on Saigon Center Phase 2 and the Ben Thanh Twin Towers. However, every district buzzes with construction work, and I can't even count the number of buildings that have been torn down so that their lots can be redeveloped since I've started living here. It seems that nearly every week I come across yet another business that is being jackhammered to the ground, cement trucks waiting around the corner to start on the project. Sky cranes stalk the skyline all over the place, and by the end of next year Saigon's face will only be even more altered. It often seems that anything that has been around for more than 10 or 20 years could in the crosshairs for the next wrecking ball, and it will be quite interesting to see where this process takes the city in the coming years.

A city as big as Saigon obviously creates a lot of news in a year, but I believe these six stories are indicative of the direction the city is going in, and they will all play large roles in its future. I will admit that there's a good chance I missed something; if you think I did, please let me in the comments. Also, you may have noticed that some of these stories have developed almost in opposition to each other. That isn't a surprise in a developing city, where modernity often arrives in certain areas while others have yet to do away with the past.

As a bonus, here are a few headlines I'd like to see next year:

"City authorities order elimination of half of taxi fleet through enormous demolition derby."

"Under a new decree, anyone who honks their horn more than 5 times in 10 seconds will be locked in a sensory-deprivation room and forced to listen to Justin Bieber albums for 2 months."

"Backpackers ordered to put on a proper shirt and get a haircut. This is a city, for God's sake."

"Flamethrowers to be distributed to all residents in order to combat rat population."


  1. Haha, I like that very last headline about the flamethrowers. The very first thing I noticed upon arriving in Saigon was how many rats were all over the streets.

    And thank you for this post, it's definitely very informative!

  2. hey Mike, I really enjoyed this post. Thanks

  3. Thanks guys, glad you liked this.

  4. How Subway survives in the nation that gave the world banh mi is completely beyond me.

  5. Well who knows, maybe it won't last...but I'm guessing it gets a ton of business off tourists, especially considering where the stores are located here.