How water brought wealth and then disappeared from the city

The delta of the Mekong River is one of the most threatened delta areas in the world. As a result of climate change, the country is plagued by more rain, more floods and salinization of the lower reaches of the river.

In 2009 architect Joep Janssen lived and worked in Ho Chi Minh City for four years and in his book, Living with the Mekong, Climate change and urban development in Ho Chi Minh City and the Mekong Delta, he gives a personal account of how Vietnam and the Vietnamese people cope with the consequences of climate change and urbanization.

He traveled through the Mekong Delta and Ho Chi Minh City and met farmers and urban inhabitants. Janssen analyses the influence of the rapid economic developments on water management. He interviewed Dutch engineers who were involved in plans for improved coastal defense and compares the Mekong Delta to other deltas.

In a historical analysis he shows how the developments of the city and its architecture have been influenced by French colonials as well as the canal ring of Amsterdam.

The book illustrates the dangers that delta areas in the world are facing. However, portraits of inhabitants of the Mekong Delta also show how people in their own environment take initiatives to survive and benefit from the rising waters.

The following is an edited excerpt from Living with the Mekong, Climate change and urban development in Ho Chi Minh City and the Mekong Delta. (For Part 2 of this 2-part series, click here.)

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I’m heading to Saigon South, the most modern neighbourhood of Ho Chi Minh City. First, I have to cross the Phu My Bridge. From the bridge, about 50 metres above the Saigon River, the harbour looks like a long line of docks, cranes and warehouses.

To my right is the city—incredibly tiny—and to my left the Saigon River meanders towards the sea. Next to me, a truck slowly drives up the road—its gust of wind nearly blows me of my motorbike. Once I get to Nguyen Van Linh boulevard, I notice cars and motorbikes are separated. There are less mobile stalls alongside the road than in other places in the city. After a few minutes I park my motorbike in front of The Crescent, a large and luxurious shopping mall in the centre of the new district.

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I am meeting up with Tien (28), whom I had recently met in a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. I had told her I was interested in how people experience water in the city. One of the places I want to visit is Saigon South, situated on a small branch of the Saigon River. “I go there often,” Tien had said. She had suggested going together.

Tien lives with her parents and younger brother in a white apartment building by the murky water. “There are a couple of these buildings in the city,” she says. “The owner made his fortune in the wood industry, but nowadays he also builds these modern service apartments.” The three-bedroom-flat has three luxurious toilets. “In Vietnam, it is normal for every bedroom to have its own toilet.” Tien is dressed fashionably. She has an iPod, iPad and iPhone. About the tattoos in her neck and behind her ears she says: “Every tattoo tells a piece of my life story.” She speaks fluent English. She learnt that from her father. Nowadays she also speaks English with her Vietnamese best friends. A few months ago she resigned as marketing manager. “I write poetry,” Tien says, “and since recently I have been studying French as I’m preparing myself for my trip to Europe.” She also teaches music to blind children. She does this together with a friend, the first winner of the Vietnamese edition of Idols. “One of my poems is called Victim of Time and is about disadvantaged people who cannot make their dreams come true.”

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I walk through the shopping mall with Tien. It isn’t busy. According to the billboards, The Crescent is meant to become the social heart of the new city centre. The service apartments, offices and shops are situated around an artificial lake. Many inhabitants of the inner city come here on the weekends. “Particularly at night you will see loved-up couples enjoying the sunset and, of course, each other,” smiles Tien. When the dusk falls, the first couples appear on the docks and the pedestrian bridge to The Crescent. From their motorbikes they enjoy the view of the water. And there are always several fishermen. They don’t catch a lot of fish, but they don’t seem to mind.

“To be honest, I prefer the old town,” Tien says. “That still feels like the dreamy Saigon.” The centre is lively—a jumble of pedestrians, cyclists, motorbikes and taxis. There are construction sites on almost every corner of the street. Ho Chi Minh City is rejuvenating. “The old buildings are replaced by new ones and only the melancholy is left,” she ponders. Yet she realises Ho Chi Minh City needs to look forward. “I am glad to see my city is becoming one of the most modern cities in the area.”

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HOW SAIGON SOUTH HAPPENED

The idea for Saigon South comes from Taiwan. In the early 1990s, Taiwanese tycoon Lawrence Ting came to Ho Chi Minh City. In his own country he was already known as “King Vietnam” because he had made the happiness and welfare of the Vietnamese people his mission.

“It was his second home,” his website states. “He used to come here when he was a child. The landscape, the people and their traditions reminded him of Taiwan.” Ting wanted to help shape the economic growth—obviously a lucrative business. Ting came at the right time. The local authorities thought the inner city was becoming too crowded and unsafe. Rich citizens asked for space, peace and quiet.

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Not surprising, considering the inhabitants of the inner city lived on about six square kilometres in 1999—compared to 40 square kilometers in the Netherlands. Because of this lack of space, the streets turned into an extension of people’s homes. This had to change. Ting wanted to build a modern district in the marshes south of the city, with modern infrastructure and facilities. His company collaborated with a Vietnamese government enterprise, a type of collaboration that was becoming increasingly common since the privatisation of many government enterprises in 1986.

Why would anyone want to build a large, new neighbourhood in low marshlands? The answer is simple: it is the cheapest land, interesting for those who want to make money fast— long term is for later. The project had to make sure that Ho Chi Minh City could expand in a controlled way. In 1993, the public-private consortium asked three international architectural firms to develop a plan together for a new district where people would work, live and relax. The architects drew an organised plan of roads and buildings. The marshes were drained and raised with clean sand from the Mekong Delta. Existing paths, ditches and rivers were straightened or filled up and replaced by a grid of streets. An avenue would connect all important facilities, such as schools, a water park and a golf course. Nowadays you’ll find small enclosed residential areas on both sides of the avenue, alternated with towers and parks.

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Drawing by Christopher Grubbs

The developers saw Saigon South as an ‘island city,’ a chain of compact neighbourhoods within walking distance from each other, each surrounded by water. This plan was never realised. During the construction process, the water that had been on the drawings was mostly replaced by concrete. And since concrete does not absorb water, there is less water storage and streets frequently flood during spring tide in the rainy season. With the construction of Saigon South, Ho Chi Minh City entered modern times. And that meant building with a tabula rasa view instead of taking the existing lands into consideration. The urban plan was built on a smoothed and raised terrain. The plan appealed to wealthy Vietnamese, expats and Viet Kieus.

The urban elite leaves the crowded inner city to live here in luxury. With its own shopping mall, police, rich citizens and administration, Saigon South functions as an autonomous state within the city. There was so much enthusiasm about the project that they declared the district a model city for Vietnam. The ads of developers stated: “Saigon South is an urban vision for Vietnam in the new millennium.” This makes Saigon South an excellent example of a new type of settlement, in which the centre turns away from the water and instead is based on a grid of streets. This spatial process of change spreads across Ho Chi Minh City’s countryside like oil.

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THE MASTER PLAN

We walk through a park where people are fishing in ponds. Little boys are playing football on the streets. They speak English. A large notice near the playground displays the rules for inhabitants and visitors of the neighbourhood: “Gambling, cock fights and fortune-telling are not allowed in the park.”

While Tien and I walk past the residential towers and flats on our way to our motorbikes, I remember my conversation with Vietnamese urban planner Ngo Viet Nam Son who designed the plan I am currently walking through.

“Saigon South is the best that could ever happen to Ho Chi Minh City,” Nam Son said when I visited him in his old villa in the inner city. He was proud of it, and told me he had strived to make Ho Chi Minh City a little nicer, to develop a sense of place. “That will make the city economically stronger, and more appealing to work and live in.”

Nam Son summarised the success factors of Saigon South. It was based on a cohesive master plan, strong public-private cooperation, sophisticated construction with open spaces and easy access. But the plan does not yet meet all the requirements: “We still need to work on public transport, a network of waterways and weekly public activities for the local people and visitors.”

Nam Son was involved in Saigon South as a designer for the American architectural firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. On the walls of his office were photos of his late mother and father. “My father was an architect, but he was one of the first Vietnamese people to pursue a career in urban planning.” His father was the famous architect Ngo Viet Thu, winner of the prestigious architecture award Prix de Rome in 1955, and responsible for the construction of the Reunification Palace and the design of new villages in the Mekong Delta. “Urban planning is not popular among students, as they would rather be a starchitect than an official drawing city plans,” Nam Son laughed.

Nam Son saw many advantages in the urbanisation of Vietnam. “It is good for economic growth and urban expansion leads to more freedom of people’s lifestyles and activities, and more work.” Additionally, it also creates an opportunities for knowledge intensive and creative industries, which will strengthen the position of Ho Chi Minh City in the network of global metropolises.”

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We readily agreed on the disadvantages of the ever growing city, with its traffic jams, pollution, flooding and the loss of ancient heritage, which threatens the quality of life in the city. “This is why Ho Chi Minh City should not be considered as one big city with more than ten million inhabitants, or one central city with a mixed program and several dormitory towns surrounding it, but rather as a metropolis region with larger and smaller cities, varying from a hundred thousand to three million inhabitants, each with their own urban identity for a particular community, and well connected to each other. This way, the city will develop a stronger sense of place, its economy will become stronger and it will be a more appealing place to live and work,” said Nam Son.

That sounded easier than it is. For example, government departments for traffic, water management and housing each have their own master plan for the city that strongly overlap each other. “The Department of Infrastructure is working on a transport plan without consulting the department of Planning, which means there is no city plan, and without involving the department of taxes, so the taxes do not take into account the increase of real estate prices, which means that the chances of the transport plan receiving funding have become very slim,” he added.

Nam Son wanted a higher density of homes, offices and facilities close to large infrastructure projects, such as tram stations that are being built, to make the city more compact and to reduce the energy consumption. His advice: “Make sure there is a good connection between the city and the farmlands, keep the key characteristics of Ho Chi Minh City, like the canals, the street life with the rows of trees and shops. But most importantly, make sure there is plenty of water and green, so the city keeps its feet dry.”