Saigon’s Visual Identity, Today to Tomorrow

Saigon is expanding at breakneck speed. In order to learn more about what might happen, what will happen, and what should happen, Oi spoke with a number of informed, invested, and expert sources on Saigon’s progress, development and identity.

Our expert panel:

Andrew Currie
Co-Founder & Managing Director of
OUT-2 Design & Workplace-Asia

Archie Pizzini
Design Principal
HTA+pizzini In-Situ Architects

Hoanh Tran
Design Principal
HTA+pizzini In-Situ Architects

Lam Dang
Legal Consultant

Matthew Young

Mel Schenk

Tim Doling

Tim: There needs to be a comprehensive inventory of heritage buildings, and measures to protect those that are of particular importance from an architectural or historical point of view. The French agency PADDI (Ho Chi Minh City Urban Development Management Support Centre) is working with the HCMC Institute of Development Studies to draw up an inventory of architecturally and historically significant villas in Districts 1 and 3 and to formulate zoning and planning regulations for the city in conjunction with all stakeholders. In the longer term, this project needs to be widened to include other districts and other types of built heritage throughout the city.


Lam: The model was to have been Shanghai’s Pu Dong. Saigon’s historical core was to remain intact, and the new city was to be built across the river in Saigon South. But obviously development has evolved in a completely different way. When the first towers went up downtown, it was a shock – even if it was understood as a skyline statement. The redesign of Nguyen Hue repurposed the surrounding buildings and now we are seeing a complete change of use for central Saigon. It has become a question of vision and of participation. Also one of sustainability. Because when a population doubles in little more than a decade, the pressures that result are huge. Where do you grow: out or up? Already the countryside from Cu Chi to My Tho is one long road of construction.

Matthew: Sustainability is inevitable in that it is in people’s best interests. It is not just an altruistic response to caring for the planet but also a common sense solution to balancing needs and wants over the long term. Air conditioning is inevitably going to be taken up in Southeast Asia, however power generation is getting more and more expensive, so people and governments are turning to renewables. Also, people care for their health: they are more aware so they look after their waterways better, protect them from filth and disease, and protect their water supply and their irrigation for crops. This is simply the future and here it is so visible – so close to the people I believe great strides will be made.

Andrew: One solution is to incentivize at the commercial level, for example where if you can prove your building is sustainable, then you are awarded with more gross floor area, or where commercial spaces are encouraged to generate their own power to sell to the grid. The long-term goal there would be to generate enough of their own power to store in batteries. Also, solar will work; the main thing preventing it now is cost and storage capabilities. Maybe it will start in the rural areas where it is easier to go off grid, but eventually it’s a no-brainer. Generally speaking, where you see the initiative being taken on sustainability is either in industrial buildings, or in resorts here. They are always looking for self-sufficiency as a way to reduce costs, or reduce risk. But what is really needed is an over-arching plan for all stakeholders.

IMG_3944Mel: When air conditioning became cheap, homes and buildings became like caves. Architects stopped designing ventilation openings at the tops of walls. Also, home security usually required the bars on the inside of windows, which meant you could not keep your windows open at night, and were forced to use air conditioning. One way for the individual home to improve its energy use is to move the bars to the outside and use louvered windows, which can be opened at all times. Then you can live very comfortably and sustainably with open ventilation and ceiling fans, like it was before air conditioning. Also, the individual home, the tube house, should consider courtyards and gardens as a means of ventilation and light – and physical well being – rather than build to the extremities and cover everything with a roof as has been done for decades.

Archie: Urban design should recognize what worked well in the earlier system and design to accommodate the close knit social fabric that assists the population in their daily life. The existing fabric of Saigon has a beautiful mixed-use scale that supports Saigon’s still largely a self-employed, small enterprise economy. It’s boutiques and small cafes, small markets as well as soup stands and banh mi sellers. Look at the organic development in buildings like the Catinat and along Le Loi: they are great examples of Saigon scale, with easy transitions from street to living quarters. Massive shopping centers seem to belong to a different city, or fit better in Phu My Hung.

Matthew: We’re hoping for adaptive re-use as a recognition of current and evolving identity. And it’s intriguing to see that Vingroup has a project in Sydney’s central business district that will be exactly that. So maybe that bodes well for future adaptive re-use here in Saigon. Maybe we will see something similar to what was done with New York’s Meatpacking District or Sydney’s Carriageworks. Architecture is constantly evolving as technologies and building techniques and priorities in the built environment change. Adaptive re-use preserves what is important about the character and soul of a place and reinvigorates it use and importance in a contemporary setting.


Andrew: I grew up in Singapore during its redevelopment, so I am a bit more pragmatic. Things must change. When you factor in population growth estimates with a comparison of Saigon’s commercial space against other cities in Asia, it is clear that you cannot escape a skyscraper city. Saigon needs a strong central business district, which from purely a mathematical point of view means it needs more business space. The outskirts of the city will be vertical, which will actually be easier in terms of utilities and infrastructure than if a population of ten million continued to sprawl horizontally.

Matthew: Phu My Hung was an experiment. In a way it is a capsule of a different style of living. I expect to see towers in other districts, like the ninth, as new development will take place along the periphery because they will be more open for opportunity than the center. And if they can clean up the canals, as they did on the way to the airport, then you’ll see a real shift in vitality. If the face of the river changes, and every riverside project goes through, then that will further impact the viability of renovating and maintaining some of the characteristics so loved of the city center. And as an aside, when or if the airport moves, then the entire city will flip 180 degrees.

Lam: Renovation of the canals is very forward thinking. In Cholon, for example, this would be a key part of its revitalization plans. But just in general, embracing them for traffic and transport would change Saigon by alleviating the strain on the streets from traffic and the heavy infrastructure projects that are tying up the city. At the same time, we see how the already renovated parts can become destinations for quality social living and recreation. But there needs to be behavioral change so that the canals are not seen as places to dump trash.

Hoanh: The canal renovation projects are a recent positive regarding green space and infrastructure. At some point, cities grow beyond their capacities, and Saigon should develop the infrastructure and layout of its inner core and consider developing satellite cities linked to Saigon by metro.


Matthew: The issue then becomes how long does it take to build a full-scale metro system capable of serving the HCMC populace?

Hoanh: The metro is a long-term exercise, but if you look at Bangkok, you see that when its metro went in, there was rapid behavioral change across generations. But the line has to serve the most populated districts and outer areas or else who is it for?

Archie: Regarding the high-rise projects, they have an effect on the urban fabric and, by extension, the social fabric as well. Speculation can shift the focus away from the existing communities, so care should be taken to make sure new developments also consider the populations of the communities where they are located.

Mel: It is important to recognize that historically, there was always a shop or ground floor with high commercial value. Prime pieces of city land should retain this commercial space and value; they should not be purely residential.

Lam: On new ways of living, people used to not want to live ‘up’. They remembered power outages, fires, and mistrusted elevators. Rents were cheaper on the top floor than the ground floors. The younger generations do not have such concerns.

Andrew: ‘New’ is now associated with ‘safe’ and is a selling point. Lessons like back up power generators have been learned and fire regulations improved. Older buildings that had illegal additions have had to take them down.

Hoanh: As for the future, in this transitional period, Saigon will still be charming. In every city, there are two threads: the big development projects, and the small development that occurs when people and small enterprises take over buildings and introduce new commercial opportunities and imbue these areas with character. They become hot spots for communities, trendy areas for young people, and for those in artistic or creative fields. We are seeing this in many places in Saigon now, and it should continue at least for the short term. But if rents escalate in such places, and globally that has been the experience, then these neighborhoods get locked up and begin to expel the character that made them attractive: the local eclecticism gets taken over by global chains and the experience loses its genuineness.

For other articles on this series, click here.

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