Dear Saigon, A Love Letter

I’m in love with this city. Saigon is a city full of vitality and, despite the hardworking and hectic life of its inhabitants, is characterized by a contagious lighthearted optimism. I think what excites and conquers us foreigners, especially Westerners, is the how easy the possibility is to connecting with others. In Saigon, we are constantly connecting with our neighbors with whom we talk and smile often and willingly.

It’s a fact that to understand the identity of a city, we should pay particular attention to its public space. We should look at it not only for its quantity and distribution, but how the public space is experienced: what behaviors it favors or prevents, what kind of social contract it enacts. A good city is really about motion and action. It is about a peaceful social mix between classes, a porous and accessible public space (possibly green), and the possibility for everyone to move easily, cheaply and quickly throughout the city, from its center to its outer limits.

In Saigon we live (still largely) in active ‘contact’ with others. This anthropological characteristic has surely shaped the city much more than its zoning and its architectural styles. In more specialized terms, I could say that the beauty and the good of Saigon is how its public and private space mingle, promoting encounters and social interaction between its varied inhabitants, while also demonstrating and facilitating the brilliant art of surviving that is typical of this city’s wonderful people. I think it should be this characteristic of Saigon, namely that of being a cluster of big and widespread social interaction spaces, that is its true heritage. To me, this space is worth defending against the globalized creep of other city personalities. But as it always is with urban development, such decisions are matters of vision, and always come before the actual urban planning and architecture.

When we speak of ‘heritage,’ we speak of the idea of something precious to pass down, something to be safeguarded. I consider heritage everything that makes a city unique and memorable, typical to itself and special to others. It is important to enforce and foster what is typical to a particular city in order to create an intrinsic and beloved ‘home.’ At the same time, we should consider nature our first heritage and practice respect for nature, both a collective population and as individuals. Harmony with nature must not be thought as salve for a disease, or as decoration on a cake; it must be understood to be the main purpose of development. Until recently, we have put the idea of the landscape at the end of the design process. But we actually should consider it at the front, with equal value to all the other elements in the project, before we begin to design.

We should therefore acknowledge once more Saigon’s natural heritage: She is a city grown out of a river delta. Her river should once again become her main landscape. It should return to its place as the progenitor of social and commercial life. Saigon’s city planners should revive the river’s dormant value and design new transportation systems, parks, and recreational spaces that spread out from its currents. That all of these are either under-developed or non-existent is a sign of a lack of harmony with nature.

Of course, I say all this with the issue of climate change now unignorable in our future. We must recognize that water will dominate Saigon’s future design agendas, which ultimately means that water will dominate the city’s landscape. Far better to design in harmony with this fact than try to resist or sequester the inevitable.

Augustus Caesar said of Rome: “I found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble.” I think we will do well to say that we found Saigon a city of bricks and left it a city of canals.

Cristian Carenini holds a Ph.D. and is an Urban Planner and Landscape Architect.

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