Ho Chi Minh City: Racing to the Future
by Melissa Merryweather
Ho Chi Minh City is growing up. And down. And out.
Anyone trying to keep abreast of the latest trends and developments needs three phones and a slew of wellpositioned sources. ‘Official’ sources take research down a lot of dead ends—facts are confirmed by word of mouth.
The last two years alone have witnessed scene-stealing changes. The 68-storey Bitexco Financial Tower, completed in October 2010, immediately became the unofficial city emblem. Never mind that Keangnam Landmark Tower in Hanoi is taller—Bitexco is the image of ‘modern’ to young urban Vietnamese. The city began and has nearly finished an astonishing feat of demolition in Thu Thiem district—clearing 657 hectares of homes and shops in what seemed like the blink of an eye. And the East-West Highway opened, its centrepiece the long-delayed Thu Thiem tunnel (the first road transport tunnel under the Saigon River), finally providing a speedy conduit through the city.
HCMC boasts impressive growth: population increased by 18 percent between 2004 and 2009, with suburban areas alone expanding by 30 percent.
HCMC is divided into 19 urban districts—12 numbered ‘inner’ districts plus seven named districts—occupying 500 square kilometres of land, with an official population of 6,060,202 (1999-2009 Census). The swiftly expanding Cu Chi, Hoc Mon, Binh Chanh, Nha Be and Can Gio outer boroughs bring the area to 2,100 square kilometres and total population to 7.5 million with migrant workers inflating it to about 10 million daily. Estimates target 20 to 22 million inhabitants by 2020.
Development of the 19 urban districts is uneven, with density ranging from a roomy 3,000 residents per square kilometre to a sardine-like 45,000 residents per square kilometre. The main reason for this disparity is land height—districts 2,7,9 and Thu Thiem are on low-lying flood plains.
Growth in GDP has been swift, rising from US$1,524 per capita in 2002 to about US$2,800 per capita in 2009 (Forbes.com)—11 percent annually—but so too has the cost of living, with vertiginous inflation (peaking around 18 percent officially in 2010). In general the investment climate has been volatile, not just due to the global financial crisis, but also from over-speculation causing several large swings in real estate prices.
Of course, all this explosive growth comes with a price tag. ‘Spontaneous development’ is rife, with unregulated house-building and small commercial development at one end of the scale, and lightly supervised major projects at the other.
Planning departments can’t keep up. The Urban Master Plan for 2020 is based on socio-economic plans, which rely heavily on statistical targets, while actual patterns of growth and development change rapidly. Coordination between social, infrastructure and construction goals is awkward due to a lack of integrated planning structures—for instance there are no inter-district plans.
Ratification of formal masterplans can drag on for years due to uneven coordination or even competition between districts for larger projects, land clearance compensation and funding issues, so by the time they are approved they are often nearly obsolete. As a result, ‘informal’ solutions take over. Developments tend to be agreed upon on a project-by-project basis without much reference to any overall vision, resulting ultimately in a loss of communal urban land, insufficient green spaces and informal parking solutions. According to several planning advisors, the situation derives from many small compromises rather than any outward intent. The planning department has stated that it is working to streamline and improve coordination.
Growth is controlled more effectively via megaprojects such as transportation corridors and hubs at the periurban level. The idea is to marry fast-growth areas of lower population density with improved infrastructure to take pressure off the inner urban areas.