The Brisbane City Council under previous Lord Mayor Jim Soorley embarked on a strategy of developing the visual amenity of the river. The riverfront wharves were dismantled and moved, the riverfront industries relocated, the dredging of the river stopped, a pedestrian walkway along the river bank was constructed, a new passenger transport system introduced and new apartments and restaurants built along the river.
These initiatives have transformed the city. The city was rebranded the River City and an annual two-week programme of entertainment was started called the River Festival. This reclamation of the river had significant economic benefits for the city with visitors able to enjoy the river while dining.
However, the gentrification of the Brisbane River removed many of the elements that made the this waterway interesting. There were no more barges, or tugs and the river became quiet with little traffic. In losing its traditional functions — some of which were quite benign — it removed part of its visual amenity. A working group was then established to find new ways of making the river more exciting.
Ho Chi Minh City contains 3,039km of waterways with the Saigon River as the centrepiece of the city. It is a working river and as a visual spectacle, more exciting than the Brisbane River. Unlike in Brisbane, it is still used as an economic resource supporting the growth and economy of the city.
Unfortunately, the river is heavily polluted through a lack of regulatory resources. A trip down the waterway reveals kilometres of squatter housing with effluent flowing directly into the river. The pollution in Go Dau port on Thi Vai river, south of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, was once so bad that Japanese cargo ships refused to dock for fears it would corrode the hulls of their ships.
Lately, great improvements have been made to the river edges in several parts of the city with the creation of esplanades, and there has been an improvement in water quality. In particular, the work done on the Nhieu Loc-Thi Nghe canal, although as can be seen by the growing pollution in this canal, it needs to be constantly dredged and kept clean.
What we have not yet seen is the river’s use for public transport other than those old Russian hydrofoils that hammer down to Vung Tau and back. Could we not envisage a river where the two uses of the river are complementary? Given the extraordinary number of canals and waterways across the city, could we not see the emergence of a water taxi service Bangkok that would relieve pressure on the roads? Around the hubs of this public transport service, other uses such as restaurants and retail would emerge. Could not this river transport function through Uber or Grab? Imagine being able to dial up your own water taxi to go home.
No visit to Europe is complete until you have sat in a café by the water’s edge to watch the world go by. In Saigon there are comparatively few restaurants that allow you to have that experience, which is staggering given the number of people living here. If a small city like Brisbane can achieve it and reap the economic benefits, surely Saigon can, too.
Although I understand that plans have been developed, Ho Chi Minh City still does not have a grand esplanade such as Shanghai’s Bund or Phnom Penh’s Sisowath Quay or Singapore’s Clarke Quay as a city centrepiece that embraces its heritage and addresses its future.