By any standards Saigon was a backwater — an investment starved outpost where crumbling colonial structures, war damage, and grim Soviet-style architecture encapsulated a city trapped in a vacuum between its tumultuous recent past and an uncertain future.
Wind the clock on to the present day and it’s almost impossible for those who didn’t live here through less fortunate times to comprehend a city caught in stasis. Once known as the Paris of the Orient due to its stately tree-lined boulevards and the Francophone influence on its buildings, to many eyes Saigon is now making an audacious late play for the title of the Dubai of Indochina. Like the skyline of the notoriously impatient Middle Eastern city state, this conurbation’s cityscape is altering at a pace that would shame the most reckless of xe om drivers.
Business towers, office blocks, glitzy shopping malls, high-end real estate developments, urban regeneration projects, visually stunning new bridges — you name it, Ho Chi Minh City has got it and is about to get much more of it. In another parallel with Dubai, Saigon has even got its own iconic skyscraper, the Bitexco Tower. Measuring a height of 265.5 metres, the structure may be a mere trifle compared to the 828m Burj Khalifa, but in a developing country where the average per capita income is still only just above US$1,000, this epitaph to modern-day Vietnam represents a bold statement of intent.
Indeed, the general mood of bullish confidence is palpable. With unrest in Thailand making Bangkok a much less attractive proposition for investors than it used to be, and other regional capitals such as Phnom Penh, Vientiane and Rangoon stymied by a range of political, economic and cultural factors, the feeling that Saigon’s time has arrived is one shared by many.
“It’s definitely the most up and coming city in Asia,” says Shimizu Kenji, President of Dream Comes Asia, a construction and interior design firm with offices in Kyoto, Japan and in Saigon. “In Singapore, Bangkok and Tokyo there is nothing left to develop and the infrastructure is already there. Difficult politics mean that Myanmar and Cambodia are not so attractive, so Vietnam is the obvious choice for development. There’s a lot of opportunity for development and the labour costs are relatively cheap.”
“I believe that Vietnam has yet to take its rightful place amongst its regional counterparts,” agrees Andrew Currie of Out-2 Design, one of Saigon’s top architecture and design studios. “Saigon has a lot going for it, and is destined to become a major destination.”
Short-Term Gain, Long-Term Pain?
Yet while the consensus seems to be that Saigon’s previously untapped potential makes it ripe for development, many observers are rather more circumspect when it comes to appraising the way it is being implemented. ‘Too much, too soon’ is the phrase commonly deployed when something or someone overstretches while riding high on an initial wave of momentum. And, although many of the thorny issues arising in Saigon can be partly justified as the inevitable growing pains of a developing nation attempting to compete with the big boys, experts agree that elements of short-termism are worryingly apparent.
“While there are some good examples of development here, by far the majority focus on exploitation rather than contribution,” adds Currie. “We have been involved with the first three developments to be designed and built to an international environmental standard (Australia’s ‘Green Star), but most buildings here are of very low quality — both from a developer and tenant’s point of view.”
He adds: “Once developers shift from short-term thinking to medium to long-term, they will begin to change. The problem is that the general standard and cost of construction is still low (by international standards), and there are few incentives for most developers to change this.”
Saigon’s frequently pitiful infrastructure is another major deterrent to maintaining sustainable growth according to many.
“It seems that the infrastructure development is lagging behind the building development,” says George Moir, Engineering Manager at BBBH Consortium, the firm that oversaw the design and construction of the Phu My Bridge. “This will lead not only to traffic congestion but also the lack of services (power, water, waste water, telecom, etc) will lead to restricted growth. Even in the time I have been in Ho Chi Minh City there has been a noticeable increase in traffic congestion, and gridlock can’t be far away. Having lived in Bangkok in the 1990s, it is easy to make comparisons.”
Other concerns include uncontrolled safety standards on construction sites, ludicrously high rents set by unscrupulous landlords, and the fact that, to many observers, supply appears to be far outstripping demand.
Hope for the Future
However, according to Naim Khan-Turk, Head of Research at Colliers International, the proliferation of office stock will eventually have a positive knock-on effect by reducing previously unrealistic rental costs and forcing developers to produce better quality buildings.
“The office market is seeing tremendous over supply,” he admits. “However, if we take a closer look, what is actually happening is the market is becoming better supplied with better quality buildings and the poorer quality buildings will suffer.
“Also we have seen office rents come down dramatically from those heady days of US$80 to US$100 per square metre to more reasonable levels, again this is good for the city overall, as it makes it more competitive to do business here for both international and Vietnamese companies.”
In common with many a city with bags of potential, Saigon is finding it difficult to resist the temptation to run before it can walk when it comes to development. Such short-term thinking is inevitable, but damaging. Nevertheless, an influx of developers working to internationally recognised standards should ensure that Saigon gets to where it wants to go eventually.
“The city, and the country, can benefit greatly from experienced, international developers,” says Currie. “Rather than learning by mistakes that take ten or more years to correct, why not be smart and access knowledge from those who already have it. If we combine that knowledge with a thorough understanding of context and culture, Saigon can develop into a desirable world-class city with its own unique personality.”