What brought you to Vietnam?
I came to Vietnam courtesy of David Henry from VinaCapital. We had worked together for some years in Australia and when he took up a position in VinaCapital he asked me to come over to design some buildings in Danang and Ho Chi Minh City.
What challenges do you face working as an architect in this country?
The challenges are many for a Westerner. On the surface is the language, but I also had to learn the subtleties of the culture, which can trip you up if you are not sensitive to them. You cannot come in to impose your Western ideas on the local culture. There is also an approval system that I don’t fully understand, but my staff do!
What buildings or designs do you find the most interesting here?
I am fascinated by the hems (alleyways) and the way that the buildings are knitted together in seemingly haphazard ways. The pattern of the city — the fineness of the grain — is wonderfully rich.
What buildings or designs do you dislike?
I dislike the “take-no-prisoners” high-rises that are springing up. They give nothing back to the city, let alone the residents. By their nature they isolate people and we have seen in other countries the failure of that typology for housing communities. I know that they are all over Asia but that doesn’t make them good. Cities like Barcelona have higher population densities than Ho Chi Minh City, but higher livability and very few high-rises. As architects we need to show the way towards a new typology that works for the city. I would like the city to build from its wonderful heritage and not just copy stuff from overseas. This is a unique place.
How important is it for this country to start focusing more on ‘green’ buildings?
Critically important, as buildings soak up an enormous amount of energy. Saving energy means not having to build more power plants. Decisions made during the building design process have long-term implications for the community. Cheap air conditioners, poorly insulated buildings, lack of ventilation and window shading all contribute to high energy bills.
Good ‘passive’ design is not expensive and can reduce energy costs in the short and long term. The French understood it when they built here. So there are many good examples and templates to follow.
How difficult is it to marry the wants of your clients versus what is good for them and good for this country as a whole?
It is always difficult, but it has become easier as I have become older. You must remember that you are there to serve your client first but also the community. You must add value to both. Clients respect integrity and competence so it is important that you maintain both.
How are the new suburbs in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City changing the way people live?
I am not a fan of these new masterplans as I think they lack the ingredients that make Vietnam such an interesting country to be in. One of the problems with them is the sheer scale of the developments and making them work for the people inside them. If you look at older developments, Vietnamese have found ways to demonstrate their individuality. I can’t see the individuality in the new stuff.
How well are these suburbs being planned?
Some are good some are bad. When I came here I was surprised at how the master-planning is almost seen as a ‘giveaway’ at the beginning of a project. It is critically important to get it right and spend time on resolving all of the issues and not see it as something to rush through.
Do you see suburban living as the future of Vietnam?
Housing should always be about choice. So I would not like to see that choice removed from residents of the cities here. There will always be people who want to live in the suburbs and those who want to live in the city. You can view it as an arc — you start in the city, move out when you have children then come back when the children have left home.
If you could change one thing about the layout of Ho Chi Minh City, what would it be?
I really like the layout as it is; classical mid-19th century French planning. Even though it is frustrating to move around sometimes I like the fact that there are no motorways carving up the city.
Ed Haysom is the general director of Mode / Haysom Architects and is based in Ho Chi Minh City