The physical building layers of a city always have a fascination for me. A good word that describes these layers is palimpsest, which means “scraped clean and used again”. It is often used in architectural circles to denote an object made or worked on for one purpose and later reused for another.

 

Ho Chi Minh City displays this richness of layers despite its relative youth. There are the obvious ones — the buildings from the French colonial period — but the period that most interests me is the European interwar period and then the period up to reunification.

 

The reason for any building growth is a surge in the economy. While many of the early buildings were because the French were establishing their colony, in later years, during the interwar years, high demand for rice and rubber that were the main cash crops of the country, meant that the amount of land used for growing rice quadrupled in the 20 years after 1880.

 

By the 1930s Indochina was supplying 60,000 tons of rubber each year, five per cent of all global production. Factories and mines were needed to harvest deposits of coal, tin and zinc. It goes without saying that most of the profits lined the pockets of French capitalists.

 

Transformation

 

The production had another effect. The economic growth produced a physical transformation of Vietnam and Saigon in particular. Traditional local temples, pagodas, monuments and buildings, were declared derelict and destroyed with buildings of French architecture and style erected in their place.

 

So much so that many areas of Saigon could have been mistaken for parts of Paris. The buildings in this period are very distinctive, and show confident French power. This growth was stopped with the Japanese occupation and did not resume until the Americans arrived in the late 1950s.

 

The US involvement in Vietnam was accompanied by an extraordinary building effort. A consortium comprised of Raymond International and Morrison Knudsen (RMK) (known as The Vietnam Builders) completed more than $US1.9 billion of work between 1962 and 1970, and the evidence of that work is still there. From Tan Son Nhat airport to warehouses, roads, bridges and hotels, the American contribution to the built fabric of the city is instantly recognisable.

 

Their utilitarian buildings illustrate that their approach was to win a war, not to create fine buildings. Yet their straightforwardness has delivered a good legacy. The Palace Hotel is a good example of a building from this period as it is well scaled to its location. A similar but more run-down building by the same architect is on the corner of Hai Ba Trung and Dong Du.

 

The recovery from the war took several years and the next building surge followed doi moi in 1989. This surge damaged the original fabric of Ho Chi Minh City more than anything that had gone before, exemplified by the recent destruction of the Ba Son shipyards. Since the American war and post doi moi, the average height of residential structures has increased from two or three stories to four of five storeys in the inner-city districts.

 

Concentration

 

With pressure on District 1, The Ho Chi Minh City People’s Committee has proposed a policy of concentrating commercial buildings inside District 1 and exiling any proposed new residential buildings to ease the pressure, fundamentally changing downtown Saigon by reducing the wide range of uses and activities it now contains. This policy has been contradicted with recent developments by Vinhomes and Novaland.

 

The massive scale of buildings such as Bitexco and Vietcombank fundamentally change the character of District 1. The intimate shopping and residential experiences of the previous generation have also been transformed by the new large air-conditioned malls where the locals enjoy the food courts but avoid the high-end shops. Is that the legacy we should be leaving?

 

While there is general agreement about preserving or retaining the French colonial buildings, as most people now understand them as historic buildings, (although many are still being demolished or under threat) the ones at most risk are the modernist buildings of the last 80 years.

 

Too old to be considered useful and too young to be considered as heritage, these buildings are nevertheless critical to the city’s future as much as the colonial buildings. Heritage is a moving timeline. Thus Bitexco will be seen as future heritage for its impact on the city as a symbol of its times.

 

In any city, the layers of growth are important to the overall character of the city. While not every building of an era should be preserved, however at some point the city itself will be judged as to how it has respected its past because that legacy — how we got to where we are today — is the key to its future.

 

Ed Haysom is the general director of Mode / Haysom Architects and is based in Ho Chi Minh City. You can contact him on This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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