Turning Ho Chi Minh City into a clean and orderly city like Singapore would render it more developed and civilized. To do so, motorbikes are restricted on the sidewalks, vendors are banned altogether, all physical obstructions including steps and canopies and balconies are removed, and all shop signs are to be made more consistent.
The City’s Character
However, the reality is not that straightforward.
First, Ho Chi Minh City is not modern Singapore. Ho Chi Minh City has its own identity that is defined by the diversity and the vibrancy found in its streets, sidewalks and alleyways. To heavily regulate the sidewalks is to diminish the vibrancy and the diversity that define the city.
Second, the mess that exists on the sidewalks is not all bad. Instead of banning activity altogether, there should be an evaluation of the pros and cons of each situation. I agree that driving motorbikes on sidewalks should be banned and penalized if committed. As one of the last remaining pedestrians (I walk anywhere within Districts 1 and 3), I have witnessed not only tourists with children on strollers, but also locals like me, dodging for our lives against heavy motorbike traffic on the sidewalks. The recent enforcement of this restriction by the traffic police has been effective. Motorbikes can only be parked at assigned locations along the sidewalks.
However, vendors and sidewalk cafes are not just a bad mess. They are the vital elements of Ho Chi Minh City’s character. Many cities welcome and regulate these activities successfully. Paris has its sidewalk cafes; Bangkok has its sidewalk food vendors; Ho Chi Minh City should be allowed to have its multi-function sidewalks.
With well-defined regulations, including connection to the city’s electricity and plumbing and sewage systems and modest taxation, vendors can be managed effectively. The recent proposal to move all vendors from the sidewalks to a few assigned city blocks seems superficial to me. These heavily orchestrated places would quickly attain a theme-park ambiance, like that of the existing Ben Thanh night market, which caters mostly to tourists.
Regarding the canopies and the balconies and the entry steps that stick out beyond the property line, there are situations where they are dangerous obstructions and, therefore, should be removed. However, the regulation should take into account situations where exceptions to the rules are more appropriate. It was not ideal when the steps in front of a historic theatre were removed after having been there for decades.
Regarding the shop signs along the sidewalks, there have been discussions about regulating and systemising them. Though some systemisation can be helpful for safety reasons, the city planners must be careful not to over-regulate based on aesthetic reasons and risk turning our sidewalks into a homogeneous and sterile environment.
We should embrace the heterogeneity and the diversity of Ho Chi Minh City sidewalks. They are physical evidence of the tolerance among Saigonese towards all types and classes of people. Heavily regulated city blocks in the newly built developments are not just boring, they are evidence of an exclusive attitude of one social class towards others.