When someone invites you into their home, you want to be impressed, and you don’t want to say anything negative about the place they live.
This is the situation I found myself in when one of our writers took me into their apartment in Vinhomes Central Park in Ho Chi Minh City. A 44-hectare, Singapore-like development of high-rises and villas on the banks of the Saigon River, the idea of Central Park is to create a self-contained township filled with schools, a hospital, a shopping mall, a financial centre, a harbour, public spaces, restaurants, bars, cafés and everything you need to be able to live without ever straying far from the comfort of your home.
When I visited, only a few of the high-rise towers had been completed, with dozens more still under construction. The hospital was there, as were the schools, and the riverside park was almost complete. Yet the security for the individual blocks was already complete — to get in and out and into the lifts required an entry card, although at the gates to the complex you can come and go as you please.
Already the space felt cramped. The apartment — a one-bedroom on the 12th floor — must have been little more than 40sqm with a balcony big enough only to hang washing. The word claustrophobic sprang to mind. And while I could see how a young married couple could make the space into a love nest, what concerned me was everything else. The public space.
“Probably 30,000 people will end up living here,” I was told.
I’ve tried since to work out the number of apartments that are being built, but there are no figures online. What I do know is that with over 50 apartment block towers being constructed, each probably holding 150 to 200 apartments, it’s going to be a lot.
Vinhomes Central Park in Ho Chi Minh City. The 'township' will have schools, a hospital, a shopping mall and the tallest building in Vietnam
The problem with 30,000 people is that you need living space for them. Based on what I saw, there just wouldn’t be enough.
The green areas of the project will take up 13.8 hectares or 138,000 sqm. Divide that by 30,000 people and you get 4.6 sqm of green space per resident. It may sound a lot, but when you are enclosed in an apartment in a high-rise, having outdoor space and places to go is vital. And this doesn’t take into account the people from outside the township who will go to the shopping mall and the people working in the new financial centre, which will be an 81-floor landmark tower, the highest in Vietnam.
In short, there won’t be space to breathe, let alone live and work.
Community and Space
Head to the old countryside villages of Vietnam and you get a sense of how living space once was in this country. Take Duong Lam, to the west of Hanoi. Here houses are packed close together around a labyrinth of lanes, with public spaces around the pagoda, the church, the local schools, the cultural centre and the market. It’s the kind of place where everyone knows everyone else’s business. Yet there’s enough physical and geographical division between each family to create a certain sense of privacy.
This is how over the centuries Vietnamese communities were, with many generations of one family living under one roof, and with enough closeness to other families to instill a sense of camaraderie.
This began to change when the French came along and built cities. To pay for these cities and for the colony, the French had to work out a way to raise taxes.
“It was very difficult to invoke a tax on people’s earnings because there was so much black money in the economy,” explains architect and urban planner, Ed Haysom. “So they came up with this genius idea, the width tax. It only applied to the locals — it didn’t apply to the French administrators.”
Using the French colony of Louisiana as a model, houses in the newly built cities in Vietnam were taxed based on how wide they were. According to Haysom, the first thing the Vietnamese did when they saw the width tax was to make their houses as skinny and long as possible, creating what today we call the tube house.
He adds: “[The tube house] suited Vietnamese culture and family structure because it was vertically stratified. The family structure was such that you could have the prayer room at the top, and maybe some storage, the elderly on the ground floor or second floor with the kitchen, the married people and then maybe the kids further up. The ground floor was always either a shop or a kitchen area.”
Through this way, that sense of community created in the villages could be maintained, but in a slightly different format.
Alleyways in the big cities are the lifeblood of community
The next stage of recreating the community of the villages within the confine of the big cities was via the alleyways. Once again this happened by accident.
Over time the alleyways developed into their own labyrinth of passages, with tube houses appearing in every empty space. They recreated the lanes of Vietnam’s traditional villages, but on a narrower, more confined scale.
Says Haysom: “The alleyways build up a really strong community feeling. Everyone takes care of them and everyone knows everyone else’s business, which is classic Vietnamese.”
He adds: “We worked out that 85% of Ho Chi Minh City’s dwellings are in the alleyways.”
So when the post-World War II authorities tried to rebuild the centre of Saigon by introducing apartment blocks, they created an internal alleyway-like structure into the blocks with built in communal space to replicate the sense of living in the tube houses. Many of these blocks, like those on Nguyen Sieu, Dong Du and Dong Khoi exist today.
The apartment blocks built in the 1960s and 1970s tried to replicate the life of the alleyways
The Upper End
Set along the Saigon River in Ho Chi Minh City’s District 2 is Holm Residence. With sleek lines, spacious rooms, and high ceilings in the downstairs lounge, in terms of architecture, overall design and desirability, Holm is at present the most exclusive development in Vietnam. It screams the word ‘modern’.
Naturally, prices match the exclusivity. The five-bedroom riverfront villas which come complete with two kitchens, a three-car garage, a private back garden, two rooms for the maids and an infinity pool cost just under US$6 million each. Yet the majority of buyers are Vietnamese.
According to David Clarkin, managing director of the compound’s developer, Sapphire, one reason for Vietnamese buying houses in compounds such as Holm is the need for security.
“Unfortunately [it] is becoming more important to the very wealthy Vietnamese,” he says. “You do hear cases of home invasion. You can have your own security in your own villa, but that’s staff you don’t necessarily want, whereas in a compound we can put in quite a lot of security that’s fairly unobtrusive.”
The idea for the design of Holm Residences came from another development built by Sapphire — Sanctuary in Ho Tram.
“It’s very different [to Holm],” he explains. “They’re beach houses and you walk in with sand on your feet, but they were built in that modern fairly minimalist style, a bit cooler, and not so much warmth in the finishes, but because they were beach houses they had lots of greenery around them.
“When we were handing over those villas to our purchasers, we had the same comment a number of times: ‘Oh I wish I could have something like this in Saigon.’ So that proved a point that there was a market for modern.”
According to Clarkin, the design of Sanctuary has been so successful that the houses there have been copied a number of times. Although the copies often didn’t get many of the features correct, this, he says, shows that there is a movement away from French-style villas towards a modern, contemporary, clean market for housing. As a result, “When we came to Holm, it wasn’t too hard.”
Unlike exclusive properties elsewhere, which are fenced off by themselves from the outside world, because Holm is a 29-villa compound, Sapphire has tried to create a sense of community. Amenities include two swimming pools, a clubhouse with a fitness centre and a landscaped waterfront parkland.
“Community is important and it hasn’t been addressed enough,” explains Clarkin. “I think there are a lot of opportunities to do all sorts of communal things. It is a very important part of living in Vietnam and is something that has been completely lost in the west.”
Despite being the most exclusive and modernist development in Vietnam, Holm Residences is designed to maintain a sense of community. Photos by Mads Monsen
Clarkin’s comment about community is key to the issue facing Vietnam as it races into the modern age. While almost every apartment block being built has some sort of public space, by separating people out into enclosed apartments, community is being broken. Put these apartments behind security and it’s broken even further. More importantly, due to the size of these apartments, newly built residences which in the past would have housed three or even four generations living under one roof, are becoming rare.
“These apartments are all self-contained units,” explains Haysom. “So the people who live in those apartments are disconnected with everyone else, and the model for the apartments is a two-bedroom, or at the very most a three-bedroom, so you can only get so many people in them.
“So instead of families being a continuum between the elderly and the children, you have parts of the family living in separate places.”
He adds: “What’s happened is that people have seen the alleyways, have seen all the problems with them, and they’ve gone to another model that is completely antithetical to all those things. But [highrises] are quick and cheap to build, and people buy them because they feel they’re aspirational, because they feel they’re going to be the same as people in Singapore. But when they get there they find that a whole part of their culture is missing.”
This creates the nuclear family, a concept that even just 10 years ago was alien to Vietnam.
With developments like Central Park springing up everywhere, urban middle class society is being irrevocably changed.