A continuing interest to me is understanding how cities work or don’t work. What shapes cities and how is it that they attain their special character? And what elements of cities most influence their character?


You can make a comparison to the IT industry and the notion of hardware and software. Hardware is the infrastructure that makes computers operate, and software is what gives the computer its particular character. Thus it is possible to have an Apple computer that runs Windows software using the same hardware.


So what of Ho Chi Minh City? A unique city. A city designed by the French in Asia, built in the image of France and its cultural values but functioning now in a completely different way to how its founders intended.


I was reflecting on this the other day when I was in Singapore. You cannot help but admire what the Singaporeans have achieved. Their city, like Ho Chi Minh City, was founded by a foreign power and bequeathed to its inhabitants. Singapore is an Asian city but elements of it feel like any international city. I was reflecting on this and came to a conclusion firstly after using the Singapore subway to get around and secondly trying to get a taxi on 4.30pm on a Friday evening. In Singapore you cannot hail a taxi from the street during rush hour.


To Plan or Not to Plan?


Cities acquire their character from things being unregulated from time to time. Singapore is highly regulated, while Ho Chi Minh City is not. In Singapore, strict planning controls have led to development occurring around transport nodes. The city is a series of nodes interconnected by public transport and cars, in turn leading to large-scale developments that in turn mean large-scale tenants. Despite the large amount of retail in Singapore there is less choice than in Ho Chi Minh City because with the larger-scale centres, retail tenancies become less the province of the family-owned business and more of the corporation.


Ho Chi Minh City is fortunate in some way, as it has not had the benefit of the planners’ vision and things have grown naturally. The absence of a reliable and extensive public transport system and the low cost of motorbikes has had an enormous influence on the city shape because on a motorbike you have freedom of movement. You are unconstrained. The motorbike also allows goods to be carried cheaply on a smaller scale and delivered right to the door. This has enabled many smaller businesses to flourish because overheads are lower.


The lack of an effective public transport system has removed the need for the concentration of retail activities into large centres. This, together with the unregulated use of the ground floor, has spawned a unique pattern, as businesses, left to their own devices, place themselves where they are needed, grouping themselves around associated uses. It leads to a diverse and exciting city shape.


The Law of Evolution


Urban planners believe that there is an inevitable progression from bicycle to motorbike to car. Public transportation systems are designed to move people in the most efficient way possible and reduce the reliance on personal transport. If successful, urban development will be built to suit the commuter, perhaps putting at risk the city’s diversity and character.


But it remains to be seen how effective the Ho Chi Minh City metro will be in reducing the reliance on personal transport. There are more than 7.43 million motorbikes in the city now with nearly 1,000 new bikes added every day. Will that freedom be given up?


This overwhelming number of bikes and the lack of enforcement of road rules has led to an unsustainable situation. While the motorbike represents a freedom of movement and choice that other cities are unable to match, and is a significant contributor to its unique character, the challenge for Ho Chi Minh City is to curb the motorbikes’ excesses while preserving their benefits. That is a big challenge.


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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