While city planners may like to think that they are the best people to make the decisions as to how the city grows, cities often grow despite, rather than because of, their best efforts. Reyner Banham, an English professor of architecture, once said that planning is a discipline only understood in academic and professional circles; that it is essentially a liberal approach to urban problems, and it tends to fail when confronted with a libertarian culture. We have that libertarian culture here in Ho Chi Minh City.
The fact that planners have been unable to fully dictate form and use in Ho Chi Minh City has led to a vibrant and interesting city centre. The sheer exuberance of Vietnamese culture is constantly on display in the city, especially in the oldest part of District 1.
When you look at the city from this context of rebirth and renewal you can see emerging trends.
The Meatpacking District in New York City gives a good example. The name is self-explanatory — an industrial area in the middle of New York with an elevated railway line (the high line) that once ran through it. Run down for years, the area started being reborn in the last years of the 20th century after restaurants and high-end boutiques began opening in the vacant buildings.
Once undervalued, the district is now a highly valued and expensive area attracting corporate headquarters in the old buildings. The high line is now an urban park.
Other inner city areas have gone through similar revivals. Perhaps best known is Shoreditch in London. The transformation from urban wasteland to fashionable mecca is so vast that it’s now spread to neighbouring areas like Whitechapel, Dalston and Hackney.
In all these scenarios, restaurateurs and café owners seek out interesting but cheap spaces in old buildings because they can imbue them with character. Restaurants are often the harbinger of urban renewal by bringing people to an area, and those people then look for other opportunities. Restaurants often lead the way by showing us how to develop, enhance and preserve existing building stocks as it is cheaper to recycle rather than start again.
The unique ownership structure of many buildings in Ho Chi Minh City’s District 1 has inhibited their refurbishment; a house that in the past was given over to communal habitation is often owned by four or five different people. However, those that have attracted restaurants have had their value enhanced, with some great examples over the last few years of new uses for old spaces setting a benchmark. Nga Hang Ngon, Temple Club and L’Usine to name three.
They have been joined recently by some others; Racha Room and Stoker in Mac Thi Buoi; AsiaHouse in Nguyen Hue, Khanh Casa and Moo Beefsteak in Dong Khoi; Saigon Artisan and Nho Saigon Xua in Le Loi; The Warehouse in Le Thanh Ton; the coffee shops in the 26 Ly Tu Trong apartment building, places like Snuffbox on Ton That Dam and the apartment blocks on Nguyen Hue. There are more emerging that demonstrate a way forward for the use of these older and quite exquisite buildings.
Ho Chi Minh City sees itself as an emerging new world city, but in the city’s scramble to compete regionally it risks damaging the very elements that make it so attractive. It is an Asian city with a defined and vibrant CBD and, with its own particularly exotic nature, it has an appeal that eludes Singapore.
While it lacks the grandeur of Hong Kong’s harbour setting, it is far more affordable and interesting at ground level. Yet the very fabric of that character is under threat in District 1 with demolition orders looming on many of the great French-era buildings.
Ho Chi Minh City is unique thanks to its tropical French heritage — there is no escaping its colonial past. It is therefore fitting that the city famous for its cuisine and coffee culture is being shown how to protect and enhance its character by businesses supporting that culture.