The word alley is more than 600 years old, owing its origin to the Old French word alee, meaning ‘walking or passage,’ and its medieval equivalent aler, or ‘go’ (today aler is spelt aller). The alleyway network in Ho Chi Minh City was introduced as a practical way of delivering goods and people to buildings away from the main streets.


Alleyways have been a characteristic of city planning (a remainder of a medieval street network) since cities were first formed. But the rise of the automobile saw their use diminish and so they became neglected and often dangerous.


Alleyways were also the product of Public Health legislation in the 19th century that allowed for the efficient collection of waste. Before cities had sanitation, alleyways allowed these unattractive uses kept away from the “front doors” of the street.


After sewerage systems were installed and larger vehicles were introduced to make the collection of rubbish easier, the reason for laneways was removed, and they became deserted places, becoming breeding grounds for crime and vermin. Now, cities around the world have rediscovered and embraced their alleyways and have made them into exciting places with restaurants, retail and outdoor art.


Community and Climate


The New Urbanist movement adopted principles of fine-grain patterns in the city, with mixed uses as well as neo-traditional design. Many of these “new” principles were already in place in Ho Chi Minh City.


Population pressures after the war meant that alleyways were the only way the city could meet the densities needed to sustain itself. Generations of Vietnamese were raised in these environments where there was — and still is — a constant awareness of neighbours.


When given a chance, many were happy to relocate to the high-rise apartments that now populate the city skyline. Yet the alleyways and close proximity also bred strong communities where knowing your neighbour also allowed you to help out in times of need, and reduced crime through local vigilance. The alleyway’s limited size made them easy to navigate on motorbike, and shops and small restaurants created on the ground floor served the needs of the local residents.


The alleyways offer not only community and connectedness but also climate modification, as their very narrowness provides protection from the sun. They give what is called a deep canyon effect. Despite the fact that Ho Chi Minh City has a humid climate where daytime and night-time temperature difference is not significant, nevertheless, direct sunlight is prevented from reaching the lower areas and wind movement across the top of the alleyway draws heat out thus making the alleyways up to 6 degrees cooler. This saving of energy is shared by the whole community.


Identity and Interaction


In our rush to modernise we need to be mindful of the good things the past has provided as well as the bad. When building our high-rises we need to be aware of the social benefits that close-knit communities can give.


We must give our communities clear and distinctive identities. This identity must be communicated through the urban plan, the design of the streets and the buildings, both community and private. By providing choices for people in housing types and strengthening the public areas we can give better outcomes to all that are part of our community.


We need to design communities attractively by encouraging interaction rather than ignoring it. Architects have a key role in creating these places of interaction by their unique training and creative approach.


If we just let things happen, we are merely passing on problems to the generation ahead instead of fixing them ourselves. While the simpler values of the older era still hold appeal, through skilled design and urban planning we can ensure our future communities can accommodate today’s values and lifestyle. Quality of life starts with quality of design.


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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