Photo by Francis Xavier 

When I first arrived in Ho Chi Minh City I didn’t fully appreciate the layers and complexity of the city.

 

In trying to make sense of the city I decided that on Sundays I would take an area, walk it and document it to give me some understanding of what made it work. At the time I was working in Dong Du, so the area bounded by Le Thanh Ton, Ton Duc Thang and Hai Ba Trung seemed like a good place to start as it was close and has a good character about it.

 

I didn’t realise that it had a racy past with girly bars featuring in run-down tenements. If I had thought about it a little more that would have made sense as the area was once home to French naval personnel. In the American war the US personnel replaced the French but the game was the same.

 

Thi Sach street runs from the Children’s Hospital (formerly barracks for the French soldiers) down to the port — to allow fast mobilisation for the French forces housed there. The street now contains a number of elegant hotels. Thai Van Lung runs parallel to it and while still supporting some hotels, retains vestiges of the bar trade it once was famous for.

 

After the war the area between Thai Van Lung and Le Thanh Ton was deeded to the Navy and most of the bars and houses were cleared out. What replaced some of it proved to be incredibly interesting and its development is relatively recent.

 

In that precinct is one of the most unusual residential areas I have ever come across. It shouldn’t work at all — due to the extraordinary density of the buildings. It would not be seen as desirable in other cities — perhaps seen as a generator of crime — but in fact it is quite safe with a distinct charm, while supporting a wide range of other uses, particularly at street level, such as bars, restaurants, massage places and retail.

 

Whereas western urban design and planning methodology promotes separation of buildings for fire health and amenity reasons, the buildings here ignore all of that. The accompanying map, indicating built form and open space, gives an idea of the density. The map is based on the work of Italian architect and surveyor Giambattista Nolli who mapped Rome in 1736.

 

In Close Proximity

 

So why does it work? Probably for a number of reasons. It is right inside District 1, so values are high, attracting the expat who enjoys (and tolerates) the close urban spaces. That in turn supports the small bars and boutique restaurants, which in turn encourages more like-minded expats. I am not trying to make a correlation between income and crime, but rather that homogenous communities sharing common values have been proven to be successful. It is known as the ‘Japanese Ghetto’ as many Japanese and Korean expats have made their home there, supported by stores, restaurants, bars and spas catering to their needs.

 

The original mix of residential to commercial was 80% residential to 20% commercial. Now that ratio has changed to 60:40 reflecting the interest in the area. Tiny homes easily sell for over US$250,000 drawn by the fact that the uses in the “ghetto” are mixed and those mixtures are largely compatible. There is always plenty of life in the alleyways and the small scale of the uses — largely brought about due to the tight spaces — means that the uses are in proportion to the area (it would be impossible to have a large bar in there).

 

In many ways — flawed as it is — it is a model for the future of the city. That people enjoy the close proximity, the absence of motor vehicles, the sense of community that the ghetto gives, is an indication of how a city like Ho Chi Minh City may evolve and develop a distinct character that represents Vietnam rather than another western city.

 

A great city should be generous in its offerings to all types of people, young and old, rich and poor. The building programme that settles many people in high-rise towers is understandable, however urban design is also about building communities and right inside District 1 is an excellent example of how this can be achieved and be successful.

 

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.

More in this category: The Accidental Boulevard »

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