More than a third of the Vietnamese city’s historic buildings have been destroyed over the past 20 years.
Can it learn from mistakes made by other fast-growing Asian cities before it is too late?
Ho Chi Minh City (known as Saigon until reunification in 1976) has long had a reputation for being international and cosmopolitan – particularly compared with the one-party state’s political capital, Hanoi, in the north. As the economic capital of communist Vietnam it has always been the place to make money, but with a population of 8.1 million – set to rise above 10 million by 2026, according to the latest UN estimates – the pace of change in this dynamic city has accelerated.
Heritage experts say virtually no historic buildings are safe from the wrecking ball. Ba Son is being transformed into Golden River, an upmarket development marketed as a “city within a city”. It is a project from Vinhomes – part of the huge and ubiquitous Vingroup conglomerate, which has fingers in everything from real estate to retail and hospitality to health care. The chairman, Pham Nhat Vuong, who founded the company as an instant noodle producer in Ukraine in the 1990s, was Vietnam’s first billionaire. He remains its richest man.
In 1993 the Centre for Prospective and Urban Studies, a Franco-Vietnamese urban research agency, classified 377 buildings in the central districts 1 and 3 as heritage sites. By 2014, 207 of those had been demolished or altered beyond recognition. “For the past four years it has been continuing for sure,” says one urban planner involved in the original inventory, who did not want to be named.
The People’s Committee, which runs the city, is currently dividing around 1,000 historic buildings into three classifications: class 1, which is protected; class 2, where the owner can build on the lot but cannot destroy the old building; and class 3, which can be demolished.
“It is sad, but the owners of class 3 are seen as the winners,” says the planner. “Generally they are after immediate profit and people want modernity, cleanliness, air-conditioning … they’re not interested in preserving old tiles. They see that the owner next door demolished to build a 32-storey office with restaurant and luxury flats and they think, why can’t I?”