A visitor walking deep into the headquarters of property developers Sala and Novaland could see several models of a future Ho Chi Minh City. As given form in plaster models and digitized 3D, a brand new city will arise in District 2 in the next five years, dense in high rises, expansive with wide lane highways, containing a new business and residential district as the new, modern face of Vietnam.

Take a motorbike ride down Ben Van Don street in District 4, and you’ll pass by some completed projects of this city’s rise towards verticality. Icon 56 and Galaxy 9, built in the last two years, have already changed the skyline with their transformers-like Novaland insignia, visible from far away in District 1. Next to Khanh Hoi and Calmette bridges, Novaland and Masteri Development are building competing apartment complexes, their jutting steel beams racing each other to scale the sky. While torrential rains lash the streets of HCMC during these rainy months and subjugates sections of the city under water, its buildings continuously stretch upwards and upwards.

Ho Chi Minh City. The next megacity of Asia?

While it’s a novelty to Vietnam, the rapid vertical construction of cities isn’t so new in Asia; after all, it has come to Singapore, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Shanghai, etc… The 60 stories high Woolworth Building in New York City, a behemoth at the time, was built more than a hundred years ago, in 1913. It brought with it decades of further growth, and the big apple never stopped getting bigger. If plucked from Manhattan and planted in Ho Chi Minh City today, the Woolworth building would be this city’s second tallest, topped only by the Bitexco Tower, itself finished in 2010.

When I was a kid living in Vietnam thirty years ago, elevators were a rarity. After all, you needed consistent electricity coursing through the wires to run them, and the city had daily rolling blackouts. The heights of Ho Chi Minh City’s tallest buildings were therefore partly limited to the human capacity for stair climbing. My family lived on the third floor of a four floors apartment by the river in Binh Thanh, in a complex that still exists relatively unchanged. It lives, however, in proximity to newly raised high rises, each of them altering the landscape and skyline of the city, each giving signs of boom times coming to the city.

Metro in Ho Chi Minh city
Credit: www.nguyentandung.org

Who is living in these new developments?

Touring some of the completed construction can give a sense of what kind of civic culture one can expect from the high rises to come. The pedestrian traffic and conversations in buildings like Icon 56, or the Lexington far out in District 2, or even old apartment complexes like the Somerset in District 1, differ from those encountered in horizontal alleys and lanes, the “hem” that exists in much of the city now. The city’s pace is quieted by the one motorbike-width alleys in the evening, families fit into upstairs rooms, small parking garages for bikes make up the lower garage/room. Layers of laundry can often be seen hanging on the sides of shops and mom and pop restaurants adorn the street sides.

Multi floored apartment complexes, in contrast, are often complete and sufficient to themselves, with a pool, gym, supermarket, restaurants, and occasionally a complete shopping centre or cinema on site, or in close proximity. Vincom’s Golden River project, for example, is a series of high rises built close together, four 50 something floors of apartment complexes for regular buyers and three luxury complexes nearby, an additional super tall hotel, all of them adding up to a substantial small city embedded within the larger metropolis of Saigon.

Such high living can sometimes be insular, with wealthy tenants and owners valuing compartmentalised, private existences. Their large lobby spaces and grand facades, with manned security points, can be unwelcoming, cold.

Real estate situation in Ho Chi Minh city
Credit: www.en.vinhomesgoldenriverapartment.co

The future of urban life and community in Ho Chi Minh City

It’s a mistake, however, to assume a high rise can only be corporate, cold, homogenous. I’ve loved walking next to the beautiful facades of behemoths in New York, Chicago, and Shanghai’s classic structures bordering the Bund. The flatiron building in New York still conveys the muscle of the city, its gritty work ethic. The Magnificent Mile of Chicago gives vision of its industry but also views of the lake shore beyond, and nothing beats the pastel light of late afternoons filtering softly through glass reflections of Hong Kong, where I spent eight years of my life.

Nothing quite captures the magic of a city than the promise of a shimmering skyline. What’s more, the space created from land freed by the city growing upwards can be used creatively – consider the high line in Manhattan as one prime example. Such green sections can break up the homogenous sprawl of low rise and its stretches of cement. There are also new research and literature that argue the environmental benefits of high density urban living over suburban or rural living.

Today in Vietnam, architects like Vo Trong Nghia or the team at T3 architecture are examples of city planners mindful of designing sustainable buildings incorporating green spaces, that create distinct, unique angles towards living in this booming urban environment. Surely there can be room in high rise design for spaces that are communal, that turn outward and are inclusive of the public, that reminds us of the lush and varied greenery of Vietnam?

Just as Nguyen Hue’s walking street has made a space for all to roam and socialise after the heat of the day dies down, there should be hope for new spaces created for the public in these novel constructions. Such possibilities not only enrich the life blood of a community, they also jumpstart retail and tourism industries as well.

Real estate situation in Ho Chi Minh city
Credit: www.elbertcounty.net

What will Ho Chi Minh city look like in five years?

What will be the state of its public transport, its overall infrastructure? Will the city be ready for the additional burden on traffic of a denser population? One looks at the Saigon Centre, a shimmering addition to business in District 1, for one example of how such a successful construction can often carry new problems, such as the daily deadlocked intersection of Pasteur and Ton That Thiep from the fleet of cars and taxis carrying customers to and from the popular shopping center.

Will there be public spaces, green areas created or preserved? Will there be natural communities where collaborations can happen, places where cultural or artistic events are made available and enjoyed by its citizens? These are all questions that Ho Chi Minh city asks of itself as its growth reaches a frenetic pace and looks ever beyond.

The next Shanghai and Pudong?

Whatever form Ho Chi Minh city takes in its future, my wish is that it won’t take for its model Shanghai’s Pudong, a resplendent lit up skyline seen from a distance, but one that is brutal in immensity seen up close. I have walked on Pudong’s sci fi raised walkways, and looked upwards, straining my neck and the limits of my vision as I did so. Homogenous glass, massive steel beams, endless concrete, stretch higher than the eye can observe, with towers designed to smite one visually, their looming mass dominating, yielding nothing in return.

The human form was insignificant next to their structures. The fragile silhouettes of other pedestrians, next to the massive mercantile machinery, the booming glass and steel beams, seem to show only worker ants walking to work. Pudong’s high rises serve no purpose but to display power, to brutally remind us of our subservience to it, while over on Shanghai’s Puxi side, one notices the gentle curve of the Bund’s glittering flow, the soft reflection of city lights on the populated boardwalk, the chiaroscuro of Shanghai’s architectural history. One sees how the palimpsestic constructions of such a city’s past can make a city breathe and live, be layered and gorgeous. I know which version of Shanghai I hope for HCMC.