The Change

Sunday’s Vietnam News headline boasts that “Ho Chi Minh City has ambitious plans to become a major Asian economic centre, with a projected population of 30 million by 2050.” The city is laboring under the weight of its current 8 million inhabitants. Can it find a way to manage the exponential kind of growth the paper projects?

The city’s existing infrastructure can’t deal with its present demands. The streets are groaning under the pressure of 4 million motorbikes and the growing number of automobiles. Twenty years ago these streets were full of bicycles and cyclos. Twenty years from now there will be fewer motorbikes and more cars. How will the city accommodate the change? Somehow the authorities will have to figure it out because they’re coming. Get ready. China is the paradigm for dealing with this kind of change. Seattle’s boots will be in the sucking mud 40 years from now and they will still be debating freeways vs. tunnels long after the people have arrived. A centrally controlled economy “can” be much more efficient. It might be riddled with corruption but if the decision is made to build something, it will get done.

Vietnam, as I have said repeatedly, is an amazing place. It’s messy, orderly, dirty, clean, primitive, sophisticated, fast, slow, energetic, and lazy. It’s a complete paradox. Every week we walk or drive past a building that has been gutted or razed and will soon be full of new shops. Every week a construction fence comes down to reveal a new office tower with Armani and Versace filling the retail space. Next door the people are squatting on small stools, eating pho and washing their dishes in a bucket on the sidewalk. It’s all about contrasts.

The photo above is of the building that dominates the Saigon skyline these days. It’s the Bitexco Tower, a 68 story office building under construction and scheduled to open in October. The story behind it is pure modern Vietnam. The owner is one of the richest men in the country, but he grew up in a very poor province in the north. He’s made a fortune since the country became a free market economy. This building is not a shrewd business venture. It’s all about pride – personal and national. The 68 stories will be almost twice the height of the next tallest building in Saigon. And, its shape is inspired by a lotus flower. The foundation is oval in shape, so there isn’t a straight line or a right angle in the entire building. The exterior is all glass and every custom cut piece of it is different in size and curvature, because it expands in volume from the base to the 48th floor and then contracts for the next 20 to give it the lotus shape. Did I mention the heli-pad on the 50th floor, probably not because there are no private helicopters allowed in Vietnam.

Mr Hoi, the owner, doesn’t care about cost, efficiency, “green” construction, or anything but building the dominant, signature, skyscraper landmark in Ho Chi Minh City. This building is every architect’s dream – where the owner says you know my vision, now go create it. Whatever it costs is fine with me.

This is modern Vietnam.

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