Ho Chi Minh City’s Thu Thiem peninsula wows developers but expelled residents feel wronged
Ho Chi Minh City’s Thu Thiem peninsula is the kind of place that makes real estate people spout clichés about the “wow factor” or “location, location, location”.
A lobe of largely undeveloped land, it hugs the Saigon river opposite District One, the downtown of this tropical metropolis of nearly 10m people. It commands in-your-face views of high-rises, including Landmark 81, south-east Asia’s tallest completed building. Luxury homes are going on sale, at prices that rival Bangkok, for what planners say will be a new financial and residential hub — Ho Chi Minh City’s answer to Shanghai’s Pudong. John Reed reported on Financial Times.
Vietnam’s economy grew 6.8 per cent in the second quarter, slightly faster than China’s. A world-class riverside district for Saigon, as most residents still call the city, would be a fitting showcase for an ambitious nation on the move. A new tunnel runs under the river and a six-lane highway bisects the peninsula.
But climb up Saigon’s high-rises — or view Thu Thiem on Google Earth — and you will see that much of it remains open land. Nearly 15,000 households were paid by the government to move out, in a noisy, still-unfinished process that provoked protests, and cost more than $1bn.
A few dozen households are holding out for better compensation deals. A handful of freestanding houses still stand amid rubbish tips and building rubble, on loamy land frequented by drug addicts. The atmosphere is not so much megacity as Mad Max.
“The government is a thief,” claims Nguyen Thi Giap, 83, who lives with her 91-year-old husband Huynh Van Luc in a two-storey house. Their wedding picture is on the wall. “I will move if the government pays the appropriate compensation cost.” Like other households, they say their house was omitted from a master plan to redevelop Thu Thiem in the 1990s.
The city recently said it had lost that plan, provoking snorts of derisive anger from residents who say they were wronged. “Of all the protesters, the government is most afraid of me,” declares Pham Thi Linh, who lives on rain-soaked land nearby with several cats. At the height of anti-relocation protests earlier this decade, she mounted her motorcycle with a hand-printed multi-lingual banner to protest the eviction at consulates.
Vietnam is often compared to China, whose Communist party also melded Marxist-Leninist hierarchy with the Confucian work ethic to build a formidable development model. But in fact, Vietnam is a messier, and arguably freer, place and Thu Thiem is testimony to this. “In China, the government can do everything; in India they can’t do anything,” says Huynh The Du, a lecturer at Saigon’s Fulbright University. “In Vietnam it’s somewhere in between: sometimes the government can’t do things because of the resistance of the people.”
Thu Thiem has always been a puzzle for planners. Vietnam’s French colonisers left it undeveloped as it was softer ground than the sturdy plateau where they built District One. It occupied the public imagination as a lawless place, frequented by bandits, prostitutes and lepers. Mapmakers often left the peninsula as empty space, as if no one lived there. In fact, thousands of people did, amid waterways more like the Mekong delta than the rest of Saigon.
“You can see why people would have drooled over it since the beginning of time,” says Erik Harms, a Yale professor who authored a book on urban development in Saigon.
Ngo Viet Nam Son, an architect who worked on Pudong’s development, thinks city planners erred by drawing up blueprints for Thu Thiem in isolation. He thinks there should be a bridge, not a tunnel, leading directly to the city centre.
“If we made good connections to Thu Thiem, the city would be able to make more money to compensate people at the market price,” he says. “The problem is, they didn’t make these connections.”
Developers are more forgiving, and point to a flurry of Hong Kong, South Korean, and Vietnamese-funded projects coming on the market that they say will transform the area. “Saigon has very little master planning and they are very laissez faire in an urban context,” says Troy Griffiths, deputy director of Savills Vietnam. “And you know what? It works OK.”