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Growth of Ho Chi Minh City holds lessons for Brisbane

Published 07 May 2020
Bethany Latham

Brisbane has a great opportunity to rethink its future in development through studying Ho Chi Minh City’s management of growth, says award-winning architect Ed Haysom, pictured.
He made this point on April 28 when addressing AIIA Queensland’s first online-only seminar. His presentation, entitled Two new World Cities: The cultural sensibilities dividing and defining Ho Chi Minh City and Brisbane, featured dozens of images illustrating the architectural styles and town plans of the two cities.
Mr Haysom, who has served as National President of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects, is a Queenslander who has been living and working in Vietnam since 2015.
As the two cities share similar beginnings, and now face similar issues in terms of growth and population, Mr Haysom believes that Brisbane would benefit from studying both the positive and negative aspects of Ho Chi Minh City’s housing solutions. Both are river cities which were colonised in the early 19th century, Brisbane by the British, and Ho Chi Minh City (then known as Saigon) by the French. Moreover, the past 15 years have seen both cities undergo enormous growth. Each faces many challenges associated with expansion and development of infrastructure to cater for a growing population.
Mr Haysom also highlighted the key differences between the two cities, which in turn affect how they have approached the issue of growth. One major difference is the indigenous population in each city. Vietnamese citizens of Ho Chi Minh City lived in close proximity to the French expatriates, resulting in a deeper mix of culture. Brisbane was altogether different with its infamous boundary streets designed to keep indigenous people outside the city limits.
At one point, the French introduced a width tax, causing Vietnamese locals to build tall, narrow houses. This trend of building upwards has continued into modernity. In the 1960s, the Vietnam war resulted in mass-migration to Ho Chi Minh City, raising the population and unemployment rate immensely. The city’s solution was to continue building skywards, but this time in the form of small apartment living. These circumstances, as well as a lack of building regulations, have led to the development of “hems’’: a maze of narrow alleyways throughout the city, which are bursting with individuality and culture, but also at severe risk to fire and floods.
Mr Haysom says that today, it is the lower-income households which are forced into these apartments, while the upper class tend to opt for French-style villas. This is especially detrimental as large family gatherings are incredibly important to Vietnamese culture, something which these apartments cannot accommodate.
Back in Brisbane, the values of open space and fresh air have dominated our architecture, perhaps best exemplified in the traditional large Queenslander home, complete with spacious back yard. However, as we face a growing population, traditional housing is becoming less and less common, and we too are moving towards a different skyline.
Brisbane and Ho Chi Minh City may have started on similar paths, but have diverged throughout history, thus giving them different approaches to the common problems they face today. Because of this, Mr Haysom says we should be aware of how our Vietnamese counterpart has dealt with growth, as it may predict similar issues we could face in the future if we follow the same path.