Over 200 French colonial-era villas have been demolished or substantially altered in Ho Chi Minh City between 1994 and 2014. Aleksandr Zykov/Flickr

Vietnam's two largest regions are taking very different approaches to urban development.

Before locals could mourn the recently demolished Ba Son shipyard, an important marine heritage site in Ho Chi Minh City, plans to redevelop the site with luxury condos had already broken ground.

The site is any developer’s dream: A stretch of prime riverside land in one of the region’s fastest growing cities. With 16 new towers going up in place of the 150-year-old shipyard, the project is set to change the city’s skyline forever.  

Despite a 2013 proposal to preserve Ba Son as a historic complex and its recognition as a National Historic Monument, the shipyard was sold off to a South Korean developer for $5 billion this year.  

“Ba Son’s land is very valuable for developers in Ho Chi Minh City, and it wasn’t put into the conservation zone. If it was, nobody would be able to develop new projects there,” says Dr. Ngo Minh Hung, a Ho Chi Minh City-based architect and urban development expert who is passionate about preserving the city’s architectural heritage.

Ba Son is the latest to long list of local buildings that faced the wrecking ball. According to the Ho Chi Minh City Urban Development Management Support Center, over 200 French colonial-era villas have been demolished or substantially altered between 1994 and 2014.

“[The government] is trying to prepare the policy but they’re working very slowly. Protecting and preserving the buildings is not a priority in Ho Chi Minh City. They want to develop more than preserve, but in Hanoi, you can see that they’re trying to preserve the streets of the Old Quarter,” says Dr. Hung.

In capital city Hanoi, a different tale of city building is playing out. Besides active efforts to preserve the Old Quarter—a labyrinthine network of 36 streets in Hoan Kiem district—city authorities have also enforced strict guidelines when it comes to building up.

The Hanoi People’s Committee recently issued a regulation barring highrise developments over 24-storeys in five center districts, Hoan Kiem being one of them.

“Perhaps in the 1990s, things were more flexible and there were some high rises built in the place of colonial villas. But now the authorities seem to have taken control of that so high rise buildings now occur in pockets well out from the Old Quarter,” says Dr. William Logan, the author of Hanoi: Biography of a City.

Dr. Logan is also a Professor of Cultural Heritage at Deakin University that has been working with UNESCO since 1990 to put Hanoi sites, such as the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long, on the World Heritage list.

He likens Hanoi’s city building approach to a “Paris Model,” where historic districts clustered in the center are preserved while more ambitious projects and business zones and kept to the outskirts of town.

“This is what Hanoi is doing and it’s a very effective model because you have economic development in terms of the high rises but you also keep the ancient parts which has economic value for tourism. It’s also important for the identity of the people as it’s the emotional heart of the city, and it’s being preserved through this strategy,” says Dr. Logan.

The Hanoi People’s Committee recently issued a regulation barring highrise developments over 24-storeys in five center districts, including Hoan Kiem. (Greg Willis/Flickr)

If Hanoi takes after Paris, then Dr. Logan believes that Ho Chi Minh City is using a more American approach, where a city’s claim to fame is its downtown. He believes that this approach is “much more capitalist and old fashioned.”

The Paris Model is, according to Dr. Logan, an indicator that the local government in Hanoi recognizes that the city has other roles instead of just economic development. 

A recent case study that illustrates Hanoi’s ability to strike a balance between preservation and development would be the battle to save Long Bien Bridge, one of the city’s most beloved landmarks.

Designed by French architect Gustave Eiffel, the 5,500-foot-long cantilever bridge stretching across the Red River was completed in 1902. It was the largest construction project that Indochina had seen at that time.

“By 2008, Hanoi had tripled in size as it integrated a neighboring province, and a new master transport plan for 2030 will bring five metro lines, skyscrapers, satellite towns and highway,” says Nga Nguyen, a Hanoi-based activist that fought to save Long Bien Bridge. She adds, “Long Bien Bridge was up for the decision to be destroyed twice, in 2007 and in 2014.”

Preservation efforts were a success, as city authorities agreed to build a new bridge spanning the Red River to accommodate for the new metro line. Nguyen also echoed Dr. Logan’s sentiment on assigning more than just economics to the role of a city. This frame of mind, she says, will be important as the capital city develops.

Vietnam has most recently shifted to the lower-middle income bracket, which according to the World Bank, is home to the fastest rates of urbanization in Asia. While it’s clear that the paths of its two biggest cities have diverged, the explanation for this is deeply rooted in the country’s troubled past.

“It goes back to the middle of last century, where Hanoi, at the end of the ‘40s was a socialist government isolated from the rest of the world. So by the 1990s, it was like going into a time warp, this was a city that had hardly changed since the 1930s because of constant war and the American embargo. So from a heritage point of view it was very intact,” says Dr. Logan.

While Hanoi was seemingly frozen in time for decades, Ho Chi Minh City was already moving full speed ahead towards a different fate. It would continue doing so after the country reunified.

“Ho Chi Minh City, on the other hand, didn’t become socialist until 1975 so there was a period where it operated as a capitalist society under various governments, both Vietnamese and American, so there were many new developments in the main streets of Saigon. By the end of the last century, Hanoi [was] still relatively intact but there was a different attitude in Ho Chi Minh City,” he says.

In Vietnam’s largest city, the focus is on new development and modernization. Dr. Hung thinks that this kind of progress-focused mindset could cause Ho Chi Minh City to lose its cultural identity, a mistake that many Asian cities make when developing too fast.

“They should take a step back and assess what the identity for Ho Chi Minh City is and figure out if they want to make it different in comparison to other cities, Dr. Hung notes. “Or in the future, Ho Chi Minh City will just look like Hong Kong or Shanghai, no more Saigon.”

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