The revamped main canal.


Ho Chi Minh City’s canals are two different stories, which diverge significantly (ha), with many accidental but important lessons learned along the way. Today I want to tell you about what surely must be one of the most compelling sustainable infrastructure projects I’ve heard of yet: the transformation of the Nhieu Loc-Thi Nghe branch of the Saigon canal system.

Over the course of 10 years this branch was transformed from an open sewer spreading disease and destruction to a jewel of central Ho Chi Minh City’s park system.

And, to think, it almost didn’t happen – at least 4 times. In fact, it was literally abandoned as un-doable at one point by a foreign contractor. Not a good omen, you say?

Hit the jump for just how the longest of these canals turned out, as well as pictures from some of the city’s less well-off canals:

Property values have skyrocketed in the
areas adjacent to the canal. 

The Nhieu Loc-Thi Nghe canal is the main branch of HCMC’s incredibly long and important series of urban waterways. Serving 1.2 million people, this project was birthed of the desire to clean up this foul, dark waterway. Winding through 7 districts, this canal is a central feature of the downtown business district and is bordered by many, many residential addresses.

The canal had become what was essentially an open sewer system that killed all the fish, brought water-borne illnesses and flooding into homes, and was a perpetual eyesore in some of the city’s most visible and vibrant neighborhoods.

It’s really an impressive park – after the shade (trees)
mature I look forward to seeing these walkways.

By the early 2000’s serious discussion was taking place. As Bloomberg’s reports, there were many proposals, including some experts seriously recommending covering the whole thing with concrete and calling it a day.

Fortunately, and somewhat refreshingly, Vietnamese officials took the longer view and undertook a massive project to not only revitalize the waterway, but turn it into a green, sustainable asset. In this vision, the once-filthy, dangerous, toxic canal would become a beautiful park. The outcome would generate more foot traffic, eliminate an eyesore, and provide yet another important social meeting place for residents, in addition to restoring a place to fish, eliminating public health and infrastructure dangers, and improving quality of life dramatically for residents and visitors.

As is typical, exercise equipment was installed at many
points along both sides of the canal. I haven’t been able
to figure out what good these wheel things do.

The result is a truly fantastic park and public space. It was not easy. The turnaround began in 2002 and lasted until 2012, and there were many, many lessons learned.

As the World Bank report notes, the project faced considerable technical and social hurdles. These are some of the busiest, most congested, and most densely populated areas in the city, so traffic was going to be a major issue – the solution was that all construction would take place at night (all 10 years of it).

Construction of tunnels to increase canal capacity (over 8km of new, 3 meter-wide tunnels were installed below the existing canal) would have to deal with Saigon’s dreadfully complicated soil situation – located on a delta as it is, these shifting and near constant challenges took years to overcome. Bloomberg’s notes that the tunneling, especially, was incredibly painstaking work – at three points the enormous tunneling machines were trapped underground, indefinitely halting work. In fact, even one foreign company with international experience, when faced with a broken cable and trapped boring machine beneath the Saigon River, left the project completely, not even bothering to retrieve their equipment.

Close proximity to so many people ensures that
park land is constantly in use. 

Crazy! A highly experienced foreign contractor giving up on a project of this size, with this kind of publicity, essentially writing off all losses and work to that point? So crazy.

Part of the problem was that decisions was that rubber stamps had to come from many different levels of local and national government, often from people without proper technical understanding of the associated problems. These bureaucratic nightmares resulted in the ballooning cost of the project and its extreme delays, often halted for months at a time.

The project reached a point of crisis in 2007. The canal was years behind and citizens were furious. The government had to turn the situation around fast. All authority was delegated to the Department of Transportation’s management, streamlining the bidding process in particular, and they gave themselves 6 months to get the project back on track. A local engineering team was hired and, learning from the foreign contractor’s disastrous decisions, was successful in finishing the sub-soil tunneling. Over a million cubic meters of waste and sludge was eventually dredged from the canal.

The streetlights are particularly clever – they look like
giant plant sprouts.

The most encouraging part is the return of fish to the waterway, where they have once again been able to thrive. Those 1.2 million people had house flooding eliminated and gained central wastewater collection, and property values rose as incidents of public health hazards sank. The quality of life for residents and visitors skyrocketed and the park become a massively popular public hub, one that I see at different points in my commute almost every day.

No smell, and no trash!

Others are not so lucky.

The Rest of the Canals

A dead canal that has been built in by housing.
This water is stagnant and more trash is dumped every day.
It reminds me of the trash pit compactor in Star Wars IV.

Unfortunately, this situation has not extended to all of Saigon’s canals. Many face serious danger from a spectacular buildup of waste that has no where to go, which cannot be dredged due to a lack of space – houses have a way here of expanding out over the water, creating entire sub-canals that become essentially standing waste collection.








There are over 76km of main canals in HCMC. There are another 2,000km of drainage canals, may of which have been designated by the Environmental services ministry as dead or dying – meaning that there is currently no method at their disposal (ha) to clean stagnant or covered canals. All of this is currently (and only temporarily, thank goodness) being diverted into the Saigon River.

Raising chickens over the canal.

The next phases of the rehabilitation of Saigon’s waterways includes a new water filtration plant as well as bringing sewage to District 2. In the meantime, the Ho Chi Minh City Department of Environmental Protection Bureau picks up 8-9 TONS of garbage from the city’s canal system EVERY DAY.

One 10-year project has had stunning results, but this remains a stubborn issue that deserves to be addressed, either by new technology, new zoning regulations, more powerful utility companies and environmental bureaus, or some combination thereof. All of these factors are currently in flux in Vietnam, and it’s my opinion that a net consisting of these solutions could have a dramatic impact on some of HCMC’s dirtiest and poorest areas, as well as the general well-being and attractiveness of the city. As the urban population continues to rapidly expand, these issues will only become more exacerbated.
District 8 and another dead canal, blocked off
from cleaning by encroaching housing.

Ho Chi Minh City is an amazing city with a vibrant and relatively high quality of life, but for the most residents to enjoy all that this city has to offer, including the economic and environmental benefits that come with living in large cities, the rehabilitation and revitalization of these essential waterways must be continued. 

The “turn-it-into-a-park” model was extraordinarily successful in the end, but was plagued by a very steep learning curve. I see no reason that these lessons learned could and should now be turned to some of the city’s more disadvantaged districts, providing them with all the amenities that a city like HCMC, with it’s world-class ambitions, should be implementing in a more aggressive manner.

UDATE:

This bridge was literally closed off just days ago. The work continues! May all their urban projects be so damn speedy.