[NOTE: This post goes out to my friend Jenny, who asked me about Saigon Architecture in July 2013. Excitingly, it’s a much more interesting topic than I assumed! So here’s the first post!]

I find myself often looking down out my window, which is located on the 3rd (4th, American-style counting) floor of my house, and find myself succumbing to the question that must be difficult for any Saigon architecture buff to resist: why isn’t the entire lot filled… the entire vertical distance??

There’s about half a meter of a small awning over the entrance to the garage… that would give me (or my poor roomies on the other side of the building, in their small, glass closet-rooms) just a liiiiiitle bit more breathing room.

But this is a form of thinking that I had never encountered as a designer. Form really SHOULD follow function, but it’s difficult to resist the idea that an object’s aesthetic should be at least equally important.

On one level, though, this extreme interpretation of Form v. Function just makes common sense – people are more important than the building, so stretch the building to the farthest corners of the available land, all the way up, and you’ll have slightly more comfortable humans.

Not to mention the fact that in the average Vietnamese home, there are many family members, and, all of a sudden, this doesn’t just seem like A way to do it, it becomes THE way to do it. Even in parcels of city land that are surrounded by unsold/unimproved lots, the tube house reigns supreme… because the expectation is that this neighborhood will, in time, be just like every other well-developed neighborhood in the city – packed, walkable, vital, and very, very local.

Land is gold. Certainly around the world, but the Vietnamese aphorism has been taken to heart in a crowded and rapidly-developing Vietnam, and, as a consequence, innovative and – frankly – attractive modern architecture is emphatically NOT a feature of HCMC’s burgeoning skyline… even given the broad sail of the Bitexco Financial Tower (itself a focal point for financial institutions and entirely funded from international development groups, which is somewhat telling).

A typical new building – you can see that, even though this lot-adjacent wall has a window,
it’s extremely small, in case of later development next door that might block it.

As a direct consequence of this desire to provide maximum space for a ridiculous number of humans, buildings most frequently sit flush with the borders of their lots – rectangular towers reach toward the sky no matter where you look… unless it’s a solid block of concrete, lot to lot.

Inside a typical home is… actually, extremely unpredictable, depending on the house’s location. A house’s inside could do basically anything, based on the parcel of land that it sits on. But in these older neighborhoods with the classical tube houses (districts 3 and 4 typify these houses in HCMC), it’s not uncommon to have a small rectangular lot, with the walls going up the entire vertical distance. Personal lawns are a myth to most city-dwelling Vietnamese… hence the tendency to create large, central parks.

It’s no coincidence that Vietnamese have embraced the Bitexco Tower as an icon of Ho Chi Minh City and Vietnam – it’s the only thing that’s not a neon-lit box and, while it’s slight curve (and hilariously non-functional helipad) are striking compared to the rest of the lineup, it’s still starkly conservative when compared to any roundup of iconic global structures. And, one might say, a colossal waste of precious, precious space in downtown Saigon.

This structure is likely glued together by multiple acquisitions, as the owners of Giac Duc restaurant (a local Vegetarian mainstay in D3) became more successful.

While there are a record number of skyscrapers (consisting of 12+ floors) currently going up in HCMC, zoning regulations are haphazard and minimal, and most development ends up being severely out-of-scale with existing neighborhoods and development. These serve to displace locals while simultaneously making for poor – and often downright ugly – tourist attractions, which is a solid ‘lose’ for communities.

When a block that held 15-20 homes and at least a dozen small- to medium-sized family businesses is replaced with a concrete box and a security guard, foot traffic decreases exponentially – residents and sidewalk vendors will seek more vital and traditionally ‘vietnamese’ neighborhoods in which to spend their day-to-day lives.

A colonial-era building being restored in downtown Saigon.

This vitality shows up in different ways. On a motorbike, it’s to much of a blur to see a shop-filled street go by before your eyes… but on foot, the riot of signs, products, people, and food provides a stimulating and astounding amount of variety for the senses, all at a walking pace – one reason why these individual neighborhoods are so vital. Everything you might need on a day-to-day basis is right next door. And, if it isn’t, a local market is close at hand. These function as meeting spaces and public squares as people attend to their daily needs and bind each other closer together through personal bonds.

The Archbishop’s residence.

For an idea of the variety in a typical Vietnamese neighborhood… follow me. Get your dragonfruit, fresh baguettes, new shoes made, prescriptions filled, iPhone fixed, hair cut, and guitar tuned on a 20 minute stroll around my block – not to mention a coffee and hot bowl of soup, all your wedding flower needs, and at least four stationary stores (and literally SCORES more services, from bike garages to music stores to wedding pavilions). What makes these neighborhoods vital and Vietnamese is abandoned in the rush to ‘industrialized’ status (or maybe the perceived platonic ideal of industrialized from a SEAsian POV), and it is a loss.

Of course, this is a city sprung from a dozen or more villages and shaped by French colonial priorities, and much of this is evident in the most unlikely of places, as well as the well-worn stops on the tourists’ agenda.

Land lots are just as unpredictable as streets here – great boulevards and small roads alike create a patchwork of differently shaped land parcels, buttoned up together by the ubiquitous roundabouts. Houses are unpredictable. An entrance on a busy street the width of a single garage can open up inside into a mansion inside, filling in the space left by smaller structures around it, like Great Stuff foam filling a void.

This tendency toward small street entrances is, interestingly, a tax-avoidance tactic – taxes are/have been at one time (unclear, sorry!) based on the width of the street entrance, not the total parcel of land. It’s also what has contributed to the character of Hanoi’s Old Quarter, where it’s not uncommon to see a shop entrance a meter wide – or less. There is considerably less of that extreme in HCMC, with “tube houses” (mine included) usually spanning only 3-4 meters in width.

Technically speaking, the basic style of construction is a brick skeleton covered in concrete. I used to think this was just unspeakably annoying (you can’t hang anything, the sound outside bounces around like a drunk expat, it’s basically impossible to modify).

However, I’ve come to understand the reasoning behind it, and I even sort of love it (sound inside is relatively isolated, it doesn’t decay as fast as wood/plaster/etc, and it’s a cinch to keep things clean – especially important in a city with very dirty air).

I really hate not being able to customize on a whim, but I understand why it is the way it is, and that is actually enough for me.

It’s actually difficult KILLING plants here. The perfect place to have
rooftop gardens… except for one factor (later post teaser!)

But even the concrete isn’t immune to the weather. The relentless exposure to heat and moisture erodes this, too, even if it’s a slower death than wood and plaster would be here. Life grows everywhere here, and seeks out a footprint that inevitably degrades any structure. Entropy is rampant and on full display in a world where any seed carried on the wind can find a home and put down roots on an expansive canvas of concrete roofs.

The entrance to a house in Phu Nhuan District (center of town) flanked by two concrete trees.
An idea of classical natural ornament personalizing a concrete arch.

I can’t end without including a note on the French Colonial style that can be seen across the historic parts of the city. It’s a grand juxtaposition: the ornate decor and the solid concrete wall, the way that expansive, green gardens retain formal styles but in a uniquely Vietnamese geometry, or the way that this love for classical ornamentation is carried over into modern Vietnamese homes, with their concrete walls, unpredictable lot parcels, and stylized staircases.

In the future, I’m hoping to discover more about how colonial and traditional styles grew together, as well as more about the traditional styles (hopefully in my future sojourn into the VN Countryside!). This is a fascinating topic for me, and I hope you’ve enjoyed the very small example I’ve provided here today. I’m looking forward to delving farther into what defines a home, and how homes exist within the larger natural scope of their environment.

These have been observations mostly about HCMC and the environs. Just FYI. 🙂

Do you have any experience in the North or Central Vietnam? Did you notice things I didn’t about HCMC (likely!)? Please let me know in the comments!