From Rubbles to Luxury, the Formation of New Urban Zones in Ho Chi Minh City

Hans Schenk

Vietnamese cities expand rapidly after the introduction of a market inspired economy since the mid-1980s and liberalisation of land transfers since the 1990s. Planned  ‘new urban zones’ and more informally expanding peri-urban villages mushroom around the cities and towns of the country. Two ‘new urban zones’ in Vietnam’s largest city Ho Chi Minh City form the core of the study of Eric Harms for which he did intermittently fieldwork in this city between 2010 and 2014. The first zone, Phu My Hung, was partly ‘finished’ at the time of fieldwork, after the start of its construction in 1998, and its residents live in ‘luxury’. 

The second zone, Thu Thiem, was in 2012 on the brink of development after the destruction of  original peripheral settlements and the ‘rubble’ still strewn over the area. Harms narratives of these two new urban zones in Ho Chi Minh City consists of overviews of their respective histories. He subsequently lets residents of Phu My Hung express their views on living in their new living area, while also giving the chance to evicted inhabitants of the former villages that have been destroyed for the development of Thu Thiem to voice their opinions of what has happened to them and their lives.

The Luxury of Phu My Hung

The conception and birth of Phu My Hung is told twice by Harms in an exciting and well-documented chapter. On the one hand there are regular (Taiwanese) development corporation looking for profitable investments in real estate, and of local politicians who want to make use of the ideological openings offered by the economic renovation policy (Doi Moi) after the mid 1980s. Prepared land was delivered to the investors who in their turn provided for a fancy living environment in a new urban zone, based on exclusion and class distinction, and catering for some happy few among the emerging Vietnamese middle classes and elites. On the other hand there is the story – myth according to Harms – of a ‘civilization alchemy’ that is made possible by the political and economic ‘enlightenment’ following Doi Moi: the birth of a new, superior civilization based on the rules of law (including property rights) and given form by clearing (faked) wasteland near the city, evicting its inhabitants and turning it ‘into land more valuable than gold and of bringing pride to Ho Chi Minh City and the Vietnamese people’ (p. 56).  The creation of Phu My Hung has accordingly been presented as an act of civilization, an act of nation building at a local scale. In the next two chapters citizens also voice their stories twice. First there is the happiness of an acquired urban ‘civility’, of citizenship under transparent and efficient conditions, but there is at the same time the satisfaction of having made a good and profitable investment – inevitably based on exclusion - by buying a house or apartment in a well-organized, tidy and ‘civilized’ Phu My Hung. Or, as Harms summarizes, bluntly:  many residents ‘seem unable to distinguish between vulgar materialism and civility’ (p. 84).

The rubbles awaiting Thu Thiem

The second part is on a new urban zone that is yet to come, Thu Thiem. Harms has chosen to narrate the destruction of this existing peripheral area, and an unprecedented eviction of its tens of thousands of inhabitants, but following his discourse on the double-tongued realities in the nearly completed adjacent new urban zone of  Phy My Hung. This sequence is debatable: do the rubbles not precede the constructed luxury? But anyway, the decennia-long history of the (pre-)conception of Thu Thiem is fascinating enough, and richly illustrated with numerous maps and plans for this new part of the city, opposite the existing central district of Ho Chi Minh City, actually a prime location, just across the Saigon river, and planned to become a luxurious housing and commercial area. And again, there is enough room for – say – wishful thinking of an ‘empty’ area in need of development. Harms shows how the area has been carefully treated as uninhabited wasteland, in spite of all available evidence. When, in the 1990s the start of development of new urban zones in Vietnam took place, e.g. by drawing peripheral areas into the realm of the urban administration, the battle for the valuation of the to be acquired land became a prime issue, the more so since a real estate market emerged since the land law of 1992 (legally, land use rights only became marketable). Reclassification (conversion) of land, as a result of the locations within the new urban districts of the expanding city, and land use, subsequently became negotiable items with the city politicians and a fertile soil for corruption and other malpractices. Harms uses these aspects of the formation of Thu Thiem to introduce his next dialectical approach to the new urban zone under preparation. He summarizes the voices of his evicted and rehabilitated respondents from the area: ‘the problem with land conversion was not that it promoted ... a dramatic rise in land values – that, in principle was seen as a good thing, an opportunity to get rich. The problem was their feeling of being boxed out of that opportunity by government authorities who used these processes for self-aggrandizement’ (p. 175). The evicted villagers want to take part in the idea of the ‘civilized’ and modern city, but do not want to be cheated.

Harms, returning simultaneously to the two sites of his ethnographies, discusses in a final chapter an underlying concept behind the motor of developing new urban extensions: land use rights and their transfers since the liberalisation of the Vietnamese economy. Such rights, endorsed by the rule of law have turned land into a commodity, and have become equated with the value of land, instead of resulting from citizenship: ‘rights have come to look a lot like parcels of land: some people have more than others’ (p. 214).

Using a dialectical concluding remark myself, it is opportune to state that on the one hand Harms has written a convincing book on the sledgehammer and the trowel of the formation of new urban zones in Ho Chi Minh City.[1] On the other hand, he has abundantly dwelled upon the values, opinions, attitudes of those who have become victims of such zones and mourn, while sitting on the rubbles, and of those who exclusively profit from the city’s new domains of luxury. By carefully providing for backings of the oral accounts of some of his respondents (though he spoke and or interviewed the sizeable number of 335 respondents!) he has avoided the problem of the scope of ethnographic narratives.

[1] His finding are, however, not very surprising as they confirm by large the conclusions derived by Labbe in her study of similar processes of the formation of new urban zones in Hanoi. See: Danielle Labbe, Land Politics and Livelihoods on the margins of Hanoi, 1920-2010, Vancouver UBC Press, 2014.