The changing face of Saigon

Old and new Saigon
[Old and new Saigon: Bitexco Financial Tower and a French colonial-era building.]

I’ve been basing myself in Saigon off-and-on for the past two years, and my first visit here was in 2005. In this time I’ve been watching the city transform as it catches up from decades of underinvestment.

It’s an interesting time to be here; to see a city become what it hopes to be a world-class international metropolis.

A metro system is finally being built, skyscrapers are going up, and there are plans for a new airport with the ambition of becoming a major hub of Southeast Asia (plan being the operative word at this point.)

The Landmark 81 Tower
[The proposed Landmark 81 Tower.]

Some of these plans come at the cost of lost heritage buildings and a disappearing street culture, as has been seen in other major cities across Asia.

This article is a snapshot of what is going on in Saigon at the start of 2015. As soon as I press publish this post will already be out of date, so if you are reading from the future consider this as a time capsule of Saigon in January, 2015.

Metro Construction

Construction of the first metro lines has begun with two lines being built, out of the six that are planned. Ideally there would be double the amount of lines given the size of the city, but it’s an encouraging start to see work being done.

The train lines in district 1 will be underground, and evidence of work can be seen in the middle of the city. Some old trees in front of the opera house were cut down to make way for the construction.

Cutting down trees at Opera
[Clearing trees at the Opera House station construction site.]

Another casualty of the construction was the Tax Shopping Centre. This much-loved building will be replaced by a convention centre and office tower.

I took this photo from one of the cafes in the Tax Shopping Centre a few days before it closed in September 2014. The cafe overlooked the construction area for the Opera House station.

Opera Construction Site - Ho Chi Minh City
[Preparation of the Opera House station construction site.]

Metro construction work is also evident along Le Loi at the corner of Pasteur St.

Vietnam - Japan Construction Site
[Metro work on Le Loi St.]

So far there is no official site outlining the station locations or where the future metro lines are going, so some enthusiasts have taken it upon themselves to create their own maps:

Detailed Map Of The Entire HCMC Metro System
Map for the entire MRT system in Saigon

Nguyen Hue Pedestrian Zone

While the Opera House construction is going on the city has taken the opportunity to turn Nguyen Hue St into a landscaped pedestrian zone. Nguyen Hue runs from the old town hall to the Saigon River.

This is the unofficial main street of Ho Chi Minh City and it is not a through road, so it makes sense to make a prominent pedestrian promenade out of it.

Nguyen Hue Redevelopment
[Nguyen Hue Redevelopment.]

At the start of Nguyen Hue there will be a new statue of President Ho to replace the Uncle Ho statue that was in front of the city hall.

City Hall Road Works
[City Hall road works.]

Endangered Buildings

In my time here I have seen some old colonial buildings demolished to make way for new buildings. What made Saigon the “pearl of the Orient” is slowly disappearing, so I’ve been visiting these buildings before they are gone.

A great website for information on Saigon’s built heritage is Historic Vietnam by Tim Doling. On this site there is a depressingly-titled category called “Date With The Wrecking Ball” which lists buildings that are marked for demolition. Here are some of the buildings in danger of being demolished.

At the Ben Thanh roundabout is the Vietnam Railways Building.

Railway Building at Ben Thanh
[Vietnam Railways Building (right) at Ben Thanh Market.]

Behind the Notre Dame Cathedral is the District 1 People’s Committee Building (originally the Cercle des Officiers).

Cercle des Officiers
[Cercle des Officiers]

A group of old buildings on Dong Khoi near the Opera House are being reviewed for demolition. One of those buildings is home to one of my favourite cafes (L’Usine).

L'Usine Dhong Khoi
[L’Usine Dhong Khoi]

Also on Dong Khoi, on the corner of Ly Tu Trong, is the Catinat Building, which may not be with us for much longer. There are some nice cafes in the building so visit them while you can.

Catinat Building
[Catinat Building.]

Old buildings for hipsters

It’s not all bad news for the old buildings of Saigon. There is one apartment block in district 1 that has been transformed into a hipster hideout.

14 Ton That Dam Street
[14 Ton That Dam Street]

If you walk by this building on 14 Ton That Dam Street you would just think it is another run-down apartment block. Go up the stairs and you will find cafes and boutique shops mingling with residents of the building.

This reminds me of where Bangkok was – perhaps 10 years ago – when it first started getting urban-cool cafes and shops.

[Check out this photo essay on 14 Ton That Dam.]

Things Cafe - 14 Ton That Dam Street
[A cafe at 14 Ton That Dam Street.]

Hidden old buildings

Saigon has old buildings scattered all over district 1 and 3, though many of them are hidden from sight at street level. These buildings were originally built on large properties, similar to this villa.

A villa not obstructed by new buildings

These buildings aren’t practical for shopping streets so shopfronts are often built in front of them.

I walked by this building many times not realising there was an old building hiding behind the clutter.

Old villa obscured by new buildings

And another example where you can see an old building peeking over the top of the new shops.

Hai Ba Trung and Ly Tu Trung

Will street food survive the changing streetscape?

soup lady

I used to visit this soup lady for lunch whenever I was in her part of district 1. She would set up on a corner in front of an old building and she made a great bun mam soup. When the corner building was renovated she had to move and she hasn’t returned. Same happened to a banh cuon lady that was set up on another street corner. The old building she set up in front of was demolished and I haven’t seen her since.

In Hanoi the government announced that it intended to ban street vendors, and I have seen police close down street vendors in Saigon, only to pop up again once the police where gone.

With the city modernising it seems inevitable that one day the street food culture as we know it will be gone. I think of Singapore as a precedent, where street vendors were taken off the street and placed in hawker centres. And now those hawker centres are being replaced by shopping mall food courts.

Taipei would be another example. My friend Jon lived in Taipei in the 90’s, and he describes Saigon now as being what Taipei was like twenty years ago. I was recently in Taipei and the street food is mostly at the organised night markets, so that is at least a good example to follow.

Other new developments

Some other developments I’ve seen in my wanders around district 1 include this luxury serviced apartment tower on the riverfront.

Waterfront Saigon
[Waerfront Saigon under construction.]

Saigon Centre Phase 2 is under construction on Le Loi, which will include a 45 storey tower and mall.

Saigon Centre Phase 2
[Beginning construction of Saigon Centre Phase 2]

Saigon Centre Phase 2 should look something like this.

Saigon Centre Phase 2
[Saigon Centre Phase 2]

In front of Ben Thanh market will be the central metro interchange station, and opposite that is this block of land which has been empty since I arrived. This will be the home of The ONE Ho Chi Minh City, which will comprise of a 55-storey and 48-storey tower.
The ONE Ho Chi Minh City
[Construction site of The ONE Ho Chi Minh City.]

Sometimes there is construction work going on here, then it stops, so I have no idea if this is still going ahead in its current form. A Ritz-Carlton hotel was planned for one of the towers but the link on the official Ritz-Carlton site is no longer working.

I have seen different images of what this area will look like after the metro construction. This is one rendering of the roundabout and project site.

The ONE Ho Chi Minh City

I haven’t been able to find out anything about this one, but on the riverfront on Ham Nghia the Saigon One seems to have halted in mid construction. Perhaps it will become Saigon’s answer to Bangkok’s ghost tower – the abandoned Sathorn Unique.

Saigon One Tower
[Saigon One.]

So that is a snapshot of the changing face of Saigon as of 2015. Who knows where I will be in 10 years but I will come back and see what has changed in that time. For updates on Saigon projects visit my other site that is tracking proposed and current construction projects.

[Edit: here is the changing face of Saigon – 2017 edition.]

If you are visiting bookmark my Ho Chi Minh City travel page and guide for where to stay in Saigon.

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  1. I think this type of transformation/transmission is inevitable. Investors are always looking for new areas to put their cash! I was in Saigon in September/October and in that short amount of time it definitely seems that a lot is changing. I definitely worry for those who are unable to adapt to the changing landscape.

    • I have to agree with Nigel. Anywhere there is opportunity to invest then a city is going to be developed into the modern to attract more investment opportunities in businesses, real estate, infrastructure, etc.

  2. I love how all the models have a couple cars on the streets, seem to be missing a few thousand scooters!

  3. Damn, reminds me of China – changing every day. I haven’t been to Saigon yet but looks like I need to get there quick before the skyscrapers take over!

  4. I was in Hoi Ann, a few months back.. that was awesome.. I Missed doing Saigon … looks like I need to plan another trip…..

  5. Thanks for this fantastic article, James! I’ve been visiting Saigon frequently since 2008. It’s been fascinating, and at times startling, to see how fast the city is changing.

    My heart sank a bit when I read your comparison with Singapore. I’ve lived in Singapore since 2011, and am moving to Saigon in July. It saddens me to know how many old historic buildings in Singapore have been squashed to make room for shopping malls and high-rise buildings here. Saigon is where I go to escape Singapore’s hyper-sterile modernity, but after reading your article, it seems fair to predict Saigon could be slowly inching in the same direction.

    One observation I will add to your article is that I’ve also noticed how traffic in Saigon has changed since my first visit there seven years ago. I see more expensive motorbikes on the roads there than I used to — a sign that some people are experiencing growing prosperity. I’ve also noticed there are more cars than there used to be, which is a bit scary. If half the motorbikes get replaced by cars, the city will be in gridlock… so while constructing the metro is making some messes, it will be badly needed soon.

    I think the bottom line is that Vietnam is rebounding from what you called “decades of underinvestment,” and as the country becomes more prosperous, people will understandably want to modernize and develop — and we can’t fault them for that. (One of my big pet peeves is when tourists complain a place isn’t as “quaint” as it used to be — as if people should avoid modern comforts for the benefit of outsiders.) But I agree with you, it is sad to know that much of the architecture that’s there now is being threatened. The city does have a ramshackle sort of charm to it right now, and as it modernizes, that will likely become a thing of the past.

    • Hi Dave, thanks for that – lots of good points there.

      I have also noticed the increase of cars on the road which makes me think that Saigon traffic will one day resemble Bangkok traffic. At least with the bikes you can still get around the city relatively quickly. Cars will be a nightmare on these roads.

      That is one of my pet peeves as well when people complain about a place modernising, as if it should be preserved in poverty for our enjoyment. I’m all for redevelopment and would love to see a modern skyline and working metro system. This can still be done by preserving heritage buildings. There is enough stock of ugly concrete box buildings that could be knocked down and still have enough room for the historic buildings that people come to see.

      Anyway, I’ll be in Saigon later in the year so perhaps I will see you then.


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