Vital Vietnam – Lessons from a liveable urban fabric

As we know, the future of billions of people on this planet lies in the city.  While a big population has already moved from the countryside to the city, many still follow. The current movement in developing countries, which follows after this mass migration is quite complete in the more developed part of the world, entails enormous challenges and opportunities. My interest in designing a liveable city for this growing group of city dwellers led me to Vietnam. After I experienced designing in the dense urban fabric of Japanese cities, this seemed to me a challenging next step.

Density in Ho Chi Minh City

Similar to Japanese cities, Vietnamese cities have an enormous density of housing. Their narrow and deep plots, a result of property tax based on the width of the street facade, characterise it’s streets. Public space is extensively used by their population. The asphalt running up to the front door is often taken over by city dwellers to extend their habitat.

An interesting mix of city life and entrepreneurship unfolds on the edges of the street. This transition from public to private, full of life, is what makes the Vietnamese city so attractive. Everything comes together here. You can find yourself eating inside the restaurant while the upstairs neighbour drives his motorbike through the restaurant to the back. Many restaurants as well as businesses are not more than a hole in the wall, extending their services to the street and thereby extending city life inside the building. Families living up on the first floor run their businesses on the ground floor, often making the shop an extension of their living room, where the kids play, the family dines and the customers buy.

A restaurant extends its business to the street
A restaurant extends its business to the street

While entering Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City for the first time, the endless diversity of activities along the streets, combined with its millions of motorbikes, form a chaotic impression. During my stay I started to realise the qualities these cities have to offer. The flexibility of the ground floor of all buildings is striking. The activity it accommodates easily transforms through time, and with that it’s immediate streetscapes.

A barber extends his business to the street
Entrepreneurship along the street

While in Japan, a highly developed country, traffic has relatively clean emissions, air pollution is currently one of the biggest challenges in the Vietnamese cities. In Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as and by the Vietnamese still called Saigon, only a quarter percent of the land surface is covered with greenery. In addition flooding during the rainy season is an annually recurring persistent phenomenon.

Motorbikes characterise the streetscape
Motorbikes characterise the streetscape

Vo Trong Nghia Architects, with offices in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, is well known through its astonishing Green Architecture. According to the philosophy of the firm, nature should be brought back to the city to counter its biggest challenges such as air pollution and flooding. Their determination of creating a more liveable city through architecture is boldly seen in every design. Since February 2015 I have been working at Vo Trong Nghia Architects.

Sketch by Vo Trong Nghia Architects
Sketch by Vo Trong Nghia Architects. Image courtesy by Vo Trong Nghia Architects

The actual architecture of the firm are the trees and the plants giving every building its distinct image. As one of its clients stated to me, “It is living in an urban jungle”. Without the green there would be no working building. They provide cooling, air purification and privacy. In contrast to the rest of the city, which is characterised by concrete roofs and asphalt roads, the soil in which they nestle can collect huge amounts of rainwater. Each project is a prototype. The firms ambition is to let the government realise that this way of thinking will make a fundamental contribution to improving the quality of life in the Vietnamese cities. Green Architecture should be promoted throughout the city. It can become a trademark of Vietnam, the country that is worldwide already known for its wonderful nature and rice fields.

House for trees by Vo Trong Nghia Architects
House for trees by Vo Trong Nghia Architects. Image courtesy by Vo Trong Nghia Architects

Vietnam is on the verge of becoming a well developed country. The choices that are made in the near future will highly effect the liveliness in the Vietnamese streetscapes. Some suburban areas of Ho Chi Minh City start to feel desolate with its gated high rise towers. Images come to my mind of the bleak streets of continuous high rise residential areas in Singapore or modern Chinese cities. Where human activity doesn’t seem to be of interest to any party. While carefully studying existing city life, we can find the qualities that city dwellers need to economically, socially and culturally develop themselves. The Vietnamese urban fabric harbours many answers we need for the future.

Although being about Dutch urban design, my graduation thesis starting now, titled ‘The Dynamic City: Successfully Densifying Towards an Energetic City’ has a common ground with what I have learned from Vietnam.

Needless to say, Vietnam will continuously be inspiring me.