Today Dong Khoi is lost beneath a forest of slablike high-rises entirely out of scale with its intimate proportions. Hardly any sunlight reaches the street. The newer shops (Gucci, Louis Vuitton) are hermetically sealed and bear no relation to the sidewalk. Across from the Grand Hotel will soon stand a 43-story tower called Times Square that, judging from the billboards, will be populated exclusively by Caucasians. Oh, and Café Brodard?Now an outpost of the U.S.–based Gloria Jean’s coffee bar chain. Troi oi! as the Vietnamese say. Good lord!
At its eastern end, Dong Khoi meets the banks of the Saigon River. On the opposite shore lies what looks like swampland fringed with jungle. Welcome to the future downtown. Central Saigon is already one of the densest places on earth, yet just outside it are vast swaths of unsettled space. So, onward across the river. High-rise development will be concentrated here; a tunnel and a pedestrian bridge will connect the “new downtown” with the old. Developing the 1,600-acre site, known as the “Thu Thiem New Urban Area,” will take another 15 years. But since Thu Thiem rests on flood-prone marshland, the ground level must first be raised by six feet.
Reclamation projects like this are under way all over, as Saigon pushes farther and farther beyond its natural boundaries. Such development is taking a heavy environmental toll: hundreds of acres of ponds, canals, and rivers have been filled in. Experts have warned that the pace of construction threatens to suffocate the city.
Let me say, lest you get the wrong idea, that I adore Saigon, even now. Few cities can match its youthful spirit, its unpredictability, or its extraordinary food and nightlife, which range across all levels of formality and cost. Any decent city will have a few good high-end restaurants, but only a great city can sustain a thriving street-food scene as well. I’ve spent evenings sipping Shiraz at jazzy candlelit boîtes and nights drinking bia hoi (draft beer) at raucous joints with plastic stools along the curb, and I can’t decide which is more fun. Money is remaking much of Saigon, but even in the face of globalization and gentrification, the city keeps a refreshingly democratic vibe.
“Saigon is not pretty like Hanoi or Hoi An,” says Luc Lejeune, who co-owns the chic Temple Club restaurant. “But it’s always had a very strong character, in its street life and its people.” A former lawyer who grew up in Provence, Lejeune moved to Vietnam in 1991, settling in Hanoi. He first visited Saigon the following spring. “The winters up north—ugh, all this gray,” he recalls. “Then I came south and found this explosion of color. It reminded me of Marseilles when I was a kid—the same atmosphere, the same light.”
Saigon’s patchwork cityscape may not be traditionally pretty, but it contains a remarkable diversity of architecture—the legacy of so many foreign occupations, not to mention Vietnam’s highly syncretistic culture. (The Cao Dai religion, a homegrown mix of Catholicism, Taoism, and animism, counts Pericles, Sun Yat-sen, and Victor Hugo among its patron saints.) Every block of the city shows off a dizzying blend of influences: squat Chinese godowns, Art Deco cafés, Modernist apartment blocks, Brutalist police stations, and not least, the iconic “tube houses.” These are often no more than 12 feet wide (owners were taxed according to width of frontage) but can rise a dozen stories, their skinny frames stretched upward like Giacometti sculptures, painted in flamboyant pastels and layered with all manner of decorative elements—Palladian to constructivist, Belle Époque to Miami Deco. For all their borrowing, such assemblages are the closest Saigon has to a vernacular style.
Finally, there are the colonial follies that earned Saigon the sobriquet “the Paris of the East.” The city’s stock may not match Hanoi’s, but some fine examples remain: the rococo Hôtel de Ville, the moody Fine Arts Museum, the magnificent Archbishop’s Residence. The French-built residential villas, meanwhile, are paragons of green living from a time before the term existed: generously scaled windows and doorways provide natural air-conditioning, letting in breezes cooled by surrounding vegetation. Walking around the city one grows accustomed to the whir and sputter of A/C units; what’s striking about the villas is the silence that attends them.
Some villas have been reborn as restaurants, some restored as houses for the rich. Others are losing battles with the elements, indifference, and the mad race of development. (Preservation is hard to embrace when developers are offering $1,000 per square foot.) The sobering fact is that Saigon’s historic cityscape is receding—replaced or overshadowed by glass-and-steel towers. And as any gift-shop clerk can tell you, it’s not glass-and-steel towers that sell the postcards.
Right, postcards. Vietnam ranks first in projected tourism growth in Southeast Asia, and fourth worldwide (after India, China, and Libya). Last year foreign arrivals jumped by 16 percent to 4.2 million—and 2.7 million of those visitors came to Saigon. So how do tourists figure into the city’s agenda?Based on recent developments, not as much as they’d hope. Officials are frantic to lure business travelers with corporate hotels and conference centers. They pay lip service to leisure travel, but miss much of the point. The very things that have drawn so many visitors to Saigon—its historic architecture, vibrant street life, and singular sense of place—are precisely what is already being lost.
Consider Ton That Thiep Street, one of the most appealing lanes in Saigon and a favorite of foreign travelers: three tree-shaded blocks of quirky tube houses and colonial-era shop-houses. On one corner stands the Sri Thendayutthapani Temple, topped by a colorful gopuram bedecked with Hindu gods and goddesses. Across the street is a row of cool fashion and home-design boutiques. And at the heart of the block, the aforementioned Temple Club, all polished lacquer, palisander, and opium-den screens. In Vietnam, restaurants with incandescent lighting generally serve dull food, while fluorescent-lit joints with toilet-paper dispensers for napkins turn out the tastiest cooking. (This shall be known as the Inverse Relation of Atmosphere to Authenticity.) However, said rule does not apply to the Temple Club, whose interiors and food are both fabulous.