The Asia-Pacific is currently undergoing a massive rural-to-urban migration, annually adding about fifty million people into the region’s metropolitan cities. This includes Hồ Chí Minh City, the largest urban centre in Vietnam. Boasting a population of eight million and a large commercial and industrial sector, the city is responsible for a quarter of the country’s total GDP. However, the city is also the biggest recipient of rural and foreign migrants. Urban growth in HCMC essentially has far outpaced industrialization in HCMC, placing the city in a housing shortage. Compounded by the ever-increasing price of real estate, migrants resort to subpar forms of housing, settling for makeshift dwellings in outer-district slums. These slums; however, started being cleared to utilize the illegally occupied space more productively to accommodate for the city’s rising upper and middle class. Since then, HCMC has approved of numerous urban redevelopment projects, from the satellite suburb of “Saigon South” in Quản 7 to the Thủ Thiêm New Urban Area project in Quản 2. Displacing thousands of slum dwellers and low‑income property owners, HCMC struggles to negotiate a balance between catering for its growing urban middle class and providing adequate housing for the city’s poor.
Key Words: modernization, urbanization, Hồ Chí Minh City
Key Terminology Defined
Đổi mới: economic reforms initiated in Vietnam in 1986 with the goal of creating a “socialist-oriented market economy.”
Modernization: the process of making modern, whether in design or urban planning.
Satellite city: a concept in urban planning that refers essentially to smaller metropolitan areas which are located somewhat near to, but are mostly independent of larger metropolitan areas.
Social capital: the network of social connections that exists between people, and their shared values and norms of behaviour which enable and encourage mutually advantageous social cooperation.
Socio-spatial exclusion: exclusion or segregation of people from access to normal urban social
life due to spatial bias.
Socio-spatial network: a social network dependent and determined by a specific positional or geographical situation.
Suburbanization: the process of restructuring space on the fringe of the urban centre as a result of urban expansion, population rise, and usually improved socioeconomic conditions.
Urban fragmentation: the phenomenon of increasingly disordering and disconnecting urban society spatially, as a result of economic processes.
Urbanization: the broad process by which an urban centre advances economically and structurally.
Vietnamese exodus: refers to refugees who fled Vietnam after the Vietnam War, especially during 1978 and 1979 to escape communist rule and dire economic circumstances.
Metropolitan cities of the Asia-Pacific, especially those of developing countries, have undergone considerable urban growth in the twenty-first century. According to a joint report of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia (UNESCAP) and Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT), by 2018, the total population of the region is expected to be more than fifty percent urban. At current trends, approximately fifty million migrants are being added to Asia’s urban centres every year. That is the highest growth rate in the world, followed by Africa, which adds fifteen million migrants to urban centres annually. Such a large influx has prompted local governments of these Asian cities to reconfigure their urban space and infrastructure to properly accommodate for the projected population increase. This includes Hồ Chí Minh City (formally Saigon) of Vietnam.
Hồ Chí Minh City (HCMC) is the largest city in Vietnam, boasting a population of about eight million in 2015. Being the country’s largest urban centre, HCMC draws a significant number of migrants from the rural areas of central and southern Vietnam, as well as from its border neighbours Cambodia and Laos. Two major historical events could be attributed to the city’s large urban population. First, throughout the near century-long French colonial rule (1887–1954), Vietnam remained predominantly agricultural as it had been for much of its precolonial history. At the time, a majority of the country’s population resided in the countryside. During the early phases of the French conquest of Vietnam in 1864, what is now HCMC had a population of eighteen thousand residents. However, the population soon climbed to 244,717 by 1916, a thirteenfold jump in just five decades. Such rapid population growth was fueled by the erection of colonial administration and military infrastructure, along with the commercialization of HCMC.
This fast-paced growth only accelerated during the two Indochina Wars fought against the French (1946–54) and the United States (1955–75). Many from the central countryside and North Vietnam were displaced due to heavy fighting and American bombing campaigns, forcing them to seek refuge in South Vietnam. In particular, HCMC was the go-to destination for these refugees. The city remained a safe haven throughout the war due to heavy American presence. Immediately after the war in 1975; however, HCMC’s population stagnated at 3.5 million primarily due to the Vietnamese exodus. The stagnation was compounded by the introduction of a population control policy: the government restricted migrants from settling in HCMC and dispersed the city’s residents to the countryside.
Second, during the late 1980s, HCMC’s population growth returned to its historical high and reaccelerated with the introduction of Đổi mới (1986). Vietnam’s export-led economic reform program referred to as “Đổi mới” aimed to integrate more capitalist principles into its socialist economy. The program’s push for economic liberalization and rollback of state intervention led to a preferential concentration of capital, investment, and economic opportunities in the country’s urban areas, especially in HCMC. The city indeed has risen as the main commercial and industrial hub of Vietnam. Only a few years after Đổi mới in 1992, HCMC was responsible for 18.9 percent of the total production of Vietnam; and now boasts a total GDP (nominal) of USD44.3 billion (2015), nearly a quarter of the country’s total GDP (nominal) of USD214 billion (2015). The city’s GDP (nominal) per capita income of USD5,538 (2015) is also the highest in Vietnam, far exceeding the country’s average of USD2,321 (2015). As Vietnam’s largest urban centre, HCMC has been the primary beneficiary of the country’s new wealth, but also the biggest recipient of rural and foreign migrants.
Industrialization in HCMC has been outpaced by the city’s urban population. At a rate of around two hundred thousand newcomers every year, low-income migrants flood the city, compounding HCMC’s already drastic housing shortage. This is partly attributed to Vietnam’s poor population forecasting, HCMC being the typical case. Because of repeated inaccurate projections, HCMC’s urban planning has never adequately accommodated for the city’s real population growth. For instance, the 1993 urban plan for HCMC projected the population to reach five million by 2010; the estimate was surpassed by 1998 and the real population of 2010 ended up being 7.4 million.
Making matters worse, HCMC has the largest gap between average household income and the price of real estate in Vietnam. Because of this, without the ability to afford housing upon arrival, many migrants resort to poor forms of housing—settling in outer-district slums, often set up illegally along heavily polluted canals and rivers. A slum is a high density informal settlement in an urban area; it is characterized by squalor and substandard makeshift dwellings. Living conditions in these places are dire. A combination of crowdedness and an absence of toilet plumbing regularly floods slums with waste water, spreading diseases found in human feces and waste. In 2002, the HCMC government estimated that over ten percent of its urban population lived under such precarious conditions.
In 1990, HCMC began clearing slums to utilize the illegally-occupied space more productively to accommodate the rising urban population and to cater to middle-class conveniences; and, in the rhetoric of urban planners, to improve slum dwellers’ standard of living. Toward this objective, the city has authorized more real estate and construction ventures, starting a trend of suburbanization in HCMC. A prime example of such a venture is a satellite suburb referred to as “Saigon South” or “Phú Mỹ Hưng” in Quản 7, which consists of more open space, large shopping malls, international schools, and even factory outlets. The Department of Construction has already proposed adding six more of these suburbs by 2020. The Thủ Thiêm New Urban Area in Quản 2 is another ongoing redevelopment project, aspiring to become the new financial district of HCMC—much like the Pudong financial district of Shanghai.
However, these billion-dollar projects, requiring hundreds of hectares of land, have systematically displaced and relocated the illegally-occupying slum dwellers and poor households to new areas far from their original place of residence. Although the Thủ Thiêm project expects to accommodate 130,000 permanent residents and to service about one million people, 14,600 households have already been displaced. To compensate for their loss, a form compensation is handed out in return: Although the selection of compensation packages varies from project to project, the package typically consists of a government-decided value of their property or the right to buy a unit in a resettlement complex. These options; however, are far from adequate. Regarding the former, while households can relocate elsewhere, the compensation value received tends to be far below the market price of their property—preventing them from purchasing a similar-sized property near their previous residence. The rapidly-rising real estate market of HCMC also quickly diminishes the purchasing power of their compensation. These circumstances force the households to relocate to outer-urban districts that are underdeveloped and sometimes even lacking access to electrical grids or a functioning sewage system. Concerning the latter, there are an array of reasons why Vietnamese households prefer not to reside in a high-rise resettlement complex. Those who previously owned either a detached or semi-detached property consider moving into a high-rise building a downgrade. This thought is reinforced by the fact that the quality of these complexes tends to be poor: They are constructed cheaply in undesireable locations. In addition, many low-income Vietnamese people operate a shop on the ground level of their flats, but such operation cannot exist in a multi-storey building because there is not enough space to accommodate all residents that might want to set up a shop. Further, the relocatees’ frustration over the inadequacy of their compensation is compounded by the local authorities deliberately mismeasuring their plots of land, pocketing what was officially paid out to them, evicting them with the threat of violence, making false promises or intentionally delaying their promised compensation, as well as the additional fact that some relocatees fail to receive any compensation because they do not possess the complete paperwork documenting their land-use rights or long-term residence. The resettlement policy of HCMC; therefore, fails to productively cater to the low-income relocatees’ income-generating activities and spatial positioning needs, deteriorating their socio-spatial network and potentially leading them to a state of socio-spatial exclusion.
The prime goal of this research project aims to examine how HCMC’s resettlement apparatus and its displacement, relocation, and compensation policy affected the relocatees socioeconomically, and in particular, their socio-spatial network. More specifically, I wanted to evaluate what factors produced by the city’s resettlement policy exerted the most socioeconomic impact on relocated individuals, and how these factors are manifested in real economic and social terms in the relocatees’ daily life experiences. I should emphasize that in this paper, the term “impact” implies neither detrimental nor beneficial change. My research hypothesis is as follows:
When the precise socio-spatial needs of relocated individuals and their previous sources of income are not taken into consideration in the resettlement and compensation process, the result is the disordering of their previously established socio-spatial network. The factor exerting the most impact on the level of intensity of the disordering of the relocatees’ socio-spatial network is distance. More specifically, the distance between the relocated individuals’ previous and new place of residence. Therefore, the greater the distance the relocatees are repositioned from their previous place of residence, the greater level of socio-spatial exclusion experienced by relocated individuals.
I repeatedly emphasize the terms “socio-spatial network” and “socio-spatial exclusion” considering Vietnam’s cultural emphasis on social capital—as do many other neighbouring Asia-Pacific countries. Social capital is a social network sustained via reciprocity, trust, and shared values and norms, which enables mutually advantageous interactions among those parts of the network. A deterioration of social capital therefore can have real socioeconomic consequences in Vietnamese culture.
The data presented in this paper were collected during the two trips I made to HCMC in February and July, 2016. Before providing further details, I must emphasize a few points. During both trips, I was accompanied by the same Vietnamese-to-English translator studying at the Hồ Chí Minh City University of Social Sciences. However, he did not have native or bilingual proficiency in English, but only professional working proficiency. The translations I received; therefore, may not be entirely accurate. The accuracy suffered further because I was prohibited from using an audio recorder. This was because my research project required a low-level group vulnerability and research risk. To avoid confusion, the questionnaire (Figure A.2) was formulated after the February trip. Therefore, the interviewee answers from February may not necessarily reflect the questionnaire.
Regarding the ten questions listed in the questionnaire, they are divided into two different sections. The former is oriented towards inquiring about the relocatees’ displacement experiences, and what choice of compensation they opted for. These questions maintain a uniform theme of uncovering what approach the district governments took, and how much integrity they had, and what responsibility they were willing to take regarding their relocatees’ displacement and relocation. I also inquired about whether or not the interviewees’ neighbours shared a similar experience to rule out any unique cases. The latter part of the questionnaire focused on the interviewees’ daily life experiences after their relocation—that is, what is their life like now, after repositioning?
None of the interviews conducted with relocatees were previously-scheduled and were entirely spontaneous. However, there were two sites I visited that required a research permit from their respective district Boards of Clearance and Compensation. These two sites were a) Chung Cư An Sương, QL1A, Trung Mỹ Tây, Quận 12, and b) Vinh Loc B Residential Area, Vinh Loc B Ward, Bình Chánh Quận. In both cases, I was accompanied by a security officer, who looked for and introduced me to the relocatees. Again, in both cases, the officers remained close by when I conducted the interviews. Although I did not think the interviewees’ answers were affected by their presence, it is worth a mention.
I also made sure the relocatees’ I interviewed met certain criteria: they had to be of an adult age in Vietnam, they had to have lived in their current place of residence for at least three months, and they had to have a family. The three-month criterion was established because any period shorter than that was not sufficient to fully identify the socioeconomic change the relocatees experienced after their resettlement. As well, the family criteria was established because it was the only easily-identifiable factor that could be used to maintain consistency across the relocatees I interviewed.
First Case Study (Quận 1 near the Saigon River)
The first resettlement complex I visited in HCMC was in Quận 1, adjacent to the Saigon River. The exact address could not be obtained at the time. I conducted interviews with three women: a Bánh mì vendor, a nail polish artist/seller, and an unemployed elderly woman. The three had moved into the complex two decades ago (1990s), displaced and relocated from a slum very close by the complex. After many inquiries, they appeared to have had similar experiences. Their main problem was their unit’s size. A family of five typically received a unit of twenty-four m2, while a family of more than five received a unit of thirty-two m2. However, due to a shortage of thirty-two m2 units, the elderly woman who had a family of nine had to settle for the smaller twenty-four m2 unit. Other complaints included deteriorating building conditions (as visible in Figure B.1/Figure B.2), thin walls between units, noise pollution, and robberies. Although the poor maintenance of the complex is a valid problem, the rest is attributed to the mere fact that they reside in the most urbanized centre of HCMC. Overall, they were satisfied with their relocation, but most notably, none of their and their husbands’ jobs had to change. If they had, the relocatees explained that it would not have been due to the relocation.
An interview with three relocated individuals in a complex housing hundreds is not a large enough sample size to draw conclusions on what the overall livelihood is like for the rest of the relocatees residing in this complex. However, these accounts reinforce the notion that the distance between the previous and new place of residence and overall satisfaction about the relocation share an inverse relationship: the shorter the distance repositioned, the greater the relocatees’ satisfaction. This is primarily owed to the fact that distance has a large spillover effect on other socioeconomic factors. Notwithstanding the hurdles they may have experienced during the relocation process, their livelihood underwent no significant change because they were repositioned within the same district they had lived and worked previously.
Second Case Study (Chung Cư An Sương, QL1A, Trung Mỹ Tây, Quận 12)
At the An Sung apartment in Quận 12, I conducted four interviews with household breadwinners (Figure B.3). I was told that every resident in this complex, including the four, were originally from Quận Gò Vấp, and were displaced due to the “Tham Luong – Ben Cat – Vam Thuat River – Nuoc Len Canal Waterway Improvement Project.” According to Google Maps, Quận Gò Vấp is about a seventeen-minute drive from Quận 12. This distance indeed has a considerable spillover effect on the relocatees. A family man with one child complained to me that since he works in Chinatown in Quận 11, his commute time nearly doubled. He preferred relocating closer to Chinatown, but could not due to the expensive real estate price in Quận 11. He also complained that his cost of living has risen because goods and services in Quận 12 are more expensive than that of Quận Gò Vấp. The longer-commute complaint was voiced by the other interviewees as well. A staff member at the local government of Phường 14 of Quận Gò Vấp kept his post after relocation, but he, too, suffered a longer commute time. A mid-aged woman gave me a similar account: She continued her post as a bank teller in Quận Gò Vấp. In particular, she complained that the quality of education in Quận 12 was inferior to that of Quận Gò Vấp. Because of this, she continues to send her daughter to a school in Quận Gò Vấp, but the commute cost has financially burdened them. What was intriguing was that all four interviewees continued to travel back to Quận Gò Vấp on a weekly or a monthly basis—for grocery shopping, haircuts, or to visit their old friends. The interviewees expressed mediocre satisfaction about their new area. They wanted to return to Quận Gò Vấp, but did not possess the financial means to do so. Again, these interviewees’ complaints further validate the inverse relationship between the distance between the previous and new place of residence and overall satisfaction with the relocation.
Third Case Study (Vinh Loc B Residential Area, Vinh Loc B Ward, Bình Chánh Quận)
The same trend was observed with residents at a complex in Bình Chánh Quận, an outer-city district far from the urban centre (Figure B.4). All of the residents I interviewed did not originate from one district. This is unique since HCMC’s resettlement policy tends to relocate all residents from one redevelopment zone to the same resettlement complex. My first interviewee had been displaced due to the “Tan Hoa Lo Gom Waterway Improvement Project” and was originally from Quận 6. She complained that the relocation had added about thirty minutes to her husband’s commute who works at the city centre. More notably; however, her income had taken a hit. In the past, she sold beverages by a busy riverside, but Bình Chánh Quận was too rural and not densely populated. Another lady I interviewed was from Quận 1. She was displaced due to the Nancy Market Clearance Project. Her case was peculiar because she was from Quận 1. It was uncommon to see an individual relocated so distant from their previous place of residence; Quận 1 is a forty-five minute commute from Bình Chánh Quận. She complained that she was cheated out of proper compensation because of her KT2 residency status. Consequently, she was forced to abandon her old grocery and beverage business. As noted by my first interviewee, she also shared the sentiment that Bình Chánh Quận had not enough foot traffic for businesses to turn a profit. Another problem was that her daughter still attended her old school in Quận 1 because of Bình Chánh’s poor quality of education. She now had to wake up at five o’clock in the morning to drive her daughter to Quận 1 and then commute to another district for work. These case studies demonstrated the inverse relationship between the distance between the previous and new place of residence and overall satisfaction about the relocation. This case does so as well, but the Bình Chánh Quận’s desertedness and long distance from the city’s urban centre appears to have more-intensely affected the relocatees’ dissatisfaction.
Each of the three case studies primarily differed in terms of the distance between their relocatees’ current and old place of residence. As demonstrated in the accounts of the interviewees, as the distance increased, I was able to observe an increase in the complaints about their relocation and current standard of living. Although distance appeared to have exerted the most socioeconomic impact on the relocatees’ daily livelihood, there were other factors. Among those with an underage child, they prioritized sending their child to the best school available, even if it meant commuting to their previous district. Considering that the interviewees were low-income people, this placed a considerable time and financial burden on the interviewees. Another factor with a large spillover effect was being repositioned to an outer-city district. Such repositioning severely deterred relocatees’ from continuing their previous job due to the unmanageable commute. As well, these districts provided far-from-optimal conditions to start a profitable business, primarily due to the low foot traffic. These problems have yet to be properly addressed in HCMC’s resettlement policy, and may backfire on the government in the long term. These problems could later manifest in the form of higher unemployment/underemployment or even increasing the city’s income disparity. Nevertheless, what is clear is that the greater the distance the relocatees are repositioned from their previous place of residence, the greater level of socio-spatial exclusion experienced by relocated individuals.
Appendix A: Map of HCMC and Questionnaire
Appendix B: Relevant Photographs
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Daniel C. Park is an alumni from University of Toronto who studied International Relations and Political Science. He served as the Editor-in-Chief for Synergy Journal for the academic cycle of 2016-2017.