Webinar on: “Old Neighbourhoods and New Towns: Real Estate and Urban Policy in the Greater Saigon Region”

In this webinar, Dr Erik Harms and Dr Pham Thai Son examined the ways housing typologies, real estate investment, and urban policy intersect with the social and morphological aspects of urbanisation in Ho Chi Minh City and Binh Duong Province.


Tuesday, 29 June 2021 – The ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute organised a webinar on “Old Neighbourhoods and New Towns: Real Estate and Urban Policy in the Greater Saigon Region” on Tuesday, delivered by Dr Erik Harms and Dr Pham Thai Son. Dr Harms is Chair of the Council on Southeast Asian Studies and Associate Professor of Anthropology at Yale University, while Dr Son is Senior Lecturer in Urban Economics at the Vietnamese-German University.

Dr Erik Harms and Dr Pham Thai Son
Dr Erik Harms and Dr Pham Thai Son draw on case studies in Ho Chi Minh City and Binh Duong Province to give us insights into the policy agendas and challenges of urban renewal and urbanization in Vietnam. Dr Ivan Small moderated the webinar. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

The speakers noted that the transformation of housing developments in different districts of Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) varies according to their history and mechanisms of change. The central business district, for instance, is marked by commercially vertical densification; District 4 is an urban regeneration area developed from former industrial zones; the alleyways of Tan Binh District are a “self-development area”; Binh Tan is an example of suburban areas undergoing spontaneous densification; while districts 7 and 2 play host to “new urban zones”.

The new urban zones (khu do thi moi) of districts 7 and 2 represent more than just “luxury housing”. They are also the spatialisation of the late Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet’s Doi moi vision – in other words, a political stance towards remaking a visual landscape of order and accountability. This vision, however, also generates contradiction, as real estate-driven developments create not only wealth and modern infrastructure but also conflicts.

In Phu My Hung, for instance, rapidly escalating property values have led to controversies over land use right fees. Phu My Hung residents seek lower property values and, in turn, lower property taxes. The city government, on the other hand, issued a decision in 2004 mandating that land use right fees be collected based on a table of fees adjusted to reflect market prices. In Thu Thiem, rapidly escalating property values have led to an inability to compensate evicted residents at fair market value, producing widespread resentment. Thu Thiem residents want to inflate the value of land to receive the highest compensation possible, while authorities want to keep it as low as possible to keep land compensation costs down. Developments in both Phu My Hung and Thu Thiem were precipitated by the 2003 Land Law, which required official state land prices “be close to actual market prices for assignment of land use right in normal conditions”. The speakers note that this highlights how the Vietnamese state seeks to function as not only the regulator, but also the builder and developer of urban projects.

Phu My Hung and Thu Thiem, in this sense, both represent zonal technologies designed to modernise the city through the imposition of grand plans. While some aspects of these plans make sense and have had some success in modernising infrastructure, they are also extremely prone to controversy, especially when “the whole package” of the so-called Singapore model is not implemented.

Meanwhile, the so-called non-spectacular development of “ordinary neighbourhoods” such as Phu Nhuan demonstrate a care of urban surroundings, a balance in mixed-use developments, and is home to bustling commercial life as well as a vibrant religious life.

Outside of HCMC, the Binh Duong New City project is a massive development encompassing a core area of 1,000 hectares. This project is developed by Becamex, a state-owned enterprise, and is projected to create some 400,000 jobs, house 125,000 inhabitants, and function as the new central district of the entire Binh Duong Province. However, the response from the market has been markedly tepid, with Binh Duong New City remaining a ghost city at present.

In conclusion, the speakers note that while the state’s policy vision for real estate-led urban development has had some obvious successes, the above-mentioned examples demonstrate how successes have also been undermined when project ambitions do not match the interests of inhabitants. While some of these aspects may be mitigated in more incremental forms of urban development in places like Phu Nhuan, large-scale projects must be careful to avoid problems arising from the state’s confusion of its role as “regulator” with the roles of builder, developer, and investor.

The webinar concluded with a Q&A session that discussed issues ranging from the impacts of foreign ownership rules on the real estate market, project financing, to the role of conglomerates in shaping urban development policies and the impacts of rural-urban migration.

The webinar, attended by more than 90 participants, was moderated by Dr Ivan V. Small, Visiting Senior Fellow at the Vietnam Studies Programme. 

Over 90 participants attended the webinar. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)