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Text and photography by Alessandro Carboni

Location:  10° 46′ 10″ N, 106° 40′ 55″ E

Published for Abitare Magazine

Ho Chi Minh City has become the largest urban centre of southern Vietnam. An exploration inside the communities that live around the Kênh Tàu HU (TofuCanal), the channel that runs through the District 8, which, since its black, polluted, dense and impenetrable colour was nicknamed Black Canal. 

Recently I read that before long, for the first time in the world’s global history, the majority of the world population will live in urban areas [1]. Huge, disjointed, chaotic and paradoxical, Ho Chi Minh City has become the largest urban centre in the south of Vietnam. In the XIX century, the settlers of Northern Vietnam, resident of the Red River Delta, described the future city as a place where it was possible to find new opportunities for development and prosperity: “If you wish, go to Gia-Dinh, life is easy, water is clear and the rice is white “[2]. To enter the heart of the problem, I started my research digging layer by layer in the traces, in the residues of history, in the urban fabric and the inhabitants of Ho Chin Minh City. I collected materials and notes, I visited museums, I spoke with people, I slept on the street in order to build, piece by piece, a solid knowledge on which to build my work. At first, it was necessary to consider the historical stages of urban development in Vietnam over the past 50 years. After half a century of epochal changes, including independence in 1945 and the long wars of resistance, in the early 80s Vietnam entered a new economic phase focused on integration in the global market. Both represent two crucial moments of the urban development of Ho Chi Minh and Vietnam.

Immediately after gaining independence from French colonialism, in the decade 1945-1954, Vietnam entered the war of Indochina. In 1954, only 11 percent of the entire population lived in the two main cities, Hanoi and Saigon (now Ho Chin Minh City). Between 1955 and 1975 the urban features reflected, on the one hand the two different political systems existing in the country, on the other hand the devastating effects of the wars. The combination of these factors had created two paradoxically opposites urban tendencies between north and south. In the north, after almost ten years of peace built on a socialist model, the country had to face the war against the United States. This led to the mass evacuation of urban centres. In the early 70s this process resulted in a slow and temporary de-urbanisation. In the neo-colonial South, economic development was followed by local wars, in part caused by the U.S. military, which devastated suburbs and rural areas. In contrast to the North, these factors led to a process of forced urbanisation. [3]

Both trends generated an abnormal urban development that had important repercussions in the following decades. Following the previous decade of war, between 1975 and 1985, there was one of the most serious socio-economic crisis in the history of Vietnam. From 1986 until 1995 the renovation was rapid and unprecedented. In contrast to the crisis of the last 10 years, this was the most animated and the most difficult of times. In fact, after 1986, at the Sixth Congress of the Communist Party in Hanoi, the country’s leaders finally took serious steps to stop the decade-long self-destruction that had affected the whole of Vietnam. With the birth of the movement Doi Moi (renovation), Vietnam begun to move towards a market economy centred no longer on agriculture, but almost exclusively on industry. Immediately after 1994, the year in which the United States revoked the trade embargo, Ho Chi Minh City became the symbol of restructure and renovation of Vietnam. Year after year, the hunger for capitalism led to unprecedented growth. The financial stability allowed large foreign multinationals to transfer their businesses in the city. In 1997 the revenue of Ho Chi Minh City was a third of the nation’s GDP, and per capita income of city residents was more than three times that of the rest of Vietnam. In the coming years, these figures are destined to increase. A curious fact, and equally important consideration is related to the millions of migrants who fled from Vietnam after 1975 who still regularly send money to relatives they left behind. This “assistance” amounts to more than 3 billion Euros per year, far more than the amount of international aid that Vietnam receives from other nations.

Because of the continuing historical changes of the nation that occurred in such a short time, the urban fabric of Ho Chi Minh City has grown in a chaotic, disjointed way and in some cases it has irreparably damaged the historical heritage and cultural identity of the city.

For example, the vast network of rivers, about 1500kms, was once a source of pride for Ho Chi Minh City and for all of South Vietnam. The clear streams that the settlers of North Vietnam once invited to visit, not only linked the city with the Mekong Delta and other surrounding provinces, but were especially needed for drainage and water purification. In recent years, with the renewal phase and subsequent growth of the city and the population, rivers and canals of Ho Chi Minh City rapidly degraded. Smelly and fetid, suffocated by waste and clogged with barracks, the city’s waterways have become black.

The cause is the wild urbanisation mentioned by Nguyen Vinh, a researcher at the Saigon Institute for Development Studies, “The black canals are the consequence of schizophrenic territorial planning and the impact on residents is visible to all”. Over the years, the urbanisation of Ho Chi Minh City forced the poor to constantly move in different areas and districts of the city, from the centre to the suburbs, from the canals to the less developed areas. “Many poor people become migrants in their own city”, said Nguyen Vinh at a conference held last week to announce the start of another research project, this time on urban poverty. I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, after about a week spent in Singapore. [4] I arrived at night, in darkness, when the city blends with the gloom. The large spaces seem very small, shapes and colours are distorted. The plains are overturned and everything becomes mysterious, sometimes silent and impenetrable like the black of the dark streets populated by shadows that stretch in the city burrows. But already in the early hours of dawn, the city changes its face. Shadows fade into the light! Everything is clean, clear and very real, raw! Flows of bodies, like swarms, move in unison in the urban grid. The streets are the new streaming canals in which flows alternate, intersect and collide continuously. No more bikes and fragile straw hats as before, but thousands of scooters and motorbikes and riders who wear helmets resistent to any impact. Probably in a near future of new renovation and economic development, scooters and motorbikes will be replaced by shiny new generation cars.

I started from District 1, the central district of the city populated by residents and tourists. The tourists visiting Ho Chi Minh City can be divided into over seventies in search of love and sex, Australian backpackers and caravans of Japanese. Few Europeans, except some French student looking for authenticity with the Lonely Planet in hand. Clearly, this area does not have any taste. It has the usual taste of canned food, ” carefully read the instructions and the expiration date on the bottom of the pack”.

Moving away from District 1, the city is different, it recounts itself and the walls exude history. All the urban history of the city that I had read and studied was written and visible in the walls. Marks, layers, writings, fragments showed pure and clear in front of me like signs. The bodies, postures, folds represented for me the real urban heritage of the city. No advertising mega-posters hanging from the buildings could hide the elegance and the lightness of movements of the bodies of Ho Chi Minh City.

The moving bodies, like particles’ chaotic motions, seemed to respond well to those famous chaos theories that show that there is a certain precise harmony or hidden design even in utter chaos. As I kept wandering in the flow, I was reading, as if I had an open atlas, the city’s history. Step by step, I could find the threads, the correspondences between the reality that I had before my eyes and the materials I had studied this far.

For about a week I spent most of my research in Kênh HU Tau (Tofu Canal), the canal that runs through District 8. Since its black colour, thick and impenetrable the canal has been dubbed Black Canal. To get to District 8 I crossed a bridge, a large concrete bridge. The eye moves slowly along the heavily polluted canal and the long stretch of barracks along the river banks. Despite the living conditions are at the human limits, the canal seems to be the only vital resource for thousands of people. I slowly continued my journey in the deafening noise of the urban flow; I entered the centre of District 8. I went to the District 8 because I was interested in continuing my reading of the urban space, to find further correspondences and to expand my progressive archive. Although I tried to remain invisible, or at least not to attract too much attention, as soon as I entered the District 8 I became immediately visible. Perhaps because there are not many tourists around and above all the Lonely Planet does not indicate any trendy bars around here. Usually in these areas one is not well perceived. I have learned, over time, that one needs to test the waiting time, see how long one can stand still in one place before someone asks him to leave. I calculated that roughly 10 seconds were enough to begin to annoy someone in the neighbourhood Therefore my walk was slow, but never too much. After a few days, I found a certain rhythm, I have trained my eyes and refined my presence. I’ve been able to talk, discuss, and finally to work with some people living along the banks of the canal.

The cluster of huts in reality is precise and well organised Nothing is left to chance and everything works almost perfectly. There are schools, restaurants and small markets. The inhabitants are almost all immigrants who come from surrounding rural areas. They are the same people mentioned by Nguyen Vinh, the researcher at the Saigon Institute for Development Studies. Residents have increased over the years, taking possession of the river and becoming an integral part of it. The huts are stilt houses, built on wooden piles. Seen at close range the river looks very dark, very slow. From here it was even possible to see the soul more and more black. There is no sign of life or vegetation: no birds, no fish, no plants. All gone. I arrive at a small Taoist temple. The fumes of incense create a very dense grey cloud, I close my eyes.

Suddenly I am awakened by a man who shows me his leg, a prosthesis made of plastic. He tells me that he fought in the war, he was a Viet Cong. He asks me to take a picture with his son. I say good bye and keep walking through the narrow alleys. The walls are covered with handmade graffiti. Step by step, I see, through some small windows on the sides, small tailor shops where some women work. They look at me and smile. In the following days I continued to spend most of my time in District 8. As I refined my camouflage techniques, I took conscience of the time factor, that it never passed. The river, like a clock, in its extreme darkness and slowness was even more still. From time to time I projected my eyes beyond the banks of the river, towards the other districts and I noticed how in reality all around there was a vibrant mobility and transformation. From here I watched the buildings under construction in District 2, the Phu My Hung Urban Area and also the new town centre to be built in District 7. The river, black, slow and thick as tar, became the metaphor of time and of a place where the past overlaps the present and the future, present and fast as never before in other areas of the city, it struggles to arrive.

In the last days of residence in Ho Chi Minh City, I wanted to conclude my brief research path with a urban action inspired by the studies and my experiences in the city and the District 8. My urban action consisted of using the entire city as material, as a working basis on which to intervene.

I was thinking of something huge, a long process, a work on a large scale. I took a map of Ho Chi Minh City and I started to draw some urban routes, reminiscent of the urban flows I had seen in the city centre I wanted to leave a message, a writing that at the same time made sense to the city and its inhabitants. Following the roads on the map, I began to trace some letters. I wrote “Long Now”. The sentence was meant to give an idea of extended time, a long present, almost motionless. The same immobility that I had seen along the banks of the canal. In order to write this sentence in the city I needed a fast transportation that was capable to track the action within a short time. During my explorations in the District 8, I met some gentlemen who earned a living as taxi drivers with motorcycles. I decided to ask some of them to be my drivers and help me with the task. I used a GPS data logger that allowed me to track my movements around the city. The next morning my driver and I went through the city, district after district, from end to end. It took almost 3 hours to complete the word of about 35kms long.


[1] In 2007 the United Nations estimated that by 2011 the world will reach “an invisible epochal stage. For the first time in human history, more than half of the population will live in urban areas”, UNFPA (2007).

[2] Ho Chi Minh City was born in the Mekong Delta area and on the banks of the River Saigon, in a town originally called Gia Dinh. Already in the 18th century, Gia Dinh became known throughout the region as a commercial and exchange centre of goods between Chinese, Malay, Dutch and Portuguese ships.

[3] Data collected by the National Institute of Urban and Regional Planning.

[4] Ho Chi Minh City is the fourth stage of the project Overlapping Discrete Boundaries. My collaborators are Dickson Dee, musician from Hong Kong and Liang Guo Jian, Chinese calligrapher and documentary filmmaker.

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