Will urban growth trample Vietnam's charm?

Paris has the Eiffel Tower. New York has the Empire State Building. Both are symbols of global cities, recognizable currency of power and prestige.

Now the master builders of Vietnam's commercial showcase are racing to put their stamp on tomorrow's skyline. Glass and steel buildings are already sprouting across the city and by 2009, a 68-story skyscraper, designed to invoke the lotus flower and the ao dai worn by Vietnamese women, promises to be this city's Sears Tower.

But in a city struggling to update its creaking infrastructure and keep its historical core intact, critics say the breakneck speed of expansion could spell a slow death for the unique character of a city once known as the Pearl of the Orient.

Government planners say they want to maintain the essence of the graceful colonial city laid out by French architects in the 19th century. So far, 108 historic buildings have been listed for preservation, and plans are afoot to build a new financial district apart from the old city to satisfy demand for office space.

"The colonial period wasn't good for everything. But for urban planning, it was definitely good.... It's not a problem for us to have buildings that are 30 or 40, even 60 stories, as long as you don't have a conflict between our heritage and the new buildings," says Anh Tu Hoang, a director at the University of Architecture in Ho Chi Minh City.

But dozens of concrete tower blocks have begun to peep above the low-rise skyline, as real estate developers do an end-run around lax zoning laws. And this leaves many wondering which vision of the future will triumph: a planned urban renewal or an unchecked boom that turns Ho Chi Minh City into another sprawling Asian metropolis.

Financial Tower to be city's tallest building

From the top floor of the Bitexco Office Building, a 20-story tower, the city's past and future stretch in all directions. Across the river, a vast patch of greenery is earmarked for redevelopment. To the south, suburban housing is being built. In the old city, motorbikes fill the streets of the 19th-century grid.

And next door, bulldozers sink the foundations for the tower designed by US-based architect Carlos Zapata. The skyscraper to be called Financial Tower will be double the height of today's tallest building.

"Until now, Ho Chi Minh City never had a landmark building. We want to create a symbol, a national icon," says Tran Tranh Tung, a lawyer for Bitexco, the Vietnamese company that is building the tower. He says construction costs, minus land acquisition, will be $120 million.

Critics say that erecting such a building in the city center defies the logic of conservation. Even the developers admit that their design has elicited mixed reactions in the business community, as well as questions about the return on investment. But the developers argue that it will put the city, and the country, on the map.

$25 billion in infrastructure spending

It's not only urban aesthetics that are challenged by Ho Chi Minh City's construction frenzy. City planners are racing to build the new roads, bridges, tunnels, ports, and subway lines needed to keep the economy humming and avoid the kind of gridlock found in Bangkok and Manila.

The biggest concern is that as incomes rise and import barriers fall, the swarm of motorbikes that fill the streets here at rush hour will eventually give way to cars. So far, though, the motorbike is king of the road, with some 3 million in Ho Chi Minh City. Last year, Vietnam had only 680,000 registered vehicles among its 83 million people, the state media said.

Current projections put the bill for public infrastructure in Ho Chi Minh City over the next 20 years at $25 billion, says Tran Du Lich, president of the Institute for Economic Research, a government think tank. Finding that money from the public purse could be difficult, say observers, as Vietnam is keen to spread development funds evenly across the country.

Officials say one answer to the congestion is decentralization. By shifting factories to neighboring provinces and building roads between suburbs and satellite towns where new industries are emerging, they hope to ease the pressure on the old city. Already, some young professionals are buying homes in the suburbs. But other residents are staying put, waiting to see what's being offered.

"Nobody wants to move out. They want to stay in the city center. We first need the social infrastructure like hospitals and education," says Mr. Lich.

The grandest of the suburbs is Saigon South, a Taiwanese-owned venture built on a swamp downriver from Ho Chi Minh City. Its condos, schools, golf course, corporate offices, parks, and stores, have become a magnet for Vietnam's newly rich who pay cash for $400,000 villas.

On a recent afternoon, IBM salesman Hua Thanh Van was trying to decide if he should join them. Together with his fiancée, he was waiting to view a new condo that was on the market at $100,000. Raised in the bustling old city, he was ready for Saigon South's squeaky-clean streets.

"If you come back in 10 years I don't think you'll see many of the historical buildings. Everything is changing fast," he says.

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