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Rootless: Ho Chi Minh City and Jakarta

By Julian Gooneratne / Year 2 BsC Urban Planning, Design and Management

Editors Note: Welcome to Post #2! We are planning to make shorter posts on cities like this one a regular feature, and would love your help. The writing prompt is "Where are you from, and/or where are you going?" If you have experienced something in a city that you would like to share, please send us a brief piece and photos if you have them. Contact us with any questions you have through instagram or email!

Chapter Two: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

The first thing that comes to mind when I think of Ho Chi Minh (otherwise known as

Saigon) are the seven million motorcycles, scooters and mopeds teeming the streets,

quickly filling up the arteries of the city. Even in the late hours of the morning, the zooms

and the sound of the revving of engines would reverberate over and over again in my

eardrums. The second thing that comes into mind was the unfortunate time I was stuck

in a traffic jam for six hours surrounded by swarms of these motorcycles.

What these motorcycles do offer for the residents of Ho Chi Minh are utmost

convenience: a quick, economical way to fly through the streets of Saigon and get from

Point A to Point B. Whether or not this is without hassle is a subjective matter. I

remember the anecdotes of my Year 4 teacher who used to ride his Honda into school

every morning, quickly developing a ‘thick skin’ for the apparent lack of traffic etiquette.

“Here in Saigon, you always have to stay ahead of the rush,” he would exclaim in the morning, before quickly straightening his tie and placing his motorcycle helmet on his

desk. “Don’t get caught out like I do!”

Moving to Saigon really opened my eyes up to the hustle and bustle of the urban

environment around me; I lived in a tall apartment block where everything I needed was

at arm’s reach, unlike Colombo, where it felt like everything branched out. Two minutes,

and you’d reach the Vietnamese equivalent of a Tesco Express. A brisk five minute

walk, and you’d be up by the local barber shop where I went for my usual buzzcut. A

few more minutes from the barber, and you’d reach a well-known phở outlet - because

let’s face it, who can resist a good bowl of phở? (Unsurprisingly, Vietnamese cuisine is

my favourite).

Image: Phu My Hung. Available here.

The one notable planning concept I associate with Ho Chi Minh during my time there

was the idea of the “parallel city,” designed to aid Saigon’s expansion through the

development of a river basin in the South to create a new residential and mixed-use

area for the upper and middle class Vietnamese and expatriates, known as Phu My

Hung. In comparison to the wild and dizzying streets and high-octane neighbourhoods of Ho Chi Minh, Phu My Hung offered a respite; a sanctuary, prioritising walkable

neighbourhoods and community involvement and organisation. It also aimed to avoid

the urban sprawl present in other nooks and crannies of Saigon, compacting urban

fabric within an environmental framework.

For these very reasons, Phu My Hung has been cited as an example of a rare

successful case of urban planning in Vietnam.

To be honest, I had no reason to go to Phu My Hung, except to visit my mum’s friends

every so often and for the multitude of Korean grocery stores (thanks to one of the

largest Korean expatriate communities in Southeast Asia). When I did go, however, the

young urban planner instilled in me fell in love with the abundance of green space,

sizable pavements and scenic waterways, even though it was an hour and a half drive

away from the heart of Ho Chi Minh.

Whilst I didn’t spend a lot of time in Vietnam - a measly five years - it instilled in me vital

principles in what I believe all planning should encompass: access to expansive public

green space, increased walkability and the prioritisation of pedestrians, and catering to

diversity and inclusivity within the built form to meet the needs of all.


Chapter Three: Jakarta, Indonesia

Malls. Malls, malls, and more malls. Over 200 and counting, to be exact.

Jakarta is where I’ve had the pleasure of calling my ‘home’ for the last 11 years - full of

chaotic charm, persistent clouds of smog and humidity and a strikingly clear divide

between the old and new. Often nestled in lists of the world’s worst-designed cities or

examples of cities with bad urban planning, there’s a love-hate relationship that I’ve

associated with the city. Amidst a lack of green public space, congested streets and

Jenga-like stacks of flyovers, Jakarta fights to put on a confident, bold new face to the

world: a groundbreaking Smart City urban development concept, a renewed focus on

adequate affordable housing to cater to increasing poverty and an in-progress flagship

108 kilometre Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system to increase transit connectivity and

reduce the heavy reliance on cars and motorbikes.

In the last few years I’ve been there, “The Big Durian,” or so it is called, longs to be the

next powerhouse of Southeast Asia - a Singapore in the making - fueled by a surging,

youthful population, thriving manufacturing and creative industries and an endless

pouring of foreign investment and trade. I see it through the windows in the car,

ploughing through the streets of Central Jakarta - the shiny glass facades of the malls

proudly on display, the mega-developments blending luxurious office space and

residential sprouting on every corner. On the other side of the river, a completely

different story unfolds: the Old Town’s colonial, romantic past is reflected in its museums

and local cafés, hidden away from the buzz of traffic and hordes of busy office workers.

Living there, I’ve realised that Jakarta’s urban planning leaves a lot to be desired;

despite the city administration’s push to address existing issues such as traffic

congestion, land subsidence and sea-level rise, a plethora of planning development

projects continue to lay in limbo, under threat from budget cuts and political scandals.

This, in turn, has even prompted the government to announce a $34 billion relocation of

the capital to the east of Borneo in order to reduce the strain on the megacity.

Whilst the city continues to move full steam ahead building glitzy malls and high-rise

apartments and road infrastructure, it is in desperate need of key planning practises to

prioritise liveability: greater citizen involvement, the reclamation of green public space

and improved connectivity in order to create a much more inclusive city for the people of


Image: Bintaro Jaya. Available (in Indonesian) here.

Take a short 15 minute car journey towards the outskirts of the city, and the landscape

transforms to showcase a vision of what Jakarta could potentially have been - a lush

amalgam of greenery, walkable pavements and designated cycling lanes which balance

the needs of pedestrians and cyclists, and essential services located within close

proximity. Just like Phu My Hung, Bintaro Jaya represents the pinnacle of planning in

Jakarta’s metropolitan region.

It seems as if the solution to the city’s problems are easily within reach; the real

question, however, is whether or not Jakarta will take to the stand.



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