I reclaimed my running gear over the weekend, long since discarded at the back of the wardrobe, and joined an informal band of ex-pats on a jog round District 7, one of Saigon’s newest areas in terms of construction and modern looking amenities.
6kms, and one bacon and egg roll later (I did say ‘informal’ band) and other than some minor tweaks in the legs, and a slightly higher cholesterol level, the morning was uneventful enough, but offered a reminder of some of the starker impacts of the country’s ongoing trajectory of growth.
Although the land on which District 7 resides was originally purchased by a Taiwanese buyer some 20 years ago, it is only in recent times that development has advanced and, like many things here, it has moved forward apace.
Out of the 6 of us who sauntered round one of the District’s pristine lakes, with its manicured lawns and wide tree-lined streets, I was the only one not to have been to, or lived in, Singapore – the place with which everyone else associated this vibrant new area.
To get to District 7 you can take a drive over the forboding ‘Phu My Hung’ bridge, on the south side of the city (Lou and I have done this journey several times since March, as the hospital in which Martha was born is just on the edge of the district) and, as you drive over the bridge, you are gifted with panoramic views of the main city skyline, and the chance to marvel at Vietnam’s fastest growing city for all its worth.
The Saigon Tower, pointed high and with a curved side to it that makes it look like a thin sail, dominates this horizon and sits in the middle of the financial district. The many high rises surrounding this – plush hotels and protruding corporate towers such as the Prudential building – are, themselves, swallowed from east to west by a myriad of white and grey concrete structures comprising old and new, rich, middle class and poor.
Like an upturned table with multiple legs, there are towering apartment and office blocks under construction all across this vast urban sprawl. Yellow and red cranes are permanently at work, and during the night their activities are illuminated by huge flood lights.
In the foreground however, and the immediate area in which the Phy My Hung bridge sits, is lush green swampland divided up by waterways, with tall grass and ploughed fields making deep incisions into the earth.
There are local land owners living with their families here, walking barefoot back from the road’s tarmac to their homes – structures not made of concrete or brick, but mud dwellings with thatched roofs, and livestock grazing outside.
By the side of road as we pass by, a string of local sellers sit cross legged underneath conical hats, and behind upturned bottle crates, presented on which are two or three rows of small pigeon-like birds, de-feathered, and awaiting the cooking pot.
We’ve not been brave enough to take up this particular “take-away” option in all the journeys over the Phu My Hung bridge. We have, though, commented each and every time, at how odd an overall picture this backdrop makes.
As your eye-line moves down from the mast of the Saigon Tower, and takes in the carpet of buildings below it, before resting on the swamp and farm land, you can’t help wondering what the bird-sellers, and farmers toiling the land underneath the bridge, make of the ever changing horizon each morning as they wake up with the sun, and set about their daily work?
In the 1990s here, most of the city’s traffic was bicycles and scooters. Now scooters run the show, with cars becoming all too prominent, and improved standards of living pointing towards a pattern of “4 wheels being better than 2”, continuing.
The roads are already bursting with vehicles, and although a tunnel under Saigon River is being built to help stem the permanent flow of traffic, how long before this too needs stemming?
Vietnam remains tipped to continue as one of the world’s fast growing emerging economies – it has sat in the top 10 of this category over the past 15 years – and, despite high interest rates so far in 2011, it will take a lot more to slow down the pace of this growth.
A colleague recently described this region of the world to me as both magical and maddening. An eloquent description which (as has been recited too many times already by various commentators) possibly captures the dichotomy, and inequity, all too often abundant when economic development and growth is seen on this kind of scale.