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What is “urban civilization” and how does it drive urban development in contemporary Vietnam?

This website explores the social and cultural effects of rapid urbanization in Vietnam, focusing particularly on Ho Chi Minh City.

Like much of the developing world, Ho Chi Minh City is undergoing a process of rapid urbanization. Vietnamese government agencies, planners, developers, and residents are all struggling and debating the ways in which the city should develop. As Vietnam’s most rapidly growing urban center, the city plays an important symbolic role as a modern face of the nation. But it also strains under profound social, economic and environmental challenges–with extraordinary differentiation between rich and poor, overpopulation, increasing traffic and pollution, and debilitating flooding among the most pressing problems. In response to the desire to improve living conditions  in the city, many Vietnamese urban planners increasingly celebrate the potential for new, modern modes of urban social life within new urban development projects knows as “New Urban Zones” [Khu đô thị mới].  Designed by architects and implemented by real estate developers working together with city and national government agencies, these New Urban Zones commonly claim to be bringing a new form of “urban civilization” [văn minh đô thị] to the city.  Yet these luxurious visions for the new urban Vietnam are not always accessible to all. Furthermore, “civilization” is a concept fraught with complex meanings that can be interpreted in different ways by different people.

What, we ask, is “urban civilization”? What does it mean to different people in the city? What does urban civilization really look like in a New Urban Zone?

To answer these questions, we build from over three years of research, including 9 months of intensive ethnographic fieldwork in two field-sites in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. In one site, we documented the demolition of the urban landscape in Thủ Thiêm, a site where over 14,000 residents were evicted in order to “clear the land” to build what will eventually be called the Thủ Thiêm New Urban Zone. In another site, we documented the social life of residents living in Phú Mỹ Hưng, one Ho Chi Minh City’s most celebrated New Urban Zones.  Phú Mỹ Hưng is known as one of the most exclusive residential and commercial zones of the city (if not the entire country). The location of these two sites are outlined in red in the map on the top right side of this web-page. Because Phú Mỹ Hưng has already been completed and resident in Thủ Thiêm were being evicted from their homes during the field-work period, comparative work at the two research sites offers a unique position from which to evaluate different stages in the development of the New Urban Zone concept. In our research, it has become clear that the luxury and the rubble of the New Saigon are two sides of the same story. 

Contact the research group.

This research sponsored by National Science Foundation Cultural Anthropology Program Award No. BCS-1026754.

Map of Ho Chi Minh City showing Thủ Thiêm and Phú Mỹ Hưng



Map of Vietnam, Shown in Red is Ho Chi Minh City


Learn more about Thủ Thiêm


Learn more about Phú Mỹ Hưng