Ho Chi Minh City set for its 'moment in the sun'

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 March, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 March, 2007, 12:00am

Keep an eye on Ho Chi Minh City. Talk to residents, businesspeople and city officials, and there is a palpable sense of momentum surrounding its development, a belief that the point of no return has been reached in terms of progress and reform.

For many, it has been a tough 15 years or so after successive waves of hype, expectation and dashed hopes. This time round, however, people are talking a little differently about the chances of Vietnam's biggest city and economic dynamo taking its place among the region's leading centres.

Enough foreign-backed projects have been completed to raise confidence in the hundreds now in the pipeline and Vietnam's new membership of the World Trade Organisation is further buttressing that belief.

The current buzz also is being fuelled by the city's embryonic stock market, which is soaring amid unprecedented international interest as some of Vietnam's largest firms prepare to list.

Tourism figures are up and the city's expanding hospitality industry is struggling to find enough beds - or staff - to cope.

Then there are the socio-economic development plans of the city's government, determined to forge a thoroughly modern metropolis from the ashes of its French colonial and the Vietnam war-era infrastructure.

Two decades of double-digit growth far outstripping the national average have pushed the city's infrastructure to breaking point. Its old roads are jammed, its power and water supplies barely adequate and municipal services stretched.

A five-year-old master plan outlining goals for 2020 is being amended and is expected to be finalised soon by the country's political leaders in Hanoi. The plan is expected to confirm targets for an extensive subway system, a new port and airport, as well as the city's expansion across the Saigon River.

The city, which has traditionally served as the gateway to the Mekong Delta rice bowl, will sit at the centre of a nationwide transport network, including a US$33 billion high-speed railway.

Virtually all work is due to be finished by 2020, much of it before.

The private sector - both foreign and local - foreign aid and domestic capital will all be involved.

'Our plans are ambitious but they have to be,' said Du Phuoc Tan, deputy director of Ho Chi Minh City's Institute for Economic Research. 'We know we simply can't stand still, we have to develop and we have to compete.'

In the streets outside his office in District Three, there is ample evidence the city is bursting at the seams.

The air is thick with the exhausts of 3 million motorcycles - nearly one for every two residents. They must compete with cars - 400,000 and rising. The once-elegant French-era grid of boulevards and avenues are now in a frenzy for much of the day and night.

Hundreds of migrants from poorer rural areas still pour in daily, creating social and employment problems.

'We've got to ensure that industry keeps moving out of the city into surrounding districts and provinces, and we've got to boost service industries in the city itself - development has to be sustainable, we can't simply keep on going as we are,' said Mr Tan.

In tandem with the changing shape of the city, officials are pledging to accelerate reform and partial privatisation of government services. Improved education is widely seen as first among the priorities as opportunities expand.

Administrative reform and corruption - for decades one of the city's greatest plagues - will also be tackled, officials insist.

'This is our moment in the sun,' another city official said. 'We can't screw this up. We've had plenty of chances ... now we've got to succeed. We know the eyes of the world are on us.'

With its role as the US-backed capital of the former South Vietnam defeated by northern communist forces in 1975, few cities carry such recent historical baggage.

All eyes at the moment, however, are firmly on the future.