Rotterdam is Europe's largest port, a gritty Dutch metropolis with a long history as a commercial hub and a flair for modern architecture. Ho Chi Minh City, half a world away in Vietnam, is a fast-growing megacity clogged with motorbikes; an extraordinary mixture of old and new, rich and poor.
Different as they seem, the two cities have something crucial in common. Both sit on river deltas and are defined - and increasingly threatened - by their relationship with water. Perched near coasts astride major rivers, with tributaries running through neighbourhoods, these two port cities are on the front lines of climate change.
Now they are coming together in an unusual partnership, sharing coping strategies as their positions grow more perilous. Rotterdam, with long experience in flood management, is advising Ho Chi Minh City on the development and implementation of a climate-adaptation plan to help the Vietnamese city avoid disaster as sea levels rise and the frequency and severity of storms increase.
This east-west collaboration could hold important lessons for flood-threatened cities around the world. Ho Chi Minh City and Rotterdam are both seeking to strike a balance between the two main approaches to flood protection: bolstering expensive, hard protections while also "making room for the river" - creating space for water to run without damaging developed areas. Added to the mix are new ideas such as dotting flood zones with playgrounds that can hold run-off water when needed.
For all the cities' differences, says Alexandra van Huffelen, Rotterdam's vice-mayor for sustainability, Ho Chi Minh City "really felt the same [as us]; the same issues arose". Its leaders initially sought Rotterdam's advice because, she recalls, they saw the Dutch city was also grappling with "more water coming down the river at unexpected times, problems with extreme rainfall, rising sea levels, salinisation levels and issues with groundwater - exactly the same issues they were facing."
In truth, Rotterdam and Ho Chi Minh City share similar DNA, each bustling with the energy typical of a business-minded shipping hub. Unlike other Dutch cities, whose streets are lined with graceful, centuries-old homes, Rotterdam was nearly flattened in the second world war, and it has rebuilt itself with a modern sensibility. Rem Koolhaas' new De Rotterdam megatower is the latest example of its architectural ambitions.
Ho Chi Minh City has also known war, of course. Its wide French boulevards and elegant but decaying old buildings mix with communist-era blocks and modern shopping malls and skyscrapers. While the Dutch are famous for the carefully engineered dikes, sea walls and other barriers that protect their low-lying home from the sea, the Vietnamese have learned to live with water, constructing floating buildings and homes on stilts, and selling goods from longboats in the Mekong delta's floating markets, south of Ho Chi Minh City.
"It's a more traditional way they are using," says van Huffelen. "They come from a more natural way of protecting themselves; we come from a more infrastructural way. We're meeting each other halfway. They're learning from us about storm surge barriers and dikes and things like that, and we're learning from them [that] you need to work with nature, and let nature help you protect the coastline."
In the rainy season, some parts of Ho Chi Minh City flood twice a day, with waters rising almost knee-high when the tide comes in. Residents are forced to learn resilience, says Chantal Oudkerk Pool, a Rotterdam climate-adaptation expert who is closely involved with the Ho Chi Minh City effort.
"You have no choice but to protect your home by elevating the ground floor," Oudkerk Pool says. "They all have tiles on the floor. Here, we have expensive wooden floors and, if the water comes, we have thousands of euros in damage. They just mop the floor and it's done. Very simple, but very effective."
Ho Chi Minh City's flooding problems are likely to get worse as the impact of climate change intensifies and the city's fast growth continues; its population of roughly eight million is expected to reach 12 million by 2020. A third of Ho Chi Minh City suffers regular flooding now, and if expansion into low-lying areas continues unchecked, two-thirds could be vulnerable in a decade.
According to one of the intercity collaboration's advisers, Ho Long Phi, over the past 10 years the Vietnamese authorities have installed US$1 billion worth of protection measures for the city's centre, reducing flooding even as peak tides have risen and intense storms have become more frequent. But in that time, says Phi, who is director of Vietnam National University's centre of water management and climate change, the population of the low-lying suburbs has boomed, and they now require US$3 billion in new protection measures.
It is this cycle of haphazard planning that Phi hopes the Dutch will help Vietnamese officials break. Rotterdam, widely viewed as a world leader in resiliency planning, developed a climate-adaptation strategy in 2008; a year later, officials from the two cities first encountered each other through Connecting Delta Cities, a network founded by Rotterdam which also includes Hong Kong, Tokyo, Jakarta, London, New York and New Orleans. After months spent researching the scope of Ho Chi Minh City's challenges, the two cities signed a memorandum in 2011 appointing a consortium of public and private sector experts to begin work on the plan.
Their efforts culminated in the delivery of a major adaptation strategy last year, laying out six broad goals such as increasing water storage and drainage capacity, and making sure flood risk informs development decisions. The Vietnamese then signed Rotterdam on for phase two of the effort (now just beginning), in which the Dutch will help local planners apply the ideas more concretely.
The Dutch government has put €1.4 million (HK$14.8 million) into the project, and corporate participants hope to profit from their presence in Ho Chi Minh City in a set-up the teams refer to as "Vietnamese ownership, Dutch partnership".
For the first six months, Giao Lan Phuong, a Ho Chi Minh City-based project manager from the engineering consultancy Grontmij, served as a translator. Now, however, the Vietnamese participants have improved their English so much that interpretation is rarely needed, Phuong says.
"We understand each other and we learn from each other. Of course, we have different cultures, [but] all the people from both sides are very open and we talk to each other."
Jeroen Aerts, professor of water management and risk at Amsterdam's VU University - another part of the Ho Chi Minh City consortium - stresses the need to pay attention to cultural cues to make such a collaboration work. While the Dutch are used to speaking directly in meetings, Aerts says, "in Vietnam it's different. If you are in a workshop with a high official, other people wait for them to say something. You need to understand how it works, and if you understand it then you really can do something".
Like many flood-prone areas, both Rotterdam and Ho Chi Minh City are debating when to build expensive protection infrastructure and when to retreat, letting the water take some areas so others can stay dry.
In Rotterdam, a few neighbourhoods have been designated as occasional flood zones, with resilient homes that feature measures such as electrics placed high off the ground.
"You can't protect everything and you need to give the river its room," van Huffelen says.
Rotterdam has come up with some clever solutions, which could be tweaked to fit the needs of its Vietnamese partner, Oudkerk Pool says. These include "water squares" - patches of land that serve as playgrounds or parks in good weather but become holding basins for run-off when floods come. Beneath some of its underground car parks, Rotterdam has installed storage tanks that play the same role, releasing excess water only when the city's drainage system can handle it.
The Dutch experts are urging Ho Chi Minh City officials to plan carefully as the city's population booms, ensuring that newly developed areas include lots of green space, which can act like a sponge during deluges, and special pavements that absorb water rather than speed its run-off.
Not everything that has worked in Rotterdam can be transferred directly to Ho Chi Minh City, in part because it is a far poorer city, and its governing institutions are less effective.
"You can't just copy and paste. You have to base it on your real capacity - and the Dutch people cannot understand us as well as we understand ourselves," Phi says. "We have to match our abilities with our vision - the vision could be the same, but the way is totally different."
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