Mangrove and Megacity: The Watery Origins of Ho Chi Minh City

I’m getting prepped for a talk in two weeks called Mangrove and Megacity, part of a new (since 2019) phase of research looking at historical urban shorelines in Southeast Asia with a first focus on my old, favorite city: Thành Phố Hồ Chí Minh. I was first here as a volunteer English teacher in 1993! I had no idea then that, almost 30 years later, I’d still be exploring it’s amazing streets and especially the thousands of incredible restaurants. In 2019, a climate action group of scientists called Climate Central, published this piece to draw attention to cities around the world that are especially vulnerable to the effects of sea level rise from climate change. Here’s what one of their cool, predictive web tools showed for Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon) and the Mekong Delta:

Basically, pink means “bad” – underwater – and you can just make out where the city sits in this. As might be expected, local Vietnamese experts and an official government news outlet, VN Express, responded that the report was overly gloom and doom. So there is some tension between official and local views and foreign and diasporic views; but suffice it to say that WATER is on many people’s minds, even more than in the past (which has always been a lot). There are even stories and this 2014 Vietnamese film by Vietnamese-American director Nguyễn Võ Nghiêm Minh that features a noir-future Saigon where all of the pink zone has basically turned to ocean and, in a nod to author Chang Rae Lee’s On Such a Full Sea, the everyday farmers and cityfolk are now displaced and working in floating, factory farms controlled by one, giant corporation. I’m always ready for MORE Vietnamese science fiction, but this one’s a nice down payment:

I’m working backward in time, to better explore the history of this “wet city” and it’s coastal periphery, and I had fun georeferencing this 1820 “planimetric” map that a royal cartographer made for the Vietnamese emperor, showing the kingdom’s new, southern citadel, Gia Định (Q1, HCMC – downtown Saigon), and about 5km away the ethnic-Chinese trading area known now as Chợ Lớn. What was especially fun in georeferencing the map to a satellite image was really for the first time seeing the original web of tidal creeks, canals and river meanders connecting across the gridded streets of the modern city. A future tour of the city will take me to these waterways, roughly half of which are open and a quarter of which have been “restored” in terms of reducing waste effluents and clearing dwellings from their embankments.