Sidewalk City: Ho Chi Minh City’s Sidewalk Life Reflective Essay

This chapter introduces Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam’s sidewalk life as a case in the midst of the current global instigation where governments and people are searching for new ways to use such an important public space. The author, Annette Miae Kim, has written about her personal experience and observations of HCMC where she has stayed for several years. Her interest in exploring the sidewalk city was adventurous and admirable. She is the Director of the Spatial Analysis Lab (SLAB) who wrote about her journey of research and analysis of public spaces from a historical and geopolitical contextualization to visual narratives and further applications in the other chapters. As a foreigner who has researched on HCMC for a long time, it is an interesting point of view to this book, as rapid immigration and urbanization is taking place throughout the years as she returns to HCMC. I do agree that sidewalks have the potential to be an extraordinary place for people to connect with space and it is economically safe and act as a form of transport system which creates a vibrant and memorable city.

Ho Chi Minh Sidewalk city 1990s

Ho Chi Minh sidewalk  2013
(Khellon. “Bui VIen Street.” Dreamstime. Accessed September 26, 2017.

This chapter mainly outlines fundamental problems such as political, social issues and how they can be resolved specifically with the issues in HCMC through Kim’s three techniques of practice.  First, “spatial ethnography” which combines ethnographic research with the spatial awareness of the design theory. Second, a theory of property rights of public space that focuses on daily property rights instead of economic rights to private property. Third, a practice of “critical cartography” in which it is the mapping of new knowledge of urban spaces. These three points are the main points I will be covering on the later part of this reflective essay. However, to map out on these practices, some of the questions like what exactly would constitute to the map and what cannot be mapped out has to be constantly thought about.

To start off, Kim backs up her thoughts on HCMC with many different case studies to further guide readers to know more about public spaces in general explains how sidewalks are able to integrate both physically and socially. This leads me to her first point on spatial ethnography. I do agree with her points on how it is important to consider the social processes of the place before redesigning the place. I feel that to be able to design a space is something all designers can think of, but to create a space where a community is able to adapt to it and not misuse the space for what it is initially catered for, is a challenge. Two examples that were brought up, Bryan Bell’s project of incorporating school buses at abandoned sites to ease the convenience of transportation and the upgrading project in Indore, India during the 1990s. Both of these examples failed to understand the ethnography and situation of the locals on sites hence the project was backfired. Urban design should move on from idealized principles thus leading to a restriction in ideas and strive towards designing based on understanding and researching on the culture and what the social community is like in a place. As Kim mentioned, “”urban design has a responsibility to ethnography”, which will eventually determine if the outcome is remarkable as culture plays an important role in a sidewalk city.

Next, Kim mentions about property rights that may be a very wide topic to discuss about as it is subjective topic. It views public space in terms of socially negotiated and enforced entitlements and liabilities between property owners, police, street vendors, and the general public. It is true that property rights are not so much about a person owning the land but instead it is the system of claims to sidewalk space, the common understanding that develops and how it is connected to the larger institutions. The confrontation of the maps with the property rights discourse may lead to a better understanding of public space and more promising and creative ways to resolve public space conflicts. In the context of HCMC, some people view the sideway as a negative practice and thinks that Vietnam has to grow out of it. However, they did not realize that this sidewalk city in Vietnam is something unique about this place with a historical and cultural background which Kim mentioned in the early part of the chapter where “the urban design literature rarely finds anything exemplary in the developing world”. This can be further elaborated as to how developing countries are formerly seen as filthy but it is now the important engines of economy.

Lastly, Kim emphasizes on critical cartography which is a set of new mapping practices and theoretical critique grounded in critical theory and identify attributes of the maps that are taken for granted. From Kim’s point of view, she mentions that narrative is one of the main aspects as to how people view the sidewalk in Vietnam and who is allowed to use the space. Symbolic meanings of a place can be represented by things such as tire rings wrapped in shiny foil and crossed together which represents moped repair service, rattling sound of a toy snake to inform people that there is a massage place nearby. Such symbolic and special form of language brings colors to the culture of HCMC which I find it very interesting and fascinating. It is something that only one who is very familiar with Vietnam culture would decipher as it is a culture that is close to their hearts and anyone who visits Vietnam for the first time would not know what such symbols means. Personally, I have been to HCMC once with no knowledge of the city, as a foreigner, walking through the sidewalks was interesting, but I would not have thought that this city actually has such a deep cultural value to it as it almost felt merely like a street to walk across and explore without much thoughts. With this in mind, I actually wonder if Singapore has anything that is symbolic to us that most people would know? Could it likely to be the food or tourist attractions? Therefore, the map that Kim and her team has created on these sidewalk symbols appeals to me very much since it is an unusual way of mapping a city but yet it is able to act as a form of navigation.

Overall, I feel that this reading allow me to gain exposure to many different kinds of case studies and how urban design plays an important role in different distinct areas. Also, these forms of mapping allow us to create a story of a particular place which incorporates the social and cultural side of the city which leads to greater understanding of the space around us that we often overlooked. Also, I feel that it is important to understand the connection people have to the space and place itself, in order to create reasonable policies and regulations that meets the population’s needs.


Author: Chia Te

Hi, i am Chia Te

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