Ho Chi Minh City Slums

Submitted by tomo on October 30, 2012 - 10:17pm

According to an outdated BBC report there is a slum district in Ho Chi Minh City and I live in it. The slum (khu nha o chuot in Vietnamese) is the area around Thi Nghe - Nhieu Loc Canal. The houses here are built along canals where the roads aren't built right next to the canal, giving the houses an opportunity to encroach upon the water.

Before coming to Vietnam I'd visited most of the other Southeast Asian countries and in any of the major cities there were districts that were considered slums. For example, in Manila there is the infamous Tondo.

The surprising thing is that in Ho Chi Minh City there's nowhere that I would especially consider a slum region. The city has some richer and poorer neighborhoods but most of the city is fairly uniformly poor and underdeveloped yet safe and economically thriving. There is no Cabrini Green (Chicago) projects or massively dense and lawless Kowloon (Hong Kong).

Some regional stats:

Access to water in urbanized areas of...
1. Indonesia: 89%
2. Philippines: 93%
3. Vietnam: 99%

Access to sanitation in urbanized areas of...
1. Indonesia: 67%
2. Philippines: 80%
3. Vietnam: 94%

One way to define a slum is a neighborhood where the buildings and land have no clear title of ownership so the people who live on that land and "own" those structures cannot legally defend their property nor is there any way for them to sell or mortgage their property, get loans from a bank to make improvements, or to get some basic services. A problem for people who live in the slums along the canal near my house is that they don't know if or when they will get evicted and then where they could go for the same rent they're paying now or to buy a house for what they would receive in compensation for the low value of their house. They surely couldn't afford anything else not far outside of the city. What they need as replacement is legal affordable housing and most likely that needs to be provided by the government. Often when the government clears neighborhoods, they will build an apartment block somewhere and give the people who lived in the cleared neighborhood an opportunity to live in the new apartment building at a somewhat affordable price.

A broader definition of a slum is where there is a lack of connection to public infrastructure like plumbing for sanitation and receiving clean water for cooking and bathing, electricity, trash collection, telecommunications, and legal status. By that definition I'm not sure there are any large slums in the city. But many of Saigon's canals have become "slumways".

But across the narrow alley from the shanties of these slums are houses with significant investment in them. Building up a home to multiple storeys signals at least some confidence in the sustainable value of their property. The row of shanty houses they face not only don't have the money to build, it's far too risky when the local police could come and tear it all down at any moment. But this shows you can live a meter away from a slum yet still be quite well off and not worried about the property value of your house being affected by the fact that you're right next to a slum.

Should slums be cleared?

From another culture's point of view, slums are unsightly, represent poverty, and should not exist. But hiding poverty isn't the same as reducing it. Plus there's no way to hide all the poverty in Vietnam, considering how poor it is and will be for the foreseeable future. But there are real negative side effects to these slums, such as pollution. One solution might be to decriminalize these homes and tax them minimally, enough to provide communal resources to ensure the homes are built safely and aren't dumping waste into the canals. In fact the people living in these homes should be made responsible for and rewarded for keeping their canals clean.

So are there slums or not?

All the definiting and criteria are confusing. Saying there is or isn't a slum is mostly semantic. You might say all of Vietnam was a slum by most Western standards. Whether there are slums or not in Ho Chi Minh City, anywhere you look in Vietnam you're going to find poor people living with poor infrastructure where the government can basically take land at will.

But if you came here for slum tourism then maybe you should take a bus to Phnom Penh instead and visit the Steung Meanchey garbage dump, a.k.a. Smoky Mountain.

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