Features

Looking South Of Ho Chi Minh City

30 Sep 2008 by intern22

A large-scale urban development outside of the well-established District 1, is offering new lifestyle options for the Saigonese and the expatriate community. Julian Tan has the details.


I first visited Ho Chi Minh City in 2006. My impressions of the city then were not far from what the Lonely Planet (yes, I still read travel guides before embarking on a trip) described as “a teeming metropolis” with pockets of “timeless traditions and beauty of an ancient culture”.

Fast forward to mid-August 2008. The Vietnamese gateway is still flourishing and yielding even more signs of progress. While some aspects (like the heavy traffic heading to or coming from downtown depending on the time of day) remain unchanged, Saigon – saying “Ho Chi Minh City” in a conversation still proves to be a mouthful – is evolving. From the finishing touches being added to the Opera House to the construction of a hotel and shopping complex opposite the Sheraton, and perhaps most notable of all, the large-scale developments taking place beyond the heavily commercial area of District 1. Phu My Hung New City Centre in District 7, south of downtown, is the future.

Part of the government’s vision to create a more vibrant economic environment and increase foreign investment, the project is no small feat and will take years to realise. Says Alpha Chen, international marketing director of the developer Phu My Hung Corporation: “Our group started evaluating the investment opportunities in Vietnam from 1989. After two years of careful study and discussions with the government, we recognised the problems and understood the needs of Vietnam, especially Ho Chi Minh City.

“There were shortages of working opportunities, foreign currency and investment guidance. (As a result) very few companies considered investing in Vietnam.

“We decided to cooperate with the (city) government to develop the Tan Thuan Export Processing Zone, Hiep Phuoc Power Plant and Phu My Hung New City Centre.” Thanks to the company’s foresight, the Tan Thuan zone, originally a swamp area, has attracted some 117 companies to operate there and created 60,000 jobs for the locals. “They (have) generated over US$2 billion of import-export revenue per year,” Chen says.

Not all is business oriented. Lifestyle projects are also being promoted by Phu My Hung Corporation, which is a joint venture of the city government and Taiwan’s Central Trading & Development Group, entitled to a 50-year land use right of 750 hectares in a southern section of Ho Chi Minh City. Known as Saigon South, this area was designated by the government in 1998 as a commercial, financial and service centre.

Curious to check out the activity, I headed for District 7 on a Saturday morning, accompanied by Quan, my tour guide from Buffalo Tours. Travelling from the Caravelle Hotel, where I had stayed for the last three nights, took 20 minutes by car.

Traffic congestion seemed unheard of in this part of Saigon, as Quan tells me. “I like this area because it has modern and nice apartments, fresh air, less traffic and is very convenient. It has everything – a university, hospital, park, shopping centre, restaurant. Here, it’s greener as well.”

Massive in size, the New City Centre is among the five zones in Saigon South, located along the 17.8-kilometre long Nguyen Van Linh Parkway linking the east and west, which are being developed by the Phu My Hung Corporation – others being University Place, High-Tech Centre and two Merchandise Centres. The area also boasts facilities such as hospitals, a golf course, international schools (due to the large community of expatriate residents) and a department store with a cinema complex, which will be ready by the year-end. There are even plans to build a cultural centre and car showrooms with the likes of Porsche, BMW and Toyota.

A resident of one year, Claire del Rosario-Bernabe, director of sales and marketing at Mövenpick Hotel, says: “District 7 offers much space. The air feels different. The area is also self sufficient. The community provides supermarkets, trendy bars and restaurants, a swimming pool, golf course, dance studios, gym, tennis court and schools.

“Security is good as well, so I feel less distracted when I travel, knowing that my little girl will be fine with her nanny.

“At the end of the day, there’s peace and quiet.”

Strolling around, I sensed that I had wandered into an entirely different enclave. An upmarket, peaceful neighbourhood with little traffic on the tree-lined streets, designated pedestrian spaces, retail tenants (Samsung, L’Occitane), restaurants and cafés (Gloria Jean’s Coffee, Chinese, Korean, Italian, Vietnamese and so on), carefully designed private homes in the form of balconied high-risers, condominiums and villas, childcare centres and the list goes on.

“Our houses are designed by architects from 12 countries. Houses in all projects were sold in approximately one week,” Chen of the developer Phu My Hung Corporation reveals.

“After our success with residential projects (mostly constructed in the past eight years), we focus on developing commercial areas. Lawrence S Ting Building is the first office building in Phu My Hung constructed in 2003. Broadway Office Park is a mixed-use project with retail and office spaces... Multinational companies such as Manulife from Canada and Unilever from the UK moved their headquarters from the city centre to Saigon South.” Local establishments cited include Petro Vietnam, Vietnammilk and Hoa Binh Construction.

The hospitality and meetings industry has also been quick to capitalise on the flow of business travellers and exhibition and convention delegates into the area. A new Saigon Exhibition & Convention Centre is being built, along with an office tower and hotels, including the 170-room Ibis Saigon South which is due to open in 2010.

Chen concludes: “Since our business is (of a) big scale, we think big environment. It takes time to accomplish, so we plan long term but we execute in detail... If you want to do something meaningful in Vietnam, we would like to suggest you to have a vision.

“We believe that Ho Chi Minh City will be an excellent city if newcomers can bring the world-class plan to this city. If you don’t have a very good one, you had better not come to this country because you cannot compete with the local investors who are very creative and have been already studying a lot from the world.”

Petra Schweiggl, Saigon branch manager of Buffalo Tours, believes the city is due for a great metamorphosis. She says: “Ho Chi Minh City is the business capital of Vietnam and this brings obviously quicker changes than in other places.

“I think these changes are inevitable, but we need to pay attention so that Saigon does not lose all its charm.

“The old Saigon is little alleys with little houses or colonial-style houses and people sitting on the streets. Today, you can still find street vendors selling fruit and vegetables as they did decades ago, often next to bars and boutiques, but there are not a lot of historical places left.”

For the Italy-born Schweiggl, Saigon’s contrasts define its unusual character, which has impressed generations of travellers. Besides being acknowledged as Vietnam’s financial hub, she adds, “Saigon has a strong connection to the past, particularly in Cholon (Chinatown) and District 1”.

I don’t know when my next trip to Saigon will be, and for sure, it will be a totally different creature by then. But some things won’t change, and that’s the piping-hot pho, which remains authentic and delicious, whether served in five-star surrounds or a grubby roadside café. And what a comforting thought that is in a world of endless upheaval.

Saigon South Urban development primer

  • A mixed residential and commercial urban development covering 3,300 hectares south of Ho Chi Minh City and 20 minutes’ drive from downtown
  • Saigon South is defined by five core zones: the New City Centre, University Place, High-Tech Centre and two Merchandise Centres, all linked by the Nguyen Van Linh Parkway
  • Existing onsite facilities: healthcare (Franco-Vietnam Hospital with 220 beds and 11 operating theatres and Tam Duc Cardiology Hospital with 180 beds), education (the RMIT University of Australia, local and international schools), residential projects (including The Waterfront, a 140-unit complex set in a landscaped area with river views, and The Crescent, a mixed-use residential and commercial development) and leisure (such as the nine-hole Saigon South Executive Golf Course)
  • Future projects: Saigon Exhibition & Convention Centre (ready in November 2008), Saigon Design Centre (2009), Petroland (2009), Saigon Paragon department store, Ibis Saigon South hotel (2010) and a cultural centre. For more information, visit www.saigonsouth.com

Hotels in District 1 that have sported a fresh look

CARAVELLE

A good night’s rest is what Caravelle wants to achieve for its guests. In July, all 335 rooms and suites were furnished with Sealy Posturepedic mattresses, measuring 33cm, 20cm deeper than the old mattress. Each bed offers a 10-centimetre feather comforter, duvet cover with a 350- to 400-thread count, and synthetic and feather pillows. And new beds are not all that the hotel is providing. The two-year refurbishment, in the lead up to the hotel’s 50th anniversary next year, has also included a revamped all-day dining venue Nineteen and the signature restaurant Reflections.

PRICE: Rooms from US$270 nightly.

CONTACT: 19 Lam Son Square, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, tel 84 8 823 4999, www.caravellehotel.com


DUXTON

A soft refurbishment on the guestroom floors of the 198-room hotel completed early this year. This included repainting of corridor walls, fitting new carpets, installing softer lighting and replacing bedroom doors to make the atmosphere more inviting. Five meeting rooms and a spa were added. Guests staying in Executive rooms and suites and Royal suites also enjoy complimentary broadband internet access. A business set lunch is available on weekdays from US$12, while live jazz provides entertainment at the lobby bar on Saturday nights from 2000 to 2245.

PRICE: Rooms from US$165 nightly.

CONTACT: 63 Nguyen Hue Boulevard, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, tel 84 8 822 2999, www.duxton.com


RENAISSANCE RIVERSIDE

A series of upgrading projects were undertaken at the 336-room property, including the replacement of carpets in the Grand Me Linh Ballroom, Kabin Chinese restaurant and the 18th-floor Club Lounge. The 24-hour Renaissance Health Club was equipped with two additional Life Fitness treadmills and a Life Fitness elliptical cross trainer, while two Mercedes-Benz E200K were also introduced to the fleet, enhancing guests’ experiences at the hotel.

PRICE: Rooms from US$200 nightly.

CONTACT: 8-15 Ton Duc Thang Street, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, tel 84 8 822 0033, www.renaissance-saigon.com


SHERATON

Adding new meaning to the word “luxury” is a Grand Tower, featuring 112 studios and suites converted from serviced apartments. The hotel’s room inventory currently stands at 483 in both the Grand and Main Towers. Rooms in the Grand Tower measure 55sqm and above, and have 37- or 42-inch LCD TVs (and every suite bathroom has a 19-inch LCD TV) and DVD players with a Bose surround-sound system. Wired and wireless broadband internet with “plug and play” connectivity provides the ease of working from guestrooms. There is also a Grand Tower lounge with three workstations.

PRICE: Rooms from US$430 nightly.

CONTACT: 88 Dong Khoi Street, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, tel 84 8 827 2828, http://sheraton.com/saigon


SOFITEL PLAZA

The hotel boasts a bigger executive-floor lounge – Club Sofitel – which took over three guestrooms for the expansion. Guests with access to this lounge can help themselves to a selection of hot and cold drinks, as well as the premium choices (liquor, reds, whites and rosé champagne). All 286 guestrooms (289 previously) are being renovated to offer built-in LCD TVs and DVD players, and 80 percent of them are expected to be ready this month. Expansion is under way at the lobby and two of its F&B outlets, L’Elysee Bar and the all-day dining Café Rivoli, due to complete in the first quarter of 2009.

PRICE: Rooms from US$220 nightly.

CONTACT: 17 Le Duan Blvd, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, tel 84 8 824 1555, www.accorhotels.com/asia

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