Phú Mỹ Hưng

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Phu My Hung Urban Area
Phú Mỹ Hưng Urban Area

Phú Mỹ Hưng New (PMH) Urban Area is a planned city located in District 7, southern Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), at the peri-urban fringe. Built by the Vietnamese-Taiwanese joint venture Phu My Hung Corporation since 1997, PMH is a showcase of modern urban neighbourhood in Vietnam, turning wetlands into a multifunctional urban area. The new city features one of the largest Korean expatriates communities in South-east Asia. It is often cited as a rare successful case in the 2630-hectare Saigon South Master Plan. Another new urban zone around HCMC would be Thu Thiem– a 647-hectare peninsula located across the Saigon River.

The location of these districts are shown below.

What the city is envisioned to be like is as shown:


Scholarly interpretations on the impact of urbanisation in Phú Mỹ Hưng (PMH)[edit]

Urbanisation, in particular the case of PMH, often brings about benefits and detriments, and sometimes, the situation is far more complicated. Many scholars, such as social-cultural anthropologist Erik Harms, who specializes in Southeast Asia and Vietnam, have looked at this issue from different perspectives.

The analysis is classified into three broad sections, namely: the good, the complicated, and the bad.

The good: pro-development economic narrative[edit]

From a quantitative point of view, these projects are largely successful. PMH was regarded as the most desirable urban development, generating huge revenue for the state and recognized by the Vietnamese government as a model for urban development. From 1998, when revenue generation started, through to 2009, the government has received approximately USD 500 million from tax revenues and dividends.[1] From a business perspective, this has also been one of the most profitable real estate projects. At Thu Thiem, official reports have claimed that Thu Thiem functions as a financial, commercial, high-end services center of the city and region, where in January 2018, improvements in infrastructure is transforming it to be a magnet for investment.[1]

These gigantic new towns were presented as exclusive utopias for the rising urban upper middle class and often seen as a great advancement to the people of HCMC, providing solutions to the rapid population growth in HCMC.[2]

The Complicated[edit]

1) Using ‘beauty’ as an idea to control[edit]

Anthropologist Erik Harms, in his writing of “Beauty as control in new Saigon”, investigates how beauty in the new urban zone of Thu Thiem has the ability to control.[3] He states that the process of creating new urban zones has resulted in eviction of the residents. These residents are not duped citizens and have increasingly voiced opposition against state led eviction projects.

However, despite feelings of anger towards displacement and resettlement as well as sadness about their difficult circumstances, the residents do not directly challenge the discourse of building a beautiful city, continuing to carry the hope that the project will improve their urban life.[3] These inherent contradictory feelings outline the paradoxical relationship and inner struggles faced by the residents, where they experience conflicting emotions towards their current predicament. Harms states that beautification is used as a mode of control, allowing people to feel that they have a stake in the project, where the positive concepts resonate with their own interests.[3] Concepts of modern life, such as freedom, consumer choice and harmony are ideas of urban beauty and reflect the hope, desires and pleasures of the residents, giving them the illusion that they have a stake in these new urban projects, hence legitimizing the project.

In an increasingly globalized and interconnected world, urbanization is viewed as a sure means to uplift millions from poverty, creating new jobs, and seen often as a way to ‘civilise’ and modernize a society. Often, the feelings of eviction are not addressed as these residents are seen to be ‘rightfully’ sacrificing their unimportant plots of land for a greater common more noble purpose. Harms talks about the exasperation of residents stemming from inadequate land compensation or when it is not being received and cites examples of residents challenging eviction through individual land squabbles.[3]

The residents are seen as having a form of agency and are fighting for their rights, but they still reach a common conclusion, whereby they describe the project as beautiful.

2) Using ‘eviction time’ as an idea to control[edit]

In another scholarly literature published by Harms, he investigates another perspective of the emotional struggle which residents have towards eviction. “Eviction Time in New Saigon: Temporalities of Displacement in the Rubble of Development” investigates the issue of ‘eviction time’ resulting in a complex assortment of temporalities, where those evicted are concerned with questions of ‘when’ and ‘how long’ more.[4]

Harms highlights two key findings from his interviews, the first group seeing themselves as oppressed individuals, where the wait to be evicted causes uncertainty, a loss in productive time and undermines their ability to organize social relationships.[4] Conversely, the second group are resilient to eviction and are able to transform waiting into an economically productive and surprisingly empowering form of social experience, engaging in work that allows their actions to be organised in a time independent manner.[4]

This approach by Harms investigates the non-uniform qualitative effects eviction has on residents. The same issue of eviction has produced two competing narratives – a positive one of resilience, opportunity and even economic benefit as well as a negative one of poverty and oppression. Depending on the livelihoods and even genders of these residents, their relationship and experience with the urbanization is altered.

A recurring theme can be observed both of Harm’s works – the idea of control. In this situation, temporal uncertainty acts as a mechanism of social control. It upsets their attempts to construct livelihoods and build meaningful lives as well as undermine their ability to organize social relationships. Harms also brings out the idea of how residents have agency – using their indifference to disrupt project planning as development cannot continue unless the land is sold and the residents have departed.

In Harm’s research, he mainly obtains information via interviews with residents – which presents itself as both a strength and a weakness. If insufficient residents are being interviewed, certain viewpoints may be missed out or overlooked. It is also hard to accurately gauge the representation of each viewpoint. However, these primary sources provide a very valuable form of information from the ground that cannot be obtained from government or official reports and hence would reflect true sentiments and issues faced by the people.

3) The conflicting idea of ‘wasteland’[edit]

In another of Harm’s writing “Knowing into oblivion: Clearing the wastelands and imagining emptiness in Vietnamese New Urban Zones”, Harms investigates how these projects integrate into Vietnamese understanding of space, history and social meaning.[5]

Harms challenges the conventional idea of what a ‘wasteland’ is – a useless, non-functional and non-economical plot of land. Harms argues that ‘wastelands’ are produced after a landscape is known into oblivion, that the area does not actually become a wasteland until planner’s plans have been set into motion – where land clearance, demolition and eviction eventually turned the area into a wasteland – almost akin to a self-fulfilling prophecy.[5] It is ironic to note that the wastelands cleared are places that people call as home, and the people being civilised are themselves urban Vietnamese residents.

Analysis into these three of Harm’s works reflect a common idea of competing narratives. Residents experience contradictory emotions towards these spaces – a love for their home and yet having it being termed as a ‘wasteland’ and the anger towards eviction yet a sense of pride towards the urban space – could be felt as highly disorientating and conflicting. This effect is not confined to the social sense and plays out in similar ways in the political sphere, as written by other authors.

4) The political dilemma: dual modes of governance[edit]

Another scholar who has written much about this topic would be Hun Kim. Kim, who is an assistant professor at the Department of Geography at The University of British Columbia does his research on the intersection of urban planning, transnational finance and expertise, and globalized forms of governance in Asia.

Kim investigates the more political effects in his writing of “Capturing world class urbanism through modal governance in Saigon”. Kim outlines two key modes of governance: firstly, the idea of regulatory opacity – which is a flexible mode of governance due to the lack of clarity in the interpretation and enforcement of laws/regulations as well as the large number and ambiguity in these regulations and practises.[6] This results in vague and non-uniform enforcement, with each government agency independently adopting their own rules. This has the potential for corruption and is seen as a deterrent to western investors. Secondly, Kim brings in the idea of regulatory transparency, how the state – if accused to be corrupt – would engage in transparency reforms to deal with issues of ambiguity and advocate solidification of the rule of law.[6]

The two modes of governance are contradictory and yet able to coexist together, defining the city. On one hand, regulatory opacity allows the government to deal with the current – such as bending its regulations to cater to different forms of foreign investment capital and urban expertise. On the other hand, regulatory transparency allows the government to deal with the future – to act incrementally today in the promise of a more perfect tomorrow.[6] It represents the hopes and visions of the future and what the government wants to be.

Kim uses the idea of time – the present and the future – to qualitatively rationalise the conflicting dual nature of governance. Taking a macro perspective, Kim looks at how trends such as globalization has altered global standards of urban development, catalysing the need for governance to be open and more flexible.

By speaking to developers, Kim unearths a highly diffused and uncoordinated urban development landscape that is fragmented and filled with diverse actors.[6] This sort of governance is a consistent reflection not just in Vietnam’s macro political-economic spheres of investment and capital, but also trickles down to the lower levels, where complex and ever evolving regulations of land compensation schemes has resulted in inconsistencies on the ground.

The bad: anti-development narrative[edit]

1) Economic challenges[edit]

Another scholar, Du Huynh, in his writing of “Phú Mỹ Hưng New Urban Development in Ho Chi Minh City: Only a partial success of a broader landscape”, investigates both the pros and cons of PMH and reveals the many common problems often associated with urbanization projects. Du first takes a brief look at the economic benefits, comparing real estate prices in PMH and the surrounding areas to prove the extent of economic growth PMH has brought to the city.[1]

However, despite being widely hailed as a success story, Du unearths the problems PMH has brought and classifies them into four main concerns, the first two being economically related. Firstly, there is a lack of financial sustainability of urban service provision where there is no sustainable revenue to maintain current quality of urban service provision.[1] This has resulted in deteriorating quality and a need for a more reasonable policy to generate sufficient revenue to maintain current quality urban service provision standards.

Secondly, there is an issue of urban sprawl.[1] This is defined as the wasteful use of land through uncontrolled, uninterrupted monotonous expansion, placing heavy burdens on the infrastructure and transportation framework.

Another point brought up by Du would be role of external agents in creating the success of PMH – a domestic initiative. The project only made progress after the appearance of Taiwanese investor, Central Trading and Development Corporation (CT&D), in late 1989.[1] This was especially so since the initial financial need was beyond the scope of Vietnamese investors. FDI was also crucial in generating revenue. This shows how the involvement of other countries can greatly influence the outcome of domestic developments, reflecting the interdependency of the increasingly globalised world, where no single event acts in complete isolation. In that same vein, the positive and negative externalities associated with PMH would also influence neighbouring countries.

2) The rise of gated communities[edit]

Another issue that resulted in much social stratification would be the rise of gated communities in PMH. Thu and Thuy, in their writing of “Privatization of neighbourhood governance in transition economy: a case study of gated community in Phu My Hung new town, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam” [7] investigate the interaction between three actors – the local government, private developers and homeowner association to find out the mechanism of privatized neighbourhood governance in relation to the establishment of gated communities in the city.

Vietnam is currently in a transition economy – one that is changing from a centrally planned to market based economy. The establishment of gated communities can be boiled down to 4 main reasons: reforms in private sector development, economic integration with the global economy, emergent social stratification as well as the formation of an urban middle class.[7]

Privatization of housing and neighbourhood governance has enhanced the quality of life but comes at a price of allowing for a market-based system of price allocation. This has accelerated the polarization in the city, where only the wealthy strata of society can afford this type of housing.

For instance, Hung Vuong 1 gated condominium complex includes nine apartment blocks accommodating for 354 households and a population of around 1300 persons, whereby 50% are foreigners and the rest are Vietnamese. Inside the complex, the shared private neighborhood consists of parking lots, playgrounds, internal roads etc. With the presence of security guards in the complex and the fact that outsiders are not allowed in, a level of exclusivity is created.[7]

The presence of gated communities results in social inequality that is common in many developed countries such as the US, and is something that comes at a cost when a city urbanises and develops. Such a social trend of increasing differentiation between the social groups are a new rising trend in the urban landscape, something which the Vietnamese government has to learn to cope and deal with in the coming years. Policies of redistribution would be necessary to prevent this trend from becoming too serious.

3) Environmental challenges[edit]

Finally, Du also looks at environmental problems of flooding, destruction of wetlands as well as other ecological impacts.[1] The building of these new towns increases the potential of flooding due to rising sea levels as the wetlands reclaimed are for residential and industrial use – considered to be of higher commercial significance than the environment. Du unpicks the prestige and luxuriousness of PMH to reveal a host of undesirable externalities that should be considered and mitigated. With this argument being placed in a broader context, PMH can then only be considered as a partial success.

A comparison is made between Du’s narrative on environmental degradation – that PMH has destroyed the wetlands – and that adopted by Erik Harms in his book “Luxury and Rubble”.[8] Harms speaks of PMH as the ‘luxury’, told as a parable of hope and as an example of urban civility rising from a swampland, a modern development rising from the swamps.[8] Both writers view wetlands/swamps in contrasting lenses, with Du seeing them as valuable ecosystems that should be protected, while Harms portraying them as rural areas that need to be civilised.


Urbanization is often lauded as the pathway to civilizing an area with many economic benefits. However, beneath this façade of seeming luxury, prestige and wealth, one has to look deeper into the social, political, economic and environmental challenges confronting the residents. It is difficult to classify if these impacts are solely positive or negative, but often, a more complex picture of differing forces act on the landscape of PMH.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Huynh, D. (2015). PMH New Urban Development in HCMC: Only a partial success of a broader landscape International Journal of Sustainable Built Environment, p 125–135
  2. ^ Mike Douglass, L. H. (2007). Globalizing the city in SEA: Utopia on the urban edge - the case of PMH, Saigon. International Journal of Asia Pacific Studies
  3. ^ a b c d Harms, E. (2012). Beauty as control in the new Saigon. Journal of the American Ethnological Society, p 735–750
  4. ^ a b c Harms, E. (2013). Eviction time in the new Saigon: Temporalities of displacement in the rubble of development. Cultural Anthropology, p 344–368
  5. ^ a b Harms, E. (2014). Knowing into oblivion: Clearing wastelands and imagining emptiness in Vietnamese New Urban Zones. Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography, p 312–327
  6. ^ a b c d Kim, H. (2017). Capturing World Class Urbanism through Modal Governance in Saigon. positions: east asia cultures critique, Volume 25, Number 4, p 669-692
  7. ^ a b c Le, T. T. (2018). Privatization of neighbourhood governance in transition economy: a case study of gated communities in PMH new town: HCMC, Vietnam. GeoJournal, p 783–801
  8. ^ a b Harms, E. (2016). Luxury and Rubble: Civility & dispossession in the New Saigon. Oakland: University of California Press.