In the spring of 1975, the Vietnamese city of Saigon fell to communist forces and closed the final chapter of the Vietnam War. While Marxism seemed to prevail, a walk through Saigon today suggests otherwise. This thriving metropolis of lights, modern buildings, and activity has become Vietnam’s commercial hub with an expanding influence throughout the region.
A weekend visit by U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to Vietnam as part of the Shangri-La Dialogue suggests that Vietnam and the United States are ready to put old ghosts to rest and begin a constructive dialogue about encouraging Vietnam’s economic development and its continued integration into the community of nations engaged in international business. However, will stronger defense ties, particularly in and around the former wartime American logistics and tourism hubs of Cam Ranh Bay and Nha Trang, translate into sustainable development gains? Or will progress be short-lived, environmentally disastrous, and profitable only to a select few? In order to gain insight into how Vietnam will continue to develop, we must turn to the former South Vietnamese capital of Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City as it has been known since 1975.
Situated north of the Mekong River Delta, Saigon’s economic foundation rests on the delta’s rich and productive soil and its proximity to the shipping lanes of the South China Sea. As a result of this, Vietnam has risen to become the world’s second largest exporter of rice after Thailand and a supplier to half the world’s population who depend upon it as a staple. Today, Saigon has capitalized upon this geographic advantage to propel the country up the value-chain of economic development.
Saigon has also become a magnet for the other 80% of Vietnam’s population that grows rice for a living. This rural-to-urban migration, similar to other developing nations, is causing an acute strain on the city’s infrastructure and on the fertile land that surrounds the city. Rampant urban sprawl is devouring delta farmland and forcing farmers to produce more rice on less land. While productivity gains are generally welcome in developing nations, they must be balanced with the costs of achieving them. In Saigon’s case, the costs manifest in the form of increased air and noise pollution from the millions of motorcycles that are added to the streets each year, higher soil acidity from acid rain, and urban runoff into the waters of the delta that threaten ecosystems and tourism alike.
As the Shangri-La Dialogue draws to a close, it will be important to remember that the secret to Vietnam’s long-run success hinges upon the sustainability of its development, and whether or not its people are as concerned about their environment as they are their military security. Sustainable development is the key to a rising Saigon, and it is the only thing preventing a second fall.
Photos Courtesy of Tricia A. Mitchell