Hẻm Sài Gòn


During my time researching the urban fabric of Saigon and the lived Vietnamese culture, I started to get fascinated by the openness, friendliness and the constant embrace of respect and gratefulness within a hem. As a result, I always felt welcome wherever I went. However, this very unique character found in the traditional hem typology is jeopardized by the rapid urbanization and therefore demolition and renewal of Saigon.

At the same time, there is a very young and modern generation, craving individual freedom, prosperity and success. This dynamic and international lifestyle is open to the rest of the world, seeing vibrant mega-cities like Singapore or Shanghai; and the desire to catch up. In the urban context, developers and city officials are pushing state-of-the-art luxury high-rise apartment and office towers.

Caught between small-scale hem context and large-scale developments, social and impersonal, tradition and progress, old and new, the project aims  to find a new way of living and a unique design expressions which bridges these gaps.

The current situation demands a new approach and design strategy for residential buildings;  making it possible to re-interpret  but promote the social life in the traditional hem fabric, hence being conscious of the needs and demands of a global-thinking society,  rapid urban growth and pressing environmental challenges.

The project aims to combine the qualities of the existing context, the traditional hem, the typical Vietnamese tube house as well as the forward-looking developments, all coming together so close to the centre of Saigon. Furthermore, it mirrors the period of transition, the Vietnamese society finds itself in right now.

Furthermore, the extreme tropical climate and the environmental pollution in the 8 million city are matters that need to be taken into account and impact designs. Ensuring a natural ventilation throughout the hEm and providing shade through simple vernacular techniques, result in a green, open and playful architectural expression.


Who influences you graphically?

I found a lot of inspiration in contemporary Japanese drawings through (online-) magazines like ja+u or japanarchitect.co.jp.
I appreciate the simplicity and how reduced the drawings are; but somehow they present a richness in detail at the same time. They transfer a certain playfulness that you can really get lost in the drawings and they create a specific atmosphere to put it all into a context which I wanted to achieve within my project.

What defined the language of representation of the project?

I researched traditional Vietnamese settlements called hẻm; very rich in culture, diversity and creativity in improvising. The streets are full of activities 24 hours a day, always using the street differently, for cooking and eating with families and neighbors, street vendors selling all kinds of products, children playing, small scale manufacturing or motorbike repair; everything happens in those alleyways on the street, meaning in the public space, constantly changing and re-negotiating the space between each other. Because of shading and the way these settlements grew over time, they are extremely dense and therefore everything is compressed to very little intense spaces.

I felt that it is essential for my project to transfer this very special, personal character and social way of living inside these hẻm’s into my design and therefore into my drawings and models.

What role do the models play in relation to the drawings?

Both models and drawings are equally important in a project. However, you need to be very clear and focused in how you are using each medium, that every drawing as well as each model should be made having a clear message in mind. In the end, having drawings, visualizations, models and the presentation put together will provide a full picture with great depth.
A 2D- drawing can hardly show the spatial complexity of a project, therefore a model in the right scale, as well as detail and material can provide new perspectives to a project. In my thesis project I used models to show the dense and diverse context, with small little spaces somehow tuck in between all of that.

What defined the different scale resolutions of the models? How important was it to situate the model in context?

My project is critically examining the on-going housing development and also gentrification process in Saigon.

Large high-rise developments up to 30 stories and small-scale traditional hẻm settlements, that are usually between 2 to 6 stories, both standing just one street apart from each other. This clash is hard to imagine but you can somehow get an understanding about what the spatial consequences are, only when building it in model. Therefore, I chose to build a 1-500 model.

In the end, my project as a kind of a prototype tries to merge the characteristics of the traditional hẻm and introducing the advantages of state of the art housing and therefore bridges the traditional small scale and the new large-scale developments together. This hybrid always stays in relation to the human scale which I emphasized in a very large and detailed model in 1-50.

How important was the initial research, analysis for the development and understanding of the contemporary condition?

I really tried to dive into the Vietnamese culture and research everything that is somehow related to the project, the context and its locals.

It starts with an understanding of the local climate and extends to the way of life, religion, politics, history and even value systems of a region. The locals developed ways and techniques to make life and work manageable every day in these areas with the extreme climate. One example is the use of greenery on the facades for shading and evaporative cooling but also to have homegrown fruits like mangos. These little details help to understand the context and to enrich the design.

At what level of depth was this developed? How important and impacting was first hand research and elements such as the ‘daily dairy‘?

I have already visited parts of my family and the city of Saigon eight times, therefore I was able to experience first-hand the rapid development of Vietnam to a more prosperous industrial country and how that effected society and the way people want to live. Before I started my master project, I spent two months in Vietnam and Saigon and research everything thoroughly, not only from a personal point of view, but also from what I have already learned studying and practicing architecture and urbanism in Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark. These two perspectives were extremely helpful to put these ongoing developments into a bigger picture and how all of this is influencing Vietnamese culture. I was able to visit an architecture school in Saigon and talk to local architects, eventually visiting construction sites. But most importantly, I stayed with locals and spent as much time as possible in the hẻms, to observe and document the daily routines, the advantages but also the disadvantages, like poor building conditions, extreme level of noise and emissions from traffic.
The most challenging part was to find a position for myself. What is my point of view? Do I want to preserve and protect the traditional Vietnam that I know from my childhood and my family or am I approaching the task from a more Western perspective and embrace the process and advantages of working in a more developed industrialized modern Vietnam? And what is my personal role in all of that, should I tell them what to do because I studied in Europe and know better?

What would you say were your most important tools in developing the project?

It was very important to explain my teachers, colleagues and friends about the hẻm culture. I had many impressions gathered in these two months, so I needed to filter and analyze all of my findings. Documenting everything in pictures and video was the most helpful tool.

As an architect in the making where do you see yourself operating once out in the profession?

The social approach to design is very important to me. To be able to dive into this unique culture was a great experience and made me realize that working as an architect should be always connected with the city and the people living there.

Saigon, as a great example in the world, is in a time of rapid change and people certainly enjoy and like it. But I believe that we have to slow down the process of city development that we actually have the chance to understand what has been erased.  As architects, we need to critical reflect the values of both sides, the old and the new, the tradition and the progress, and try to find the right balance of the two opposites and bridge their gaps. Otherwise traditional cultures will be soon lost and forgotten.


Rosa Bui studied in Germany, The Netherlands and Denmark. She graduated from the Aarhus School of Architecture in the beginning of 2018 and currently works in Copenhagen.