Today’s Ho Chi Minh City, also known as Saigon, is a city of contrasts. New luxury housing developments rise from the rubble of demolished neighborhoods. Emergent forms of property rights, known in Vietnam as “land-use rights,” have produced both new real estate opportunities and unprecedented rates of dispossession. This talk, based on research informing my new book, Luxury and Rubble: Civility and Dispossession in the New Saigon, will focus on two cases. On one side of the city, a new urban zone named Phú Mỹ Hưng is commonly said to have “risen from the swamps” and to have transformed a “wasteland” into a space of civilized living. It is a place of hope and aspiration that promises to deliver new models for urban development, transparent governance, and social consciousness. On the other side of the city, in a place called Thủ Thiêm, thousands of households are being evicted from prime real estate located at a bend in the river immediately across from downtown Saigon. This area was also commonly described as an empty wasteland, despite the fact that entire neighborhoods had to be demolished in order to “clear the land.” Tracing the tensions embodied in these two sites, I show how the politics of civility and rights are often entangled with dispossession. In the process, a central paradox emerges: on the one hand, the logic of property rights emboldens residents to stand up for their rights in the face of dispossession; on the other hand, this very same logic of property rights fuels the real estate boom that currently drives mass-dispossession.

Bio sketch

Erik Harms is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Yale University, specializing in Southeast Asia and Vietnam.  Since 2000, he has conducted urban anthropological research in repeated visits to Ho Chi Minh City, where he has focused on the social and cultural effects of rapid urbanization on the city's fringes. His first book, Saigon’s Edge:  On the Margins of Ho Chi Minh City (University of Minnesota Press), is a study of periurban social life, and his published articles have explored the social and political transformation of Vietnamese urban life. Harms recently completed a book called Luxury and Rubble: Civility and Dispossession in the New Saigon (University of California Press) about the demolition and reconstruction of the urban landscape in two of Ho Chi Minh City’s New Urban Zones.

Erik Harms, erik.harms@yale.edu