The median age of the U.S. population is 36.7, in Japan it is 44.2, and even fast-rising China is quickly aging at 34.1. The median in Vietnam, by contrast, is just 27.4 years young. More than 61% of the population is less than 35. Nearly two-thirds of the people were born after reunification of the country and have no memories of the war years. Vietnam’s population is forward-looking and is quickly developing an urban middle-class entrepreneurial society.
So why does the country attract a 63-year-old San Francisco architect like me? Four years ago, on the verge of professional burnout, I abruptly quit my job of 24years and returned to Ho Chi Minh City, where I had been stationed as a young naval lieutenant in the early 1970s. But I didn’t come to retire. I returned because I craved the infectious energy of the young people of Vietnam. Simply put, I am rejuvenated and re-inspired by the high energy of these youth.
During the war, I managed construction projects and gained an appreciation for the industriousness and desire for creativity among the Vietnamese construction contractors with whom I collaborated. They took great pride in their workmanship, and often added extra finish touches not otherwise required. And I was astonished by the level of capitalist entrepreneurial spirit among the Vietnamese people. That spirit has increased in the decades since.
The primary result of this high energy of people is an intensity of life and experiences that I have not felt elsewhere, even China. I believe the Vietnamese have an innate sense of good design that creates sophisticated vibrant colors, patterns, sounds, smells, and tastes in the urban environment. Yes, there is messiness and chaos in Vietnamese urban life, but I sense that is a manifestation of the high energy level. By the time the Vietnamese make the urban environment more orderly and convenient, it is likely the energy level will have decreased with that progress.
As an architect, I am particularly enamored by the modernist architecture of southern Vietnam. For more than 50 years, architects and home-owners have experimented with color and patterns within the standard four-meter wide five-storey tall urban house façade. The result is a sophisticated evolution of modernist architecture that fits the tropical climate of Vietnam well within a constricted space. This variety of experimentation accentuates the intensity of urban life along the streets. Unlike most American neighborhoods, houses here are not: same, same – they’re wonderfully different.
A primary driver of this intensive life is high density. Although residential high-rise buildings are not yet common in the inner Ho Chi Minh City, the average height of the densely-built residences and the high occupancy leads to one of the highest population densities of any city in the world. Coupled with tropical temperatures that encourage outdoor life, this creates an urban environment filled with people contributing their sounds, smells, and tastes to others. The range of street food, karaoke music, and commercial sales along most streets is stimulating and invigorating. I love how this facilitates the natural sociability of the Vietnamese. I experience reverse cultural shock every time I return to the relative calmness of San Francisco, which is generally considered one of the most intense cities in America.
As a way to repay the riches Vietnam has given me, I mentor young local architects. When they ask me about relocating to America, I suggest that they go for school, adding maybe a year or two of experience. But then I quickly stress that they would be wise to return to Vietnam and draw upon and contribute to the new ideas and energy that drew me back after all these years.
I have gained much and learned much from living among the Vietnamese in the inner city, and I hope and intend to give back to my neighbors, friends, and coworkers through investment in their environment and society. One way I do this is through my blog about Vietnamese architecture and life at http://layered.typepad.com.