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The Professional Geographer


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A Review of Saigon's Edge:


On the Margins of Ho Chi Minh
City
Jamie Gillen

Department of Geography, National University of


Singapore, Singapore
Version of record first published: 28 Dec 2011.

To cite this article: Jamie Gillen (2012): A Review of Saigon's Edge: On the Margins
of Ho Chi Minh City, The Professional Geographer, 64:1, 152-154
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00330124.2011.633458

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152 Volume 64, Number 1, February 2012

Downloaded by [Duke University Libraries] at 15:57 24 March 2013

the many unknowns relating to how climate


change and global warming will actually play
out around the world.
Advances and the success of Morriss positive
scenario depend clearly on major and timely
scientific and technological breakthroughs to
deal with the earths declining arable land and
freshwater resources and the Wests wasteful,
bankrupting obsession with militarization and
constant wars.
With these words Morris ends the last chapters section titled The Great Race:
Much of this of course sounds like science fiction, and it will certainly take enormous technological leaps to usher in such an age of
abundant clean energy. But if we do not make
such leapsand soonNightfall [worst-case scenario] will win the race. . . . For the Singularity
[positive scenario] to win we need to keep the
dogs of war on a leash, manage global weirding,
and see through a revolution of energy capture.
Everything has to go right. For Nightfall to win,
only one thing needs go wrong. The odds look
bad. (pp. 61213)

I agree with Morriss statement that Rising social development has always changed the
meaning of geography, but I disagree with his
assertion that in the twenty-first century, development will rise so high that geography will
cease to mean anything at all (p. 619).
I disagree because I believe that Morris
misses a key point about the prospects for
his two scenarios. The human race still has a
digestive system and body chemistry like that
of our huntergatherer forebears, and we must
continue to depend on healthy food from the
earths limited and declining endowment of
arable land. Fresh water availability also is
a critical issue. As of now the Earth is sadly
overpopulated. Our high-tech civilization and
agriculture might be a temporary spike in the
human struggle to survive.
Morriss book is a valuable and easy read
with many insights, but his For Now chapter leaves dangling basic questions about the
future.
Key Words: backwardness advantage, development ceiling, future scenarios, Social Development
Index, Western/Eastern cores.

Saigons Edge: On the Margins of Ho Chi


Minh City. Erik Harms. Minneapolis: Uni-

versity of Minnesota Press, 2011. xiv and 294


pp. $75.00 cloth (ISBN 978-0-8166-5605-9).
Reviewed by Jamie Gillen, Department of Geography, National University of Singapore,
Singapore.
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, known colloquially as Saigon, is like many megacities in
Southeast Asia in that its makeup resembles
that of the Greek goddess Medusa: The determined intensity and aggressiveness of Medusas
face matches the urban cores of Manila, Jakarta,
Bangkok, and Saigon. With a shock of snakes
for hair, Medusas serpentine appendages burst
forth chaotically, functioning both on behalf of
and autonomously from her. Likewise, in cities
like Saigon, periurban districts have definitive links to the urban core but also operate independently, never entirely comfortable
with their connections to the city center,
or it often seems, to the world beyond the
larger metropolitan area. Erik Harms, a cultural anthropologist by training, wrestles with
the narratives of residents of one of Ho Chi
Minh Citys appendages or periurban regions
known as HocM
on

and uses their stories to


evaluate what it means to live on the edge
of a transforming Vietnamese society. Leaning
on an assortment of geography-friendly terms
throughout the text, Harms introduces and exercises the binary structure of Vietnamese society to demonstrate how districts like HocM
on

and their residents blur the lines between rural and urban, traditional and modern, inside
and outside, and wealthy and poor, at the same
time playing into and reinforcing these binaries
in their everyday lives. For Vietnamese studies
scholars, this book is an instrumental addition
to the ways in which the country and its people make sense of and contribute to the world
around them. For geographers, the books attempt to make an argument about spatial relations through a fleeting engagement with geographic terms and debates will leave some of us
frustrated.
Harms begins with a robust introduction
in which he outlines the themes of the book,
which center on the ambivalence (p. 3)
HocM
ons
residents have for the urbanization

process in Vietnam. The author does a superb


job in explaining why he chooses to support
and complicate Vietnams binary framework
(something he comes back to repeatedly

Downloaded by [Duke University Libraries] at 15:57 24 March 2013

Book Reviews 153


throughout the text, which demonstrates a
tight scope and focus), arguing that it is his
responsibility as an anthropologist studying
Vietnam to accurately convey to the reader
the usage of language in creating Vietnamese
society and to explain the persistence of
Vietnams binary framework, despite its limitations. He creates a term called social edginess
to describe how Vietnamese living in periurban environments swing between different
spatial and class-inflected categories. Edginess
also explains the sense of unease that many
Vietnamese have in straddling socioeconomic
and geographic lines. Harms also writes that
HocM
ons
people are empowered as a result

of this oscillation, imbuing a hearty dose of


meaning to the phrase. I responded to the
term social edginess used throughout the text
by hoping there would at some point be an invocation of Joel Garreaus (1991) foundational
edge city thesis, now over twenty years old,
or Dick and Rimmers (1998) geographic take
on edge cities in a Southeast Asian context,
but the wish never materialized. Instead,
Harms uses anthropological and social theory
scholarship, with a sprinkle of geography, to
inform his idea. A brief glossary of Vietnamese
terms preceding the introduction is helpful to
the non-Vietnamese-speaking geographer; an
absence of maps detailing HocM
ons
location

in relation to Ho Chi Minh City and Vietnam is


not.
The book is divided into three sections, with
the first part dedicated to outlining social edginess in more detail. Here I believe an explicit
engagement with terms from human geographys canon would have elevated the book significantly. For example, in chapter 3 Harms
explains that space is a social process, yet
the role of geography in establishing this point
is skimmed over, save a few dated references
to Harveys work (1982, 1989). Space and
power is a subsection of the chapter (p. 76).
It is invigorating to see terms like these used
by those in other disciplines and speaks to
the peripatetic nature of much of present-day
thought in the social sciences, but how a book
with such overt geographical themes related to
the blurriness of spatial boundaries omits entire canons of geography is the books biggest
disappointment.
The second part of the book adds a temporal layer of critique to the spatial platform,

arguing that HocM


ons
residents are in a po

sition to contribute to Vietnams intense development through cheap labor and real estate
yet are likewise stultified because they cannot
escape the feeling that they are part of traditional Vietnam, with all its purity and ignorance left intact as downtown Saigon zooms
past them. This section reinforces, using the
Vietnam peoples penchant for linear markers
of development (preindependence postindependence war against the American aggressors reunification reform era), the
curious case of HocM
oncitizens
insider sta

tus in traditional Vietnam, which affords them


the ability to prop up the debased nature of
much of Ho Chi Minh City society, whereas
their outsider status on the fringes of the city
forbids them from sniffing the air of the nouveau riche of true insider urbanites.
Harms hits his crescendo in the third section, and specifically the penultimate chapter,
where he adroitly links HocM
on

to Vietnamese
history and society in general. In this chapter he brings in archival research to add to his
rich interview data, drawing parallels between
HocM
ons
hesitant role in Ho Chi Minh Citys

development to Vietnamese societys own ambivalence toward their function in the global
economy. Narratives of the backward, uneducated, and honorable peasant, so prominent
in Vietnamese conversations in downtown Ho
Chi Minh City (and in the countryside), are
weaved together with the Communist Partys
official directives to contradictorily transform
and nurture rural areas. Harms makes a smart
analytic move by not resolving this important
tension, letting it stand as one of the most
demonstrable takeaways from the book.
The conclusion addresses Vietnams socialist
character and its peoples push to become
modern, an abrupt departure from much of the
microlevel analysis on which the book relies.
The book is a satisfying read for those interested in contemporary Vietnam because Harms
is a strong writer: He is perceptive, he is a good
listener, he is patient, he has a keen sense of the
Vietnamese language, and he has an elephants
memory, all of which are valuable traits when
working in Vietnam. As a case study, then, it is
valuable, timely, even poignant, and an ethnographic game-changer in Vietnamese studies.
I am not well-read enough to know whether
Harmss contribution counts as innovative in

154 Volume 64, Number 1, February 2012


anthropological studies of cities, but its value in
geography is less than it should be because the
theoretical impact of edge cities is already
deeply embedded in urban and social geography today.
Key Words: ethnography, rural-urban divide,
Vietnam.

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References
Dick, H. W., and P. J. Rimmer. 1998. Beyond the
Third-World city: The new urban geography of
Southeast Asia. Urban Studies 35 (12): 230321.
Garreau, J. 1991. Edge city: Life on the new frontier.
New York: Doubleday.
Harvey, D. 1982. The limits to capital. Oxford, UK:
Verso.
. 1989. The condition of postmodernity. Oxford,
UK: Basil Blackwell.

Delivering Development: Globalizations


Shoreline and the Road to a Sustainable
Future. Edward R. Carr. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. 250 pp. $38.00 cloth
(ISBN 978-0-230-11076-2).
Reviewed by Samuel Thompson, Department
of Geography, Western Illinois University,
Macomb, IL.
Even if you have not lived in a village, you
should enjoy reading this well-written book,
which contributes to discourse on development
in the developing world. It is based on Edward
Carrs personal reflections on development, after spending more than thirteen years with the
people of Dominase and Ponkrum in the Central Region of Ghana. After more than a decade
in this African country, Carr accumulates many
firsthand observations that form the basis of the
books title, Delivering Development. He begins
with background narratives on his journey and
research work in the country. It is during this
period that the author discovers the imperfections of Western development ideas in a place
that he calls the globalization shoreline.
Throughout the book, Carr refers to the
two villages to illustrate the volatility of globalization and development. Based on Carrs interaction with villagers, he is able to present
several compelling development stories in the
country that, to some extent, mirror situations
in the rest of the developing world. He then

challenges prevailing development approaches


and their failures to eliminate or ameliorate
poverty and underdevelopment in the developing world. He states that after centuries
of growing global trade and more than six
decades of formal development (overlaid on
many decades of colonial efforts), however, the
improvement of the human condition has been
uneven at best (p. 3).
Along the globalization shoreline, Carr
makes the case that these areas bear the brunt
of economic, political, and environmental decisions made in the developed world. He systematically upends commonly held ideas about
globalization and development and points out
their failures and consequences. When development failures occur, the entire world is exposed to the perils of an unbalanced global
economy. Carr argues that unless Western development policies change and improvements
in the quality of life of globalization shoreline
people are attained, the world could see enormous pressure on natural resources and environmental degradation. To better expand on
the failure of development and globalization,
Carr formulates four arguments. Each one of
these arguments challenges commonly held assumptions about development and its failure
to uplift conditions of the poor at the globalization shoreline. Carr uses the first half of
this book to tackle each of the four arguments,
making references from his days in Dominase
and Ponkrum. From chapter 1 to chapter 7, he
focuses on development issues along the globalization shoreline. He establishes that the level
of development is contrary to commonly held
knowledge about development and globalization. Traveling from the capital city, Accra, to
the central region, Carr provides examples of
development failures.
Carr systematically describes all of the
failures of development despite decades of infusion of development aid at the shoreline. To
support his arguments for a new direction in
development that is sustainable, Carr provides
detailed descriptions of the villages in chapters
3 and 4. One gets a sense of people living and
going on with life despite daily challenges and
uncertainties all around them. Villagers, mostly
farmers, work hard, but the return for their
hard work is small. There is no discernible evidence of material accumulation in the villages.
Even the infrastructure is lacking in many