Natalie Porter Reviews Saigon’s Edge: On the Margins of Ho Chi Minh City

Exploring how the production of symbolic and material space intersects with Vietnamese concepts of social space, rural-urban relations, and notions of “inside” and “outside,” Erik Harms’ Saigon’s Edge: On the Margins of Ho Chi Minh City presents a fresh perspective on experiences at edge of urbanization.

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Residents on the margins of Ho Chi Minh City, writes Erik Harms, are on edge. “Like the double-edged blade of a knife this edginess cuts both ways, sometimes cutting back against structures of power and sometimes cutting the very social agents who wield it” (p. 4). Saigon’s Edge is a compelling account of development and urbanization at the fringe of Vietnam’s largest city. Drawing on extensive ethnographic research, Harms provides a view onto the ways that residents of Hóc Môn district negotiate their position at the fault-lines of ideal social categories in Vietnam. Hóc Môn residents, he argues, do not fall neatly on one side of the symbolic divide between outside and inside, rural and urban; instead, they are uncomfortably both. But rather than use his observations to dispense with these conceptual oppositions, Harms considers their ongoing power to organize social life in Vietnam. This is the crucial intervention of Saigon’s Edge. It is not another poststructuralist attempt to explain away the field of idealized opposites. For although Harms illustrates “what happens when reality and dream do not match” (p. 26), at its core his book is about the reproduction of rural-urban, inside-outside binaries in everyday life. As such the book offers scholars of anthropology, Southeast Asia, and urban studies –as well as popular audiences interested in Vietnamese society – a fresh perspective on experiences at edge of urbanization.

The structure of the book reflects its central argument about the connections between ideal categories and everyday practices in Vietnam. Part One articulates the concept of “social edginess,” a term Harms uses to describe how spatial marginalization leaves Hóc Môn residents with a sense of ambivalence: indispensible, yet left outside of Vietnam’s future-oriented development schemes. Chapter 1 situates Hóc Môn in the context of transnational capital, commercial, and agricultural flows. Harms shows that while Ho Chi Minh City emerges as a new global market, transformations in and around this “economic frontier” have turned its outlying districts into sites of mixed rural and urban space – places of possibility and risk, agency and vulnerability. Here on the fringe, Hóc Môn residents “suck on the soapberry and call it sweet”: they accept and look to exploit bittersweet urban transitions. In one of the book’s most compelling discussions, Harms draws on the seminal work of Hy Van Luong to suggest that individuals negotiate their dual position both inside (nội thành) and outside (ngoài thành) the city in ways that mirror contradictory kinship alliances in Vietnam. Just as the “inner” husband’s patriline (nội) relies on the “outer” mother’s patriline (ngoài) for self-preservation and social reproduction, Ho Chi Minh City requires its outer districts for continued existence. Hóc Môn residents literally feed the city while remaining symbolically outside of it. But just as structural contradictions permit actors to shape family relations, so do they provide opportunities to navigate spatial binaries. Harms uses ethnographic detail to great effect in this chapter, showing how individuals symbolically perform “rural” identities. Donning áo bà ba and shoulder poles in the city allows women to capitalize on cultural stereotypes that value the countryside while simultaneously holding it at arms distance.

Indeed, “power and exclusion mark the edge” (p. 61). Chapter 2 describes space as a product of social negotiations, deals and interactions. Some actors are more successful at these negotiations than others, and Harms is careful to show how residents experience life at the edge from different positions of power. Engaging with theorists such as Mary Douglas and Victor Turner, Harms suggests that Hóc Môn’s position “betwixt and between” rural-urban categories fosters both a sense of danger or power – depending on one’s ability to manipulate these categories in everyday life. In relating the different experiences of two friends in the district, Harms convincingly argues that the ability to move through space – to and from the city and within and beyond Vietnam – provides individuals with the necessary resources to wield influence at the margins. Put simply, depending on a person’s mobility, the double-edged nature of Hóc Môn can evoke optimism or despair.

Part Two moves the discussion from space to time. Here Harms relates a uniquely Vietnamese concept of time that combines an orientation to the future with nostalgia for the past. He suggests that “the question of where [Hóc Môn] lay in space was also a question of where it was in time” (p. 90). Chapter 3 examines how national discourses of linear, forward moving development link certain temporalities with certain kinds of people and places. In Vietnam, both popular and academic descriptions of non-linear “peasant” time cast rural dwellers in an era preceding contemporary capitalist temporalities. Such associations cause Hóc Môn residents to feel as though they are always at the edge of progress, always catching up to the present. Yet Harms shows how “rural” dwellers and “peasants” switch back and forth between different timescales with ease. People in Hóc Môn are experts at “two-timing”: they celebrate the past and future simultaneously, and strategically use rural and urban symbols to hold the district up as a beacon of both tradition and modernity. Going further, Harms shows how this “two-timing” rhetoric reflects a general ambivalence about modernity in Vietnamese society, as cultural tropes situate Vietnam at the precipice of development while simultaneously imagining it as a place of tradition threatened by development.


Chapter 4 explores the material effects of these spatial and temporal oscillations. Expanding on the work of Philip Taylor, Harms argues that the most significant social divisions in Hóc Môn do not lie between those adhering to either rural or urban time orientations. Rather, divisions emerge between those who are able to manipulate multiple temporalities and those who are manipulated by them. Harms describes residents who refuse to submit to the tempos of the working day, and instead use their position on the fringe to move in and out of labor economies. This flexibility allows them to reproduce social relations that hinge on different uses of time. Still others on the outskirts of the city choose to submit to the clock, and engage in factory production to generate symbolic and financial capital away from home. In a fascinating and thoroughly anthropological discussion, Harms shows how these different uses of time depend on shifting relationships to the patrilineal household. Returning to a discussion of kinship, Harms persuasively argues that economic opportunities at the edge permit some actors to separate themselves from the patrilineal “inside” household production unit, and others to mobilize bilateral “outside” kin relations to pursue work in new areas. The ability to move between the future-oriented outside and the tradition-oriented inside, Harms suggests, is what allows individuals to act on the world.

Part Three comprises the ethnographically richest portion of the text, as Harms shows the reader what it is like to see, feel, and suffer from urbanization processes in Hóc Môn. It is in this section that the idiosyncrasies of life on the edge manifest most viscerally – and tragically. Chapter 5 details the development of the Trans-Asia Highway (Xuyên Á) in order to theorize the key role that roads play in organizing Vietnamese social space. Central to this theory is a conceptualization of roads as being in-formation, and Harms shows how shifting patterns of infrastructure development intersect with shifting patterns of life. For although urban planners may conceptualize traffic as a linear movement from point A to B, alternative movements and social forms in everyday life obstruct their plans. The strength of this chapter lies in its sophisticated description of individuals’ everyday efforts to accommodate and capitalize on road development. Again, like other places at the edge, some are able to navigate the highway better than others, and the reader encounters the uncertainty accompanying the symbolic and literal drive towards modernity. While some residents act on the road through public performances and commercial operations, others are acted on by the road through traffic accidents and spatial marginalization. The road emerges here as a liminal zone – a site of beauty and filth, congregation and isolation, opportunity and vulnerability. “The power of the road, like Hóc Môn itself, emerges from the way in which people use it to transcend time and space” (p. 183).

The final analytical chapter places urban development processes in political context. Harms explains how the state combines ideological and material force in its quest to civilize the country. In this chapter Harms situates contemporary urban development in a Vietnamese historical context where governing strategies have long been tied to the control of space, and where outer-city districts have frequently served as sites of ambivalence and social transformation. Here Harms relates the “paradox of peasant revolution” in Vietnam, which like kinship and spatial models relies on an outside rural peasantry for success while at the same time excluding that peasantry from the inner circle of urban economies. This idealized form of social transformation hinges on a maintenance of difference: the restriction of peasant ambition and the ordered interaction between rural and urban. Yet this ideological separation does not cohere with a reality in which Vietnamese economics and society rest on a blurring of country and city. Their position both inside and outside the city and civilization turns the inhabitants of Saigon’s edge into supporters of and threats to an idealized form of social progress. Depending on how they act upon space and time, they can either expand a dream of civilized urbanity or uphold a subversive rural backwardness (p. 220). Here again Harms illustrates the double-edged nature of social edginess and shows its potential to not only cut away those that fall outside urban development schemes, but also cut against flattening structures of power.

Early on Harms clarifies that his “most direct goal is purely ethnographic” (p. 3). Indeed, the book is a beautifully crafted snapshot into the everyday lives and livelihoods of Hóc Môn residents; one that reveals individuals navigating spatial and temporal orders to pursue their objectives. Yet in the concluding chapter Harms confirms that there is much more to his account than a description of the effects of urbanization. By foregrounding the ethnographic, Harms provides a sophisticated structuralist critique of the ways that national tropes and cultural stereotypes interpolate actors while simultaneously leaving them outside the trajectories of urban development. Harms refuses to draw simple contrasts between state ideology and individual action, and instead stays true to his ethnographic observations to paint a more honest portrait of life on the margins. While the book’s strength is its close engagement with Vietnam, it speaks to processes of spatial transformation across Southeast Asia and beyond. Namely, it provides a subtle analysis of the ways that binary modes of categorization – despite all their inconsistencies – continue to shape complex urban processes the world over. Saigon’s Edge is thus essential reading not only for anthropologists of Vietnam, but also for any reader interested in issues of globalization, urbanization, and development.



Natalie Porter is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of New Hampshire and Associate Fellow at the Institute for Science, Innovation and Society – University of Oxford. Natalie’s research explores the politics of infectious disease management in Vietnam, with a focus on avian influenza.

shapeimage_4Erik Harms is a social-cultural anthropologist specializing in Southeast Asia and Vietnam.  His ethnographic research in Vietnam has focused on the social and cultural effects of rapid urbanization on the fringes of Saigon—Ho Chi Minh City.  His book, Saigon’s Edge:  On the Margins of Ho Chi Minh City (University of Minnesota Press, 2011), explores how the production of symbolic and material space intersects with Vietnamese concepts of social space, rural-urban relations, and notions of “inside” and “outside.”



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