Image courtesy Carlos Zapata Studio and EE&K, a Perkins Eastman company

In Ho Chi Minh City, Carlos Zapata Studio and EE&K (now owned by Perkins Eastman) are working on a 7.5 million-square-foot development dubbed Ma Lang Center.

It might have been unthinkable as a place to do business just a few decades ago, when half of the country was at war with the United States. It doesn’t have the resources of China, its booming neighbor to the north. And its communist government might not appeal to citizens from capitalist nations. 

But quietly, Vietnam has in recent years become a hot spot for many Western architects, as work in their home countries remains elusive. About two dozen North American and European firms now have projects in the Southeast Asian nation, including Foster + Partners, HOK, and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM). And some are opening permanent offices there, according to architects working in the country.

Vietnam is “starting to dip its toe into the pool with more Western buildings, because it wants to make a mark on the international scene,” says architect Anthony Montalto, a principal with Chicago-based Carlos Zapata Studio. “There is definitely an opportunity to try something fresh.”

Two of his firm’s buildings — reportedly among the first by U.S. designers to be built in Vietnam — appear strikingly different from the low-slung and boxy structures in the country’s cities. Its 68-floor Bitexco Financial Tower, completed in 2010 in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), features a helipad jutting like a diving board from its glass-walled upper stories. And in Hanoi, the firm’s 450-room waterfront Marriott, which resembles a crooked horseshoe if viewed from above, is now under construction.

Many of the opportunities in Vietnam entail urban planning. Unlike buildings, master plans do not require collaboration with licensed local architects, perhaps making them easier for Westerners to take on, according to sources. 

HOK, for one, was recently hired by Sacom, a telecom and real estate company, to conceive a 27-acre development in Ho Chi Minh City (where the firm has a six-employee office, founded in 2009). Geared toward young professionals, the scheme features 1,600 homes and is crisscrossed by canals, says Tyler Meyr, an HOK senior associate. Like many projects in Vietnam, the Sacom development will be built on state-owned farmland, which is viewed as expendable now that the country is transitioning from agriculture to heavy industry, architects say.

The state, and the population at large, do not seem to bear a grudge against America, despite the fact that it conducted a decades-long war there, adds Meyr. “They are in a very optimistic time and thinking about the future rather than the past,” he says.

That upbeat mood can be explained partly by the influx of jobs due to foreign investment. With 87 million people, Vietnam is seen by many as a favorable place to locate factories because the labor force is comparatively cheap—about half that of manufacturing districts in China, according to World Bank figures. Intel, for one, opened a $1 billion semiconductor factory in the country last year. The United States’ normalization of trade within Vietnam in 2000 has also strengthened relations and spurred development, analysts say.

In turn, architects have come knocking, prompted by continued softness in the U.S. building industry. There are about a dozen American firms working in the southern city of Long Xuyen alone, explains architect Ming Wu, a design principal with Ehrenkrantz Eckstut & Kuhn Architects (EE&K, now owned by Perkins Eastman). “Every day, more and more foreign architects are piling into Vietnam,” he says.

In Long Xuyen, which is on the Mekong Delta, EE&K has proposed a multibuilding project for downtown, in addition to conceiving a master plan that calls for transforming 470 rural acres into dense urban neighborhoods. Both schemes await approval.

EE&K is tapping into other cities, as well. In Ho Chi Minh City, it is working alongside Carlos Zapata on a mega-development dubbed Ma Lang Center. In Hanoi, the same team has created a master plan for a new 200-acre district called Hoang Mai Park City. British firms are showing up in Vietnam, too. Last fall, Foster + Partners broke ground on a bank complex in Hanoi.

One of the busier global firms in Vietnam might be SOM. It has six projects in the country, all master plans. It recently was tapped for Green Tech City, in Hanoi, which features two villages and a lush park that will act as a sponge for rain runoff, says Daniel Ringelstein, SOM director of urban design and planning.

Working in Vietnam does have its drawbacks. Projects don’t always pay competitive fees, and some cite systemic corruption in the awarding of contracts. Also, clients often emphasize cars over trains, meaning the country might repeat mistakes seen in the United States. “We’ve learned in the West that if you build more roads, it won’t solve traffic problems,” Ringelstein says. “It means more cars will come.”