Will urban growth trample old Saigon's colonial charm?

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HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam -- Paris has the Eiffel Tower. New York has the Empire State Building. Both are symbols of global cities, recognizable currency of power and prestige.

Now the master builders of Vietnam's commercial showcase are racing to put their stamp on tomorrow's skyline. Glass and steel buildings are already sprouting across the city and by 2009, a 68-story skyscraper, designed to invoke the lotus flower and the ao dai worn by Vietnamese women, promises to be this city's Sears Tower.

But in a city struggling to update its creaking infrastructure and keep its historical core intact, critics say the breakneck speed of expansion could spell a slow death for the unique character of a city once known as the Pearl of the Orient.

Government planners say they want to maintain the essence of the graceful colonial city laid out by French architects in the 19th century. So far, 108 historic buildings have been listed for preservation, and plans are afoot to build a new financial district apart from the old city to satisfy demand for office space.

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