Vietnam: The Changing Face Of Hanoi


Dr Greg Lockhart

Since the foreign investment boom of the mid-1990s, the replacement of the bicycle by the motor bike is usually taken as the main measure of Hanoi's modernisation. Given recent reports of the high numbers of people being admitted to hospital with head injuries, such attention to the traffic seems doubly justified. Nevertheless, it is possible to appreciate the change in Hanoi in terms that go beyond the traffic.

The investment boom has in fact generated a great deal of architectural activity. With their bewildering array of pitched roofs, gothic arches, and high balconies, the villas that have sprung up around the shores of the Western Lake constitute one of the more conspicuous developments of the decade. Standing on the edge of the city, these exotic dwellings do not necessarily indicate that the fruits of the first world are being enjoyed by many. Nor do the three five star hotels that have been opened in more or less central locations. In these establishments, which now languish with low occupancy rates and underemployed staff, the imposing comforts are irrelevant to the local people. The cut-price for a standard room at a five star hotel like the Korean-owned Daewoo is $US89 or 1.2 million Vietnamese dong a night. This compares with the monthly wage of 'middle-class' citizens of one or two million dong. Yet as the investment boom crashes in its own corruption, the rise of the super rich enclaves still marks a new level of economic activity that continues to change the face of the city.

Enlarging it, for example, are some new housing projects under construction in rice fields and gardens forty-five minutes by motor cycle from the center of the city. They cater for professionals - teachers, professors, doctors, civil servants - who might be moving out of the densely populated housing commission accommodation that has played such an important role in Hanoi's post-colonial social history. With three or four stories, the new project homes provide adequate dwellings for sizeable families. Structurally similar to many of the villas and, also, to many recently renovated buildings in the city - some old Soviet or Eastern European blueprint may be at work here - these homes resemble tall piles of narrow boxes with windows. In the evenings, bull frogs croak loudly in the fields all around.

Meanwhile, certain unabated building developments at the center of the city are doing more than menacing frogs. According to authorities in the Management Committee for Hanoi's Relics and Monuments and Beautiful Places, the capital presently has 1,774 historical and cultural monuments, of which over 500 have been classified by the state. Yet mainly as a result of what Nhan Dan (The People's Daily) identified on April 22 as 'urbanization', 'mindlessness', and 'very loose laws' many of these monuments are being seriously violated or sinking from view. While some squatting on historical sites has long been accepted, the phenomenon of large numbers of families occupying the sites and building houses on them is quite recent. Now, in the Hai Ba Trung quarter, for instance, some 87 families reside on land belonging to temples and other historic monuments.

The Nhan Dan reportage details the desecration. In the well known case of Van Ho Pagoda, which has been classified as a state monument in Le Dai Hanh street, one family had been living there in a twenty-four square meter area since it first received permission to do so on a temporary basis in 1954. However, in December 1997 the head of the family destroyed his old dwelling and built another one facing Ba Trieu Street. In the process of doing this he smashed the old wall which had protected the monument and replaced it with a new brick one. This gave the new house an eight-meter frontage on Ba Trieu Street and an area of seventy-two square meters that lay on land belonging to the pagoda. There was a considerable public outcry about these brazen acts of expansion. Yet the family went on regardless and finished building the new house without permission.

Vua Pagoda in Thinh Yen Street, Hai Ba Trung Quarter, was built sometime in the Le dynasty era (fifteenth and the sixteenth centuries). Today, the low shabby stalls and petty traders of a tolerated black market block the pagoda's front gate. If one wants to go into the historic site, it is necessary to go down a side alley with ten families living in multi-story houses on either side. These houses, which have been build against the pagoda wall on land belonging to the historic site, tower over the pagoda itself. Some families hang washing over the monument or, even, litter it with rubbish.

On Ba Trieu Street another seventeen families have also built houses on land around Chan Tien Pagoda, a site which dates from the eleventh or twelfth century. The houses lack proper drainage and this has led to serious damage to the pagoda wall. A water tank has also been built on the roof of one of the pagoda's prayer pavilions. Meanwhile, in Ly Quoc Su Street, an historic site dating from 1066 seems set for obliteration, as the pagoda on it disappears into a high valley of cement houses. One family has built its bathroom over the gable of this holy shrine, while others have built houses right up against its delicately curved roof thus disrupting its drainage. The area along the right side of the shrine has become such a foul-smelling sewerage channel it is said that people living in the vicinity always use fans.

This is tiny sample of the damage to Hanoi's heritage that one can read about in the press and observe in the streets. People have had lamented the 'destruction' of old Hanoi since the French colonial investment booms first stimulated modern urban construction a century ago. But in colonial times the focus of urban development was largely restricted to the French quarter. Pressures of population and internal migration were also relatively light in those days. Building of all kinds then languished in the long years of revolutionary war and its aftermath. Now, as new housing extends the city's periphery, its centre is under corrosive attack.

WATCHPOINT: Recent housing expansion poses an unprecedented threat to traditional buildings in Hanoi.


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