HANOI, Vietnam: The city buzzes with constant movement - motorbikes zip up and down the narrow roads, battling for space with pedestrians in a hurry to get their destination. In the old quarter, ladies wearing straw hats weave through the crowded streets selling baskets of fruit and snacks balanced on their shoulders. It is a familiar scene to residents and visitors alike.
But the city is changing.
“They grow like mushrooms,” said Lolo Zazar, a French artist living in Vietnam who creates art inspired by the urban spaces of old Hanoi.
He was talking about the new urban developments outside of the old quarter. Hectare after hectare, mega developments have been springing in response to the growing demand for housing in the city.
The high population density means that every inch of the city is utilized, even the narrow streets in between buildings. (Photo: Lam Shushan)
These modern high-rise apartments are the preferred choice for Vietnam’s emerging middle class. More than a status symbol, the new neighbourhoods also offer better infrastructure such as bigger roads and more public facilities like schools and hospitals, which are often overcrowded in older districts.
More of these mass housing projects will be needed to house Hanoi’s population, which has an annual growth rate of 3.5 per cent and which is expected to hit 9 million by 2030. But the rapid pace of development is causing some to worry that the city may lose its distinct identity if not done with proper urban planning.
An aerial view of the city from the 65th floor of the Lotte observation deck. (Photo: Lam Shushan)
HOW THE CITY BECAME SO OVERPOPULATED
“After 1990 there was a boom of new urban development surrounding the city. People from the surrounding farms and villages kept spreading the urban sprawl, and it got out of control,” said Thanh Nguyen, a former urban planner at the Action Center for City Development, a non-governmental organization that works on issues to do with urban development.
The government provided public housing but only for civil servants, so people who migrated from the countryside had to resort to hiring small construction companies to build their own houses illegally.
“They had no license to build, but people kept staying there without any land use certificate. The authorities could not do anything about it,” said Thanh Nguyen.
People will build houses anywhere and everywhere with the little space that is available. (Photo: Lam Shushan)
After decades of spontaneous construction, tall and narrow buildings now dot the city like bean sprouts competing for sunlight - the cramped spaces stacked above busy streets is a design that defines the typical neighbourhood in Hanoi.
GOODBYE TO OLD HANOI?
But this could be changing as a result of Vietnam’s strong economic growth. “People coming to the city are getting richer, so there is a demand to demolish the small and old houses to build better ones,” said Thanh Nguyen.
In the labyrinth of the old quarter, many walls are plastered with advertisements from all sorts of small businesses. The ones that cannot go unnoticed are those for demolition services, stenciled on the walls like graffiti, in blue and red ink with the letters KH-C-B-T.
Some people like artist Lolo Zazar have turned these urban motifs into artwork. (Photos: Lolo Zazar)
It stands for khoan cắt bê tông (KCBT), meaning concrete cutting and drilling. “KCBT advertisements are from very small business people, just desperate to have jobs,” said Thanh Nguyen. Working in small groups, they are just a phone call away if you need something demolished.
In the old quarter, people sell almost anything by the street side in the day time and are gone by night. (Photo: Ray Yeh)
These groups do not operate as legal companies, do not offer receipts, and only take cash payments. The contract is usually a verbal agreement between a small household and a KCBT group. Quickly, they would come with simple tools to tear down a building, and then separately, a small construction group would come to build another house. This is how most of Hanoi was put together.
“In the old quarter or downtown areas, each person is only entitled to a small piece of land. People have a living area of only a few meter squares,” says Do Viet Hong, 58, who owns a medium-sized construction business.
“Now people are getting wealthier, the urban areas have developed. Most people like living in a big place. So people would rather build a new house,” he said.
Many old buildings in the downtown area are torn down to make way for bigger apartment buildings or roads. (Photo: Lam Shushan)
THE NEED FOR BETTER HOUSING
In the new city master plan, Hanoi will become a core city with five surrounding satellite towns by 2050, according to Associate Professor Pham Thuy Loan, deputy director of the Vietnam National Institute of Architecture. This is to cope with the expansion of the city which currently is mired in all sorts of infrastructural problems.
“This city experiences something quite similar to big cities around the world. It started from the old core, which is old, with poor infrastructure provision. All of that is under big pressure when the city keeps attracting people from the countryside,” said Assoc Prof Loan.
The organized palm tree-lined boulevards of Times City is a stark contrast to the traditional neighbourhoods in the old quarter. (Photo: Lam Shushan)
Already, property developers have been cashing in on the demand for more homes. Vietnam property developer Vinhomes’ Times City is one of the the new mass housing projects which is in its final stages of construction. When completed, it will comprise 18 high-rise apartment blocks, a commercial center, schools, hospitals and entertainment facilities.
Foreign developers such as Singapore’s Keppel Land and CapitaLand and South Korea’s Lotte have also constructed multiplexes in Hanoi, spurred on by demand from Vietnam's young and growing middle-class.
But Assoc Prof Loan does not think that this will solve the existing housing issue. “We have a gap between the demand and supply. We have over supply of high-end housing while lacking housing for low to middle income people.”
Mass housing projects like these will be necessary for Vietnam's growing urban population. (Photo: Lam Shushan)
Mr Mai Hoang Nam, 31, a professional who works for the State Bank of Vietnam, lives in a two-bedroom apartment in Times City with his wife and young daughter. He said he was only able to afford to buy an apartment with financial help from his parents and in-laws.
“When I have a beer with my friends, they say ‘wow, you have a dream house, a good apartment for your child’,” he said. But the price of a 1,200 sqft apartment in Times City is US$200,000, more than most people in Vietnam can afford.
“The majority of people who can't pay for decent housing cannot get out of the old city. Even though the government is aware of the problems, what we are lacking is the effective measure to move from what we are today towards the master plan,” said Assoc Prof Loan.
Big construction projects are a common sight around the city. (Photo: Lam Shushan)
CLINGING ON TO NOSTALGIA, OR PRESERVING HERITAGE?
The rapid pace of development in the city has led to discussions about heritage conservation in the old quarter. It was after all, where the city started to form a thousand years ago. Some have even called for it to be listed as a UNESCO world heritage site because of its richness in local artisans and cultural activities.
Inevitably, some of the older structures will have to go as the city develops. “When people have to make a choice between identity, charm and market value, in many cases they will choose to lose the charm for market value,” said Assoc Prof Loan.
“Vietnamese want new things - I can understand because we have done the same in Europe. We have destroyed so many places which were beautiful. 20 years later we realise it was crazy to destroy all these old buildings,” said Lolo.
Some of the buildings in the old quarter have some similarities to Parisian architecture. (Photo: Lam Shushan)
“There should be a measure to control the market forces in order to keep the old historical part of the city, to promote more diversity of development and to make people love their city,” said Assoc Prof Pham.
The old city has a soul that the new neighbourhoods cannot replicate. From the small businesses that spill out onto the streets to the atmosphere that is awakened by rowdy chatter and honking motorbikes, it is the spontaneity in which events happen that give Hanoi its charm.
For now, it is a city in transit as large cranes tower over construction sites around the city. When completed, the new buildings will transform the landscape into a metropolis that will tell yet another success story of a rising Asian tiger.
The old quarter by night - small stools and tables are set up on the street as youth socialise at a Bia Hoi, their local pub. (Photo: Ray Yeh)