HANOI: The entrance to Lan’s street-level flower shop is a mess. She tore up her front steps recently after getting a notice from district authorities that they were encroaching on public space. “But look at that house,” she whispered, nodding discreetly towards the steps of a shop three doors down. “They didn’t do it, but it’s OK,” she said.
Shop-owners like Lan are some of the key targets of a high profile, multi-city campaign to clear out illegal occupiers from Vietnam’s iconic city pavements. In downtown Ho Chi Minh City, official teams bulldozed offending construction works, confiscated shop property that was spilling onto streets, towed away illegally parked cars and roundly fined their owners. State-owned buildings and five-star hotels were not spared; ditto cars with government or diplomatic licence plates.
Uncharacteristically decisive for communist Vietnam, the moves earned praise from the general public and pedestrians, but provoked the wrath of street businesses.
The campaign soon spread to the capital Hanoi, where responses were more muted but just as uncertain about the rules of the operation, and how long the government effort would last.
(Photo: Tan Qiuyi)
“This street was too messy, to be honest. Now we have a pavement – and more breathing space,” said Huong, a shop owner who had an old billboard taken off her balcony during a district inspection – with her support, she said.
Huong, owner of a shop on a busy street in Hanoi. (Photo: Tan Qiuyi)
This is not the first time Vietnam is cleaning house, but it is widely seen as the most determined campaign ever by authorities. At least one senior leader has put his job on the line. Doan Ngoc Hai, a deputy chairman of Ho Chi Minh City’s downtown District One vowed to resign if he fails to reclaim the city’s clogged pavements for its 13 million pedestrians. His end-game? To create an orderly "little Singapore" in central Ho Chi Minh City, he said.
Intruding on public space is illegal, but decades of lax enforcement has produced Vietnam’s lively, if not chaotic pavement economy, which offers all manner of goods and services under the sun: Food and drink, shopping, shoe-polishing, as well as parking for the country’s 40 million motorbikes and growing number of cars.
Chock-a-block with shop property, street cafes or parked motorbikes, pedestrians are regularly forced off the pavement to jostle with oncoming traffic in Hanoi’s old quarter. (Photo: Tan Qiuyi)
The pavement is important because it’s the face of the city, said Le Van Duc, Director of Hanoi’s Department of Construction. “We’re determined to re-organise parking and businesses so they’re in line with the law, and in the right place.”
But local authorities are part of the problem. With unusual frankness, Hanoi mayor Nguyen Duc Chung said that the majority of the capital’s sidewalk beer stands are “protected” by the police, referring to unofficial rent-collecting by corrupt officials whom he vowed to name and shame.
No one has been hauled up yet, but observers like historian Duong Trung Qouc says the campaign has created a momentum of sorts. The real problem at hand, he says, is Vietnam’s long-standing neglect of urban planning and enforcement. “Urban culture experts should be involved,” he said. “This should not be the work of city and public order officials alone.”
A month into the campaign, Hanoi’s pavements look wider in spots, but parked motorbikes taking up the width of the sidewalk are still a common sight.
(Photo: Tan Qiuyi)
Over at Lan’s, she is waiting for the dust to settle before making any decisions about her torn-up steps. For now, the shop front is covered with pieces of cardboard.
“They call it tidying up the pavement. Does it look better to you?”