Friday, December 4, 2009

Hanoi's Season of Building

Today's magnificent, cool, and sunny day in Hanoi, licked by a northern breeze, has given way to a lovely crisp evening. Autumn is on the cusp of turning into winter, and in Southeast Asia, this is arguably the nicest time of year. Memories of summer's swelter still color the chilly nights; winter here has none of the sense of permanancy, the unending frost, of winters in northern climes. One feels like basking in this kind of weather, and enjoying its short visitation.

This time between summer and the long Tết holiday is also when work crews crawl over the city, transforming Hanoi's ever-changing landscape. Hanoians' daily activities take place against a backdrop of constant jack-hammering, which begins at 6:30 in the morning and continues until after dark. Buildings get covered with rickety wood-and-metal scaffolds, like adolescents getting a new set of braces. Hanoi becomes an obstacle course filled with cement, mounds of sand, piles of bricks, shovels, wheelbarrows, and wires strewn haphazardly about. If there is any question as to how Vietnam managed to rebuild itself so quickly after the devastation of the 20th century, it's answered by this season of building.

The story of Hanoi since the American War has been of a baby continually outgrowing its clothes. After 1975, as Hanoi experienced a post-war baby boom and increased migration to the city, the city's antiquated infrastructure began to strain. The government's solution was, and still is, to build Hanoi outward. Just last year, on August 1, 2008, Vietnam's capital city grew from 922 to over 3,300 square kilometers, by absorbing two neighboring provinces. Overnight, its population nearly doubled from 3.5 to 6.2 million inhabitants. And still, experts say the population is growing at a rate of 3.5% per year; an urban population of 10 million is expected by 2030.

The question isn't whether Hanoi is growing, but how. If you look at Hanoi's modern skyline, two things stand out: the absence of skyscrapers, and the abundance of greenery. Low, weathered buildings, tree-lined streets, small lakes, and numerous parks give Hanoi – for those of us who appreciate it – much of its charm. So it is logical to fear modernization and expansion, even as one recognizes its necessity. The question is, will Hanoi follow the model of Beijing and Seoul, where whole neighborhoods have been bulldozed, and cultural relics laid waste in favor of austere apartment complexes and saccharine office blocks? Or will Vietnam's leaders recognize Hanoi's historicity and verdant spaces as central to the city's character, and work to preserve them?
On the surface, Vietnamese government statements give one reason for hope. While Vietnam's leaders recognize the city's many challenges – traffic and housing congestion, flooding, the possibility of urban sprawl – they also publicly acknowledge the necessity of preserving Hanoi's cultural and environmental "assets." The three urban planning models currently on the table all include large "green corridors" for preserving Hanoi's parks and agricultural zones. Buildings showcasing the city's rich blend of Chinese, Vietnamese, French, and Soviet influences are being slated for protection. At the highest levels, the term "sustainability" is at least being discussed. There is reason to be sanguine about Hanoi's prospects.

But this being Vietnam, there is also reason for concern. Corruption remains endemic, and plans made at one level of government can easily be erased at another level by the greasing of a few palms. As Hanoi emerges into a modern Asian city, its rising real estate values provide potent incentives for investors to flock here with their capital. Money and corruption are powerful foes to historical buildings and green spaces, and so, a battle is poised to be fought between far-sighted leaders who favor cultural and environmental preservation, on the one hand, and short-sighted developers looking to tap the region's value, on the other.

How this battle turns out may ultimately depend on Hanoians themselves. In conversation, they speak glowingly about the city's many lakes, its blend of architectural styles, their love of green spaces. Balmy autumn days like today bring people outdoors in droves. But the lure of modernity is also strong for a long-impoverished people, and after all that this country has been through, it'd be hard to begrudge their taste for the good life. There's no way of knowing, at this stage of the game, how the story of Hanoi's development will play out. In the meantime, there is plenty of work available for the men coming in from the countryside, and I fully expect to be woken up in the morning by jack-hammers.

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