It was the summer of 2008.
Thien, a resident of Yen Nghia District in Ha Tay Province, had to sell all his belongings, including his herd of 38 buffalos.
At 21, he had to leave his beloved hometown and look for a new life elsewhere.
His home and his paddy fields were no longer his.
In this age of “participatory” development, Thien and hundreds of thousands of Hanoians had no real say as eminent domain took away their livelihoods, along with their rice fields and vegetable gardens.
That fateful summer, authorities in Hanoi decided to expand the city’s territory, assimilating neighboring provinces like Ha Tay and Vinh Phuc.
A deluge of developmental projects followed. Apartments, industrial complexes, universities... you name it, it was there.
Even as the nation sought ways to become food secure, thousands of hectares of agricultural land were taken to build apartments and mansions and urban areas.
Shiny cars and people in business suits hustled and bustled, trying to secure good land spots in a frantic, almost hysterical “land rush.”
But this story is neither about the construction projects nor the land rush.
That summer, 200,000 families in Ha Tay and Vinh Phuc provinces, now part of Hanoi, had their lives turned upside down.
By the end of 2008, the expansion of Hanoi had produced over a thousand developmental projects requiring citizens to give up their land to the government.
While some despaired over what they’d lost, others clung to glimmers of hope, betting their all on the government’s grand development plans.
People who gave up their paddy fields and herds of cattle made plans to take advantage of the vocational engineering classes that would start soon. They hoped to become a part of the incoming industrial workforce when the development projects got going and factories were erected on land that used to be their farms.
They dreamed of a future where they would have a stable job, a stable income, and therefore, stable lives.
Ten years on, that future has been ground to dust.
No apartments, no industrial complex, no factory have sprung up in erstwhile Ha Tay Province and Vinh Phuc Province’s Me Linh District.
Land acquired for the much vaunted development projects lie abandoned.
And the people who gave up everything they had, what did they get in return?
This story is about those who have waited for ten long years for nothing.
Their lives are stark evidence of the cruel hoax perpetrated by the ambitious Hanoi expansion launched during that summer of 2008 with much fanfare.
Behind the glamorous, ambitious projects that the government promised back then were murky, hasty deals which never came to fruition.
Chapter 1: The Yen Nghia Industrial Complex
August 1, 2008.
At exactly midnight, officials and traffic authorities removed the road sign separating Hanoi and Ha Tay Province. The move finalized the unification of the two places into the large capital city that we have now.
That night, five women were jailed for “obstructing authorities.”
The five women, residents of Yen Nghia District, two and a half hours southwest of Hanoi center, were arrested the previous day for not allowing authorities to reclaim their lands. For “using their hands to push authorities,” they were sentenced to between 6 and 9 months in prison.
The land seized from the families of these five women, and others, was to be the foundation for the “Yen Nghia Industrial Complex,” and many other projects like apartments and vocational engineering schools.
Mo, another citizen from the district, had high hopes for the complex.
“It’s what the government wanted,” he said. Since there was practically no job besides farming where he lived, he hoped that the incoming complex would at least create new opportunities for his children to provide for themselves.
Today, the “complex” is a smattering of factories, and the promised engineering school has turned out to be a joke.
The Duc Viet Engineering School, named after the private firm that would run it, was to be built on one of the seized plots of land. What has actually come up on the plot is a giant automobile showroom.
Throughout the last 10 years, numerous complaints have been filed by locals on this issue. They have questioned why their land was given to a private company, and why an automobile showroom stands where an engineering school had been promised by the government.
Apparently, in the eyes of authorities, any business institution which hires and trains its employees, employees of an automobile showroom, for example, is an “engineering school.”
The district’s authorities also failed to provide VnExpress reporters data on unusable agricultural land in the district.
And for Mo, who dreamed of education and jobs for his children, worse was in store.
Mo’s wife, Nhung, was one of the five women who was arrested and sent to prison.
It was a traumatic experience from which she has not recovered.
After her release, Nhung became a recluse, isolating herself inside her own house. When people visited them, she would hide in the back of the house. The experience has left her mentally and emotionally scarred, and a permanent criminal record has not helped.
Her life seems to have lost meaning since August 1.
Chapter 2: A blessing in disguise
Thien, 31, is the proud owner of a herd of almost a hundred buffaloes. He has billions of dong in the bank, and a three-storied house in Yen Nghia District.
Every morning, he drives his pickup truck through Ha Dong District, half an hour from downtown Hanoi, delivering buffalo meat. Locals familiar with the sight of his herd lining up to cross narrow country roads every day call him “Thien Buffalo.”
But not many realize that Thien’s money-making buffalo herd is raised on the grass that grew on abandoned plots of seized agricultural land, originally reserved for “developmental projects.”
Thien recalled what had happened when he was 21.
In 2008, he had to sell his herd because the paddy fields in the district had been taken by the government.
Over 400 hectares of land were seized in the name of “local economic development,” for an array of fancy projects including a new university, a new hospital or a new industrial complex.
Deprived of the only way he could support himself back then, Thien packed his bags and went to the south, looking for work.
After two years of juggling different jobs, he finally settled down as a merchant. For some time, everything seemed fine.
Then, in 2010, the year that Hanoi celebrated its millennial anniversary, his father called.
Having waited for two years after the Hanoi expansion project was launched, Thien’s father never saw progress on any of the developmental projects.
The seized land remained untouched.
So he bought a few buffaloes and raised them on grass growing on the abandoned plots of land. Then he called his son back to continue the work.
Of course, Thien hesitated. He had already spent years to get back on his feet after leaving his hometown, how could he return now, when there was no paddy field left in Yen Nghia District?
But in the end, he chose his parents over his work, and returned home.
When he returned, many plots of land seized by the government were scattered over the district. While they were not available for farming, there was nothing built on them either. They were just going to waste.
Taking the cue from his father, Thien took advantage of these abandoned land plots to give fresh impetus to the buffalo business.
“I buy buffalos, and these ‘projects’ produce grass for them to eat,” Thien said, reflecting on the unexpected blessing bestowed on him.
And for the last ten years, the grass has been growing well, feeding Thien’s buffaloes.
Chapter 3: Land rush
That summer of 2008 was also one of the hottest.
April was a string of hot, sunny days. That year, Hanoi recorded temperatures reaching 39.8 Celsius degree, the highest in the Red River Delta at that time.
But the atmosphere wasn’t the only thing heating up in Hanoi.
Inside government conference rooms, debates over the city’s expansion project were also boiling over.
Ket still remembers lines of black cars traveling back and forth on the roads of Me Linh District, formerly part of Vinh Phuc Province, before it was unified with Hanoi.
The sight of businesspeople cozily resting in the back seats, with air conditioners at full blast, was a stark contrast to the shimmering heat outside.
“I heard people talking about houses and apartments sprouting up here and there in the district,” she said. She recalled how, along National Road 23, land sale signs were springing up like mushrooms after the rain.
Everyone was hoping that the expansion plan, and along with it numerous developmental projects, would blow winds of change across the district. They were hoping that their land plots would fetch high prices when sold to project investors.
But behind the scenes, something else was happening.
“All housing and apartment projects in Dai Thinh Commune of Me Linh District were signed before the district was unified with Hanoi, mostly from 2007 to 2008. Among them, there were no projects aimed at directly improving residents’ livelihood,” said Nguyen Da Bay, Chairman of Dai Thinh Commune, an hour northwest of Hanoi's center.
Data from Me Linh’s Department of Resources and Environment show that within just one month, July 2008, at least 18 projects were greenlighted, and over 680 hectares of agricultural land seized.
Some projects only took a mere 10 days to be finalized, a record-breaking achievement for Vietnam’s renowned Kafkaesque administrative procedures.
Fifteen of these projects never came to fruition.
As the chairman of Dai Thinh Commune, Bay said he has not seen a single project investor in person for the two years. Documents, profiles, contracts of such projects have been left to gather dust.
“Rich people, they just bought our land plots, then did nothing about it,” he said.
Bay said he missed how his town used to be, before the expansion plan was launched. Townspeople got by with just farming and selling their produce. While they weren’t rich, life was peaceful.
The developmental projects that the government promised brought hope to the town.
People expected money from land sales and employment opportunities, among other things. They were hopeful that these grand plans would also broaden their horizons, and give them just a little bit more than what their little provincial town could provide them.
But like a bad joke, nothing happened.
The government never upheld its end of the deal.
It’s not that the people haven’t said anything about it. Numerous complaints have been filed, asking authorities to start the projects or return the land so that the residents could continue farming.
There has been no answer to the people’s cries.
The land craze in the Me Linh District has died down these days. Investors are still nowhere to be found; maybe they don’t even know which land plots they bought years ago. The town has been seemingly left for dead.
“The paddy fields are no more. The young have already left to find jobs, while the old continue to farm in nearby towns,” Ket said.
She still stays in the town with her small food stall.
Keeping her company are hundreds of abandoned land sale signs.
Chapter 4: Broken dreams
Trieu was born to a farmer’s family in Thuong Tin Ward, Ha Tay Province. After finishing high school, he continued to help his parents on the farm, growing crops and taking care of cattle. But farming alone was never enough to fully support a family of five.
When the Hanoi expansion project hit his hometown, everyone was talking about the “Phung Hiep Industrial Complex.” This massive project, costing millions of dollars, would specialize in electrical manufacturing and food processing, they were told. Residents fully expected it to transform the town.
And so, in 2005, 21-year-old Trieu set his mind on a new goal in life: becoming a mechanic.
He wanted to work in the complex once it was completed. And he wasn’t alone; hundreds of others from neighboring towns shared his dream.
The People’s Committee of Ha Tay Province had finalized the detailed plan for the Phung Hiep Industrial Complex in 2007.
“From food stalls to individual households, everywhere really, that industrial complex was the talk of the town. It put people in a festive mood, almost,” Trieu recalled.
People started making plans. They expected to be compensated with handsome sums of money once the government reclaimed their agricultural land for the project.
“I will fix my house.” “I will start a business.” And so on and so forth.
Trieu planned to go to Qatar and work as a mechanic there before returning home to get married and work in the complex.
35,000 people patiently waited for the project’s completion.
It never even started construction.
“It isn’t the money spent on studying mechanics that saddens me the most,” Trieu said, almost nonchalantly. His voice carried more than a hint of regret, though.
He said he was sad about the time he’s lost, the good time he could have had in his youth, as well as the ambitions he had then. He can never get these back, rued Trieu.
Once on everyone’s lips, no one wants to mention the complex ever again.
Enthusiasm and hope has given way to distrust, cynicism and hopelessness.
Trieu is now the father of two children. He did become a mechanic, but works in a small, 10-square-meter garage in front of his own house. He makes just enough to get by, he said.
People have been telling the authorities time and again to cancel the project if the complex cannot be built, so that they can earn some sort of income from farming.
Chapter 5: What now?
Hanoi authorities have been inspecting and canceling hundreds of developmental projects in Ha Tay and Vinh Phuc District that have failed to prove their effectiveness or to even begin construction.
But the larger problem has not been solved.
Can the plots of land reserved for such projects be reverted to agriculture, to farm growing crops and raising cattle?
“Many investors didn’t have the capability, or even the will to actually launch the projects that they mentioned. They’ve just left them there to gather dust,” Nguyen Cong Soai, Hanoi’s Deputy Party Secretary, said at a conference way back in 2009.
He said the conception, procession and approval of the many developmental projects in 2008 was “unclear.”
Thien, Mo, Ket, Trieu and thousands like them are not looking for “clarity.”
All they know is that their land was taken from them, that their lives have been upturned by projects supposedly aimed at the greater common good.
Maybe they dream of a chance to go back in time, to before that fateful summer of 2008, but there is only one thing they know for certain.
Their lives will never be the same.
Story by Duc Hoang, Hoang Phuong, Thanh Lam, Phan Anh
Photos by Giang Huy, Do Manh Cuong