Hanoi and its urban planning problems

September 25, 2023 | 04:25 pm PT
Quan The Dan Doctor
A few days ago, I went to the market looking for flowers to put on my family's altar, but there was nothing left as people had bought them to pay tribute to victims of an apartment fire.

Fifty-six lives were lost in the fire at the apartment block in Hanoi's Thanh Xuan District on September 12, and with them, all their dreams and ambitions, all the impacts they could have made on the world. How did it come to this?

The owner of the apartment building has been arrested, and investigations are ongoing. Some people will need to be held responsible. Regulations for apartment blocks will be tighter. But somehow, I feel that all these solutions have yet to reach the root of the problem.

Around 10 million people in Hanoi are crammed together in a tiny area next to the Red River. Traffic jams, inundations, air pollution, lack of trees, and now fires... these are just some of the problems that Hanoians have to cope with. The capital has lost its shine over the years.

Aerial view of multiple skyscrapers at the Nguyen Tuan-Le Van Luong-Hoang Minh Giam intersection in Hanoi. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh

Aerial view of multiple skyscrapers at the Nguyen Tuan-Le Van Luong-Hoang Minh Giam intersection in Hanoi. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh

Several generations of my family have lived on this land. Now, whenever I meet someone who has just recently come here, I somehow feel as if I'm partly responsible for letting Hanoi get to the state it is in. My students, who came from all corners of Vietnam, are all excited for a new life in the capital. But I worry that some of their bubbles burst when they see the dilapidated apartments, and the alleys that get flooded every time it rains. I am afraid they would be disappointed with the run-down food stalls at the wet markets, and the fact that they have to wander around secondhand clothing stores for students on the weekends.

In 1831, King Minh Mang created Hanoi as a province, which included most of Ha Tay, Ha Nam and Hanoi City as it is today. In 1888, the Dong Khanh administration at the time conceded Hanoi to the French. The French wanted to make Hanoi the capital of the French Indochina, creating a new city while still retaining parts of its original qualities. They made Hoan Kiem Lake the city center, connecting the ancient Hanoi neighborhood, with 36 streets in the north, with the western neighborhood at the south of the lake. The old streets were there, but they were paved and provided with drainage systems. The new streets, meanwhile, were long and wide avenues, with trees and villas inside them. There were also the institutions necessary for governance, including banks, courts, opera houses, universities and hotels... All of them were built in harmony with their surroundings, and still stand today.

But Hanoi's developmental achievements in the latter eras were the construction of certain suburban structures, such as the Cao Xa La centralized industrial complex – including rubber, soap and tobacco factories – the apartment complex for government employees on the fields of Kim Lien and Trung Tu villages, and the Bach Khoa University Area on the land plot to the south of Bay Mau Lake. Fundamentally, Hanoi still retains its shape from the French colonialism era.

Hanoi began to enter its population boom in the 1990s. Millions and millions of people from all sorts of places chose Hanoi as their new home. But as the capital developed, there was a lack of a guiding hand towards a systemic planning of the city. The fields became mazes of tube houses, while the industrial complexes became neighborhoods that sprang up on their own. From up above, Hanoi was full of red and green, of the roofs and the trees, of roads that wind in between the ponds and the playgrounds, like strings in the tapestry of the capital.

Downtown areas have more specific regulations regarding construction, but the villages were often located in the suburbs. There was a sole exception to that in the old days of Hanoi: Ha Hoi Village, which sat within the heart of the city. As for the Hanoi of today, there are many villages within the city. Some villages have become cities and come parts of the city have been split up into villages.

In 1983, there was a film called "Ha Noi Trong Mat Ai" (Hanoi In Whose Eyes) by director Tran Van Thuy. There was a line from a character who just returned from the West, saying "Hanoi was like a big village." That line apparently struck the wrong cord for me and many other Hanoians at the time. But now, 40 years later looking back, I saw that the line was not wrong.

I don't plan to deny the efforts of authorities when it comes to the development of Hanoi. The shortcomings and mistakes of the past cannot be undone within mere days. But you can see how the roads are now quickly filled with people and their vehicles. When an intersection has an overpass built to avoid congestion, another intersection will suffer from it. As more and more people keep flocking to Hanoi, all the efforts to fix the city by authorities are making less and less of an impact.

I am not an urban planner. I am just a humble citizen, and I am speaking my mind as a citizen should. If Hanoi is to get better, planning and vision will need to take center stage.

Urban planners say they want to reduce population density downtown by relocating major universities and hospitals to the suburbs. But many years have passed, and areas like Hoa Lac and other land plots reserved for universities are still waiting for more schools to be relocated there. Two hospitals in Ha Nam were built, and yet they remain abandoned. People keep talking about relocating people away from the old quarter, yet each building still holds dozens of families.

After all the sweet talk of reducing population density in downtown Hanoi, authorities still approved the construction of a major hotel near the Hoan Kiem Lake. Will people be persuaded by authorities' promises of urban planning after that?

When Hanoi gets a better vision regarding its urban planning, its issues will be minimized, and the people will get a better quality of life.

*Doctor Quan The Dan is deputy director of Tri Duc Thanh General Hospital in Thanh Hoa Province.

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