15 years after expansion, Hanoi still packed sardine-style

By Hong Chieu, Vo Hai, Doan Loan   August 4, 2023 | 03:48 pm PT
Downtown Hanoi infrastructure is overwhelmed as the capital's population continues to rise without enough people moving to the suburbs.

In August 2022, 713 parents of Hoang Liet Ward, Hoang Mai District, drew lots to earn a spot for their three-year-old children in public kindergartens. For two weeks straight, Ngoc Anh could not sleep well over worries about the lots.

Anh herself was born in Tu Ky Village, which is also home to Hoang Liet Kindergarten, so she thought all the lot drawing was "unacceptably irrational." As locals had once donated their land for the school to be built, their children should have been prioritized, she said.

But parents had no say in the matter; it was the only way to ensure fairness as the number of applicants was twice the school's available capacity at the time. Hoang Liet Kindergarten could only take in 333 three-year-olds back then.

A woman holds her son as she waits to draw lots to earn a spot for him at a public kindergarten in Hoang Liet Ward, Hoang Mai District, Hanoi, August 2022. Photo by VnExpress/Duy Phuong

A woman holds her son as she waits to draw lots to earn a spot for him at a public kindergarten in Hoang Liet Ward, Hoang Mai District, Hanoi, August 2022. Photo by VnExpress/Duy Phuong


In 2012, Hoang Liet Ward had around 30,000 residents, but that number has skyrocketed over 10 years later to 92,000, making it the most populated ward in the capital. Last year, there were around 8,150 kindergarteners in the ward, but there was only one public school, besides five private schools and 79 home-run classes. The public school could only meet around 18% of the demand, so the rest of the kindergarteners had to find somewhere else to go.

For the 2023-2024 school year, the ward has around 5,800 kindergarteners, but there are only 620 slots available in the public school, a little over 10%. The lot drawing will likely persist in the future.

At the primary school level, over 8,000 students were distributed into three public schools: Hoang Liet, Chu Van An and Linh Dam. Each class has around 47-55 students, which is much higher than the standard 35 students per class.

"Should I stay in downtown Dong Da District, or suburban Hoai Duc District?" was a question that took Phan Van Tai four years to answer. Her three-generation family had endless debates in the final months of 2021, before deciding to move out of their house next to Hanoi Station and go to a suburban area 18 km away.

Tai bought an apartment at the An Khanh project in 2012, when he felt that it had opportunities to grow. After years spent living in Dong Da District, which has the highest population density in the capital, Tai wanted to move to the suburbs to take a breather. He had hoped that the new home, advertised as having all the conveniences, plus gardens and ponds, would be an ideal place for his 75-year-old mother to improve her health.

"Everyone has their concerns. Changing one's place to live is not easy," Tai said, adding that his wife did not want to move to the suburbs due to long commutes. Back when she was in her old house on Tran Quy Cap Street in Dong Da, it took her only 10 minutes to bring the children to school, and another 15 minutes to her workplace. But once she moved to Hoai Duc, it took her over an hour on the road to travel by bus to work, and taxis are her only option on rainy days, costing her over VND300,000 ($12.62) to traverse around 20 km.

Thang Long Avenue, which cost VND8 trillion (US$336.8 million) to build, is the highlight of the traffic infrastructure connecting the Hoa Lac satellite city and other districts like Hoai Duc, Quoc Oai and Thach That, with downtown Hanoi. As his house is located near the end of the avenue, Tai would have to leave home around an hour early to reach his workplace to avoid traffic congestion.

The discrepancies between downtown and suburban infrastructure have made Tai and many others reluctant to leave city centers. At the end of the day, Tai and his wife decided to move to the suburbs first, while their son stayed at their old house for shorter commutes to his university. Many of Tai’s neighbors, after moving to An Khanh, sold their houses to move back downtown.

Vehicles are stuck in a traffic jam on Nguyen Trai Street in Hanois Thanh Xuan District. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh

Vehicles are stuck in a traffic jam on Nguyen Trai Street in Hanoi's Thanh Xuan District. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh

Can't keep up

Fifteen years ago, when the Hanoi expansion project, to take over the old Ha Tay Province, was brought before the National Assembly, one of the reasons for the expansion was because infrastructure could not keep up with the speed of urbanization, incoming investments and population growth. The changes made back in August 2008 expanded Hanoi’s area by 3.6 times. As the capital’s population has since grown by 80%, Hanoi has become the 17th largest capital in the world.

Three years after that, a general urban plan for Hanoi until 2030, with vision until 2050, was drafted to introduce more space in the city and relieve the burden on infrastructures. The city aimed to manage the increase in population by moving people away from downtown areas, first by decreasing the population of four core districts: Ba Dinh, Hoan Kiem, Dong Da and Hai Ba Trung, from 1.2 million to 0.8 million people. However, by the end of 2022, the four districts still had over a million people.

A Hanoi population report expected the capital’s population to reach 7.5 million in 2020, but right now, the population of Hanoi has already reached 8.5 million. Twelve Hanoi downtown districts account for only 9% of the city’s total area, but they contain 45% of the city’s population.

Hanoi’s current population density is at 22,000 people per km2, twice as dense as the period before the expansion. Hai Ba Trung in particular has a population density of 29,000 people per km2, while Dong Da’s is at 37,800 people per km2, among the most densely populated districts in the world.

Hanoi authorities said the high population density is caused by an influx of immigrants, placing a burden on the city’s infrastructure, such as schools, hospitals and housing.

"While downtown Hanoi sees a quickly increasing population, the speed of infrastructural development is very slow compared to the capital's demands and expectations," said Dao Ngoc Nghiem, deputy head of the Vietnam Urban Development Planning Association.

Hanoi has already failed in its trial for its BRT line, while its metro lines are continually delayed. The capital only has the Cat Linh-Ha Dong metro line, spanning 12 km and is capable of transporting 32,000 passengers a day. Hanoi's public transport capabilities can barely reach 17% of the city’s demands, even though the plan was to satisfy 35% of the demand by 2020.

Because public transportation capabilities in the city are not up to par, the number of personal vehicles has quickly risen. Over the last decade, the number of cars in the city has tripled, from 389,000 to over a million, while the number of motorbikes has increased from 4.2 million to 6.5 million. On average, for every 1.3 people in Hanoi, one of them owns a motorbike. This figure has not taken into account the fact that there are around 1.2 million more vehicles coming into the capital from other localities.

Meanwhile, the total length of roads in the capital has only increased by 1.3 times.

There is now more frequent and more severe traffic congestion at ring roads and central roads, despite the fact that the number of congested locations has dropped by 70% over the last 10 years, according to statistics from Hanoi traffic authorities. The Transport and Development Strategy Institute has calculated that traffic congestion could cost Hanoi around $2 billion a year.

Tran Huu Minh, office head of the National Traffic Safety Committee, said the city has had to adjust its planning seven times since 1954, but population density in downtown areas has kept increasing, making Hanoi’s population density among the highest in the world. At the same time, the amount of space reserved for traffic, parking lots, pedestrians and other public purposes remains low.

In comparison, cities in North America use 35-40% of their total land areas for public spaces like sidewalks or parking lots. The figure for European cities and several modern Asian cities is at 20-25%. While these cities’ public transportation systems are advanced compared with the rest of the world, traffic congestion still happens.

Over the last decade, the percentage of land reserved for traffic in Hanoi is only at 8-10% compared to the total area of urban land, while it was planned for the figure to be at 20-26% by 2020.

To relieve the burden on urban infrastructures, Hanoi’s urban planning authorities want to move factories, offices, universities and ministry headquarters away from downtown areas. But that plan has been moving very slowly.

The planning for ministry headquarters in Me Tri and Tay Ho Tay areas was just announced late last month, 12 years after Hanoi’s urban planning was announced. Hoa Lac is expected to become an urban area for universities, but so far, only FPT University and the Vietnam National University in Hanoi are at the location. Certain companies and factories that were willing to relocate to suburban areas were instead replaced by apartment complexes and malls, placing even more strain on infrastructure.

One of the most highly-anticipated plans for population density reduction was the creation of five satellite cities: Hoa Lac, Son Tay, Xuan Mai, Phu Xuyen and Soc Son. However, these so-called satellite cities have remained stuck in limbo for more than a decade, with no land fund mechanism for businesses to invest in, nor policies encouraging people to come to the areas.

15 years after Hanoi’s expansion, despite numerous changes, several suburban planning criteria are outdated. There are now more people in the city, with uneven urban developments, slow progress on satellite cities, and infrastructure that has not been able to keep up. As such, Hanoi has reported to the prime minister, and its urban planning adjustments until 2045, with a vision until 2065, have been approved.

As the capital waits for the new urban planning to come to fruition, districts have to handle overcapacity problems on their own.

Hoang Mai, for example, has proposed that municipal authorities allow more floors when it comes to school construction, while Hanoi’s education sector has asked for permission to open five more classes in each school and increase the number of students per class by 5%.

But even if all the proposals come through, it will take them 2-5 years to be implemented. Meanwhile, Hoang Mai sees 4,000 new students added every year, meaning parents would very likely need to draw lots to secure public school spots for their children in the future.

Luck did not come to Ngoc Anh last year, as her child couldn't secure a spot in a public school. Anh had no choice but to send her child to an independent class. And Anh's worries continue. In another two years, when its time to enter primary school, her child might not make it into the Hoang Liet public primary school either.

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