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Hà Nội, a Metropolis in the Making

Sylvie Fanchette


Rodolphe De Koninck

Note de l’auteur

Foreword translated by R. De Koninck.

Texte intégral

1Located at the head of the Red River delta and dotted with lakes, the city of Hà Nội has a definitely amphibious nature. Still partly agricultural, it also harbours, along with its industrial and trading functions, a dynamic cottage industry sector. While some of these attributes are shared with several other Asian metropolises, Hà Nội has a unique character. That of a millenary political capital having long shied away from mainstream globalisation influences, while attending to pressing local problems, but today increasingly intent on catching up and expanding! In the early 1990s, by which time several Southeast Asian metropolises, in particular those located in countries well engaged on the road to capitalist type development, were undergoing rapid expansion, Hà Nội still retained a country town atmosphere. High-rise buildings were virtually absent from the landscape, while massive dykes channelling the Red River through the city appeared as its dominant landmarks, and lakes as its major esplanades. Since then, and with increasing urgency, the Vietnamese capital is being thoroughly overhauled.

2The ensuing transformations have been examined and interpreted by a team of university researchers, following an analytical scenario which allows them to highlight the many contradictions of competitive and rapid urbanisation largely imposed from above. The nine case studies assembled here by Sylvie Fanchette, who has been involved in six of them, paint a dynamic historical and geographical picture of a metropolis intent on transforming itself but having to cope with increasingly inescapable problems. Inescapable, because contemporary Hà Nội, weighed down by complex legacies and responsibilities, has inherited some huge and cumulative problems to which urgent solutions must constantly be found.

3These legacies are first those of a city resting on a ‘mesh of water bodies and villages’ Devoted to the examination of these legacies, four chapters make up the first part of the book, laying down the scenario of an unusual urban saga. A first determining legacy is the city’s location at the head of the very densely populated delta, that of the heavily silted and impetuous Red River, eager to modify its course and overflow its banks. A large number of earthen works, in particular dykes and canals, represent a second key inherited feature. Ever since the city’s early days, these have allowed for a domestication of the river, channeling or diverting its waters, evacuating for retaining them for further use. As a result, water is present in several forms, around as well as within the city, as streams and canals, lakes and ponds play a key function in the fine topographical design of a very flat city. As for water use, in this well watered (annual rainfall of over 1,700 mm) and well irrigated deltaic plain, it concerns first and foremost agriculture, particularly rice cultivation, which largely encircles the city. There lies the third heritage, that of village networks which structure the countryside along with much of the city itself, initially ‘formed in part on a dense web of villages’ including, the Old Quarter with its 36 streets and corporations, located at the historical heart of the city.

4In fact, ‘following the Chinese model, laid down during a period of colonial control which lasted over 1,000 years, the Vietnamese imperial administration (1010-1872) had incorporated within the city limits some 100 villages, which formed an agricultural and cottage industry belt supplying the capital’. The high degree of interconnection between rural and urban Hà Nội, without any real equivalent in Southeast Asia and largely attributable to the rural-urban continuum involving cottage industries and trade networks, was however imperiled during both the French colonial and collectivist eras. This represents a fourth legacy. To which has been added a fifth, consisting in a new form of integration of the agricultural belt, henceforth targeted by urbanisation. Beginning in the 1990s, and even more since 2008, rescinding on its commitment to political decentralisation, ‘the Vietnamese government decided to extend the administrative limit of the capital’ by incorporating into its territory an entire neighboring province and portions of an additional one. The nature and the scale of Hà Nội were thus fundamentally modified as overnight its dimension was multiplied by a factor of over three and its population by more than two.

5Through this official expansion of its domain and granting itself the necessary territorial and demographic dimensions, Hà Nội confirmed its claim to the new status of international metropolis, intent on monitoring and accelerating the economic opening of the country, of which it had remained the indisputable political capital. Such new responsibilities entailed deep land reform policies, needed because of the multiplying urban development projects, particularly transport infrastructure, all things leading to a real territorial overhaul, upsetting livelihoods among residents in Hà Nội’s suburbs and green belt on the one hand and on the other even in the inner city.

6Representing, as elsewhere, a highly problematic runaway solution–remarkably well analyzed in the three chapters of the book’s second part and in the two making up the third part–Hà Nội’s urban sprawl has since followed innovative as well as somewhat classic paths. Unusual to the extent that, for a period of time, local populations launched themselves in independent ventures of urban development, including the establishment of new businesses and small-scale workshops and factories without any central coordination nor any attention being paid to environmental impacts. In fact, these initiatives represented a form of resistance on the part of populations accustomed to having to adapt to instructions from above, or lack thereof, while innovating, including in the realm of industrial or semi-industrial production. Such initiatives can also be considered unsurprising, classic even, to the extent that, in Hà Nội, land prices have literally exploded, reaching levels comparable to those of major metropolises in the region and in the world, thus favouring rich local and foreign investors as well as real estate agents. Urban developers, particularly those involved in large infrastructure projects, were in fact answering calls for tender issued by Vietnamese authorities, backed by international agencies such as the Asian Development Bank, or bilateral ones, such as the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA).

7In short, the territorial urban scale involved, that of a 3,300 km2 metropolitan area inhabited by some seven million persons now keen to assert their own needs and not simply to adapt to the directives of an authoritarian state, is expanding along with the number of concerned citizens. The issues and problems appear more often than not contradictory, largely because of the irreconcilability of the objectives of the many categories of actors involved. These include local, metropolitan and national authorities, habitually unfamiliar with consultative governance, international and bilateral agencies attempting to promote their development models, national and international investors wanting to cash in on the said development and, finally, local populations, demanding increasingly direct involvement in the search for new solutions to new problems.

8Among such problems, are the pressure, arising from the urban transition, including densification and concretization–the latter closely linked to the worrying development of a city increasingly dependent on motor vehicles–on water control infrastructures. However, these pressures may eventually be reduced thanks to the implementation of ambitious plans for the development of massive green corridors cutting across the metropolitan region. There is also the most pressing problem of currently fast climbing land costs, resulting essentially from all these development projects and their massive impact on land use. This threatens what has for a long time constituted one of Hà Nội’s a major assets: a rural belt harbouring a dense and competent population, practising pluriactivity, largely content with its territorial allocation and generally uninterested in migrating into the inner city. In fact, several of the studies presented here do point out the surprising resilience of these rural communities who gradually become urban, but in situ, without migrating or relocating, managing instead to maintain their pluriactivity, by modifying whenever necessary the nature of these activities. But given that surrounding land parcels, whether still agricultural or not, constitute land banks at the disposal of urban expansion, one is justified to fear for the future of these communities.

9It has become evident that Hà Nội, located at the heart of one of the world’s most densely populated urban-rural region in the world, and endowed with a classical Chinese, colonial collectivist and, finally, neoliberal urban heritage, must now compete with world class metropolises. This occurs in a context whereby the urbanisation of Asian countries, until recently still predominantly rural, represents huge business opportunities, whetting the appetite of global investors. In fact, actors involved are multiplying, as competition reaches the international scene, far beyond national (with Hồ Chí Minh City) and regional borders. However globalisation imperatives do impose a number of particularly demanding constraints on a country whose political transition, to say the least, is slow in adapting to the rhythm of its economic transition, whether agrarian or urban.

10This transition actually relates to the history of the huge transformations that occurred throughout much of Vietnam’s countryside, following the mid-1980s adoption of Đổi mới policies. The resulting opening of the country, comparable to the one initiated in China, which had followed the implementation of the ‘new responsibility systems’ in the countryside, definitely contributed to the liberation of productive forces. But the ensuing rising demand, including for an acceleration of urbanisation, compelled the authorities, in China as well as in Vietnam, to quickly favour once again urban primacy, a policy in obvious contradiction, at least in theory, with socialist principles. By favouring urban expansion, including at the expense of some of the country’s most fertile agricultural land, Vietnamese authorities, once again as the Chinese ones before them, were betraying their original commitment to peasant populations, after all still the most numerous. After having relied on the rehabilitation of family-based agriculture, they quickly turned their sights on the demands of globalisation, which meant assigning the cities the responsibility to monitor Vietnam’s insertion in the global market. While Hồ Chí Minh City had initially played that role, it had become obvious that the political capital had to get involved.

11Among the major achievements on the part of the authors of this book is that of having clearly laid out the wide and complex spectrum of problems and contradictions having resulted from this transition. They do this by revealing the results of their elaborate research endeavours, while making use of refined and eloquent forms of cartography as well as striking photographs, well integrated into the analysis. Hà Nội, the millenary city, comes out even grander!

© IRD Éditions, 2016

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