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Hà Nội, a Metropolis in the Making

Sylvie Fanchette


S. Fanchette

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1After centuries of progressive integration of commercial centre and its productive fringes – an original and specific feature of this capital placed in a lakeside environment – the expanded city peri-urban villages into the city, and of close ties between the political and of Hà Nội is calling into question its urban founding principles. The ‘top-down’ urban project imposed by the government and the city council to raise Hà Nội to the rank of one of the most dynamic Asian metropolises and make the capital green (xanh), cultural (văn hiến), civilised (văn minh) and modern (hiện đại), takes various forms: the construction of dense new urban areas, hundreds of kilometres of new roads linking central wards to satellite towns, and the consolidation of trade into shopping centres and supermarkets, symbolising the new, modern era of a consumer society.

2The Master Plan for Hà Nội to 2030 advocates the separation of urban functions (residential, industrial, commercial and leisure), in keeping with the line adopted by modern Western urban planners of the 1950s, a philosophy much challenged since the 1980s. This ‘top-down’-imposed urban model within the context of a policy of transition from a communist system to a market economy begs the question of the many issues – economic, demographic, urban, social, and those concerned with land – all raised by the capital’s metropolisation project. It brings to mind, to a lesser degree, the attempts by the French colonial government, then those emanating from the communist revolution, to ignore the bedrock of villages as stakeholders in the formation of the city.

3This Master Plan aims to make a clean break with what exists already, ignoring the particularities of the villages on the densely-populated fringes of the city that will be overwhelmed by the urban fabric. The new residential areas and satellite towns will be built on paddy fields next to villages without the slightest spatial integration into the landscape: ‘It would appear to be easier for those in charge of urban policy to reject the past–and thus destroy it–than to attempt to fit the city of the future into the city of the past. However, ignoring what already exists is to forget that the city is also the product of ordinary individuals, and not only of decision-makers, thinkers and constructors. The man in the street, through his skills, his daily activities and his multiple uses of the city, makes, shapes and creates ways of understanding, feeling, using and living the city. After a fashion, two creative registers more akin to ontology than to social invention go hand in hand here: ‘top-down’ associated with ‘bottom-up’ creation of a city would appear to be a constant of the urban condition’ (Stébé & Marchal, 2009).

4Large-scale residential, industrial, highway and leisure projects set out in the Master Plan to 2030 will be built over paddy fields that have deeds belonging to the state, but that are used by farmers. 18,200 hectares will be covered by high-rise developments in the second peri-urban ring, as well as large areas slated for the construction of satellite towns, entailing the expropriation of all farmland. The villages concerned mostly engage in multiple activities, and include several craft villages.

5The outskirts of Hà Nội being characterised by multi-activity, this new urban model runs contrary to the multi-usage of land and runs the risk of undermining a very workforce-hungry production system that enables a large population to remain in place. Yet this dense industrial and residential village fabric is an asset for the creation of new urban areas, as it already exists. Limited investment, an upgrade in construction standards and means of production could integrate these outskirts into the city by giving them the wherewithal to preserve their activity and retain their population.

6Integration into the territory of the province-capital implies a loss of power for communal local authorities. The province takes decisions and imposes on lower administrative echelons an urban model and a method of land use that can be incompatible with their production system and their land needs. Communes do not have an established land use plan and they represent a reserve of land for urban development projects. On top of this, by being integrated into an urban area, a village loses its leader and no longer controls its own territory. Accordingly, liberalisation of land use sounds the death knell for the policy of promotion of rural industrialisation as initiated in craft villages clusters, in spite of its capacity for employment and production. Refusing to recognize the economic dynamic of these villages throws into doubt the future of populations who will lose their farm and craft employment (through lack of productive land and the undermining of multi-activity based on farming) and the means implemented to retrain them.

7This ‘top-down’ urban planning policy encounters a concomitant process of ‘bottom-up’ urbanisation, echoing a land grab in this densely occupied region where an informal land market has grown up in the absence of the communist state’s ability to provide enough housing for the population. This other urbanisation is taking place both in the city and in peri-urban towns and villages where growth in non-agricultural production has provided the means for rural inhabitants to improve their living conditions.

‘What distinguished the urbanisation process in Vietnam from China in the initial phase of post-socialism has been the growth of ‘people-led urbanisation’ in the urban areas in Vietnam and ‘invisible urbanisation’ in the urban margins and the later opening up to globalisation forces’ (McGee, 2009).

8Consequently, during the 1990s, to stem potential migrations from highly populated rural areas towards the cities caused by the country’s economic liberalisation, the government instituted policies to keep the population in place in the larger villages and diversify production, particularly industrial. Popular construction was one of the methods most favoured by households to amass savings in an unsettling financial context where the state did not have the means to invest. Similarly, it demonstrates the vitality of the informal construction sector and the ability of specialised craft villages to respond rapidly to the growing demand for building materials. However, this multifaceted and uncoordinated urbanisation, undertaken locally at low cost by inhabitants according to their own spatial representations, encounters considerable reticence on the part of the state, as it is land-hungry and runs contrary to the large-scale urban projects planned by investors who wish to make Hà Nội a metropolis of international standing. Unplanned, very personalised, this ‘ordinary’ (Denis, 2007), or ‘invisible’ (DiGregorio, 2003) urbanisation suffers from many dysfunctions and managerial shortcomings. Environmental problems caused by the concentration of poorly equipped and managed craft and industrial businesses have also been evoked.

9This ‘modern’ future capital wishing to attract foreign investors and meet the demands of the middle classes by providing them with living conditions of an international standard will sit uncomfortably with its rural and densely populated environment.

‘Thus, new ‘global spaces’ exist side by side with ‘local space’ (McGee, 2009)

10The city council’s authoritarian urban project, imposed and dictated by market forces, begs the question: for whom is this future city intended? On one hand, in the newly created urban areas or khu đô thị mới, although originally between one-third and half of their accommodation capacity was supposed to be accessible to low-income populations, in reality, due to complex bureaucratic procedures, speculation and the rise in land prices, such housing is inaccessible to these economic categories. Foreign investors seek a very rapid return on the investment of their capital and favour mid-range and high-end developments. Can projects for residential and industrial areas, in a context of financialisation of economies, come to successful fruition while the price of land continues to rise? Social movements and the resistance of some farmers to submit to expropriation also increase construction costs. The example provided by numerous ghost towns, built in China or other Asian countries, suggests that Vietnam, belatedly integrated into the market economy, could find itself going down this same route.

Photo 13
Lotus production in Tây Lake next to a former village, now urbanised

11On the other hand, the reduction in agricultural land will cause not only employment problems but also drive up the cost of food for villagers. Expropriations of farmland in villages where large-scale development projects will be established run the short-term risk, if people are not successfully retrained and do not profit from at least part of the land revenue, of creating large social and spatial differentiations in this new ‘patchwork’ split into several starkly contrasted sectors, that the city will become.

12In addition, one of the most difficult challenges to meet is that of hydraulics. This deltaic city, built on a plain with a high flood risk – the fast running and capricious Red River flows above the level of the city – cannot underestimate its lakeside characteristics. The difficulty of draining rainwater during the monsoon, given the sealing of polders caused by the embanking of the river, requires a complete reworking of the drainage system for rainwater and wastewater. The transition from a rural hydraulic administration to an urban one, in a country where the fragmentation of administration and various departments does not foster the consultation that hydraulic management demands, will determine the success or otherwise of the capital’s development project. The construction of sealed concrete urban platforms and highway networks covering huge tracts of land constrains natural drainage, and the heavy rains of November 2008 were an early warning, which led Hà Nội’s local authorities to revise all of the urban projects that the province of Hà Tây had approved before its integration into the capital.

13The enlargement of the province to include its western neighbour, very vulnerable owing to the presence of two valleys prone to flooding when the Red River floodwaters are diverted, has led the initiators of the Master Plan to create a green corridor where high-rise construction should be restricted. The fact is however that, along both of these valleys, industrial and residential constructions already exist. In addition, a cross-route motorway project that should have been completely abandoned is already being built. Financing roads with the BOT system casts doubt on the transparency of decisions and limits the power of decision-makers to impose their projects when dealing with investors.

14In the final reckoning, are such things as the widespread ascendancy of private developers over state intervention, the sense of economic insecurity violently expressed by villagers over possible repercussions on rural employment, the price to pay for Hà Nội figuring among major global capital cities? Yet these land conflicts and inequality of access to land undermine one of the founding principles of socialist society: the right to land, a right that was at the centre of the communist revolutionary struggle waged against the French colonial power since the 1930s. This was a key factor that rallied the common people to the revolution.

15The example of China, which embarked upon its economic liberalisation and its land, administrative and social reforms ten years before Vietnam, suggests that strategies for transitional economic policy are being established, and will continue to be so, in a context of widening social and spatial inequalities. Rural China did not benefit from the country’s meteoric economic development during the 1990s and is left behind in favour of the towns and cities that globalisation has placed in the forefront of the country’s liberalisation process. The Chinese countryside has seen its economic situation deteriorate. Expropriations linked to urban and industrial development in peri-urban areas, unequal access to social services and facilities between city-dwellers and rural populations, and widespread corruption at all levels of the country’s administration have all generated a social malaise that manifests itself through a rural exodus of illegal migrants, revolts among farm labourers, and so on. The administrative submission of the countryside to the cities echoes that being implemented in Vietnam. Farmland constitutes a reserve of land for the expansion of cities and the installation of industrial and urban projects. The balance of power between cities and the countryside remains very much to the disadvantage of the latter.

16From 2006 onwards, The Chinese central administration launched the new ‘Socialist Countryside’ Policy to try and keep farm labourers on the land, the rural exodus and land issues having become more and more problematic, due to expropriations of farmland in peri-urban areas to build urban projects (Colin, 2006). Initial measures attempted to defuse discontent and to protect rural land use rights, flouted in many communes where illegal expropriations have been carried out with very little compensation. Secondly, the government has eased the fiscal burden weighing very heavily on farm labourers, some of whom were being taxed at rates of up to 25% of their net income. Finally, the most striking measures consisted of promoting the urbanisation of small towns and large villages, and in particular favouring their industries (Colin, 2013).


PhD in Geography from Paris 8 University and is authorised to supervise research. She has been conducting research at IRD since 1993 and is a member of UMR Ceped.
Her main research interests are the urbanisation process in densely populated rural areas and the conditions of population densification in the Nile and Red River Deltas. In Vietnam, she studies rural industrialisation and the peri-urbanisation process in the context of the Vietnamese capital’s metropolisation..

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