IHP Cities in the 21st Century: People, Planning, and Politics (Fall)

Hanoi, Vietnam Letter Home

By IHP Trustees Fellow Daniel Woodard with input from Teddy Kent and Charlotte Heyrman.

After a long flight and stopover in Kuala Lumpur, we arrived in Hanoi, a city which we expected would be the most unfamiliar on our IHP journey. Reaching the Ancient Quarter in the center of the city, with its twisting, narrow, spaghetti-like streets there was activity and motion everywhere we turned. Stores and workshops spilled out onto the sidewalks. Motorbikes and pedestrians negotiated the streets through an unspoken understanding of its rhythm and flow. Taking in this vibrant scene, our group began to question whether this was wholly unfamiliar to us or if it was in some way reminiscent of the bustling street activity that we saw in the favelas of São Paulo. Learning more about Hanoi, our experiences from Brazil and South Africa came to mind increasingly frequently as we recognized some familiar patterns and acknowledged some new ones.

A street in Hanoi's Ancient Quarter

More than 3000 years of culture and history lie behind modern Hanoi. During one of our first lectures, Mr. Hṹu Ngoc used the Vietnamese banyan tree to symbolize four outside forces, China, the West, communism and capitalism, to explain the many influences that play into modern Vietnamese culture. (need to tell us something about what he said, presume it connects to the next sentence)  As we learned about the city, we visited soviet housing complexes, French villas and new neo-classical style urban housing . The variety of architectural style against the backdrop of Vietnam’s history of resistance to foreign powers, reminded us of the blended history that lies behind the built environment in Cape Town. We wondered how these various structural elements would hold a place in a modern Vietnamese cultural landscape.

The Communist one party political structure added a variation to our understanding of urban politics. In the Vietnamese Communist model, the state controls resources, specifically owning the title to all of the country’s land. Through the Hộ Khẩu, a passbook system that identifies residents based on their area or region of origin, the state is also able to control migration by restricting access to social services. Here we saw a shadow of a reflection of South Africa’s Apartheid.

During her lecture on Vietnam’s political system and governance, Dr. Tran Thi Thanh Thuy explained how a catastrophic financial crisis, which began in 1975 and led to multiple famines and an inflation rate of 77.7 percent in 1986, highlighted the failures of an economy managed by central government planners. Teddy Kent articulated the double-edged quality of government control saying, “As we saw in Brazil, top-down planning is your best friend and worst enemy at the same time. In Curitiba, sustained autocratic rule allowed the government to see plans through to the end. However, success also depends on the type of plans that they implement.”

As a solution to economic crises, the government eased Hộ Khẩu restrictions and adopted economic reform known as Đổi mới., intended to create a mixed ownership economy To witness the  economic shift to industry privatization and demand-driven production, we visited the Hai Ha Candy Company. Since its 2004 partial privatization, Hai Ha is now 51% state-owned and 49% publicly owned. The complexities of this relationship became clear when a worker in the factory, seemingly contradicting herself, told us that maintaining state ownership provided a sense of stability and job security yet partial privatization had pushed the company to improve its efficiency by adopting new technologies and reducing the size of its workforce. We were also intrigued to learn that the government partially owns other candy companies, including most of Hai Ha’s domestic competitors.

The view from the top of the building our classroom was in, the Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences

Other examples illustrated the complex effects of Đổi mới’s opening of the economy to foreign trade.  We investigated the impact, for example, on two of Vietnam’s traditional industries. At a silk factory, we learned that government intervention through tax breaks has helped to maintain Hanoi’s silk production despite low profitability and new competition from China. In contrast, a traditional bronze-casting workshop has seen a revival since the country opened its economy to international markets. The variation in outcomes highlighted the benefits and challenges of economic policy that attempts to blend public benefit and private markets

In addition to strictly economic effects, we witnessed the social impacts of Đổi mới and how it was changing the makeup of the city. Dr. Dang Nguyen Anh, in his lecture on migration and poverty, stated that since the implementation of Đổi mới, absolute poverty has declined but relative poverty and social stratification have increased. New economic opportunities have also spurred the migration of over 7 million people, or 8 percent of the population, from rural to urban settings. Combining the increased concentration of wealth and the remnants of the Hộ Khẩu passbook system, rural to urban migration has created a large urban population of low-skilled, young, and female migrants.

Final poster of the Comparative Analysis Project by Sarah Lusche

In a neighborhood along the banks of the Red River, we met a collective of women who work together and support each other through cooperative living and an informal community banking system. Since they work in the informal sector, these women lack social protections and remain vulnerable to exploitation. We also learned that the remittances sent back to their hometowns account for a larger percentage of household income than their family’s agricultural production. The result is a precarious situation in which these women balance their own safety and stability with that of their family and rural hometown.

Another delicate balance is the steadily growing mix of cars, motorbikes and pedestrians on Hanoi’s busy streets. In a visit to ALMEC, a transportation planning consultant, Shizho Iwata described how non-motorized vehicles are giving way to motorbikes and cars. Although the agency has drafted plans for a metro system and additional bus lines, the planning for increased capacity for personal motor vehicles surprised many of us. Charlotte Heyrman made a comparison stating, “This reminds me of Detroit. The city is becoming so spread out and dependent on cars and motorized transport. Does this show that we don’t really learn from each other?”

Final poster of the Comparative Analysis Project by Rachel Collens

As our semester came to a close, Charlotte’s question of how we learned from our experiences and each other was raised again and again. During our retreat to Mai Chau, a small rural village located outside of Hanoi, students presented their findings on a comparative analysis project which drew upon observations they had gathered from each of the cities we visited. Upon returning to Hanoi we then had one final group synthesis where we discussed larger themes that appeared throughout the trip as well as unresolved questions and thoughts that remain with us. While generally our experiences led to more questions than answers, all in all we concluded our journey together with a new and exciting way of looking at the cities of the world.

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Credits: 16

Duration: Fall, 16 weeks

Program Sites:
New York, NY, USA; Sao Paulo, Brazil; Cape Town, South Africa; Hanoi, Vietnam.

Prerequisites: Previous college-level coursework and/or other preparation in urban studies, anthropology, political science, or other related fields is strongly recommended but not required. Learn More...

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