Sitting on the banks of the Red River, a stone’s throw from Hanoi’s urban sprawl, is a 312 hectare island with foliage as deep and thick as a jungle. It is so lush, in fact, that it is easy to get lost in, as a Globe reporter found on a recent visit when a German Shepherd chased him through the brush.
The island is called Bãi Giữa, but is more commonly known in English as Banana Island. It’s farmland that is just a five minute drive down a couple of winding alleyways, over some muddy terrain, that turns into a hidden banana wonderland, where the only crop that grows on the dry soil is, predictably, bananas.
In Hanoi, every nook and cranny in the city is filled with apartments, and the urban sprawl is only reaching further into fields and farmland, with once far off villages becoming urban districts. But the resilience of this spot of land in central Hanoi remaining untouched is not because it flies under the radar. In fact, construction companies have been going after it for some 26 years.
Even still, with the latest plans for an urban forest and a mega housing project seemingly falling at the final hurdle once again, the farmers and unregistered citizens occupying the urban oasis appear confident that their position on the island remains safe – at least for now.
Down on the island an eclectic mix of people both live and work. The spot is known, by some, for its group of male Hanoian nudists, who swim in the river, and workout in the makeshift open-air gym, away from prying eyes. But it is also a safe-haven to some of Hanoi’s homeless citizens, who live in makeshift boat houses and on shacks among crops they grow on rented farmland.
For them, the island is one of the few spots of sanctuary in a constantly developing city.
On the northern side of the island where the soil is richer, allowing for even tomatoes to grow, Anh Khac, a 46-year-old farmer, is stacking hoai son – Chinese yams – into a massive wooden barrel. The long white roots smell like a medicinal shop, if it was built inside of a pine forest.
I remember when a company from South Korea wanted to buy all of the land here and turn it into luxury apartments, but the government was hesitant to sell it
Khac’s shack is cobbled together with an assortment of driftwood and bamboo, with blue tarpaulin lying underneath the metal sheet roof for heat and protection from the rain. She explains that building houses here is strictly prohibited by the government. “If anyone builds here, the government will come and get rid of them. We’re only working here temporarily,” she said.
The farmer came over from Hung Yen province some 15 years ago to find work, and has lived here with her now old and blind dog ever since, growing an assortment of crops. Now, Khac works with a small collective of women from poorer areas, who peel her hoai son and help her farm.
“This land is seen as ‘best seller land,” Khac said. “Maybe that’s why so many foreign companies want to build here. But the government hasn’t approved anything yet. I remember when a company from South Korea wanted to buy all of the land here and turn it into luxury apartments, but the government was hesitant to sell it.”
That South Korean project that Khac is referring to was called ‘City by the Red River’. It was a partnership between the cities of Hanoi and Seoul, where the Koreans would foot 90% of the bill, paying about $12 million to build a series of shimmering, modern high-rise buildings on the two banks of the Red River.
But, if even the best laid plans are at risk of going awry in real estate, the partnership between Seoul and Vietnam stood no chance from the offset. In 2007, after a few years of planning, the project was panned by Vietnamese geologists and architects for excessive consolidation of the river banks, saying that it showed a lack of knowledge of the hydrological system of the Red River, as well as the relationship between the waterway and the capital. The development was subsequently dumped by local authorities.
Earlier plans to turn this land into high-rising housing complexes can be dated back to 1994, when Singaporean City Development Corporation plotted to turn it into a modern residential area with high-rise buildings. But, for all of the same reasons as the Seoul project, never made it past the blueprints.
For a long time, the land remained untouched. Nguyễn Đức Trung, partner at ODDO Architects, a part of the team behind the Green Lungs projects that today aims to grow a forest on the land, said that the government refer to Bãi Giữa as ‘grey land’, “because they don’t care much about it”.
This indifference was largely linked to the unpredictable nature of the Red River – plans were either too hard or too ill-conceived to implement.
That was, until 2017, as the Chinese hydropower plants upstream proved their ability to control the water levels. Authorities began to eye the slice of land once more, asking three construction giants – Sun Group, Vingroup and Geleximco – to devise planning schemes to develop the northern side of the island.
Learning from mistakes of the past, the plans aimed to ensure the city’s flood-resistant capabilities and to give priority to on-site resettlements for local residents, developing waterway transportation and tourism, and replacing the current dyke system to ensure that the land isn’t washed away into the river.
Hanoi is developing the same way as China. Urbanisation is developing too quickly. If Hanoi continues this way, the whole city will be polluted.
On the southern side of the island Nguyen and his Green Lungs team were plotting their ‘Green Lungs’ forest. The project aimed to sequester the growing pollution in Hanoi, and provide some much needed green space in a city so lacking in trees. Hanoi, afterall, has just 2.2 square metres of green space per person, compared to Singapore’s 66.2 square metres, or Seoul’s 24.3 square metres.
“Hanoi is developing the same way as China. Urbanisation is developing too quickly. If Hanoi continues this way, the whole city will be polluted. The city has to have some trees,” Nguyen said, surrounded in his office by small, white architectural models.
The plan, should it go ahead, would work with the local residents and farmers on the island, paying them $6.50 a day to help plant trees native to the area that would thrive in the alluvium-rich soil, and bring wild birds back to the city. “This is stable work and stable income by month, which helps them retrain,” said Nguyen.
All that was left for the project to go ahead was a final sign off from Hanoi’s top brass. It seemed like they were going to get it too, until the Chairman of Hanoi was arrested for commandeering state secrets back in August this year. Now, the fate of Hanoi’s Green Lungs, as well as the housing projects from the construction giants, is unknown.
They may be back to square one, but the ODDO team remains optimistic.
“I really believe that one day in the near future we can start to develop this project. Hanoi must change, and the mindset of the people will be changed,” Nguyen said.
Le Van, a farmer with a broad stretch of banana trees, however, said that he has seen many projects come and go. Le doesn’t live on the island, but he has a similarly makeshift shack and sceptical attitude as the residents.
“The government has been considering projects like this for a long time, but nothing ever goes ahead. There are so many projects that have tried to build here already,” said Le.
Le claimed that, before hydro-electric projects existed on the Red River, the island used to flood and cover the land with soil-enriching alluvium sediment brought up from the river bed. Khac, the other farmer, had previously explained that once, around 25 years ago, flood water rose around six feet above the island, and left behind a blanket of white alluvium across the island from the river.
Both agree that the soil was richer then, and it was possible to grow more than just bananas on the south side. Le said that he wished the land would flood so it would once again enrich the soil. “We can’t control it, so the plants survive only for a short while,” said Le.
According to Le, throughout history the land has functioned as a dyke, and building anything like a forest or housing project here would impact the structure of the land, flooding the city beyond. “Hanoi will sink into the river,” he said.
Though not everyone agrees on the significance of the island as a levee, and it seems that, perhaps, the history as told by the farmers and residents of the island is more hope than fact.
Nguyễn Đức Chiều, a geological engineer familiar with the slice of land, said the island had no impact on flood prevention, and was simply a spot of land created by sediment washed along the river over time.
Furthermore, even if it did once work as a dyke, hydropower projects regulating the water levels upstream would now render it useless. The geologist explained that the land is more than suitable for a forest.
“If you can grow bananas, you can grow a forest,” said Nguyen.
For now, what stands between construction giants, farmers, Hanoians unable to find a brick and mortar home, and an idealised forest thriving in the capital remains planning, and perhaps, a chairman with a clean record.