As Hanoi, Vietnam expands, business-savvy politicians leave their people counting the cost of progress
By Luke Dale-Harris
On the outskirts of Hanoi, where the new Hoa Lac Highway threads through the countryside to the city, stands the shell of An Kanh residential area: one part of a development project that will see Vietnam’s capital grow to over three-and-a-half times its present size in the next 20 years.
Classical in design, the buildings jut out of the fields like the skeleton of an ancient town, unfinished and still. At night, dim lights emanate from the open fronts of many of the buildings, single bulbs illuminating whole families huddled together, dwarfed by the rooms they inhabit. For many of them, this is the land they have worked on their whole lives, first as rice farmers and, since its recent reclamation by the government for development, as temporary labourers.
On August 1, 2008, Hanoi was officially expanded from 921 square-kilometres to 3,345 square-kilometres in preparation for the building of five satellite cities and the many ring roads and new residential areas that will connect them.
In response to a rising population and increasing rural-urban migration, the master plan looks to ease pressure on the city centre and create a capital that is ‘green, civilised, cultural and moder’. It is predicted that 1.3 million Hanoians will move out to the new suburbs by 2030.
Walking around An Kanh, or any of the other half-built residential areas, it is clear that the large villas and apartment blocks are not designed to house emigrant farmers, but upwardly mobile middle-class Hanoians. Educated at high expense in, for the majority, economics and international business, they will find jobs in the office blocks shooting up on the outskirts of Hanoi or, eventually, the satellite cities.
The 150,000 farmers already displaced in the development process (a fraction of the expected final figure) stand very little chance of seeing any of the prosperity they have given up their livelihoods for, at least not for a number of decades. Many continue to farm on smaller plots of land, often contaminated by the construction around them, while others are looking for work in building, manual labour or driving taxis. Without the necessary education and skills it will be impossible for them to find work in the modernised economy that Vietnam seeks to create.
In the many villages that skirt the building sites around An Kanh, anxiety about the future is playing on everyone’s minds. A group of middle aged women sit drinking tea at the side of the road, a piece of tarpaulin sheltering them from the dust that blows up as trucks stream past. They are hesitant to talk about the issue, though after being promised anonymity they quickly open up.
“I worry about the future generations,” begins a tall lady, dressed in pyjamas and sandals. “Everybody wants their children to have a good education, but this is not available to all of us. Before, the people without education would become farmers but now the land is gone and this is not an option. I am worried for their futures. I think there will be a large increase in crime over the coming decades.”
Another member of the group cuts in: “If the government took the land for industry we could become workers. Instead they take it for the city, where only the rich can live and work. We have no say in it at all.
In a recent interview the chairman of Hanoi’s council of city planning, Nguyen The Thao, briefly addressed this problem, talking of the need to build ‘rural urban centres’ so that farmers do not have to flock to the inner city to work. However, no one in the village has heard of this plan or can even guess at what it might mean, while many of them are already out of work. The National University, ethnic and cultural preservation projects and agricultural colleges promised for the area also show no sign of getting off the ground.
The law in Vietnam states that all land is owned by the state, though land usage can be bought and sold privately. Therefore, although you can own the rights to a piece of land, lease it, sell it and use it as a means of mortgage, the state reserves the right to reclaim it for, among other things, purposes of ‘national or public interest’ and ‘development’. They must, by law, provide compensation at market value for the land they take.
In a small restaurant on the side of the road in Phu Vinh village, a man, about thirty years old, sits with his wife and child. He owned 3,600 square-metres of land until two years ago, when the government took it, compensating him to the market value at the time for farmland: VND 130,500 ($6.20) per square-metre. Months later they sold it to Posco, a Korean construction company, for VND 59,000,000 ($2,810) per square-metre – the market value when sold as prime position land for development.
“The land was my life, my livelihood, and now it is gone, just to make money for government officials and foreign corporations. My family will never see any benefit from this,” he says, also requesting anonymity.
At the other end of the village the road opens out into a vast plot of empty land, punctuated only by lamp posts tracing unpaved boulevards that lead nowhere. This space previously provided farmland to most of the households in the village, but in 2005 it was taken back by the government to build further housing projects on. Unable to find investors, the project was abandoned.
On paper, Hanoi’s satellite city project seems to offer a very positive future to the city. With its focus on education, sustainability and business, it could create jobs and opportunities, provide good housing and help move people out of poverty. However, as Daniel Biau, the director of UN-Habitat, mentioned in an international conference on the project: “The greatest challenge is to define a vision of sustainable and inclusive development whereby Hanoi becomes a positive reality for everyone, not just for urban planners and managers.”