Hanoi, First Impressions


Hanoi, Vietnam

As part of my new job at JINA Architects, I visited Hanoi, Ha Phong and Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam in late August. I wasn’t able to post about it since the Vietnamese government had yet to formally announce the winner of the international competition to formulate a new Master Urban Plan of Hanoi. I am happy to say that JINA, in a consortium with POSCO Engineering & Construction, a construction firm based in Korea and Perkins Eastman of the US, won the bid. I am now part of the team that will execute the project.

The first thing that strikes you in Hanoi is the traffic.

Hanoi, Girl
Hanoi, Old Quarter

The motorcycles whizzing by in all directions, the constant beeping of all the vehicles, its apparent chaos exacerbated by the dearth traffic lights even at the heart of Hanoi, is overwhelming for the first time visitor. The motorcycle thing took a little getting used to. But since Hanoi has little public transportation infrastructure, and the price of fuel is pretty costly relative to the living standards, the plethora of two-wheeled traffic is understandable. Crossing the road is a hairy experience and literally reminded me of Frogger, the 80’s arcade game and the sobering experience of Seymore Papert, one of the founding faculty of the MIT Media Lab, who suffered brain damage after he was hit by a motorcycle while crossing the road in Hanoi a couple of years ago.

Once you get used to the traffic, you realize that this is a city on the verge of exploding. Vietnam has experience massive economic growth since ??i m?i (renovation), its embrace of free markets in 1986, and evidence of the growth can be seen in the city everywhere in poorly regulated new construction sprouting up like weeds.

The word for crisis in Chinese (which is also the same in Korean) is ??. The first part ? is the character for “danger”, where as the second part ? is the character for opportunity. The crisis in Hanoi presents itself as a unique opportunity to do amazing things. Hanoi has a colorful history that dates back some 1000 years, which is when it was first established as a capital. You can still see Chinese and French influences, remnants from the war with the US (the “American War” as it is called in here), as well as more recent Soviet-era architecture imported in the post-war years. But all this is fast disappearing, and soon, without intervention, Hanoi is in danger of becoming yet another characterless modern Asian city. We’ve seen too many cities in Asia being all too eager to sacrifice their past heritage for looking modern and “developed” in the eyes of the world. Seoul, as we all know, was one of them.

Hanoi’s Ancient Quarter, a.k.a. “The 36 Streets” is a combination of market, street life and housing. According to some estimates a staggering half a million people pass through the quarter a day. It has traditionally been a place where family-based craft guilds established their presence in Hanoi. The French colonial rule and communist rule following the unification of Vietnam wiped out most of the traditional guilds, but you still see strong grouping of business by produce around the quarter.

I couldn’t figure out how this run-down market could attract so much people and traffic during all hours of the day. After I returned and read some more material about the Ancient Quarter, I discovered that it has one of the highest population density in Asia. The narrow 2-3 story storefronts hide “tube houses” that may be as deep as 100m, and home to as many as 50 people.

Hanoi, Hoan Kiem
Hanoi, Van Mieu

Another striking feature of Hanoi is water. Hanoi in Chinese means “between the rivers”, and the Red River surrounds the city. There are also two major and many minor lakes and ponds scattered around Hanoi. Tay Ho is the biggest, but Hoan Kiem is the most beloved, with its legend of a turtle that delivered a sword that brought victory to Le Loi during his revolt against the Ming Dynasty. Hanoi is indeed a city of water.

Van Mieu or the Temple of Literature dates back to 1070, and is an island of serenity in a sea of traffic and construction chaos.

Although this was my first visit to Hanoi, as a Korean and East Asian, I found Hanoi strangely familiar. It was hard to place my finger on what exactly this feeling was, but having experience rapid growth and development (and my fair share of disorientation) in Seoul, Hanoi reminded me of Seoul of the 70’s and 80’s. But that wasn’t all of it. It was a strange familiarity that was akin to, in some ways, to meeting for the first time a cousin that one has never met before: There was something in Hanoi that was already in me.

Hanoi has all the potential of becoming a truly great and beautiful city. It has a raw and yet sophisticated charm, having been layered by so many rich cultures, and imbued with natural beauty of waters and its immediate surroundings. It’s already all there. All it needs is a careful polishing.

Here’s all the photos posted to Flickr from my August 27-30, 2008 trip to Vietnam.

  • http://e8club.blogspot.com Tuan

    I hope Hanoi will go a different way, so that it’ll be unique and characteristic, simply different from a typical Asian city. I want Hanoi to impress with her charm rather than tall skyscrapers. I hope you can preserve the traditional site of Hanoi (Old Quarter, French Quarter, Ba Dinh Square)and make new areas like the Westside CBD, Tay Ho Tay…competetive with other areas like Pudong or Downtown Manhatten. It’s all about to give each area in Hanoi a strong uniquely personality, like it is important for a person to be highlighted from the mass.

  • http://e8club.blogspot.com Tuan

    okay. now I read all article about Hanoi, and it gives me hope. You see Hanoi as the same as I do. Please, give your best to make Hanoi unique. BTW, I love your blog. Keep the updates.