Posts Tagged ‘hanoi’

Hanoi: the first sustainable capital by 2030

Hanoi Master Plan: 1st Report

Hanoi master plan 2030: first report to the Vietnamese government

I’ve spent the most part of the March and April preparing the first formal report to the Vietnamese government for the project I am working on for JINA Architects: The Hanoi Capital Construction Master Plan to 2030 and Vision to 2050. This is a project to establish a urban master plan for Hanoi to 2030, covering some 3345 km2. Just to put this area into perspective, it is 2 times the size of Greater London and 5 times the size of Seoul.

The report schedule ended up being pretty grueling:

April 13: Pre-presentation of the 1st Report to the Ministry of Construction
April 18: 1st Report to the Vietnamese Government Steering Committee chaired by the Vice Prime Minister
April 21-22: International Symposium: Hanoi 2030
April 24: Presentation of the 1st Report to the Government Standing Committee which included the Prime Minister, 5 Vice Prime Ministers, Cabinet and chairman of the Hanoi People’s Committee.

The project is ambitious and close to impossible given the timeframe of 1 year. We started in January, and we are expected to submit our final deliverables at the end of the 2009 with 3 intermediate reports in April, July and October. After submission there will be a period of appraisal and if all is well, we should have approval in mid-2010 ahead of Hanoi’s 1000-year celebrations which are slated for October 10, 2010. (Oct 10 being a play on “1010” which is when Hanoi or Thang Long as it was called then was established)

Capital Master Plan: A Nation’s Vision

A project of this scope is not really a urban planning or engineering project so much as a political, national vision project. Each nation’s capital is a statement of the nation’s philosophical inclinations. Washington DC represents the ideals upon which the US was founded. Seoul embodies, like it or not, the breakneck economic growth and now the technological innovations that are driving the nation. A city is always a sum of collective decisions whether they were good one of back ones, or none. So some capitals don’t have a clear direction which may be a negative reflection of that nation’s lack of leadership.

So what does Hanoi want to be? We propose it can be: The First Sustainable Capital. Ambitious? Yes. But if you understand that this is political/national philosophy project and not an engineering project, having a strong vision that the leadership can bring to the people is important.

Hanoi and Sustainability

Ideas of sustainability is not a foreign concept to Vietnam. The national motto is: Freedom, Independence and Happiness. Vietnam fought hard to maintain these values in the various wars throughout its history with China, France and most recently against the US. So sustaining their way of life and independence has been a central philosophy all along.

What we proposed was that Hanoi needs to expand the ideas of sustainability to embody all 4 pillars of sustainability: economic, environmental, social and cultural sustainability.

The first, economic is obvious. Vietnam has had a breathtaking growth. It went from a starving population just 10 years ago to becoming #2 rice exporter, #2 coffee exporter and #1 cashew nut exporter. The economy is strong so it is important to ensure that this growth continues. Vietnam has 2 major cities: Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon) and Hanoi. The Mekong Delta and HCMC is more of the industrial base of the nation. The 2 cities need to clearly identify roles. In Hanoi, industry should be promoted, but needs to transition to a knowledge-based industry. This is more becoming of the capital, where administration, cultural and higher education should be promoted.

Environmental sustainability is obviously important. The Asia Development Bank (ADB) sees Vietnam will be one of the counties that will be most affected by rising sea-levels as a direct result of climate change. Hanoi and HCMC are both in delta areas, which would mean that they will be hardest hit. Also water and air pollution, are major concerns, since waste water and industrial waste in Hanoi is hardly treated, and heavy motorcycle traffic is having a negative impact on air quality.

Social and cultural sustainability is less obvious. In the case of Seoul, since the 60’s economic growth has trumped all other aspects, and in the process, cultural and historic heritage were irretrievably lost. It is only recently that there are attempts to belated recover these assets. But what is once lost is manyfold harder to recover. Hanoi has such rich heritage, that was unintentionally relatively well-preserved due to the war and economic stagnation that followed. Hanoi has Chinese, French, Soviet and Vietnamese heritage and influences all in one city. The scale French colonial urban structure and colonial-style villas makes for a very interesting european city, while the Old Quarter makes for a uniquely Vietnamese experience all within walking distance of each other.

It’s apparent that Vietnam, given its economy, cannot invest in preserving its cultural assets as much as more developed nations. But what it can do is protect until it can discover and develop them.

Main concepts

Our methodology is based first on an assessment of the current conditions of Hanoi, then identifying the unique assets and potentials of Hanoi, then establishing a strategic framework to develop these assets while mitigating the challenges, applying international best practices adapted to the unique conditions in Hanoi. Pretty straight forward.

The analysis of the current conditions shows that there are many challenges that Hanoi needs to overcome. Traffic congestion, transportation, flooding, uncontrolled urban development, housing, new administration center are to name just some of the high priority issues.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of focusing the plan on finding solutions for these challenges. However if you look beyond, you realize that Hanoi and Vietnam has many assets that need to be protected, discovered and developed. The numerous cultural and historic sites in and around Hanoi need to be protected, and the way of life in the numerous craft villages outside Hanoi’s urban core need to be maintained to the degree possible.

Agricultural land protection

Most important, high-productivity agricultural land needs to be protected. It is easy to overlook this issue. Many countries including Korea made the decision to convert its agricultural land for urban use. The Philippines also made a similar decision and, in a simplistic way, this is how it went from being a rice exporter to now the world’s biggest rice importer with Vietnam being a major exporter of rice to the Philippines. Given the growing urban population and uncontrolled development, this is indeed a clear danger for Vietnam also.

At its heart, it more a matter of principle than practicality. It would nice to have a good portion of the food resources needed for Hanoi to be cultivated and provided for from nearby farms, however this is not at all practical, given the projected population growth, and its appetite for new land for housing, industrial and commercial use. Also given how labor intensive it is to cultivated rice crops, it doesn’t make economic sense for the small-scale rice farms to try to supply Hanoi.

What’s more crucial is how the land is converted to non-agricultural use: High productivity agricultural land should be identified and only low productivity agricultural land be converted. If this principle is enforced in the capital, it should have a ripple effect on all the other cities in Vietnam which are growing and facing the same issue of land conversion. This will establish a principle that values agricultural land as a national principle and security. Not many countries around the world has the luxury or security of being able to feed its whole population from home grown produce. This is one asset that Vietnam should fight to protect and Hanoi can set the standard. Not many countries are a leader in anything. Vietnam should maintain its lead in agriculture as a matter of national priority, and work to build up other areas such as industry and technology to the same level.

Green Corridor

So how to achieve these goals and principles in an economically and environmentally sustainable way? Based on the current conditions, in order to establish a sustainable growth strategy, our main concept is centered around the establishment of the Green Corridor of Hanoi to the west of the previous Hanoi’s urban core. The Green Corridor follows the flood plains either side of the Day and Tich Rivers.

The idea of Green Corridor is fundamentally different from a green belt. A green belt is static and strictly controlled. However a green corridor is more flexible in that it allows for certain “green” activities to occur through maintaining many levels of protection. Protection can range from strict control to “conservation-based development” which accommodates pre-existing craft villages to function. The Green Corridor also moves to protect the high productivity agricultural land that exists around the Day and Tich River flood plains.

The Green Corridor will also function in much the same way a green belt does in Seoul or London in establishing a boundary around the urban areas to control uncontrolled urban sprawl development. This will give satellite cities the opportunity to develop in a more competitive and compact way and
allow the depopulation of the current Hanoi center and give public transportation a chance to function as it links the new urban centers with the old. The big added benefit of course is the open green space for future generations to enjoy.

With the Green Corridor acting as an anchor, so called “innovation clusters” can be developed to tap new potential and opportunities in eco-tourism, high-tech agriculture and cross-functional cultural-education-technology activity zones.

The biggest challenge for all this is the 700+ approved projects in Hanoi in various stages of planning and implementation speckled around the whole area. Currently all these projects have been put on hold pending the approval of master plan. Negotiating, accommodating or even canceling some of these projects which have strong vested political interests will be hardest part of the plan. Now that we have proposed the general framework for development, more details on how to reconcile the plan with the existing projects is what the next stage and the next report in July will have to address.

For now I’m glad that the 1st Report is over. According to official Vietnamese press sources, it seems to have been a successful presentation. But we still have a very steep uphill battle all the way for the rest of the project. I guess it’s always like this.

A few notes

This project/presentation is a team effort. I am currently the project director, which means I herd the cats. I coordinate our JINA team in Seoul and Hanoi and liaise with our consortium partners, Perkins Eastman (PE) and Posco e&c as well as our Vietnamese counterparts. The presentation was prepared by our team members in Seoul, Hanoi and New York, and was presented by Bradford Perkins (“Mr. Perkins” in Perkins Eastman Architects), Paul Buckhurst (PE), and Eliot Bu (my boss and friend at JINA).

Go team!

Hanoi Master Plan: 1st Report

JINA Architects: Eliot Bu (Co-CEO), Do Yeon Kim
(Co-CEO) and Nam-ho Park (that’s me)

  Hanoi Master Plan: 1st Report

PE & JINA Team: Paul, Do Yeon, Jaida,
Brad Perkins and Young

Hanoi Master Plan: 1st Report

2 Brains: Paul Buckhurst (PE)
and Prof. Young Bum Reigh

  Hanoi Master Plan: 1st Report

JINA Hanoi crew: Deok Ho Kim
and Soo Youn Choi

The walkable Hanoi: a half-day tour

A half-day walk through Hanoi

A half-day walk through Hanoi

Hanoi is a walkable city.

You would never know this with all the traffic overflowing in the streets. Of course the locals will prefer to ride their scooters. It’s actually dangerous to cross the streets when you are overwhelmed by bicycle motorcycle, automobiles and bus traffic coming from all directions, with traffic signals and traffic lines ignored most of the time.

But the scale, the tree-lined streets, and the distance between landmarks do lend itself to a leisurely stroll. Deep down inside you know Hanoi is in fact a very walkable city, it just forgotten it for a while. Recovering this aspect will be something that will be key to making more tourist friendly and a more of an attractive destination.

Here’s one of my favorite walks, if you have a half day to spare:

1. Opera. Start preferably after lunch at the Highlands Cafe next to the Opera. Nothing like a good coffee to start the tour. My personal favorite from their menu is Mango Mania. The Opera was built at the turn of the 20th century by the French colonists modeled on Garnier’s Opera in Paris. Crossing the road is a real challenge for the first time visitor. Just remember to walk slowly and predictably (whatever you do, do not run) so that the traffic can be aware of your presence in the street. Once you cross the road, walk down Trang Tien street towards the Hoan Kiem lake. This historic street has many bookstores that have good materials in English and maps of Hanoi and Vietnam.


2. Hoan Kiem Lake. The undisputed spiritual heart of Hanoi. The name means the The Lake of the Returned Sword and legend has it that emperor Le Loi was handed a magic sword by a tortoise here that brought him victory against the Chinese Ming Dynasty. The walk around its periphery is one the more calm experiences in Hanoi if you can mentally block out the noise. Once you make the a 3/4 circle, cut back up Hang Trong and then down Nha Tho to face the cathedral.

3. St. Joseph’s Cathedral. A scale-down replica of the Notre Dame in Paris completed in 1886. The streets around the cathedral have attractive boutiques, souvenir shops, restaurants and cafes and is one of the more gentrified, tourist friendly parts of town. If you already feeling tired, drop by the Moca Cafe. For those seeking exotic home furnishings, Mosaique Boutique provides interesting buys. When you are ready to move on, take the alley to the right of the cathedral and make you way down Phu Doan towards Hoa Lo Prison/Hanoi Towers.

4. Hoa Lo Prison. AKA The Hanoi Hilton during the Vietnam War (or the American War as the call in here) incarcerated downed fighter and bomber pilots and crew. It was famous for being the POW home of Senator John McCain, and Pete Peterson who later became the first US ambassador to Vietnam since the US resumed diplomatic ties with Vietnam in 1997.

5. Hanoi Towers. A large part of the Hoa Lo Prison was demolished to make way for the Hanoi Towers. At 25 stories, it was the tallest building in Hanoi when it was completed in the late 90’s. You can stop the tour here, and finish at another Highlands Cafe for some refreshments. You can also go to the 4th Floor of the residential tower to a restaurant called “Jaspa’s” and order their famous Bun Cha.

6. Quan An Ngon. What’s a walking tour without a dining destination to motivate you. This one is well worth the walk. Housed in a spacious French-style Villa, which I was told used to be owned by a wealthy Vietnamese doctor, now is the venue for a very reasonably priced restaurant that serves glorified “street food”. A favorite for both Vietnamese and visitors alike, you should try to go beyond the familiar spring rolls. It will be a rewarding experience.

Hanoi and its love of motorcycles


Motorcycles in Hanoi

This is a complex issue.

The first thing that overwhelms you when you arrive in Hanoi for the first time is the motorcycles. The noise. The chaos. They are everywhere. And remember to look both ways before crossing the street.

Sitting in a car in stuck in morning rush hour traffic I looked around. The motorcycles densely surrounded my car. It was like looking at sand filling the gaps between the stones. This was ultra-high traffic density.


From a Western point-of-view motorcycle as the main (and sometimes only) mode of transportation for Hanoi seems like a bad idea. It still freaks me out to see kids squeezed between parent or even babies carried in the mother’s arms being transported on motorcycles. The sound and air pollution they create is also at alarming levels.

But suspend those automobile-centric, environmental-conscious biases aside for a second. Pound-for-pound, no matter how you justify it cars are a more inefficient means of transportation, since 95 percent of the mass being accelerated is the car, not the driver, less than 1 percent of the fuel energy ultimately moves the driver. Motorcycles are indeed much more efficient people movers. And what’s more, more motorcycles will fit into a square meter of road.

I don’t have any data to back this up, but it is my hypothesis that motorcycles have played a major part as work horses in the amazing economic development of Vietnam and Hanoi. And they continue to do so, busily transporting millions each day, like blood cells transporting oxygen, in a city that has infrastructure lagging way behind the speed of development. It’s what makes Hanoi function.

The western or developed world gut-reaction is to get rid of it. But ask any Hanoian and they’ll say it is an indispensable part of their life. Khoi, my friend has a car (Kia Morning) and a motorcycle. He uses the car once a week to visit his in-laws with his family. But day-to-day, he uses his motorcycle to go to work and to meetings.


So there is no chance that Hanoians will give up their love with motorcycles.

Why try? Look back 5 years and there were less motorcycles and even less cars. Look forward 5 years and you see a city that will fall into cardiac arrest, as the population of Hanoi increases, maintaining 80% or more motorcycle ridership and the increase of cars will cause the road network to become paralyzed. The pollution is becoming a major issue and compound that to the inefficiencies in the economy will stunt whatever progress that Hanoi has made since 1986 Doi Moi, which opened Vietnam up to a market-driven economy.

This does not bode well for the Government, according to Ordinance on Hanoi Capital (No. 29/2000/PL-UBTVQH10 of December 28, 2000), wants to make Hanoi:

the heart of the whole country, making it more and more beautiful, civilized and modern; to inherit and promote the age-old historical and cultural traditions of Thang Long – Hanoi, contributing to building the country more beautiful and prosperous;

So what to do? The solution cannot come from thinking about the current conditions. Nor is it a stick and carrot issue. It requires thinking outside the box, literally.

It needs an integrated, multifaceted approach: As the population of Hanoi grows, there needs to be a plan to locate a large part of that population outside the inner core to satellite towns.

  • Locate new population centers with density. It is important to alleviate the population density in the inner city. Make new town outside the existing Hanoi far enough for the inhabitant to consider public transportation as an attractive option. Make those new towns dense enough to make public transportation viable.
  • Create an efficient rapid transit system from outskirts to inner city. Bringing in commuters from the new towns in an efficient manner is important in establishing a strong relationship between the new and old town centers.
  • Promote bus transfer in inner city. Once inside the old city, allowing for easy bus transfer to finish the commute.
  • Promote walkability. New Yorkers will walk 10 minutes to a subway station. So will Seoulites. How far can you get in 10 minutes? I walked from Hanoi Towers to St. Joseph’s Cathedral in that time. This is including the time crossing the streets, which can sometimes be hairy.

The critical factor here is financing and timing. All these strategies need to be executed concurrently since they are dependent on each other.

Let Hanoians keep their motorcycles, but provide them with a good or better option. That’s the only way out of this jam it seems.

Hanoi: Think Different


Panorama view from 25th floor of Hanoi Towers *

Hanoi Panorama

The view from the penthouse suite balcony of the Somerset Grand Hanoi, a.k.a Hanoi Towers is pretty amazing.


We’ve been looking for more economic alternatives for accommodations in Hanoi since we’ll visiting and working in Hanoi on a regular basis for the next year and a half, when we came across this one. It didn’t hurt to just look. It’s located on the 25th floor of the Hanoi Towers and has its own balcony overlooking downtown Hanoi.

The apartment was nice, but what was more surprising was the view: how few high-rises block your view. You would never get a view like this in Seoul, or any other major East Asian city. Hanoi is comparatively unspoiled and the government has done a good job resisting the pressures of development of Hanoi’s downtown area.

More Paris than Seoul

I had the strong sense that Hanoi has the potential of looking more like Paris than Seoul or Singapore in the future. Cities like Paris have many charms but the consistent density and height of its buildings reinforce its appeal and identity. The low-rise condition of Hanoi makes the city seem more humane and beautiful.

The other feature of the view that amazed me was how much greenery there already exists in Hanoi. Two factors contribute to this: tree-cover along major streets and trees that line the numerous mini-lakes you find around Hanoi. You don’t really realize how many lakes there are in Hanoi until you see the satellite image of downtown Hanoi. In the image below, I have indicated with stars all the lakes in the downtown area. The yellow star indicates Hoan Kiem Lake which is by far the most important and beloved lake in Hanoi and represents the spiritual center of the city. Once you can look past the weathered buildings and the ubiquitous motorcycle traffic, you realize that water, trees and nature seem to be at the heart and very identity of Hanoi.

Map of downtown Hanoi indicating lakes

Map indicating lakes in downtown Hanoi

Seoul: a failed model

If you look at Seoul, there are many relics from the past dotted around the city. You have the royal palaces, the gates to the walled city and names of places from the past city fabric buried under the new infrastructure. But rarely do they have space to breath. For example, you have the massive, ugly, Rafael Viñoly-designed monster, the Samsung Jongno Tower, towering over and suffocating Boshingak, the ancient building that houses the bell that announces the start of the New Year. In the history of Seoul’s development, growth and modernizing were given high priority over preservation and heritage. Hanok, the traditional Korean houses which were pervasive all throughout Seoul, were viewed as inferior and backwardly and replaced by concrete “A-pa-tu” apartment blocks. It is ironic that Hanok’s are now making a comeback. Jongno and Cheongyecheon, at the heart of the city were given over to the development of high-rise office blocks, and the identity of Seoul was gradually lost. What’s the point in belated attempts to recover the heritage when it has been lost already?


Ugly Seoul

The danger is replicating the Seoul model elsewhere. It is a failed model that is lopsided towards only serving growth and economy and not the social and cultural well-being of its inhabitants. If urban planning and design are taken only as engineering exercises, the solution will be Seoul. But the city is not an engineering project. Even more so when that city happens to be the capital of a nation. The engineering approach is the easy thing to do: to forecast growth and model housing and infrastructure needs and configure the city to efficiently handle those growing needs. In an unintentional imperialistic gesture, Korean or Japanese engineers will develop Hanoi based on what they know and experienced – in the image of the likes of Seoul, Tokyo. They cannot dream what Hanoi can be.

If you start thinking about all the issues that need to be considered, the mind goes into a state of overload and paralysis. One needs to consider the issues of what to preserve, how to implement regulations, how to solve the traffic, transportation and motorcycle issue, how to promote development… and the list goes on.

People First

The solution may be simple: put people single-mindedly first. This seems to have worked well for Bogata, which emerged from a crime-stricken capital of a civil war-torn country, into a city that has one of the best transportation infrastructure and urban bicycle programs in the world under the brief tenure of Mayor Enrique Peñalosa (1998-2001). The lesson here is, it’s still ok dream big and to imagine a better future. But is takes an enormous amount of courage and leadership.

What to do in Hanoi? At the very least, Hanoi can freeze or restrict development in the downtown area for the next 20 years. In 20 years, the Vietnamese economy will be much stronger, and at a point where they will have the means as well as the methods to do a much better job caring for the cultural heritage embodied in Hanoi. Though painful now, the future generations of Hanoi and Vietnam will thank us if we do that.

Think Different

Most developing nations can only see into the short-term future, and end up sacrificing their heritage for development and growth. All the developed cities in East Asia and Southeast Asia attest to this. Hanoi can be different. It has the potential of becoming the only remaining well preserved, sustainable gem of a city in all of Asia.


Encouraging is the fact that in Hanoi, both national, local officials and academics understand this already. But there is mounting pressure from the private sector to develop and tap the real-estate value of downtown. Once you open that tap, Hanoi will likely see the unpleasant effects flooding in uncontrolled urban development on top of the natural flooding it experiences regularly.

The challenge here is to balance preservation, quality of life, urban identity with the pressures for growth and development. This is something I’ll be thinking very hard about for the next year, as our team works hard on developing the Master Urban Plan for the Hanoi Capital.

A good place to start is by first listening to the people of Hanoi.

* For you tech-heads out there, For the panorama photo at the top of this pose, I used the “File > Automate > Photomerge…” feature in Photoshop CS3, which did the painless job stitching my photos together. I found some interesting panoramas while doing some research into how best to stitch my photos together.

Apple Store Hanoi

Apple Store Hanoi

Apple Retail Store in Hanoi

On my latest trip to Hanoi, I discovered the Apple Store here. I can’t image Steve would have come to open this one personally.