Hanoi swallowed up by skyscrapers

Ever since the socioeconomic reforms of the 1980s, neighbourhoods in the immediate outskirts of Hanoi, Vietnam's capital, have been undergoing profound changes. “Every time I go there, the landscape has changed. Hanoi is facing rapid urbanization, which has led to the construction of skyscrapers around the city,” says Labbé.


The new urban areas are built on land once inhabited by villagers. "Their architecture contrasts with the surrounding environment, especially when they appear in the middle of rice fields a few kilometers from Hanoi ," says the professor at the Institute of Urban Studies, Université de Montréal.

Labbé, who has held this position since 2012, leads a major project funded by the Fonds de recherché du Québec – Société et culture whose aim is to provide an overview of the State-planned cities around Hanoi. "I am trying to understand how these cities are conceived by the government and how people take ownership of them and transform them into real living spaces that still have a Vietnamese identity," says Labbé.

The objective of the researcher, who has travelled back and forth between Hanoi and Montreal for some ten years, is to describe the 261 satellite cities built, or being built on the outskirts of Hanoi. Based on a study of these new urban areas, she will analyze the socio-spatial and socio-economic changes by looking at the three phases of their life cycle: conception-financing, construction-development, and dwelling type.

The newly built cities, which attract the upper middle class, correspond to the urban development models promised by the State. They combine ultra-modern residential towers, individual houses, large parks, and a variety of services. However, small narrow ancestral-type houses are not allowed. Of interesting note: since there is a high demand for this type of dwelling, local real estate developers have been breaking the law and building them anyway. Yet skyscrapers still dominate the landscape.

This contrast led to the publishing of an article in Le Monde diplomatique in 2010 entitled "Skyscrapers swallowing up the rice fields in Hanoi," which caused an uproar. "Many criticized this kind of real estate development that leads to individualism and privatization. According to some researchers, it is the result of globalization," says Professor Labbé.

In her view, such a framework does not really apply to Vietnam, although criticizing the negative effects of this urbanization is necessary. “These processes of suburbanization bring about a multitude of social, economic, institutional, spatial, and environmental changes, which require rapid adjustments in the lifestyles of village communities and in the governance practices of local authorities,” she notes.


Important lifestyle changes

How does an urban planner from Quebec end up in Asia helping Vietnamese professionals in the development of their cities? “During my undergraduate studies in architecture, I did an internship in Hanoi,” says Labbé. “It was love at first sight.”

She has since branched out into urban studies, but she has returned many times to Hanoi. “I began collaborating with the Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences. Their support was necessary for obtaining permission to talk with people since it is a communist country,” says the professor, who speaks fluent Vietnamese.

In July, the architect by training went to Hanoi with three students to begin the third phase of the study. The researchers conducted some forty interviews with inhabitants of the four cities built over the past 5-10 years. Although it is still too early to discuss results, Professor Labbé notes that the neighbourhoods have been reabsorbed by these lifestyle changes. “There is a real desire for modernity,” she says, “but people are still attached to their habitual ways of life. For example, they like the local services they were allowed before, such as street vendors. So they have found ways to work around the law, whether the State likes it or not, to have access to these services.

This text is a translation of an article originally published in French by Dominique Nancy