Could messiness be a good thing?

Adaptation strategies in response to rapid urban development and transformation of food systems in Hanoi
Overlooking the new urban area of Trung Hoa Nhan Chinh

We stood in one of the main plazas of Trung Hoa Nhan Chinh, a new urban area in Hanoi. The plaza was lined with fancy restaurants offering food from around the world and squeaky clean supermarkets. Under us there was a vast underground mall. The man next to me, a prominent developer, pointed at the new skyscrapers around us and said, in genuine amazement, “When I started working here 20 years ago there was nothing—just paddy fields and buffaloes.”

Later, we took an elevator to the top of one of the tallest buildings in the area. There, in a sudden downpour of rain, I leaned against a balcony looking out at the new city. I took the above photo. I had to admit that what I saw was incredible: there was something both frightening and awesome about this new mass of concrete, stretching out as far as the eye could see.

In Hanoi, a new skyscraper punctures the skyline almost every month, and the city breathes concrete dust from the constant construction of new bridges, overpasses, highways, and commuter train lines. Thousand-year-old villages on the outskirts of the city, previously surrounded by rice fields, now neighbor vibrant shopping centers, boulevards, parks, and suburbia.

But it’s not just the built environment that has changed; all aspects of life are transforming in Vietnam. The new middle class is increasingly relying on supermarkets, fast food restaurants, and organic grocery stores, and the new quality of life they represent. And just as the new middle class is getting used to these changes in food habits, the food system of the urban poor is also transforming rapidly. The government is slowly shuttering some of the main open markets in the city, and the summer of 2017 saw increased criminalization on informal vendors. In the global race to attract foreign investment, Hanoi’s authorities are committed to ‘civilizing’ and ‘modernizing’ Vietnamese city life, which means cleaning up anything that does not seem orderly and neat.

How do people navigate these staggering changes? As someone who was upset when the tiny, but charming, train station by my parents’ house was torn down, I find it difficult to fathom how people respond when the rice fields they grew up in are entirely replaced by concrete titans in the span of a decade.

In collaboration with Nguyen Hong Van, this research project sought to understand how Hanoians, especially low-income residents, respond to rapid urban development. With a focus on food practices—that is, the day-to-day habits of buying, selling, growing, and eating food—we wanted to know what strategies people use to adjust to the transformation of their neighborhood. We focused on areas that had seen a significant shift in demographic from low-income to high-income residents—places with new housing but where some of the original poor residents still lived and worked. Data collection involved over 80 interviews of residents, urban planners, researchers and experts, and officials, as well as surveys of 60 residents of one hamlet, participatory observation at food spaces such as markets and gardens, two focus group meetings, photography, and grey literature such as news media, existing reports, and student papers. Most of the research focused on three wards in the Tay Ho district, Nhat Tan, Quang An, and Phu Thuong; but we also investigated the areas of Linh Dam, one of the first new urban areas, built around a still-inhabited village; Trung Hoa Nhan Chinh, a more recently constructed new urban area; and a new urban area in Tu Liem district, Trung Van.

Old and new ways of life, side by side

Linh Dam was one of the first new urban areas in Hanoi, built in the 1990s. The image shows new-build construction, much of which is still ongoing and was built on the traditional agricultural areas of the nearby villages. The villages still remain, but many of their residents have lost the livelihood that they relied on. The new residents have taken over construction sites for their garden plots.

The area of Linh Dam is archetypical of some of the main patterns we saw happening in new urban areas. There, new-build residential housing has encircled the original villages. Older residents still refer to themselves as villagers, and largely shop for food in the local market or from street vendors they know and trust. Many of them have lost their livelihood—we talked to one woman who used to be a farmer and is forced to subdivide and sell parts of her house again and again in order to support her family. She now sells candy and detergents out the front of her small living room. In general, the villagers keep to themselves and do not seem to interact much with the residents of the new urban area. However, those we talked to saw themselves as very open, noting that if someone new moves into the village, they are quickly welcomed as part of the community.

Walk less than 200 m outside the village and you will enter the new urban area. There, residents often shopped at the convenience stores and supermarkets built as part of the development. However, many of them also went to the market in the village or bought food from street vendors. In addition, the residents organized autonomously by starting Facebook groups for each building. They would advertise home-cooked food for sale, or would sell ‘clean vegetables’ (no pesticides) grown by a family member in the country. Residents were often young families, who had taken out a loan to buy their apartment and brought their elderly parents from the countryside to take care of their children while they worked. The elderly parents often took over unused land such as construction sites and started garden plots. It became clear that these garden plots were important strategies for residents to get to know each other—vegetables grown in the gardens would mostly be gifted to neighbors, and they would spend much of their time socializing with other gardeners, giving each other advice on growing practices. At night, the new urban area is alive and vibrant, with leisure activities like go-carting, street food, and use of public space for sports and dance. For these new inhabitants, public space has become a key way to make connections with their neighbors and develop a sense of community.

A community leader of one of the new towers in Linh Dam points to her garden plot on a nearby construction site. She tells us she gives away much of the vegetables she grows. Many of her new acquaintances are fellow gardeners, who constantly call on her phone for gardening tips. We wondered what would happen to this new community once the gardens were demolished to make way for new developments.

From poor village to cosmopolitan hub

We focused on three wards in Tay Ho district: Quang An, Nhat Tan, and Phu Thuong. Linh Dam and Trung Hoa Nhan Chin are to the south of the map.

Linh Dam lies to the south of the city center, but much of our research focused on an area just northwest of Hanoi’s historical downtown near Ho Tay, West Lake, revered throughout Vietnam for its spiritual and historical importance. Surrounding the lake is the district of Tay Ho, and jutting into the lake on a small peninsula is the village of Quang An. Just 30 years ago, villagers fished the lake and farmed, largely for high-value crops like Kumquat trees, lotus, decorative flowers, and peach. Today, there are still some people farming, but the village has largely been integrated into the urban fabric. Starting in the 1970s, educated Vietnamese—often with government connections—bought land from poor farmers, built villas, and then rented out apartments to foreigners.

If Linh Dam’s development is largely dedicated to the new class of young urban professionals, Tay Ho’s demographic shift has been much more cosmopolitan. At a strategic position between Hanoi’s main airport, the new Nhat Tan bridge, the downtown area, and a gated compound, Ciputra International City, which also houses a private international school, Quang An and the neighboring village, Nhat Tan, have become a meeting place for the international community. Today, the main street that connects the two villages hosts cafés, Italian gelato shops, Japanese restaurants, an Argentinian steakhouse, and a Starbucks.

In contrast, Phu Thuong, on the other side of the Nhat Tan bridge, has much less luxury development. Yet, many of its residents used to be peach tree farmers whose land was expropriated 30 years ago to make way for Ciputra. In this way, the three ‘villages’ are living laboratories of the progression of very recent development processes, intricately linked to the global movement of capital and elites.

Public space as social safety net

Despite the marked difference between Linh Dam and Tay Ho, we noticed some similar patterns. In Tay Ho, many older residents can no longer rely on their farmland as a source of income, so they have turned to the informal sale of food as a source of income. Residents set up stalls on the sidewalk in front of their homes selling fermented vegetables, street food, tea, and che (rice balls). This informal economy functions as a safety net for many, as public use of space also increases people’s connections and provides extra income for those who are unable to engage in the formal economy.

Residents quickly started gardening on the bed of a drained lake. When we asked one gardener what she did with the vegetables, she said she gave most of them away to her neighbors or family.

Food vending also provides flexibility for those who can’t work full time, such as women doing childcare. Women are also excluded by the male-dominated land inheritance system, so they often do not benefit from the booming real estate market—the informal economy is thus not only a means for survival, but can be an empowering way for women to achieve autonomy from their male relatives.

Throughout our research, many people expressed surprise that we were studying poor residents in Tay Ho. The district is known for its high real estate prices—Hanoians have a hard time believing that there are any poor people left.

But we found them simply by walking around. We met one couple that had requested a permit to take over a construction waste site and, over 10 years, built a flourishing garden. People are constantly coming in and out, dropping things off, and stopping by to say hello and for a little chit-chat. The couple had never received any property during the land reform era because they lacked the connections and money to “shake hands” with officials. They used the garden as a way to receive guests and build connections with their neighbors. In this way, the garden didn’t just provide vegetables, but also helped them build social capital and, eventually, the social safety net that allowed them to survive exclusion from the booming real estate market.

The shack and organic garden built by an elderly couple in Quang An ward. Excluded by the booming real estate market, they requested a permit to take over a waste dump and turned it into a flourishing garden, where they receive guests and build strong connections with their neighbors.

The case for messiness

In both areas, use of public space was crucial for old and new residents to maintain and develop bonds. Gardening was an important way for people to build connections with each other—they traded advice and vegetables, and gave surplus as gifts during the holidays. Informal sale of food was also important, as the increased visibility helped residents excluded from the real estate market—primarily women—to develop connections and become more independent. In this way, many residents seemed to respond to the changes of their lives by taking over public space and building social capital. Unclear property laws and informal economies thus helped many people, especially women, to adapt to the rapid changes and build resilience.

In the summer months of 2017, the city cracked down heavily on the informal sector, fining and clearing street food stalls and vegetable vendors. Hanoi’s officials want to attract global capital, and they do so by loosening real estate laws to enable foreign investment, building transportation infrastructure and tourism destinations, and ensuring a more civilized urban environment. New urban areas are outfitted with many modern amenities such as clinics, schools, and supermarkets, and convenience store chains are popping up around the city with the help of the government. There is a deliberate top-down campaign to transform the economy and civilize the urban environment. This involves putting up institutional barriers for the informal sector while providing a safe investment environment for large private entrepreneurial ventures.

Our research found that poor residents, many of whom are systematically excluded by the formal economy, and are unable to benefit from the booming real estate market, tend to rely on public space to survive and flourish. In particular, food—the sale, gifting, and growing of it—brings residents together and helps build social safety nets for the socioeconomically disadvantaged. But it’s not just the poor residents that depend on the use of public space and informal food systems; in Linh Dam, the up-and-coming young urban professionals relied on the use of public space—gardening, hanging out in the square eating street food—to build up their new lives.

These kinds of uses of public space may look messy and unorganized—and thus they are more likely to be targeted by officials. Street markets, gardens, public gatherings—these are spaces where people can talk to strangers and get to know their neighbors. For the poor, this is crucial: it allows them to build connections and earn extra income. But everyone benefits. The city becomes a place where you can connect with those around you, break the isolation, and experience the unexpected.

If developers and officials were to acknowledge that it is precisely this messiness that makes the city worth living in, then Hanoi’s urban development could involve making the city accessible for all. In Ho Chi Minh City, for example, a new initiative has been set up to allocate public spaces for street food vendors selected on the basis of socio-economic criteria. This kind of initiative could be extended to other parts of the food chain, like production and marketing. In Taipei, whole neighborhoods have been turned into ‘night markets’ where visitors and local residents can mingle. Or, developers of new urban areas could allocate space for community gardens—a practice already common in the United Kingdom for decades. These kinds of initiatives ensure that the city is a place where everyone can participate in and benefit from the rapidly transforming urban environment.

Guerilla gardening in an empty lot next to a brand new development. This might look messy, not modern enough. But gardening was an important resource for new residents to build social connections.

Author of this blog:

Aaron Vansintjan

PhD student at Birbeck, London University

Contributions from:

Brice Even

Market access specialist (CIAT)

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