Hanoi faces future with a respectful nod to its rich past

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 April, 2008, 12:00am

To get to grips with the changing face of Hanoi, the sacred lake of Hoan Kiem in the city centre is a good place to start. For years the lake has typified Hanoi's gentle pace, with old men in pork-pie hats gathering to play chess in the afternoons and young lovers courting under its giant flame trees.

They are still there, but now they are surrounded by signs of rapidly modernising lifestyles as more than a decade of steady growth has put the once-austere Vietnamese capital on the brink of unprecedented change.

Around its edge, SUVs and Humvees compete with thousands of motorbikes choking streets once ruled by bicycles. In one corner of the lake, an electronic screen ticks off the hours before Hanoi celebrates its 1,000th anniversary in October 2010 - an event now under active preparation as the Communist Party's modernisation plans kick into full gear.

In another corner, a French-era villa is emblazoned with posters of an avuncular, bearded old man. For once, it is not Vietnam's revolutionary founder Ho Chi Minh but Colonel Sanders. KFC has just opened an outlet on the lake - one of the first major western food franchises to brave Vietnam's emerging but still tightly regulated market.

On a street nearby, top European luxury-goods houses have opened to a roaring trade, with young people flush with the new wealth of stock-market and property speculation.

'My parents' generation still can't understand all this consumption and need for style,' said Nguyen Thi Bich Hoa, a 30-year-old designer, as she shopped for a Louis Vuitton handbag. 'They used to keep their money and gold out of sight. But I tell them this is the new Hanoi.

'People feel happier, relaxed and more comfortable with their wealth. They want to express themselves and show off a little. My generation wants to look its best.'

Once, when earnest young Hanoians gathered, the talk might have been about relationships, politics, poetry or art. Now it is more likely to be property and apartment developments, the stock market, overseas travel and wine. Where is best to send your children to secondary school - Britain, Australia or New Zealand?

And it is not just lifestyles that are changing beyond recognition. Physically, too, the city is changing, groaning at the seams from development pressure and the influx of hundreds of thousands of people from poorer surrounding provinces.

Home to one of the region's richest architectural legacies covering Chinese, Vietnamese, French and Soviet-bloc design, Hanoi's city planners insist they are determined to protect the heart of the capital, with its elegant state buildings, villas and cafes, tree-lined avenues and Old Quarter. Despite restrictions on destroying old buildings, private developers have still managed to knock down dozens of well-known buildings in recent years.

'Our challenge is to build up the areas surrounding the city to encourage people to move,' said Do Viet Chien, deputy director of the planning and architectural department of the Hanoi People's Committee.

'The city as it is now cannot cope ... We have no choice but to develop if we are to keep the best parts of Hanoi protected.'

Mr Chien's department is finalising a master plan for 2020 that will see new government, commercial, hi-tech and industrial zones building around the edge of the current city, all surrounded by new residential and park areas.

The World Bank is funding ring roads, while France and China are preparing to bankroll light rail lines into the city. South Korea, meanwhile, is helping to drive plans to develop Hanoi's long-neglected Red River waterfront. Five new bridges are planned.

Within protected areas, development is to be kept in character. Already several new state buildings, such as the Finance Ministry's, have been developed according to traditional French colonial designs.

To the west of the lake is the Old Quarter, home to more than 15,000 households and one of the most congested square miles of land anywhere in the region. Mr Chien said he did not want the Old Quarter turned into a museum but to remain an active part of the city - just with markedly fewer people. 'We have to give them viable alternatives.'