Credit: HOANG DINH NAM/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
Why Hanoi's historic buildings are under threat from modernity
A walk near Hanoi's Hoan Kiem Lake reveals the city's distinctly Francophile architectural legacy. An old mansion that once belonged to the Governor of Tonkin, a former French protectorate, is now a government guesthouse for foreign dignitaries. The nearby Metropole Hotel, built in 1901, also maintains much of its historic appeal despite the modernized facilities.
It is a picture of old Vietnam that the country's government -- and its heritage preservation policies -- seems to cherish. Even the neighborhood's new state buildings have been built in the old colonial style, with saffron yellow facades and green window frames.
Evidence of conservation can also be found in the Old Quarter, to the lake's north, which was for centuries the center of commercial life in Hanoi. The 250-year-old Quan Chuong Gate, all that remains of the old city wall, still welcomes visitors under its glazed roof tower. And centuries-old syncretic temples, which merge Buddhist, Confucian and Taoist beliefs, still stand in the neighborhood's winding alleys alongside old colonial villas (though some have had modern structures built on top of them).
While Vietnam's largest metropolis, Ho Chi Minh City, has gutted its historic port district, Hanoi has retained some of its old charm. Some 600 state-owned colonial villas and shophouses, a style of building found throughout Southeast Asia, have been declared off limits to developers, said Michael R. DiGregorio, an urban planner and country director for the Asia Foundation, who has lived in Hanoi for 25 years.
According to Danielle Labbé, a professor of urban planning at the University of Montreal and author of the book "Land Politics and Livelihoods on the Margins of Hanoi, 1920-2010,"the city's preservation is better managed than in other parts of Asia such as Beijing, where large swathes of the Chinese capital's old alleyways have been demolished.
"In general, the national and municipal governments ... have taken measures to protect monuments -- the citadel, important pagodas and temples -- and important urban ensembles -- the Old Quarter and Colonial Quarter -- with a focus on the oldest or best preserved buildings," she said.
Elsewhere in Hanoi, however, hundreds of old villas and shophouses lie decrepit and unoccupied. And while some these buildings have been spared demolition, others have been less fortunate, according to DiGregorio.
"The charm of Hanoi has been torn down," he said, claiming that most of the old buildings he remembers from the mid-1990s are now gone. "The question should be: why does anything remain?"
It was during the 1990s that private developers began replacing state planners, as major economic reforms began to take effect across Vietnam. Between the late 1980s and 2008, the number of French and European-style villas in Hanoi dropped by almost half, to under 1,000, according to research by Thi Nhu Dao at the Université Panthéon-Sorbonne in Paris. The same study reported that only 15% of the city's villas are considered "intact."
Aiming to cash in on downtown properties, developers will seize land in the old parts of the city if given the chance. Given their close proximity to city's commercial districts and government offices, the city's oldest buildings are often sitting on Hanoi's most valuable real estate.
"Both the Old Quarter and the Colonial Quarter sit on what the Vietnamese call 'golden land,'" explained Labbé. "There is considerable profit to be made if an investor manages to get his hands on land in these areas and replace an old and relatively low building (with) a more profitable, bigger, multi-story building."
Local architect Tran Thanh Van described the current situation as one of "disorder," with preservation in the Old Quarter in disarray, she said. Historic buildings that aren't demolished outright, are often modified or refurbished by local businesses, with little regard for their heritage.
"Hanoi has preserved its architectural heritage very badly," she said. "More precisely, in order to make profit they incessantly build high skyscrapers to do business and (have) destroyed almost all old architectural projects."
A quirk of history
Despite the frustration of urban preservationists, Hanoi has somewhat resisted a trend unfolding across Asia's cities. Yet, some of Hanoi's conservation success may be an unintended consequence of the country's political past.
With villas, shophouses and large residences seized by the state following the 1954 communist victory in North Vietnam, old properties in Hanoi were collectivized and filled with new occupants by the state.
Decades later, these old villas remain divided between multiple families, making it difficult for developers to buy them out. The result is a state of inertia, in which buildings can neither be destroyed nor effectively renovated, according to Labbé.
"In a sense, this situation has held many buildings in the Old Quarter in a sort of 'status quo,'" she said.
Nguyen Thao, a 30-year-old tour organizer in Hanoi, said that her parents' house, an old French villa, remains standing for this very reason.
"They say we can only renovate the house," she said. "We cannot destroy it, because it would affect our neighbors."
Although Hanoi's quant atmosphere is popular with Thao's clients, she admitted that she took little interest in urban preservation before she began working in tourism. Many in Vietnam, particularly the young, think little of architectural heritage, she said.
"(Young) Vietnamese people prefer to live in a modern city, where they have more possibilities to enjoy their life," she said, adding that the modernity of Ho Chi Minh City was more appealing to many of her peers.
Nonetheless, Thao said that she has now come to realize that Hanoi's architectural history gives the city a unique flavor worth preserving. It's a sentiment shared by Nguyen Quang Son, a 20-year-old electrical engineering student who, through a program at his university, provides free tours to foreign tourists.
"In the past, Hanoi people lived in a very different way from now," he said. "Now the culture has changed, so the old buildings are something we still have to remember the old days."