Monday, May 16. 2011
Hanoi does not have many high-rises. I am very thankful for this. Of course this is a little hypocritical of me, since I live in a high-rise. From the eleventh floor I have a clear view of the city center of Hanoi. A beautiful view, because there are few other high-rises.
Hanoi consists of a large number of small houses, generally about three to five stories high, with roofs in all colors: red, green, blue, orange. Small really means small. They are single-family homes, and they are still built in the typical Vietnamese “tunnel-house” style - they are narrow facing the street, and then extend far back. Like a tunnel. And that’s about how you feel when you're inside. Because to the left and right and back are other houses, so there is light only from the front, from the very, very narrow front.
Hanoian construction is not exactly flooded with light. In my high-rise, there are 14 apartments on each floor, and only 3 of them even have a window in every room. I know this because I looked at them all in a desperate attempt to find the right apartment. Many Europeans love the sun. For Vietnamese the sun is, at best, unimportant. Sun means heat, and heat means either to sweat 8 months a year, or expensive electricity consumption for air conditioning. That is why the first act of the employees in the few glass-walled office high-rise complexes in Hanoi is to close the blinds and turn on the fluorescent ceiling lights. Whoever wants to live and work in Hanoi should have no phobia about fluorescent light. Fluorescent light is everywhere. In the office, the living room, in a restaurant. Hanoians would probably say it's a pleasant, cold, pale light.
Incidentally, it is not that Hanoians do not like skyscrapers. Skyscrapers are considered modern and chic. And of course, most would also prefer to live in the city center, rather than to struggle through traffic for forty-five minutes every morning to get to work. Ergo, many Hanoians would see a downtown paved with high-rises as both chic and practical. The point is, in the inner city there is no room for new skyscrapers. There are a few construction projects. Very few. Hardly anyone wants to sell their house, and because of the many small property holdings it would need a lot of people selling their houses to make way for a new skyscraper.
The municipal government has therefore decided to move Hanoi to the west. At least, the city center. A new city center is to be created to the west, there where all the skyscrapers are growing, a symbol of modernity and prosperity. What today is "soon to be the tallest building in Hanoi”, is tomorrow the second tallest, without ever having been the tallest. But what this new future city center is missing, is charm and character. What is appearing there now already looks like any other big city. And it raises the question: Who wants to move there? So far away from the current city center. An attractive city center.
Hanoi has charm. It can be a somewhat chaotic, loud, messy charm. It is the charm of a historic old town, which today bustles with noise, racket and honking vehicles. Where houses change their facades almost daily, while in the back electricity and water may not be working. Nobody really wants to move there, but those who live there would not sell their houses anyway, because they are gold mines: every house a shop, a hotel, a cafe. Property prices rumored to be as expensive as in Manhattan. Regardless, the old city may be chaotic, but it is still unique. And fascinating in its vitality.
Hanoi has style. It is the style of the French-built boulevards and colonial villas. Which at the actual time of construction were an incredibly ignorant break with the city's architecture, the overbearing arrogance of a colonial power turned into stone - but which nonetheless a hundred years later look enchanting, elegant and stylish. Of course, what was then a grand boulevard is today overwhelmed with traffic, and the drains overflow with each cloudburst, but it curiously still has ten times more character than what is currently being built in the new development areas.
Old (expensive) mansions and old (expensive) single-family homes are naturally not a solution to urban growth and housing shortages. Hanoi officially has 6 million inhabitants, which is cheating a little, because the whole "administrative district Hanoi" is in the calculation, which includes a lot of rice fields and farm villages. But three million more or less. A lot of people live in Hanoi, and more and more people are moving to the big city. And they have to live somewhere.
Perhaps Hanoi has even found a good solution: preserving the old (if not entirely voluntarily), and building something new in the suburbs. Whether the west of Hanoi will become the new city center anytime soon, I have my doubts. And until then the fact remains: from my living room window the (high-rise-free) city center of Hanoi looks really beautiful.
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