|Hanoi’s iconic Hoan Kiem Lake is adored by tourists and locals alike, but many surrounding areas are simply too full|
Located deep in an alley on Hang Buom street is house No.53, built over 100 years ago. Although severely degraded with many cracks appearing in the rotten walls and stairs, the 3-storey house with dozens of apartments has been the residence for nearly 200 people for many years.
Nguyen Trung Truc, a resident living in an apartment on the first floor said, “The house has signs of dilapidation and the entrance to the house lacks sunlight, so it is dirty and dark. When opening the door, the smell flies straight into the house. Every time it rains, the house and the yard are wet.”
Truc’s family and the households who live here all want to have a new spacious and cleaner place, but what they worry about most is how to earn a living after moving, when their current income mainly depends on street trading in the Old Quarter.
With a history of more than 1,000 years, the area is both an administrative and commercial centre and a place with great historical value, architecture, and culture. The 36 traditional craft streets represent business activities, attracting not only people in Hanoi but also people in the surrounding areas to come here for settlement.
Over the years, the rapid population growth has narrowed the land fund in the Old Quarter, creating great pressure on infrastructure, causing cramped and messy conditions which, in turn, affects the urban appearance and affection of international tourists to Hanoi, and is also related to damage caused to many historical monuments.
Therefore, the relocation of the population in the Old Quarter area is considered a top priority of Hanoi’s administration in urban reconstruction and conservation of cultural heritage.
According to the urban planning, 215,000 residents in Hoan Kiem, Ba Dinh, Dong Da, and Hai Ba Trung will be relocated by the end of the decade. The land fund released from relocation will be used to restore monuments, build transport systems, reconstruct urban areas, and add additional public works such as parks, squares, and car parks.
Higher quality of life
According to data from the 2019 Population and Housing Census, the population density in Hoan Kiem district stood at around 39,800 people per kilometre, 137 times higher than the national population density. The Old Quarter alone now boasts about 4,300 houses. On average, about 3-4 families can live together in one house. There are some houses with dozens of families, for which the living area amounts to only 0.5-1.8 square metre per person.
Of the nearly 1,000 homes with a life expectancy of less than 100 years, 63 per cent are in degradation, 12 per cent are in danger, and 5 per cent are polluted.
Poor and unsafe living conditions are the reason for a number of accidents, ranging from daily inconveniences to house collapses. With such high population density in a cramped area, relocation is the first solution to reduce the pressure on the inner city.
“People here say they are very unhappy because their current accommodation is degraded and potentially dangerous so they cannot live there for long. If a new place can ensure essential services and solve the livelihood problem, we will be ready to move,” said Nguyen Manh Cuong, a resident in Cua Nam ward of Hoan Kiem district.
Pham Tuan Long, Chairman of Hoan Kiem People’s Committee said the plan to lower the population in the four districts from the current 887,000 to 672,000 by 2030 remains associated with similar projects the district has implemented over the years. In addition to regulations on the relocated people, the city also plans to prepare resettlement areas for residents.
“The zoning planning aims to offer the best conditions for people. I am also willing to move if I am in the clearance area. Moving to a new place, people will have better living conditions and leave land for the city to re-plan for a more beautiful capital,” Long said.
In addition to improving the urban living environment, one of the plan’s goals is to develop culture and preserve heritage sites and monuments of the Old Quarter. The most visible examples of the pressure created by the high population density are the many monuments, temples, and pagodas in the area that are spoiled by restaurants and parking lots. There are even relics being requisitioned to function as stands for goods.
For example, Vinh Tru Pagoda on Hang Luoc street is recognised as a famous cultural destination in the Old Quarter. For many years its facade has often been occupied by surrounding shops as a parking place, which not only affects tourists but also lessens the majesty of such ancient architecture.
According to Assoc. Prof. Dr. Luong Tu Quyen from the Faculty of Urban and Rural Planning of Hanoi Architectural University, the rapid and disturbing transformation of monuments on central streets will become increasingly difficult to control.
Regardless of the purpose, Quyen says, population relocation is required in inner-city planning to preserve and improve the quality of life, while promoting traditional values in the Old Quarter. However, population relocation also needs to ensure the preservation of long-term habits and livelihoods for people, he added.
These plans are nothing new. Over 20 years ago the city implemented a plan to rearrange the old town and had a policy of relocating universities, hospitals, head offices of ministries, and more from the historic inner-city area. Yet today it still has not found a solution to the problem of improving long-term livelihoods.
Meanwhile, thousands of households in the Old Quarter mainly depend on business and retail trading activities, leading to disagreements within the people living here. The people who are determined to stick around are mostly households close to the roads. Others that voluntarily relocate are residents living in old deteriorated houses, with an area of less than 5sq.m per person.
Economic and cultural experts all say that relocation on such scale would not be easy because it relates to thousands of households of many generations, especially families who have lived for many generations in Hanoi’s Old Quarter.
The key to a successful relocation, they say, could be to solve the problem of interests between people and heritage conservation.
By Thai An