The Politics in the Pavement

Vietnamese architecture: the fight to preserve it and why it matters.

By Jonathan Ng


[dropcap]M[/dropcap]idnight in Hanoi.  Buildings sleep in the silence of city-imposed curfew.  Dark avenues slope towards Hoan Kiem Lake at the city’s center.  Lights spray onto streets: beacons guiding weary pedestrians.

It’s midnight, and Thuy Nguyen hoists another chicken onto her chopping block.  Her operation is meticulous.  A cart displays hanging chickens, sections of pork, and a wooden cutting board.  Thuy moves quickly between soups that boil inches away at waist level, meats at eye level, and noodles in an accompanying basket.  Her organization allows the fifty-something year old woman to effortlessly assemble items on her menu, which consists of five options, in minutes.

She works tonight, like every night of the week, serving up to 200 bowls to customers, mainly local but occasionally foreign.  Tonight, Thuy bathes in the atmosphere of Hanoi—the smells of her restaurant’s pork, pickled vegetable noodle soup (bun cha), the city’s syrupy humidity, and a burnt incandescent glow.  Tonight, over the cutting board, her bent frame mimics that of her customers’ who huddle together on low plastic stools, some laughing, some telling stories, all luxuriously slurping in the Old Quarter of Vietnam’s capital.

Like many other restaurants in Vietnam, Thuy’s corner restaurant doubles as a home, where she lives in a small flat with her husband and two daughters.  However, uncommon to the Old Quarter, Thuy has lived in this home her childhood and converted the downstairs portion into a restaurant in 2003.

Seas of motorbikes have taken over Hanoi’s narrow streets, and a Circle K convenience store, an international chain founded in 1951 in El Paso, has opened across the street.  The layout of the Hoan Kiem district that was meant for horses and narrow carts strains to contain the expanding appetite of the Vietnamese economy.  Yet, Thuy’s off-white two story home and restaurant remain a fixture on the unassuming side street and compliment the elaborate balcony adorned five-story buildings across the narrow lane.

According to my translator, a young college student named Henry, this permanence—the Nguyen family’s stability on this corner—is “uncommon,” especially in one of the fastest urbanizing countries in the region.

This protean existence, however, appears not just in the transient lives of citizens but also their political lives. From French control in the 1900s to Japanese occupation during World War II to nationalist control after a bloody Indochinese War and Civil War, conflict has relocated citizens and shaken the extensive political history of Vietnam.  As a result of the country’s relatively recent independence in 1975 following victory by communist forces, stability remains a central concern for the government.  

Perhaps one of the most overt ways that the socialist republic garners public support is through propaganda.  Similar to other structures that memorialize communist leaders like Lenin, Stalin, and Mao, Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum pays homage to the leader of the popular socialist movement in Vietnam by displaying his embalmed body to visitors in a temperature-controlled, carefully-monitored atrium.  And, just a five-minute walk away stands the Ho Chi Minh museum, which lauds Ho’s offensive against “French aggression.”  Uncle Ho, as he is affectionately called by the people, persists as a symbol not only for the triumphant political movement of the mid to late 20th-century but for the nation as a whole.  

In propaganda posters especially, Uncle Ho takes on a symbolic role.  According to journalist Tan Qiuyi, however, posters that line Vietnamese streets with Ho’s image and laud the country’s “new ideals—development, modernization and prosperity” especially during holidays.  These designs have been met with mixed responses.  Some people merely glance over the posters as “invisible” and not “interesting [nor convincing] at all.”  Others, like property broker Quan, say that the posters “make me feel proud of my country and the party’s traditions.”  However, these different opinions suggest that resetting the collective memory of the nation is much more complex than manufacturing propaganda.

Despite its efforts, the party has not fully shed its complex historic skin.  Underneath the control of nationalistic propaganda lies an insecure and concerned administration. In 2013, the party performed another show of force with its new Constitution that reiterated the party’s harnessing of the “will and strength of the entire nation.”

Creating this show of support by the “entire nation”, Vietnam’s socialist party has decided to take a stance on a seemingly innocuous issue—city buildings.  In the Old Quarter of Hanoi, complex political history resides in the architecture.  Running against the Communist agenda towards a collective narrative, Hanoi’s architecture carries with it the memory of French Indochina and the tumultuous 20th century in the country.  Since 1875 when the Concession Area, what is now known as the French Quarter, was established, the art deco style that we associate with French colonial architecture spread through the city, in the form of the Opera House and the Metropole Hotel.  Mingling the art deco styles with Vietnamese and Chinese construction, Dong Duong design made Hanoi and, moreover, Vietnam a hotspot for “architecturally significant buildings” in the 1920’s according to journalist Georgia Freedman.  

Symbolically, the historic structures represent the cumulative testimony of years past, bygone days that the current administration eagerly either wants forgotten or memorialized for propagandistic purposes.  For example, Hoa Lo Prison, known to most Americans as the Hanoi Hilton, has been made into a museum that lauds the bravery of Vietnamese nationalists through the years.  The gradual march towards cultural sterilization in Hanoi appears not only as the government repurposes historical buildings but also as the state declines to protect them.  Though building projects require regulations and licenses in areas with historic structures, they are often slowly executed.  Complicating this thicket of restrictions, members of the party must “very carefully” carry out “the process of license granting” according to Pham Tuan Long, deputy chairman of Hoan Kiem People’s Committee.

Redevelopment projects in Vietnamese cities, like Ho Chi Minh City, more explicitly threaten many Dong Duong and French-colonial buildings.  Along Dong Khoi Street in the city, formerly known as Saigon, many notable structures used to stand though they no longer do today.

“There’s been a lot of destruction, especially in the last five to seven years, I would say, and mainly by these huge, huge, huge developments,” said Hoanh Tran, principal at HTA+Pizzini Architects in Ho Chi Minh, as was quoted in the New York Times in February 2016.

These “huge, huge, huge developments” as Mr. Tran describes them are quite staggering as “207 colonial-era villas in two of the city’s 24 districts were demolished or significantly altered from 1994 to 2014” according to the Ho Chi Minh City Urban Development Management Support Center, a French-Vietnamese research agency.  

The payoff for demolishing these historic buildings and putting up larger development projects is sizeable as shown by the increase in land value.  Most coveted residential areas, like those along Dong Khoi Street, estimate about “$4000 USD/square meter” as stated in the same study by the Urban Development Management Support Center.  This number is particular staggering when considering the low cost of living in Ho Chi Minh, around $700 USD according to conservative estimates.

Potential profitability of these grand development projects often overshadows the larger social implications of tearing down the existing buildings.  Social media, such as Facebook, has become citizens’ soapbox as they attempt to protect and celebrate the historic structures.  These online platforms have mobilized a growing force of dissatisfied residents, and even lead to an online petition in 2014 to save the Saigon Tax Trade Center—a 1924 department store with intricate tiling and a renowned staircase—led by Tuan A. Phung, the honorary consul general of Finland in Ho Chi Minh City.  As both a practical shopping space and housing many renowned forms of detailing, the petitioners thought the trade center stood a good chance at preservation.  The hope behind the petition persisted. If the online grass roots movement could save this symbol of cultural preservation, it could save others as well.  Unfortunately, in 2016, the center was demolished in mid-October 2016.

In his interview with the New York Times, Mr. Phung echoed the sentiment of many residents of Ho Chi Minh City and those of many Vietnamese in general: “It is the history that the Saigoneers want to keep…the feeling, the atmosphere, memories.”  Far more than a simple discussion on gentrification and redevelopment, Phung focuses on the intangible aspects of the buildings that we cannot reclaim by simply constructing more.  The historic streets of Saigon and Hanoi thus become a battleground over the structures themselves as well as the memories that these buildings encapsulate.  More so, saving these whole districts of the past could signal a more thorough preservation of Vietnam’s collective history, one not inundated with images and reminders of Ho Chi Minh and his party but rather one that pays homage to the complete recollections of the people.  

Granted, Vietnam has had a tumultuous history, embroiled in scattered conflicts for nearly 50 years from early 20th century to about 1975, and the desire to encourage a more myopic history bonds the people.  As the 2013 Constitution emphasizes, the party struggled “…to liberate the nation, reunify the country, defend the Fatherland and fulfill international duties.”

For citizens like Thuy, however, history was not lived through the lens of a rewritten constitution nor through erected mausoleums and propaganda posters.  Rather, it was experienced by her, ensconced in the narrow streets of Hanoi’s Old Quarter as governments and, now, buildings toppled and fell.  Perhaps, the administration believes that shying away from certain aspects of its history advances its goal of unification, yet when this sterilization comes at price of cultural artifacts and opposes the wishes of its people, it only cripples its mission.


Jonathan is a junior Political Science major in Morse College. You can contact him at