HANOI – You only get one chance, it’s said, to make a first impression.
And until recently, foreigners arriving at Noi Bai International Airport here in Vietnam’s capital could not have been favorably impressed. Small, dismal, dysfunctional – those are the words that come to mind as I remember waiting (and waiting) with fellow travelers by the luggage carousel. The impression didn’t improve after you grabbed a cab and rumbled in traffic along the old, crowded and unscenic highway lined with billboards to the unbecoming old bridge that led to baffling interchanges that cried out for modern engineering.
That was then. Today, Noi Bai Airport, while not a showpiece, has been greatly enlarged and improved with $900 million worth of work, particularly with the new international terminal. And instead of the old road, there’s the new, smooth highway that shaves at least 10 minutes off the ride into Hanoi and passes beneath the five towering A-shaped stanchions that hold up the sleek, 12-kilometer Nhat Tan Bridge. Japanese development aid was vital in building the bridge and upgrading the airport. Even in drab weather, the locals have been stopping their motorbikes on the bridge to take in the view.
This new airport route, at least for now, actually is rather scenic, taking travelers past farms that reflect Vietnam’s earthy character. My concern is that time will replace those fields with more urban sprawl, destroying the pleasing contrast, something of a yin and yang, between the air-conditioned comfort of cruising on a modern highway and the sight of farmers and a water buffalo.
Preserving the balance between progress and preservation should be the goal of the city’s planners and developers – because first impressions can be overrated. “In Hanoi,” as a Cambodian-American friend once observed, “you feel like you’re living in history.”
My impressions of Hanoi are now based on 4 ½ years of living in this city. In those first few months, I frequently encountered culture shock trying to deal with the anything-goes sensibilities of the Darwinian traffic, what with the motorcycles sometimes taking over the sidewalks in rush-hour jams. (The staff at Hanoi International School on Lieu Giai used to patrol the sidewalks to keep commuters from running into kids getting dropped off.)
Today, the traffic on Lieu Giai is less of a problem because of the flyover built beside the new Lotte tower – Hanoi’s second tallest, with the design inspired by the ao dai. This is another example of the modernization of Hanoi. Other conspicuous examples are the various Vincom developments, including the Times City and Royal City malls. And from the government sector, the new National Assembly building opposite [President] Ho Chi Minh’s tomb seems an apt, fortress-like complement to the history-rich Citadel. The presence of all such structures alongside French colonial architecture strikes me as tres Hanoi. Yes, history is all around.
Vincom is now saying it plans to build 25 malls in Vietnam this year. All considered, I root more for the improvement in infrastructure – the highways, bridges, flyovers and such – to the relentless march of consumerism. Certainly the need for yet another mall in Hanoi pales in comparison to the capital’s challenge in creating a new, improved Old Quarter, now housing far too many people in decrepit and often unhygienic conditions.
The stated goal, according to the Vietnam News Agency, is to reduce density, improve living conditions and preserve heritage sites. Toward that end, city planners aim to move 26,000 residents (6,500 households) into new apartment buildings in Long Bien District, which are expected to be completed in 2017. The Hanoi urban plan, which was approved by the prime minister in 1998, aimed to reduce the population density from 823 people per hectare to 500 per hectare.
It’s an ambitious plan, and somewhat surreal. The idea is not only to relocate households, but also their livelihoods – as if the Old Quarter was spawning a modernized facsimile of its culture far from the history of Hoan Kiem.
A 65-year-old Old Quarter resident told the Vietnam News Agency why he supported the government’s plans, explaining how his is one of six families that are crammed into a building that is 100 years old and has 200 square meters of living space:
“My family alone has eight members from three different generations, all living in an 18-square-meter room plus a tiny attic. Every time it rains we were all concerned that the building or part of it will collapse. Water is leaking from all directions and other household’s coal stoves are a health risk for the kids.”
Sometimes, living in history isn’t all that charming. And it can be dangerous.
Đăng ký: VietNam News