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Opinion: In Response to the Surreal Rise of Vietnam's Gated Communities

Our recent article on gated communities generated a lot of conversation, and we’ve decided to publish this letter from a Hanoi-based expat in response. The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Urbanist Hanoi.

When you start a piece on Hanoi’s gated communities by bemoaning their lack of tree-lined boulevards and accompany it with a picture of an actual gated community’s tree lined boulevard - the rest of your piece is fair game to be criticized. After living in half a dozen spots around Hanoi over the last 12 years, I now live in Ciputra. Smug, gated and privileged I may be but, to me, this is as much “real Hanoi” as anywhere else in the city.

In a similar piece in 2016, The Guardian stated that Ciputra’s “wide roads are flanked by luxury cars, palm trees and giant statues of Greek gods.” Trees or no trees? Damned if you do. Damned if you don’t.

In "The Surreal Rise of Vietnam’s Gated Communities," Alex Sinclair-Lack quotes architects from Baumschlager Eberle as saying these developments are “mere profit-making models.” Yes? Presumably, if they were less desirable and if they weren’t fulfilling a need, they would be less profitable.

Sinclair-Lack’s piece also states: “According to Daniel Lisandro Garcia, Hanoi’s project leader for Baumschlager Eberle, the Australian architecture firm, Hanoi’s traditional tube housing acts as a commercially viable adaptation of local lifestyles – homes double-up as tea shops, small markets, barbers and restaurants; creating both inward practicality and outward urban community.”

The idea that Hanoi tube houses offer a sustainable model for future growth is far from practical. Purchasing any land to build such a home is now far beyond the means of most families. Meanwhile, millionaires would buy up several tube houses, knock them down and build their own vast homes with their own walls and gates.

I moved to Ciputra after my child was woken in the night by someone literally bricking up her window. I swapped a noisy, two-bedroom, low-rise Tay Ho apartment for a four-bedroom terraced house in Ciputra that cost an extra US$200 a month. Working from home, I now save money by not having to flee to a cafe every time another jackhammer starts. That’s not to say construction work doesn’t happen, but there are regulations: not before 8am and not after 6pm; never on weekends. If anyone could uphold this outside these gates I’d be there instead.

The gates themselves are a red herring. It’s the quality of life that makes the difference; that’s what people are buying. And contrary to Sinclair-Lack’s belief, there is community here. Why bash an area for having its own schools, shops, bars and restaurants, and then question community? Aren’t local services a good thing? There are also events for Mid-Autumn Festival, Tet and Christmas. There are a lot more benefits to living in this community than meets the eye.

Road crossing officers and cycle tracks mean kids can ride bikes to school from a very young age. Dog owners are asked to pick up after their pets. Wardens will speak to noisy neighbors. There is a noise curfew for parties, too.

I’m not attempting to stand up for the actual gates and I’m certainly not going to defend empty homes - whether owned by money-laundering Russian oligarchs in London or hapless developers in Vietnam. I’m absolutely not going to defend a widening gap between the rich and poor. And I don’t think expensive developments absolve the responsibility of ensuring housing for all incomes.

But in and around Ciputra there are now countless more developments being built. They differ in size, price and ambition. Their mix of expensive houses, more affordable high-rises, retail and open space seem to follow Ciputra’s lead. Many will be linked by Hanoi’s upcoming metro system.

I know because we’re looking to move into one. As much as we’ve loved Ciputra, we can’t keep spending this much on rent long-term. And we certainly can’t afford to buy land to build a tube house - however romantic and traditional some architects believe them to be. The future for us, and many others in Hanoi, will be in a high-rise - hopefully surrounded by very non-traditional, wide pavements, cycle tracks and gardens. Ideally with low levels of crime, noise and traffic accidents, too.

Alex Sinclair-Lack describes his Hanoi - tea shops, small markets, barbers, retirees dodging welding sparks on ancient Honda Wins and wizened old men smoking and playing chess. While hoping that spirit survives, you can’t stop a city from developing, and the past isn’t necessarily a happy place for many of Hanoi’s residents - even if tourists like it.

I love Hanoi, but it suffers from high pollution and a high number of road traffic accidents. While it’s worth safeguarding the traditional, let’s not over-romanticize it. As people get richer they’ll want space and places to exercise. They’ll want their children to be safe from traffic. They’ll want local services and, yes, they’ll want communities. They’ll want peace and quiet.

And if the designs of new developments (statues and all) aren’t to the liking of foreign journalists or architects, it does neither any credit to be judgemental over local taste. Vietnamese can like what they like and live where they choose. The future for Hanoi isn’t walled, but hopefully, new development will be informed by the success of the likes of Ciputra. You don’t have to destroy Hanoi to save it, but no city can ever stand still.

Steve Jackson is British expat with a Vietnamese family who has lived in Hanoi for 12 years. He works in communications.

Related Articles:

 - Opinion: The Surreal Rise of Vietnam's Gated Communities

 - What’s Inside Hanoi’s Upcoming Entirely Made-in-Japan Smart Town?

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