The Seventh Generation Street Life and a Connection to the Land

by Tom Angotti

HANOI, VIETNAM — If you love livable cities, hurry up to Hanoi.

This city missed generations of “urban renewal” and, like Havana, lives in its history. I say hurry up because megaprojects from the global marketplace — hotels, offices and factories — are sprouting all over the place, products of the opening to foreign investment (doi moi) that began over the last decade. These imposing giants threaten the city’s greatest asset, it’s street life.

Hanoi’s lively street life is possible because bicycles and pedestrians far outnumber cars. Small businesses — carpenters, restaurants, clothing stores — spill onto the sidewalks and streets. There is usually no separation of street from sidewalk. The public way is shared by all vehicles, including bikes, pedestrians, pedicabs, and the few cars and trucks in circulation.

However, the motorbike and auto are quickly replacing the bicycle and pedestrian. Ford is opening up a factory in Hanoi. Some blind national government officials are hoping to make more road space for them. Professional planners are rightly concerned, but don’t have the institutional clout to stop the mindless march toward megaprojects. Already, loud and polluting motorbikes outnumber human-powered vehicles in the city center. Soon, street life throughout Hanoi could be confined within the four doors of sedans.

Hanoi’s sustainable transportation isn’t the result of conscious choices made by environmentalists. Rather, it comes from tradition uninterrupted by economic and urban growth. The Vietnamese government is now trying to expand and diversify the economy — you can’t argue with that in a poor, agrarian country — and make more consumer goods available. Yet, by its very nature, urban planning involves more conscious decision-making. From the looks of it, unfortunately, the captains of doi moi have been too busy reading the Wall Street manuals on economic growth and have not yet considered the long-term effects of capital investment on the urban environment.

Two Decades After the War

The Western press likes to talk about the seedy side of life here — begging, prostitution and crime. They also admit that these activities grow along with foreign capital and tourism. What they do not talk about is the continuing effect on the land and its people of the America’s military adventure in Vietnam from 1964 to 1975, in which the United States dropped bombs equivalent to 450 Hiroshimas and left 25 million bomb craters. Over two million Vietnamese died. Millions more were maimed and wounded. Every family remembers the pain. Many still recall the daily fear of saturation bombing (on Hanoi streets, you can see cemented-over bomb shelters). Sixteen percent of the country’s land area was poisoned by toxic herbicides, including ten million gallons of the lethal Agent Orange. The impact on physical and mental health will not end with present generations.

On the outside, you would never know this was the country that defeated the mightiest superpower in the world. It’s a small, poor nation where 70% of the people work in agriculture, still driving plows pulled by buffalo. One cannot help but ask how this peasant country managed to beat the urbane French (in 1954) and then the suburban Americans (in 1975).

I got a better sense of how this happened from a short visit I made to the rice fields. Villages are literally planted in the middle of rice fields, and village life revolves around agriculture. The myths and music of village culture reflect life in the fields, interweaving work, home, nature, and art with use of the land for production. Traditionally, Vietnamese have buried their dead in the fields, giving the fields a sacred, spiritual character in addition to their utility for producing a basic necessity of life. In Vietnam, ancestors, and their physical remains, are revered. Any disruption of ancestral resting places must be deeply felt. In this setting, it is not difficult to understand how deeply the bombs must have cut into the hearts of peasants with such close ties to the land. These spiritual connections with the land have been reinforced by relatively recent cooperative working relations in agriculture and socialist thinking. So I can now see why Vietnamese people made so many sacrifices to save their land from the most powerful imperialist invaders. I wonder, will this spirit evaporate in the cloud of globalization? Or with the consolidation of agricultural land in fewer owners’ hands and growing migration to work in urban commerce?

Did I say Vietnam is a poor country? They are short on dollars and billionaires. They don’t have as many plastic bags or ten-second commercial spots, nor has the average Vietnamese eaten many McDonald’s burgers or driven as many miles in a car as we have. But literacy, infant mortality and life expectancy are close to levels in wealthier nations. People are working, and Vietnam is the second-largest exporter of rice in the world. Thanks to a still relatively self-sufficient economy, the country was cushioned from the recent Asian financial crisis (though some of the planned joint-venture megaprojects will likely be delayed).

Vietnam has a spiritual wealth that, to date, no one can commodify. It would take more than a joint-venture of the Pope and Bill Gates to figure out how to do it. This spiritual wealth is a material force that will hopefully foster a different kind of growth and real “development.” If the people making planning decisions can be true to that spirit, even Ford will not succeed in destroying what the U.S. military failed to.

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