The last time the Vietnamese population became animated in any meaningful way, it was to protest against the proposed plan to fell many of Hanoi’s beloved trees.
More than just offering respite from the sun to motorcyclists waiting at a red light, they are symbolic of the spirit of Hanoi — strong, resilient and with a deep-rooted history.
It’s with cautious optimism, therefore, that we should appreciate the efforts of the government, as well as many local people, to add to Hanoi’s great green beauty, rather than take away from it.
There are certain tree-lined boulevards around the city which are so well known, they have long contributed to Hanoi’s unofficial nickname as the Paris of Southeast Asia; Hung Vuong and Hoang Dieu are great examples.
However, there are many more areas in this concrete jungle which remain untouched by the forward-looking brush of beautification.
Certain junctions, such as the meeting point of Ton Duc Thang and Xa Dan, are so famously congested, they often appear in time-lapse videos or long exposure photos; and aside from the traffic, the other unavoidable detail is how grey and bland the whole area is.
The government knows this, and has been working to improve things by implementing a city-wide plan to plant one million more trees by 2020 — an initiative which started last year.
“The planting of flamboyant trees is part of a bigger plan to beautify the city,” reported Tuan Minh for the Hanoi Times in October 2016. “City authorities plan to develop 25 new parks over the next five years.”
The Hanoi Forestry Development Centre was also instructed to find an appropriate location for a nursery garden to grow trees suitable for an urban centre, a plan already yielding positive results.
“The plants at the nursery garden developed well, with widespread shadow and strong trunks,” said Ta Duy Long, deputy director of the centre, to the Hanoi Times. “Even when planted at a high density.”
Hanoi is by far the most densely populated city in Vietnam, so the target of raising green areas from an average 7sqm to 10sqm per person by 2020 is one to be welcomed; especially by those in the most over-populated Old Quarter area, where the current figure is only 1 to 2sqm per person.
Evidence of the tree planting plan is already visible in many areas around the city.
Saplings of the delonix regia, or royal poinciana, have been planted along many road dividers of some of Hanoi’s most congested dual carriageways. Last spring, some 300 young trees were planted in the middle of Lang Ha, Xa Dan, Tay Son and Giai Phong.
Speaking to VNExpress in July 2016, Nguyen Xuan Hung, executive of the Hanoi Green Tree Park Company, spoke of the effect these new trees will have on the local population.
“They aren’t just there for their aesthetic value,” said Hung, “but also to ensure the safety of nearby buildings, utilities and commuters.”
Nguyen Duc Chung, chairman of the Hanoi People’s Committee, claimed those early locations were chosen so the new saplings could replace the thousands of diseased or decaying trees cut down each year.
New urban developments are also benefiting from the government’s renewed green focus.
At the junction of Hoang Quoc Viet and Hoang Hoa Tham, a huge new infrastructure project was completed at the end of last year.
Besides improving traffic flow with a complex, yet highly efficient merging of several roads and highways, the new project also included the creation of large green islands and tree-filled road dividers.
Nhat Tan Bridge, opened in January 2015, shaved a big chunk off of most airport journeys, but it also included the creation of large, green public spaces on either side of the bridge’s entrance around An Duong Vuong; local people have even added their own badminton court markings to these areas, and use them every day.
A Beautiful Controversy
In Tu Hoa, a small residential street between Tay Ho’s two most famous five-star hotels, significant developments have been undertaken over the last two years.
Two years ago, anyone looking down at the street from one of the InterContinental West Lake’s balconies would have been treated to a little slice of countryside heaven, right in the heart of the city. Local people would be out on the patches of land to the side of the road, tending their vegetable plots, stopping for the occasional chinwag or to readjust their conical hats.
Cue the government, who, in the name of beautiful progress, sent in teams of workers armed with shovels and tractors to rip the whole place up, and leave it looking like a post-apocalyptic landfill for the next 10 months.
They eventually got around to tidying up and planting new public gardens, which are still not completely finished — but it does pose the question, was it needed?
The small farming plots were unofficial, sure; but they were beautiful and maintained on a daily basis by people who had a direct interest in them. Now, all that’s left is a patch of grass where dogs empty their bowels. Progress?
Money Well Spent?
Some may argue that money spent on making the city look nice, might be better spent on real, practical improvements.
The new pavements and freshly painted railings around West Lake look lovely; but might that money have been better spent improving infrastructure, or installing more public toilets and recycling bins?
In some cases, however, the money being spent is not public money.
In two separate areas, local people have spent their own money to beautify the area they live in with two very different kinds of street art.
In ngo 68 Yen Phu, Tay Ho, local artist Nguyen Van Thang was commissioned by residents of the alleyway to paint scenes of Venice on their walls. Those residents whose walls were covered in the vivid, 3D scenes, forked out VND5 million each.
Twenty years ago, Cao Tri Thinh, now 94, used his own money to buy supplies in order to paint the walls and benches in several alleyways around his home in Duc Thang, Tu Liem.
Despite not being officially sanctioned, his work has remained untouched, because it depicts scenes of family ideals, neighbourhood harmony, strong work ethics and Uncle Ho’s advice.
However it’s done, and whoever is paying for it, no one can deny that beautifying the city has a positive impact.
If one applies the opposite principle to the “Broken Windows Theory”, it could be argued that by just making the area around people look nicer, it will encourage those people to take more pride and care in protecting their environment.
A nice idea for sure, but it’s still too early in the government’s grand beautification plan to know just how much of a knock-on effect new paving and more trees will have on the health, habits and lifestyle of those residents privy to the changes.
Photos by Sasha Arefieva