Is Hanoi losing its Asian-ness?

Is Hanoi losing its Asian-ness?

Hanoi has been called "Asia's most Asian city," but rapid development threatens to turn it into just another megalopolis
Artist's impression of the VietinBank Tower, a 68-story project designed by British firm Foster + Partners in Hanoi. A groundbreaking ceremony was recently held for the tower.

Described as Asia’s most Asian city by Frommer’s guides, Hanoi most probably conjures up images of French villas on tree-lined boulevards or roadside noodle restaurants in the Old Quarter, if not the ungovernable traffic -- but skyscrapers? 

For proof that Hanoi is now a boomtown, look no further than the soon-to-be-completed Keangnam Hanoi Landmark Tower in the city’s new central business district -- a planned urban area defined by paddy fields five years ago. The main tower of the South Korean-owned US$1.05 billion development is 68-floors and 336-meters high, making it one of the tallest buildings in Vietnam.

“Hanoi has always been the center of the highest cultural expressions of the Vietnamese people and our project is now a symbol of this developing city’s prosperity,” says Keangnam-Vina chairman, Ha Suk Jong. 

Keangnam raises the bar

There were plenty of naysayers when the project first broke ground. In late 2008, a group of construction industry veterans sent a provocative letter to Keangnam-Vina, stating they would give the company VND 100 billion (approximately US$5 million), if it could finish basic construction by the 1,000th anniversary of Hanoi, recently celebrated on October 10.

But the project is now in the home straight and according to Ha, 90 percent of apartments in the two 47-story residence towers have been sold. InterContinental Hotels & Resorts has also inked a deal to operate a 383-room hotel at the complex, while the Grade A offices are expected to house the country’s most prestigious companies as well as international companies looking to tap into Vietnam’s red hot economy.

The chasing pack

The Keangnam project has raised the bar but there is no shortage of competitors. PetroVietnam Construction JSC, a subsidiary of state-owned Vietnam Oil and Gas Group, has plans to develop a 102-story skyscraper to the tune of US$1.2 billion. The 528-meter tower would be the second tallest building in Asia after the Buri Khalifa in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Groundbreaking ceremonies were also recently held for the 65-story, 267 meter-high Hanoi City Complex, a US$400 million project developed by South Korea’s LOTTE Group, and VietinBank Tower, a 68-story project designed by the illustrious UK firm Foster + Partners. 

A change is going to come

All this dizzying development is a bone of contention for many, considering Hanoi’s fragile architectural heritage. Speaking to the local newspaper, Thanh Nien (Youth), recently, the author of "Hanoi: A biography of a city," Professor William Logan expressed his concern at “the push to turn Hanoi into a megalopolis.”

But for Matthew Powell, Hanoi branch director of the United Kingdom-owned real estate group Savills Vietnam, change is inevitable. The key is how to accommodate it.

“Hanoi is one of the most unique cities in Asia, but like it or not it’s driving forward at a rapid rate,” says Powell. “With good planning and control systems in place this should increase its capacity to service its growing population without losing its underlying charm.”

Keangnam Hanoi Landmark TowerKeangnam Hanoi Landmark Tower, soon to be completed.

Ascending Dragon

According to the art critic Natalia Kraevshaia, the celebrated Hanoi-based artist Ha Manh Thang’s recently exhibited installation piece "Dream of a Skyscraper" reflects man’s “eternal obsession for ascension” incarnated by the Tower of Babel, or in Thang’s case the Vietnamese myth, "Nu Oa Mends the Sky."

In that story a giant Nu Oa uses a large pole to fix a hole in the sky caused in a ruction by two unruly gods. Realizing that even ancient people dreamed of creating something that could “scrape the sky,” Thang set out to compare the dreams of the past with today’s reality. For him, “the architecture of tall buildings in Vietnam today carries many influences of history.”

When Hanoi was first established as the capital in the year 1010 it was named Thang Long -- The Ascending Dragon -- after the newly crowned Ly Thai To saw a dragon rise auspiciously above the mire. In a royal edict he made a cocksure proclamation that the city would last 10,000 generations.

Hanoi has had its fair share of dark days since then but it has endured, so far for 1,000 years, and is now prospering like never before. The dragon’s ascent continues.