into the land Rush by Michael DiGregorio

Tessa Bunney began her journey through the craft villages on the outskirts of Hanoi at the moment the future appeared. Foreign direct investment was pouring into Vietnam, and with it whole new urban areas, privatopias of the rich and upper middle classes, were being carved out of the rice fields.

In the early 1990s the physical and social space of Hanoi was very different. In many ways it was like a river whose sediment was partly visible and partly concealed. Ancient pagodas and temples, early twentieth-century villas and imposing Indochina-style public buildings had been bricolaged as its citizens coped with war; the day-to-day need for shelter, food and entertainment, and the political projects of the prior half-century. Where villas once had yards, there were market stalls. Derelict pagodas, lineage houses and temples merged into the housing of migrants who had ‘parachuted’ onto their grounds. Collective housing areas constructed for privileged state employees burst out into space with a wild array of balcony extensions and rooftop dwellings. The informality of this construction guaranteed that scarcely any building in the central city was higher than the trees that lined the streets. From rooftops, the city looked like a forest. And under those trees? If it had a sound palette it would include bicycle bells, the scraping of bicycle chains against chain guards, the sound of the street sweepers’ brooms, water dripping off leaves, and the occasional chicken.

Fast forward to the end of the first decade of the twenty-firstcentury. Old Hanoi is scarcely visible amidst the cars, office towers and shopping centers. Over a twenty year period, the city has grown from a population of less than one million living in four urban districts, to an urban area composed of ten districts with a population of 2.2 million. Into the early 2000s, growth took place first as vacant and derelict land within the four central districts was filled in, and then as new districts were added on their borders. But as the city reached its administrative limits, pressure for the reclassification of land began to be directed to the rural communes in provinces surrounding the capital.

Until the late 1990s, conversion of agricultural land to other uses required the signature of the prime minister –such was the memory of hardship and famine. But as the economy sizzled, these memories faded.

The land rush began right at the moment Tessa entered the craft villages on Hanoi’s periphery. Unlike many who went to these villages seeking the timeless and eternal, Tessa saw the contemporary and the pressures borne by women here. Her images are beautiful and thoughtful records of that moment when change became evident in project signboards and the first waves of construction.

In May 2008, the Ministry of Construction unveiled a long-term plan to merge the 921 square kilometre Hanoi province with seven surrounding provinces to become a ‘megacity’ of nearly 13,436 square kilometers and 18 million people. Even before this announcement, land prices were skyrocketing. In 2008, for example, residential land in Hà Ðông town, to the south of Hanoi, had risen to $4,000 USD per square metre. Villagers, however, were not benefiting from this boom. In the same year, Hà Tây province was compensating farmers at a rate of approximately $7.58 USD per square metre of agricultural land, a pittance compared to the market value.

The value of land was not the only issue. Many rural households had developed longstanding strategies that incorporated agriculture with local crafts and industries. In these craft villages, work is both social and economic. With the whole village involved in the making of a particular product –some as materials suppliers, others as material processors, manufacturers and traders– work becomes part of village life. It is the atmosphere they breathe. Depending on the products, gender and age divisions of labour start to emerge. While production may be divided between men and women, girls and boys, the women generally take on the trading role. Throughout the Red River Delta, the woman with a pocket book clutched under her arm is the image of the village trader out in the market.

In many of these villages, the guardian spirit worshipped in the local communal house is the person who discovered and taught the village its craft. Out of respect for these persons, and as a source of community identity, the veneration of these craft founders has become part of the redevelopment of craft industries throughout the Delta. In fact, many of these craft village traditions go back centuries. A village with a five hundred year craft history is not unusual. A few are known to have produced their goods for a thousand years.

The problem for many now is not their craft –they have been adapting their skills for new markets throughout Vietnam’s recent economic expansion. The problem is land. With big profits to be made by acquiring low cost land from farmers and reallocating it to developers, provincial and district authorities have no interest in either preserving agriculture or developing industrial zones for local craft industries. With no place to grow, opportunities for the future appear limited to small-scale, household-based handicrafts.

This year, Hanoi will unveil its master plan to 2030. The consultants have argued for the preservation of craft villages, limiting growth within the third ring road, and preserving green space along critical flood plains. This will require a massive effort to rescind development rights on many of the 772 projects previously approved, not an easy task given the financial interests at stake. To date, only one-third of these projects have been canceled and few more are likely to be. Whether there is more or less new development, and whether it is in the green corridor or in other areas of ‘greater Hanoi’, life in these villages will never be the same.

Michael DiGregorio is the former Ford Foundation program officer for Media, Arts and and Culture in Vietnam. He is now working as a consultant.


into the land Rush by Michael DiGregorio Work by Tessa Bunney


All photographs © From Home Work by Tessa Bunney, published by Dewi Lewis

Article by Micheal DiGregorio