At the heart of Vietnam, one of the few communist countries that survived after the collapse of the Soviet Union, is 1,000 year-old Hanoi, the city that has witnessed the fall and rise of many empires and struggles between modernization and tradition.
Hanoi is home to 6.5 million people. With a density of 1,900/km2, for many, it’s not an easy or beautiful place to live in.
Far away from highways, shopping malls and skyscrapers lie many communities hidden at the end of bumpy and narrow alleys that pass by houses, buildings, and shops. This is where you will meet, what I’d call, the “invisible Hanoian.”
You may never notice them because, to most of us, they’re just another part of the city background. Many of them work while you sleep.
Yet, they are no different from us and they have stories to tell.
Some of them make a living from the wholesale market in Long Bien as potters, and fruit sellers; others earn money through running errands, guarding the parking, or simply by picking up trash and other materials to sell. They’re all out on the street to earn a living before the sun comes up until way after it sets. Only when the moon rises high and the stars twinkle, do they go back to… less than a home, but more of a sleeping place.
Some live with their parents or spouses in decrepit homes merely six square meters in size, with monthly payment ranging from VND 500,000 to VND 900,000 (USD 23.58 – USD 38). For those who pick trash, a good earning of VND 50,000 (USD 2.30) a day is barely enough for monthly expenses. Those luckier would have a place with a fan for the hot and sweaty summer days and a proper roof to stop the rain falling through. Some places don’t have a rest room, so the people have to use public toilet with a VND 2,000 (USD 0.09) charge every time they enter. Windows become a privilege and water shortage and leakage is the norm. Moreover, the community hosts a wide range of pests that are aggressive in their battles for survival, namely, rats, mouse, bugs, cockroaches, and many more that can go well beyond your vocabularies and imaginations.
In 2005, the United Nations Habitat estimated that 9 million Vietnamese, accounting for roughly 41 per cent of the urban population, were living in slums.
So, if you randomly pick up 10 people on the street in Hanoi, you will find at least 4 living in poor conditions.
According to the World Bank, Vietnam is urbanizing at a rate of 3.4 per cent annually.
With urbanization comes the pressure for urban planning that can accommodate both the rich and poor to ensure that every citizen has access to basic necessities such as water and security.
Slums are associated with below-standard living conditions, crimes, and diseases; however, because everyone needs to have a shelter and poor people needs to have cheap homes, slums become an inevitable part of any cities; hence, the purpose is not to demolish the slums, since getting rid of them will just induce a new one to rise. The focus should be to upgrade them to an acceptable standard in order to enhance hygiene and security of the bottom class. Moreover, it also helps to strengthen social inclusion and to ensure that city is a place where everyone can live in harmony and solidarity.
Many people take their homes for granted without knowing that just within several kilometers away, there are other human beings who are struggling to find a place to sleep. It’s time for us to shift our focus away from luxury homes and shopping malls to affordable housing that can accommodate the most vulnerable and marginalized group in the city.
By: Pham Minh Nguyet, an intern at WYA Asia Pacific