Though his hometown is just 15 km west of the center of Hanoi, rough roads meant that Mr. Minh Duc had to rent a room in the capital when he started attending university in the early 2000s. When he graduated a few years later, he was still in a position where he had to live away from home, as his new job would have meant a two-hour trip from his hometown. When the Thang Long Highway was opened in 2010, however, he no longer had to rent a room and instead was able to commute from his hometown to his job in just half an hour. After Hanoi expanded its land area in 2008, infrastructure began to improve in many parts of the capital and this helped improve the lives of people like Mr. Duc, and this counts among the most outstanding results in the ten years since the expansion.
A megacity emerges
After merging all of neighboring Ha Tay province, Me Linh district in Vinh Phuc province, and four communes in Luong Son district in Hoa Binh province, modern-day Hanoi is the 17th largest capital in the world with a land area of more than 3,300 sq km.
The expansion was aimed at meeting the demand for rapid urbanization from an increasing population and attract more investment into new or upgraded infrastructure. It also targeted creating a modern and civilized image for the capital during Vietnam’s global integration.
Hanoi’s annual gross regional domestic product (GRDP) growth averaged 7.4 per cent in the 2008-2017 period, and per capita income in 2017 stood at VND86 million ($3,910), a 2.3-fold increase compared to 2008, according to a recent report from the Hanoi’s People’s Committee. The capital was ranked among the world’s Top 10 most dynamic cities in the City Momentum Index from real estate group Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL), which assessed and ranked 134 major cities.
Improved infrastructure has clearly been a key part of this growth. Along with the Thang Long Highway, a range of other major transport projects have been completed that connect Hanoi’s city center with suburban areas, such as National Highway No. 32, Vo Nguyen Giap St., Le Van Luong St., Nhat Tan Bridge, Thanh Tri Bridge, and Vinh Tuy Bridge. The city’s first metro line, Cat Linh – Ha Dong, is to open shortly. These new roads, bridges and urban railways have helped and will help improve traffic capacity and cut congestion and accidents.
Rural infrastructure is also in better shape. Concrete roads have been built in remote, poor communes in the far west of the city. “If our commune was not merged into Hanoi, I’m sure that we would still have dirt roads,” said Mr. Van Giang from Tien Xuan commune in Thach That district.
The old roads were very rough and flooded regularly, so were mostly used for walking, not for motorized traffic. Prior to 2008, it took Mr. Giang’s children hours to get to the school in the commune’s center, which was just 7 km from his home. Moreover, no one went out at night because there was no electricity and, hence, no street lighting.
Two months after the merger, power grids and concrete roads were being built. Motorbikes are now much more common in Mr. Giang’s commune and he can take his kids to school in just 20 minutes. Life is more vibrant, with more businesses opening and more entertainment available on TV and online.
More schools have also been built in these “new” parts of Hanoi, from kindergarten to high school. People also have easier access to medical services from new medical centers. When someone in the commune fell ill before the merger, a day’s travel was needed to get them to the district medical center, according to Mr. Giang, whereas now his commune has its own medical facilities. “We are lucky to live somewhere that merged into Hanoi,” he said. “Our commune is so much more developed than those nearby that are still outside of the capital. Their living standards are the same as they were ten years ago.”
Infrastructure, electricity, schools and medical care were four priorities for local investment in poor areas of expanded Hanoi, to narrow the gap between these areas and elsewhere in the capital.
The face of many other areas in the west of Hanoi also changed with the appearance of new apartment blocks, such as Van Quan, My Dinh, Mo Lao, and The Golden An Khanh.
This made Mr. Duc’s dream of owning his own home come true. When he started working in 2006 he thought he would probably have to live with his parents forever or, perhaps, may be able to afford a house in Hanoi when he was 50 years old.
Just 12 years later, he and his wife own their own two-bedroom apartment at The Golden An Khanh Residential Apartments, located only 500 meters from Thang Long Highway. Everything they need is nearby, and the apartment block has its own supermarket for late night shopping. On weekends, he can relax with his son at the swimming pool or at the playground. “If Hanoi had not expanded and encouraged urbanization in my hometown, I would not have had the opportunity to enjoy such a modern life,” he told VET.
Not everyone in the new parts of Hanoi, however, have a better life. The capital’s expansion has become a challenge for those who farm the land.
Within a few months of Hanoi expanding, more than 1,000 projects for industrial zones, hospitals, and vocational training centers were approved in the new areas of capital, mostly on the land of some 200,000 farmers.
Along with land in planned areas being taken over by authorities for development, land nearby these areas was also much sought after, creating a price fever in the local real estate market. Ms. Thanh Hien remembers the many advertisements for land along the 2 km stretch from National Highway No. 23 to her hometown in Tien Phong commune, Me Linh district, at the end of 2008. “Every day, cars of well-dressed people arrived to look at the location,” she said. “Everyone talked about new buildings and urban projects, and land prices increased rapidly.”
Like her neighbors, Ms. Hien’s farming parents sold their land, believing that their lives would be changed as they would have money in their pocket and new job opportunities from new urbanization projects.
A decade on, their lives have indeed changed, but not for the better. The money from selling their land has gone but the promised development and jobs never eventuated. Some farmers tried to breed cattle on the fallow land, but most young people headed to the city to find work, according to Ms. Hien.
The same happened in other new districts in Hanoi following the expansion, such as Ba Vi, Hoai Duc, Thach That, and Thanh Oai, where it was expected that residents from the center of Hanoi would come to live.
Most projects fell by the wayside because the rush to buy land resulted in an oversupply, according to real estate analysts. With better living conditions found in the center of Hanoi, people simply didn’t want to move in numbers that would make a difference.