Ecopark in Hanoi

The transformation of Hanoi from sleepy hollow into modern megacity is well and truly underway. But the decisions being made are often informal and spontaneous.


With urban sprawl a 21st-century reality in most major cities, Hanoi faces the dual challenge of positioning itself within the region as an economically driven, modern metropolis, as well as planning for its growth in the face of a burgeoning middle class with its own set of expectations.


The administrative merger of the Province of Hanoi with the Province of Ha Tay in 2008 tripled Hanoi’s size and doubled its population to 6.2 million people, making Hanoi one of the 30 largest cities in the world. It is estimated that by 2030, Hanoi’s official population will be around 9 million people.


Following the merger, a foreign consortium was commissioned to plan a vision for the city — Hanoi Capital Master Plan 2030 – 2050 — with the aim of making Hanoi one of the most attractive, liveable and sustainable cities in the world. The consortium — consisting of one American and two Korean enterprises — planned the future of Hanoi as a central core, around which several satellite cities were built. The aim is to attract investment — both foreign and domestic — into specific sectors of the economy.


“Each of these new cities is supposed to take a specific role, economically speaking,” said Danielle Labbé, who is an expert in Hanoi’s urban development. “For instance, to the west is Lang Hoa Lac, and it is supposed to be a high-tech city, with several universities. Others are meant to be culture or tourism oriented.”


Think Ecopark, the “green” satellite city in Hung Yen Province south east of Hanoi. Some 13km from central Hanoi, and costing around US$8.2 billion, the development will span 500ha on completion, sometime in 2020. Using the master plan as its guide, the development has factored tunnels and bridges into the construction to reduce travel times for commuters.

Ecopark in Hanoi

Ecopark in Hanoi

The Ecopark Development 13km from Central Hanoi will span 500 hectares on completion

Model Players


While Singapore and Seoul are often touted as the models on which the ‘new Hanoi’ is based, the transformation is probably easier said than done. Singapore, in particular, has laws which enable the government to take possession of any land it chooses, with appropriate compensation. In Vietnam, this process has run into difficulties many times in the past, and similar problems recently surfaced in the Ecopark project.


According to Danielle, Singapore has been the model for Vietnamese planners because it is such a clean and orderly city. “The desire to order urban development is a key feature of urban planning in Vietnam and one which is constantly defeated by the nemesis of urban planners; informal and spontaneous urbanization.”


The orderliness of Seoul is not the only reason the city is used as a model by Vietnamese planners. “Seoul has been the engine of Korea’s economic growth since World War II and this growth has been rapid,” Danielle said.


Urban planning expert, Laurie Tallotte, would like to see Hanoi opened to the Red River shores, similar to what has been done in Bangkok and Phnom Penh. “The Red River is a part of Hanoi’s heritage that hasn’t been enhanced so far,” she said. “Waterside areas are multi-functional spaces that could support a diversity of activities and opportunities for leisure, tourism, economic development and urban regeneration.”

Concordia International School Hanoi

Concordia International School Hanoi and the development springing up on its edge

Concordia: Room To Move


A short, enjoyable drive over the river — and one that is traffic-jam free — is the location of the new campus of Concordia International School Hanoi. The tranquil setting among rice paddies, with villas dotted around the periphery, belies the school’s move from Cau Giay in July 2016, which was some six years in the making and fraught with red tape. The American-owned, not-for-profit Lutheran school — which has no Vietnamese partners — looked at 35 locations before deciding on the site adjacent to the Van Tri Golf Compound in Dong Anh district.


A key feature of Concordia’s location was consultation, often missing in urban development projects in Hanoi, and one the school did through focus groups, which were held bi-annually over the planning period.


“We handpicked enterprises who had an interest in an international school,” said Lia Garcia Halpin, director of communications. “The projected growth for Hanoi was across the river and towards the airport.”


The 6.5ha site — chosen for its green space and proximity to the golf course — is used for extra-curricular activities and community building. Both sites are owned by Noble Vietnam, a Korean-Vietnamese developer, making campus expansion easy. “There were only rice paddies and grass fields here,” said Lia.


Whos Pulling The Strings?


Consultation on the development direction of Hanoi has proven to be tricky, because planning tends to be done behind closed doors.


Danielle said that while there was a public exhibition of the master plan once it was adopted, there was no public consultation in the preparation of the document. The exhibition was for information, not for comment.


One issue that doesn’t seem to be factored in is water. Where does the flow of water in all the natural rivers, streams and underground water passages go when previously undeveloped land gets developed?


You only need to look at the development in Phu My Hung in Ho Chi Minh City to see what happens when water isn’t considered. The recently completed Vivo Mall is one such example. When it rains, the highway in front gets flooded for 200 metres. And water struggling for an outlet has upended sidewalks and even newly tarmacked roads for years.


With Hanoi traditionally prone to flooding, as author and architect Joep Janssen writes in a recent post on Linked In, “I do worry about the increased risk of flooding when flood prone areas are turned into buildings and roads.”


Foreign investment also has a function in urban planning and urbanization in Hanoi, but there is limited data available concerning what exactly that role is.


“Clearly, foreign investment plays a role in the industrial sector,” said Danielle. “Some of the largest and most successful industrial parks in the region of Hanoi have been foreign invested. Those large industrial parks on the road to the airport, for instance, specialise in the assembly of various electronic goods and they are the result of international flows of money.”


Danielle says the situation is less clear where other types of developments are involved such as large commercial centres or malls, residential enclaves (khu do thi moi) and theme parks. Up until the early 2010s, domestic enterprises and former state-owned companies were the main investors, and led the way in land redevelopments.


“These enterprises were really influential with regards to what got developed where. In a sense, they were the main carriers of capital investment into the city’s expansion, and along with the Vietnamese banks lending to them — state and commercial, domestic, joint-stock and foreign — they have played a bigger role in shaping the metropolitan formation process than any single foreign investor.”

Vinhomes Riverside in Long Bien

Vinhomes Riverside in Long Bien

Vinhomes Riverside in Long Bien

The New Kids On The Block


While the emergence of a new group of big real estate players since the economic slowdown of the late 2000s — Vincom and SunGroups, for example — are not founded in state-owned enterprises, they do employ the same kinds of tactics.


Danielle says these new real estate players are the ones building the Hanoi of tomorrow and are profiting from rapid urban development. Whether they are doing it with any kind of vision remains to be seen.


Acknowledgements: We are indebted to Danielle Labbé, Assistant Professor of Urban Planning and Canada Research Chair in Sustainable Urbanization in the Global South, University of Montreal, and Laurie Tallotte, Urban Planner at AREP for their invaluable input into this article

Photos by Julie Vola

Diane Lee

Diane Lee is a fifty-something Australian author who quit her secure government job in 2016 because she was dying of boredom and wanted an adventure. Taking a risk and a volunteering job, she escaped to Hanoi and hasn’t regretted it. At all. Diane now works part-time for a social enterprise, and as freelance writer and editor. One day she hopes to marry an Irish or Scottish man named Stan.


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