In Transition: Ha Hoi

Developers are trying to give a classic area of the capital a makeover. Yet the 1930s buildings of the past refuse to give way. Words by Katie Jacobs. Photo by David Harris


Tucked between Hoan Kiem and Thien Quang Lakes lies an area of Hanoi that time seems to have forgotten.


With (relatively) quiet winding streets, vines of flowers tumbling over courtyard walls and cute boutiques occupying every corner, classical colonial mansions and 1930s villas stand stoically among the chaos of modern day Hanoi.


“The area has hardly changed since I was born here in the 1960s,” says Chi Hoa, owner of Cafe 67, a coffee shop located in the renovated garage of an old French-style house on Tran Quoc Toan, one of the area’s main thoroughfares. “A little busier perhaps, and more crowded with people and motorbikes, but there are very few significant differences.”


That is until recently, when a glossy new building shot up next door to the 100-year-old house. With the destruction of the original villa five years ago, number 65 is now the site of an eight-storey apartment block.


The sparkling white exterior and grand scale provide a sharp contrast with the faded glory of the neighbouring low rises. Not that the new construction is the only contemporary building in this quarter. Newer buildings dot the streets, often creating a hybrid mismatch that reflects the changing times and styles of Hanoi. But this bold new arrival towering over the intersection of Ha Hoi and Tran Quoc Toan streets is impossible to miss.


Saving Face


In all fairness, the peaked window mouldings and French-style doors leading onto wrought-iron balconies suggest attempts have been made to mimic the neighbouring aesthetic. The result, however, lacks the delicate details of adjacent buildings, making it seem a little too big and a little too gaudy.


“The older buildings are more beautiful than the new ones and it would be good if they could be all renovated,” says Chi Hoa. “But old buildings are uncomfortable and new buildings make more money.”


A new rule has been put into place since the villa at number 65 was knocked down. Owners are no longer allowed to destroy old buildings without first going through a long approval process, making it more difficult to replace old buildings with new ones.


“But with the promise of money, people will always find ways around this rule,” continues the coffee shop owner. “Then the character of the neighbourhood will really change.”

More in this category: « A Short History of Saigon

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