New suburbs mean a new lifestyle and a new more modern middle class. Or do they? Words by Edward Dalton
Vietnam is growing up — literally. Luxury tower blocks are shooting up in the suburbs all around the big cities. Gated communities and privately managed complexes which combine commercial and residential zones are becoming increasingly popular, as the rapidly expanding affluent and middle classes of Vietnam seek to improve their quality of life.
As private developers and planning officials seek to socially engineer a new class of citizens, who are the people coming out on top? Something always has to give way for progress, but what are the feelings of those people who don’t reap the benefits?
I set out with my notepad and a list of roughly scrawled questions to try and answer these queries, in order to construct a clear image of what life is like both for the people who are fortunate enough to live in these new suburban developments, but also for the people on the other side of the coin who have been affected in other ways.
Swings and Roundabouts
My first visit was to Ciputra, one of the best-known gated communities of Hanoi. Sitting just outside the main gates and sheltering under an umbrella from the 38°C sunshine I found Hong, a drinks vendor who described herself as simply a “poor old woman”. When asked to share her opinion of the wealthy residents beyond the walls, she laughed and said “I don’t know, they’re rich, so they would never come to my shop.”
Whether out of modesty or experience, Hong found the idea of Ciputra’s residents intermingling with the likes of ‘a poor old woman’ selling cigarettes and tea utterly inconceivable. Her attitude towards this worryingly widening social chasm was that there exists ‘us and them’ and never the twain shall meet. Hardly surprising, considering the cheapest monthly rent for an apartment in Ciputra is more than four times the average monthly salary of a Vietnamese worker.
As a black Rolls-Royce Phantom rolled past and drew my attention towards the entrance, I thanked Hong for her time and approached one of the security guards who had just greeted the privileged motorist as he entered. After a brief introduction, I learned his name was Huy and he had been working at Ciputra for more than a year. He concurred with Hong’s assertion that the residents were all rich, and theorised many of them were officials, business leaders and foreigners.
However, he explained how Ciputra can even benefit those not lucky enough to afford the high cost of living within its walls. Huy moved his family to the area shortly after Ciputra had opened, believing that good jobs would become available for nearby locals. He estimates around 1,000 Vietnamese work within the walls of Ciputra in jobs such as security, cleaning and maintenance. Huy also sees other benefits for the surrounding community apart from the creation of jobs. He said: “Ciputra is beautiful, clean, it’s good for the community because it shows proper progress.” He sees no problem with the large gap between the rich and poor, shrugging as he tells me “small money gets a small house, big money gets a big house — that’s life”.
On the other side of the walls, life is decidedly different. Operated by Vingroup, the colossal Times City suburban complex sits on the southernmost edge of Hai Ba Trung District in Hanoi. I caught up with Oanh Dang, one of the earliest homebuyers in Times City, to get a glimpse into what life is like for those lucky enough to live inside one of Hanoi’s exclusive suburban developments.
“In the beginning, it was quite empty,” Oanh tells me, “so the apartments were quite a good price.” Happy to self-identify as middle class, Oanh and her husband own a handful of successful restaurants, a car and employ a live-in nanny/maid.
While it would be uninformed to assume what constitutes a good price for a successful middle-class married couple is within reach of the average Vietnamese worker, there is definitely an air of humility about Oanh. Many of her reasons for living here are both selfless and forward looking, likely motivated by the arrival of her first child six months ago.
“It’s safe, you need a card to enter,” she tells me, “and we have 24-hour security guards.”
Apart from the safety of her young family, Oanh was bowled over by the facilities available within the development. There’s a shopping mall, swimming pool, playground, gym, food court, spa and cinema to name just some of the on-site conveniences. Oanh admits that out of everything, the supermarket is the only one she finds frequently useful.
“Although if people only used the facilities inside Times City, life would be too boring,” she says. She is equally grateful for the quieter and cleaner atmosphere, and its proximity to key access roads for central Hanoi and beyond.
Oanh said that living in Times City has made her feel more confident and proud, although she admits that “more should be done to provide affordable housing for more people”.
Unfortunately, luxury suburban developments are a far more lucrative investment to developers than affordable housing for Hanoi’s working class, so people like Oanh and her family will likely remain some of the few lucky people in an increasingly lucky generation for quite some time to come.