Redefining Public Space in Hanoi


A review of Redefining Public Space in Hanoi: Places, Practices and Meaning by Sandra Kurfürst.

Redefining Public Space in Hanoi: Places, Practices and Meaning analyzes the social production of public space in the city, and its relation with the formation of a political “public sphere” in contemporary Vietnam. The author develops a two-fold argument. First, the transition of Vietnam towards political and economic openness fosters the formation and transformation of various forms of public space. Second, Hanoi is a political arena where the state and citizens negotiate the meanings, power relations, and practices associated with public space. Based on fieldwork of more than one year, the thesis wishes to make a contribution to urban sociology. The author makes use of empirical data collected through participant observation, interviews, analysis of the press and official documents (pp. 18-19).

The thesis is composed of six chapters in addition to an introduction (Chapter 1) and a conclusion. The introduction presents the multi-faceted theoretical fieldwork, which concerns various themes: namely, the formation of the “public sphere” in cities; urban design as a tool for the expression of political ideologies; state-society relations; the meanings and representations of space; the relation between public and private spaces in the cities; and, finally, political contestations in urban environments. Drawing on this background, the author aims to question the relevance and local meanings associated with notions such as public, private, and civil society – concepts that have been originally developed in Western Europe. However, especially in the introduction, the references are so numerous and frequently quoted that it is sometimes difficult to discern the arguments made by the author and her original contribution to the fields of study.

Chapter 2 deals with the history of Hanoi urbanism. Drawing on secondary sources, the author describes the different phases of urban evolution, from the imperial capital of Thang Long (11th century) to the contemporary metropolis, setting the general context for the analysis of public space.

Starting from chapter 3, the author gets to the core of the matter. She explains that, in the 1990s, despite the introduction of the market economy through the doi moi reform program, public participation and political contestation have still been limited to the implementation of decisions made by the leading party. Since 2000, however, the state has dropped its role as the main provider of goods and services, while economic growth has contributed to further differentiation within Vietnamese society (and in particular, to the emergence of the middle class). Vietnam has set up the framework for becoming a “law based state”, namely a state that “is not only source of the law, but is also legally bound by it” (p. 43). The increasing significance of the market and the introduction of political accountability have fostered the voluntary sector that, in Vietnam, is rooted in a tradition of laic and religious mutual assistance. It has also encouraged the creation of various forms of associations that are nonetheless closely controlled by the State. Kurfürst finally argues that nowadays, despite political reforms, the flourishing of social participation and political contestation is still restricted in Vietnam. Limited political freedom contributes to the development of the cyberspace, as a virtual public platform for political contestation (pp. 53-61).

Chapter 4 develops a model for the analysis of public space in Hanoi, based on three interconnected “dimensions”:

(1) Sacrality is rooted in the spatial configuration of village communities, but also in the daily practice of urban spaces that the inhabitants appropriate for local worship.
(2) The State decides the location and supervises the design of official public spaces embedded with political ideologies.
(3) Privateness concerns the way citizens appropriate public spaces for individual and collective practices (domestic, commercial, etc.), but also for finding privacy away from the eyes (and the ears) of families and neighbors.

On the one hand, the author explains that each “dimension” of this model corresponds to specific types of public space: (1) the communal house, the pagodas, and the temples; (2) Ba Dinh Square, used for military parades; (3) and privatized streets and open spaces. On the other hand, an historical analysis of spatial practices shows that these three dimensions are, in fact, entangled as “critical constituents of the development of national public spaces in Hanoi” (p. 100). For instance, the Socialist State claimed its continuity with the monarchic past. The State replaced the sacred figure of the King with the cult of charismatic Ho Chi Minh, housed in the Mausoleum of Ba Dinh Square. However, the citizens’ investment of Ba Dinh square for leisure, sport, and sociability is “an expression of an emergent public sphere” (p. 162), which associates new meanings and practices with this official space.

Chapter 5 explores the attempts of the state to control the occupation of public land for private businesses and uses; the way public officers negotiate regulations in collaboration with residents; and the ambivalent perceptions of informal land uses that can be considered as part of the “Vietnamese culture,” but also as obstacles to modernity. The second part of the chapter deals with the occupation of public space, which becomes an arena for citizens’ self organization (p. 161). The author mentions the conflicts surrounding land claims, including those involving the Catholic Church, which opposed the conversion into state land of land plots belonging to the parish (pp. 115-121).

Chapter 6 focuses on Ngoc Ha ward, a cluster of villages that was absorbed by the urban development of Hanoi. First, Kurfürst describes the types and the function of communal spaces. Second, she analyzes how longstanding elder residents and newcomers perceive the social relations in the ward, showing that religious practices and social cohesion are strongly felt and shared only by the first category of people. Third, the author explores the forms of internal social control exerted in the community by neighbours, police, and resident groups.

Chapter 7 deals with Thong Nhat Park, a collective space targeted by a private project of urban redevelopment. Residents have publicly contested the project through various campaigns, as it would introduce high entrance fees to the park. Drawing on this case study, the author argues that public mobilization is symptomatic of a redefinition of public space beyond the three variables of sacrality, officialdom, and privateness. Public space comes to be considered as a space open to everyone. This evolution mirrors the collective claims for democracy and public participation emerging in contemporary Vietnam. However, economic liberalization concomitantly leads to the formation of a privatized and bourgeois society where individual interests seem to dominate.

This thesis timely contributes to a flourishing field of study, which looks at the increasing role of the people in the cities of Asia. It develops a valuable reflection on the relevance of well-rooted notions of the social sciences for analyzing urban contexts in Asia. It provides a sound theoretical framework for dealing with public space from an interdisciplinary perspective, situated at the crossroad between spatial analysis, sociology, and political sciences.

Adele Esposito
CNRS Research Fellow, AUSSER
Lecturer, Leiden University

Primary Sources
– Collection of press articles available online, both in Vietnamese (listed as ANTD sources) and in English (e.g. BBC and Agence France-Presse)
– Selection of Vietnamese legislation
– Planning documents, i.e. The comprehensive Urban Development Programme in Hanoi Capital City of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (HAIDEP)
– Reports by international organizations, such as Human Rights Watch
– Official documents produced by Vietnamese institutions, such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Planning and Investments

Dissertation Information
University of Passau. 2011. 184 pp. Primary advisor: Rüdiger Korff

Image: Photograph by author.