As GDP rises and Vietnamese cities flourish along with it, the country’s infrastructure is being strained and tested like never before. To try and keep up with these socio-economic developments, new roads are opening up all the time. That means new prospects for connecting communities, stronger trade links, better communication and expanded travel opportunities.
Great highways now connect the expanding urban metropolises of Vietnam, while a web of dual carriageways, one-way streets and meandering lanes keep the citizens and vehicles of the city flowing.
The tiny roads of Hanoi's Old Quarter are constantly busy
In the Beginning
Hanoians are always proud to boast of their city’s 1,000-year-long history. Roads have been a central part of life in Hanoi since the Old Quarter grew out of a swamp.
The original 36 streets of the Old Quarter, a number which one theory suggests comes from the original 36 guild workshops of the 15th century, encapsulate how synonymous roads are with Vietnamese culture.
Even just last year, the 15th Hanoi Municipal People’s Council used the naming of new roads as an opportunity to strengthen and cultivate Vietnamese culture and history.
Three new roads around Vo Nguyen Giap Street and National Highway Five were named after the Vietnamese islands Ly Son, Hoang Sa and Truong Sa. This is a break from the penchant for naming inner-city roads after great Vietnamese heroes and sites of famous victories, such as Ly Thuong Kiet, Ba Trieu and Dien Bien Phu.
Plan of Action
Fast forward to today, and Hanoi’s Old Quarter is a characterful, charming district where many streets are still named after the product or service they are famous for.
However, unchecked progress has resulted in the need to “de-densify” the Old Quarter, says Clément Musil, a PhD urbanist based in Vietnam.
“Households are being relocated from the Old Quarter to new urban areas, such as Gia Lam,” says Clément, 37.
While this programme is intended to improve the quality of life in the Old Quarter, there is no suggestion that it is to enable the construction of new roads or improve current ones.
“Land prices in the Old Quarter are very high,” explains Clément. “Acquiring land in order to enlarge the roads would be too expensive.”
However, the authorities have plans with regards to infrastructure and transport management in the Old Quarter.
Most people will have already noticed the recent action plan, for example, which sees motorised vehicles forbidden from some streets around Hoan Kiem at certain times of the day and at weekends.
Nhat Tan Bridge connects Hanoi with the Dong Anh and Noi Bai Airport
Such Great Heights
May 2015 saw the inauguration of the striking Nhat Tan Bridge, or Vietnam-Japan Friendship Bridge. As the biggest cable-stayed bridge in Vietnam, it works in tandem with the new Vo Nguyen Giap Highway, to cut the Hanoi–Noi Bai Airport travelling time to around 20 minutes.
In a statement from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), without whom the project might not exist, the new bridge and highway are essential to keep up with the “rapid and continuous economic development” of Vietnam’s capital.
“The new road will become an urban corridor,” explains Clément. “These corridors are important to channel urbanisation and to develop urban areas connected to them.”
Agreeing with the report’s assessment that the Thang Long–Noi Bai road could not accommodate the expected increase in airport traffic volume, the Vietnamese government invested heavily in the new Nhat Tan Bridge project.
“[The old airport road] was actually unsafe,” adds Clément. “It had many different urban functions plugged into it; industrial zones with heavy truck traffic, as well as new urban villages.”
Road construction in the new suburbs on the outskirts of Hanoi
Continuing on from the new Vo Nguyen Giap Highway is another new road, the 280km highway from Hanoi to Lao Cai. It’s one of the biggest new road projects northern Vietnam has seen in recent times.
For tourists and domestic businesses, it has removed the reliance on trains and slow buses to get to Lao Cai and nearby Sapa, which can now be reached with just three hours of driving.
However, ambitions are bigger than just on a regional scale, as this new highway also cuts the journey time from Hanoi to Yunnan in China by 40%. The possibilities this opens up for cross-border trade and travel are enormous.
“There is also a plan to develop a corridor axis from Lao Cai to Haiphong,” says Clément. “Hanoi would be a stop point on this corridor.”
Such a road would give Lao Cai and the surrounding region unprecedented new access to the sea, and all the fruits of trade and communication that brings.
“That could be a threat or an opportunity for Hanoi,” Clément suggests.
The Vietnamese government, however, sees only opportunity. It has identified the triangular area connecting Hanoi, Haiphong and Halong cities as the development centre of the north.
When Japan resumed ODA loans to Vietnam in the 1990s, the construction of transport infrastructure in this area was ranked top priority. First came the improvement to National Highway Five, in 1993.
This was followed by the construction of new national highways 18 and 10, connecting Cai Lan with Hanoi and Haiphong, also financed by Japanese loans.
The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) says this work on infrastructure is key to private sector investment, which has since taken place in Hanoi’s suburban areas, Haiphong and along the highway corridors between them. This has resulted in a huge economic boost and reduction of poverty in these areas.
Once only a collection of paths, the road around West Lake has been an unmitigated success
From Dirt to Tarmac
Just a few kilometres away from the Old Quarter is one of the most thriving food, fashion and entertainment centres of Hanoi, Tay Ho.
Tay Ho was not always the illuminated hotspot it is today. Before it began attracting expats from many countries along with affluent Hanoians, the largest lake in Hanoi was surrounded by farms, fishing villages and a simple dirt track.
Just over 20 years ago, Tay Ho became a recognised district of the capital. Despite the new status, it took a further 15 years for West Lake to become surrounded by a paved road. Since then, boutiques and bistros of every type have opened up to help transform the area.
However, in many ways, local life has endured alongside these modern developments and upgraded infrastructure. Nguyen Thuy Dung, 63, has lived around West Lake her whole life.
“My family has lived in this area for many generations,” says Dung, who sells bread and cakes from her bicycle in the streets between the waterpark and Quang An.
“When the development started, we began to feel worried,” Dung explains. “So many people lost their homes or jobs, if they failed to adapt.”
As a single mother of four, Dung had no choice but to take the latter option. She put wheels on her small bakery business, and now spends most of her day cycling around selling sweet cakes, baguettes and other floury treats.
The Party Committee of Tay Ho has five central mission statements to achieve by 2020. One of these is to increase productivity by building new infrastructure. Another is to preserve, manage and upgrade the quality of the natural environment. Whether or not these goals are mutually exclusive remains to be seen.
Photos by Julie Vola