More powerful than a tall building

HANOI — Denouncing a multimillion-dollar foreign-backed project is the kind of thing that can hurt your career in Vietnam, and young Vietnamese typically wouldn’t do it.

But Tran Thi Thanh Van is no longer young, and she is hardly typical.

The 68-year-old landscape architect, who studied architecture in Maoist China and environmental science in the former East Germany, lives with her husband and their seven dogs in a curious house of her own design, reminiscent of a hollow tree trunk with a goldfish pond in the bottom.

For the past two decades, since retiring from her job at the Construction Ministry, she has spent her time on, as she puts it, “various projects that are important to me.” Most recently, this has included a quixotic effort to convince authorities to improve Hanoi’s “feng shui” by flooding the area west of the city with water. She is the type of person one finds often in English villages, but too rarely in Vietnam: a civic activist.

Last summer, as Van was about to depart for an architecture conference in Turin, she was aghast to see bulldozers flattening a corner of Hanoi’s Reunification Park. The park is the largest green oasis in a city desperately short of them. It is used exhaustively by local residents, who gather in the mornings and evenings to play badminton, soccer, and chess, practice tai chi, or join in group aerobics. It turned out that a 2-hectare site in one corner of the park had been allocated to foreign investors to build a luxury hotel referred to in the press as the “SAS Hanoi.”

Van says the project bothered her all through her trip to Europe, which included her first visit to Paris. “I had heard about Paris just from books and magazines,” Van said. The city’s integration of urban and park space made a deep impression on her. “The French people like to live in open areas, the same with Hanoi people.”

By the time she got back, stopping the SAS hotel project was foremost in her mind. Assuming that SAS stood for the Scandinavian airline and associated hotel chain, Van asked for help from her husband Le Tien Thien, 70. He had connections with the Swedish Embassy dating from his days as an economic adviser in the prime minister's office.

But Thien’s contacts at the Swedish Embassy denied that SAS had any involvement in the project. There had been a proposal for an SAS hotel in 1991, when Sweden was one of the few countries with normal trade relations with Vietnam, but it had been scrapped in the mid-1990s. Digging further, Thien found documents showing that former prime minister Vo Van Kiet had definitively nixed the project.

Van, meanwhile, found that Construction Ministry guidelines ruled out using the park for commercial tourism. And with more digging, she found that the investors behind the project, officially listed as a Singapore holding company called SIH, actually included the major Vietnamese real estate firm VinaCapital Land. Despite the misleading SAS project title, the hotel was in fact slated to become the 376-room Novotel Hanoi on the Park, managed by Novotel’s parent company, Accor.

The location was sensitive because Reunification Park was a signature project of “socialist labor” in Vietnam. Unpaid students built it by hand between 1958 and 1960 in a swamp that had served as a garbage dump in colonial times. Tens of thousands of elder Hanoians who today use the park to exercise once helped build it.

Van was concerned that once the hotel was built, security guards would inevitably push locals away from the hotel part of the park. “In one of the documents, they said that the hotel will become a resort in the city. What is a ‘resort’? Vietnamese people don’t know English, but they understand that a ‘resort’ is a place for the other people, not for them.”

In early February, Van wrote an open letter to the Hanoi People’s Committee demanding the project be halted. The letter was published by the news website VietnamNews. And Vietnamese civic groups joined the protest. The Vietnam Association of Landscape Architects held a seminar that roundly criticized the hotel project. A former minister of construction agreed. Hundreds of letters poured into newspapers and websites. Foreign non-governmental organizations like HealthBridge Canada and the Ford Foundation joined in. A Construction Ministry review of the project found that the hotel violated land use guidelines, and should be moved to a different location.

The project’s backers felt blindsided. An Accor spokesman, Evan Lewis, said in March that the company was “confident that all investment permits and land use rights are in place.” Investors said they had already spent $15 million on land clearance and initial construction. Hanoi People’s Committee Chairman Nguyen The Thao was unable to make a decision, and passed the issue on to Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung.

On April 13, Dung issued a circular ordering the city to halt the project and find a new site for the hotel. The city will have to compensate investors for their expenses.

Vietnam has had a difficult time reconciling its recent commitment to capitalism with its longstanding beliefs in national and communal solidarity. For Van’s husband Thien, stopping the hotel was a matter of setting the proper boundaries between public and private interests — boundaries that investors with hundreds of millions to spend too often blur.

“We are very angry,” Thien said. “If they came here friendly, bringing something, knowledge, even money, to build up a fruitful Vietnamese country — okay. They’re welcome. And we will wholeheartedly support them. But if, by any way, they wriggle through the policy, the planning, in order to take out something for their own interests only, and against the interests of the country — we are against them.”

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