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More powerful than a tall building

Video: Saving a bit of history in Hanoi

Landscape architect Tran Thi Thanh Van, 68, at Hanoi's Reunification Park. Van, who worked to build the park as a young student, helped spark civic protests that stopped a luxury hotel development. (Matt Steinglass/GlobalPost)

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.