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More powerful than a tall building

Video: Saving a bit of history in Hanoi

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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