Viet Nam News
Martin Rama, former Lead Economist of the World Bank in Viet Nam, pens appeal to Nguyễn đức Chung, Chairman of the Hà Nội People’s Committee.
Dear Mr. Nguyễn đức Chung,
I respectfully write to you in relation to the area around 22A Hai Bà Trưng, which on December 1st will be handed over to Savina-Vingroup for the construction of a shopping mall.
I am not a Vietnamese citizen, but I love your country. For eight happy years I lived and worked in Ha Noi, where I served as the Lead Economist of the World Bank in Vietnam. I feel proud that during that period I could support many important development initiatives of your government. I also feel blessed for the friendship and trust I always found in the Vietnamese people. Those years reinforced my conviction that Hà Nội is an extraordinary city, with the potential to become one of the best metropolis in Asia.
You many not know this: I tried to express my admiration for the city in a book, Hanoi Promenade, which won the Bùi Xuân Phái award in 2014.
Today I am writing to you as someone who loves Hà Nộii, not in an official World Bank capacity. And I am taking the freedom to write to you because I have been impressed by the initiatives you have taken for the city. I felt enthusiastic about your design to plant one million new trees and to build 25 new parks, deservedly winning the Bùi Xuân Phái award in 2016.
I admired your decision to preserve Vạn Phúc and Bát Tràng traditional villages. And like all Hanoians, I was delighted by your action to convert the area around Hoàn Kiếm Lake into a pedestrian zone during weekends.
All this makes me confident that you will listen.
In writing to you, I am perfectly aware of the need to modernise the area around 22A Hai Bà Trưng. The quality of construction in this block is very poor, and given the centrality of the plot there is enormous potential to use it for an undertaking with much higher commercial value than at present.
Mine is not an attempt to oppose Savina-Vingroup undertaking its 2009 project. This project foresaw a complex of commercial and cultural services, including a bookstore and a tourism office.
At the same time, I believe that the project could add more value to the city, and contribute more to its economic and cultural vibrancy, if it also included an element of renovation and preservation.
The area around 22A Hai Bà Trưng is home to a magnificent courtyard which has played an important role in the history of the city. With its Art Déco railings and its open-air coffee shop this courtyard is an elegant oasis of peace in an otherwise busy neighborhood. A magnificent tree used to grace the place. While it is dead now, it could certainly be replaced as part of your trees campaign.
The area is also an integral part of the history of the city. The buildings around the courtyard used to host the Museum Conservation Institute. The successful preservation of the rich cultural heritage of Vietnam in the years after Independence owes to this institute, and to the many international experts (mainly from the Soviet Block) who helped develop the capacity and expertise of Vietnamese curators. Subsequently, the courtyard became the home of the Hôtel des Artistes, the guest house of the Ministry of Culture. Many leading intellectuals of Việt Nam sojourned there for prolonged periods of time.
More recently, for at least 14 years, the courtyard has been the venue of the Hanoi Cinémathèque. Run as a not-for-profit organisation by Gerald Herman, an American citizen, the Cinémathèque became a beacon in Hà Nội’s cultural life. It is the place where we could watch the best movies from all over the world. It is also where we enjoyed When the Tenth Month Comes, a Vietnamese classic, or the very Hanoian and very subtle Under the Vertical Ray of the Sun. And it is where we could interact with Phùng Thị Lệ Lý, the real-life character behind Oliver Stone’s Heaven and Earth.
Building and maintaining a cultural center is considerably more difficult than building and running a shopping mall. But the contribution to the vibrancy of the city is at least as important. A city that wants to attract talent from all over the world needs a place (many places!) like this courtyard… and the city could look provincial if it chose to demolish it.
People who work in high-value added sectors, from software to finance and for universities to communication, are attracted by vibrant and lively cities, with cozy spots like the courtyard in 22A Hai Bà Trưng, and with cultural centres like its Cinémathèque.
Some of the most attractive cities in the world have done a great job at combining preservation and upgrading, in ways that boost both business profitability and cultural vibrancy.
From Covent Garden in London to the Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco, great shopping centers have maintained old structures while bringing in modern retail. And the shops are all the more profitable because they seem more refined and sophisticated than shops in a “normal” mall.
Paris still regrets its decision to demolish Les Halles, its old wholesale market warehouses, as the shopping mall that replaced them was seen as lacking character. Thirty years later, Paris is still laboriously trying to correct that decision.
In Hanoi, there is a great opportunity to preserve the courtyard in 22A Hai Bà Trưng as the most sophisticated (and probably most expensive) part of the new Savina-Vingroup shopping mall. Through this letter, I want to encourage you to give consideration to this option.
As an economist, I am perfectly aware that in a market economy contracts need to be honored. And Savina-Vingroup has been waiting for years to undertake this project. But I believe that the Savina-Vingroup project could be even more profitable if it also became the proud landmark of an increasingly sophisticated Hanoi.
Through this letter, I want to respectfully ask you that the demolition of the courtyard in 22A Hai Bà Trưng be delayed until this other, more culturally sensitive way of upgrading the area receives full consideration. I understand that the option of renovating and upgrading the courtyard could be discarded after proper analysis by experts. But it would be a loss for the city to go ahead with the project as is, without first exploring this possibility.
As someone who loves the city and wants to see it thrive, economically, socially and culturally, I thank you in advance for your attention to this letter.
PS: For transparency, I am sending a copy of this letter to Savina-Vingroup.
Mr. Lê Thăng Long, CEO – Director General of Savico Vietnam, 1 Đinh Lễ Street, Hà Nội
Mr. Phạm Nhật Vượng, CEO of Vingroup, 7 Bằng Lăng 1 Road, Vinhomes Riverside City, Long Bien quarter, Hà Nội