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Is Ha Noi barking up the wrong tree?

Update: March, 30/2015 - 17:51
Fringe benefits: A view of the Thu Le Lake in dowtown Ha Noi. The tree coverage in the city is at around 2sq.m per person. The city plans to increase this slowly, by planting 1,500-2,000 trees every year. — VNS Photos Truong Vi

A tree-felling project runs foul of public opinion, highlighting Hanoians' deep, spiritual ties with the city's trees. Luong Thu Huong and Le Huong talk to a few experts about the re-greening challenges that lie ahead.

He could not quite put his finger on the overwhelming sadness that he felt.

"The street that has been so familiar to me suddenly became completely strange," said Nguyen Tuan Anh.

The student of the Ha Noi University on Nguyen Trai Street, was referring to the felling of a row of xa cu (African mahogany) trees and their replacement with a species he did not recognise.

The street was at the heart of the controversy last week as the chopping of 500 streettrees provoked widespread protests by Hanoians.

The protests and subsequent suspension of the project trained an intense spotlight on the capital city's trees and residents' relationship with them. Many expressed the realisation of how integral old trees are to their memories and experience of Ha Noi.

"I was born and raised in Ha Noi. The rows of ancient trees planted along the streets have become an integral part of my life and my memory of the city whenever I travel elsewhere," said Hanoian Lai Quoc Khanh.

"Whoever takes a leisurely walk or rides under shady trees in Ha Noi during all the four seasons will share the same affection for them."

Given the controversy, we felt a closer look at the trees and their history was in order.

The Ha Noi Green Trees-Park Company estimates that there are about 50,000 trees of more than 100 kinds planted along the city' streets.

In fact, one differentiating aspect of the city, is that every old street is connected with one tree variety. For example, Ly Thuong Kiet Street is renowned for its rows of com nguoi (hackberry), Hoang Dieu deeply impresses with its African mahogany trees and Dien Bien Phu casts a mystical aura with hundred-year-old bang (terminalia catappa) trees.

Resting in the shade of trees is one way many Hanoians take a break from their busy lives, and it is not surprising that there are some that have become landmarks and a source of pride.

Shady spaces: The Thong Nhat Park in Ha Noi. The capital city, once famous for its sylvan surroundings, has lost much of its greenery to rapid urbanisation.

The old banyan tree on Hang Trong Street, said to be the biggest in Southeast Asia, or the sacred bo de (Bodhi) tree next to One-Pillar Pagoda that is an offspring of the one planted where Gautama Budha attained enlightenment in India, are prominent among these.

Most of the other old trees in Ha Noi have their roots in the Botanical Garden, considered the city's green lung.

Nguyen Thi Thach, who manages the garden today, said that the first director of the garden, Le Marie, is credited with bringing many kinds of precious trees to plant in the garden.

Amidst all the changes that the capital has undergone, the Botanical Garden remains the oldest with the largest number of trees. Though it does not have the function of providing trees for the city anymore, it also remains a popular destination for residents and tourists.

Tree re-planning

Now, officials are claiming that with the development of the city over the years, many kinds of trees, especially in the old streets, have gradually shown their unsuitability to be planted on the streets.

African mahogany, which accounts for 28 per cent of the trees in the city, is the first that needs to be replaced, it has been suggested.

Nguyen Lan Hung, general secretary of the Union of Biology Associations, all African mahoganies should be moved out of inner Ha Noi for the residents' safety, because their fasciculate roots make them prone to fall down during the storm season.

"Other kinds of trees, like the banyan trees that shed leaves in the winter, are also unsuitable, in my opinion. Keo (acacia) trees planted along Nguyen Chi Thanh Street are very brittle. They are short-term trees planted for wood, not meant for urban areas," he said.

Officials have also said that during the period that the country was mired in economic difficulties, many unsuitable trees were planted without careful planning.

Walking haven: Phan Dinh Phung Street has become a popular photo-shoot site. — VNSPhoto Doan Tung

Presently, the tree coverage in the city is at around 2sq.m per person. The city plans to increase this slowly, by planting 1,500-2,000 trees every year.

The municipal administration has approved a long-term plan (until 2030, with vision until 2050) for the city's street trees, parks, gardens and lake with the aim of "improving the urban architecture and environment as well as traffic safety."

Accordingly, the capital will be built into a green and clean city by 2030. Pollution problems in the former inner Ha Noi will be basically solved while the living environment of the citizens will be improved. The current system of trees will be maintained and developed by exploiting the available advantages and potentials.

The project aims to reach the target of establishing 70 per cent for green space and 30 per cent for buildings.

Over 44,000 trees within the city have been coded to build a software programme of urban tree management, in addition to protecting and caring for the existing trees.

The Ha Noi People's Committee also gave the green light to a Construction Department plan to chop down 6,700 old trees in 10 districts and replace them with new ones. It is this plan that has outraged the public.

"The replacement of unsuitable and dangerous trees is necessary to ensure the urban structure and traffic safety, especially trees on the urban railway line like Nguyen Trai or Kim Ma street", Do Ngoc Hoang, general director of Ha Noi Green Trees-Park Company told the Nhan Dan newspaper.

"The average height of trees on these roads is 14-20m and the distance from the railway to the trees is 14m. Those trees will become very dangerous during heavy rains with strong winds. If a tree accidentally falls on the railway line, there can be unpredictable consequences," he added.

Digging in: Hoa sua (Blackboard) trees are planted in a garden of the Ha Noi Green Trees-Park Company on the outskirts of the capital city. These trees are to be re-planted in downtown areas. — VNA/VNS Photo Anh Tuan

After many old African mahoganies on Nguyen Trai Street were chopped down early this year, hundreds of trees on other main streets in Ha Noi like Nguyen Chi Thanh, Kim Ma have been cut down and replaced with new ones.

However, Hanoians are upset that many healthy old trees have been chopped down, not just rotten ones.

Do Khanh Duyen, a resident of Nguyen Chi Thanh Street, said: "It was recognised as the most beautiful street in the capital city with two rows of shady trees. It is terrible that many of these trees have been chopped down. It is a crowded street, normally, so the loss of trees will seriously affect the environment."

Spiritual roots

For long, trees have been treated as a special living entity by the Vietnamese, with feelings and spiritual lives, just like human beings.

Trees are believed to produce energy that interacts with that of the humans, which is why they are used in feng shui (geomancy) along with stone, water, mountains and direction.

In folk culture, trees are believed to host souls of gods and demons.

"In the past, people in villages planted trees not only for shade," said To Ngoc Thanh, chairman of Viet Nam Folk Arts and Literature Association.

"They planted trees to wish for immortality."

Da (banian), gao (bombax ceiba) and de (bodhi) are among the most popular trees in rural areas, Thanh said, adding that these can grow easily and live for a long time.

Even if a branch of gao falls on the ground, it will develop into a new tree, and the same thing happens to the root of banyan trees, he said.

Thanh also pointed to several sayings that denote the spiritual connotations that trees have in Viet Nam.

"Than cay da, ma cay gao, cao cay de", roughly means, genies reside in banyan trees, ghosts in bombax ceiba and foxes in bodhi.

O cho phai phai phan phan/ Cay da cay than, than cay cay da, (Banyan trees live on its genies and genies live on banyan trees, signifying the interdependence of life).

He further said that worshipping trees is a tradition in many countries, not just in Viet Nam.

Researcher Dinh Thi Trang with the Da Nang Folk Arts and Literature Association, pointed out in one of her recent studies that several ethnic groups in Viet Nam worship different trees. For example, Muong group considers si (Chinese banyan, Malayan banyan, Indian laurel or curtain fig) as the root of their group while the Dao worship banyan and sau (Dracontomelon duperreanum) trees.

The Viet majority group worships Mau Thuong Ngan (Mother of Mountain), banyan and bombax ceiba trees. Banyan and bombax ceiba trees are planted in every village, temple and pagoda.

Trang said that the tree is a symbol of continuous evolution. In growing towards the sky, it reflects all vertical meanings and also symbolises the cycle of death and rebirth.

A tree changes its leaves every year, so it recalls circulation. Thus, a tree is something that surpasses itself, and deserves to be an object of worship.

Dang Ha Phuong, who lives on the same street, agreed with Duyen.

"There used to be a 20-year-old keo (acacia) providing shade every summer afternoon in front of my house. It has already been cut down and replaced by another small tree. I wonder when the new tree will be able to provide a cool shade like the previous one."

According to the project implemented by Ha Noi Construction Department, the old trees on 190 streets will be replaced mainly with long nao (camphor), giang huong (Burma Padauk), sao den (Takhia) and vang tam (Manolia) trees.

However, this selection, especially Manglietia fordiana, has also been criticised as unsuitable.

Le Huy Cuong, member of executive board of Viet Nam Association for Conservation of Nature and Environment, said this tree variety should be planted on high hills as they prefer acid soils and cool, damp conditions, so it is not certain that it will grow well on Ha Noi's pavements that often get submerged during heavy rains.

"Each kind of tree for replacement should be carefully studied to examine whether they can actually adapt to the city's conditions. The seeds should be checked as well to avoid planting wrong kind of trees," Cuong said.

Luong Anh Quan, a resident of Hoan Kiem District, was willing to give benefit of doubt to the city authorities.

"I think that it is necessary to improve the tree system in the city, but it should be done properly.

"I want to be positive and think that recent efforts to regreen the city are based on the love for Ha Noi to some extent. So let that love be harmonious with that of many Hanoians who have raised their voice in recent days to protect rows of old trees." VNS



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