by Bach Lien
At a conference on changes in Ha Noi over the last century, poet Vi Thuy Linh upset many in the audience when she said migrants from other parts of the nation had diminished the city's traditional elegance.
While recognising that changes of Ha Noi are unavoidable over time, she expressed her disappointment at the loss of the city's charm and its centuries-old civilisation due to the rude behaviour and gestures of recent arrivals.
Many oppose her views and evencall her an urban snob.
Linh may not be the only person born and brought up in Ha Noi who has a problem with the influx of people from other regions. A friend of mine from the central city of Da Nang was quite angry when some people in a restaurant in Ha Noi told her that she was speaking a foreign language as they could not understand her accent.
Linh's opinion expressed at the conference once again raised the question about migrants in Ha Noi, their attributes and disadvantages and their differences from those who call themselves the original inhabitants of Ha Noi. But just who are the original Hanoians?
Researcher Giang Quan, who has written 30 books about Ha Noi said that before the geographical expansion of the city in 2008, just nine per cent of the capital's population consisted of people who had been born and bred here over generations. After the expansion, this number came down to just five per cent.
However, not too many other researchers in Ha Noi agree with Quan, because they do not agree on how to distinguish people who have their origins in Ha Noi and so-called migrants. The definition of a true Hanoian is therefore quite problematic.
The big question often raised is how many years a family needs to live in Ha Noi before it can describe itself as original. Besides the time spent in this city, what other criteria is needed to define a Hanoian?
While this question does the rounds of the coffee shops and bia hois, many residents think that people from Ha Noi have an elegant lifestyle, far more sophisticated than the rough upbringing of many of the newcomers. That is why many complain that the capital is losing its traditional elegance to the immigrant wave.
I do not agree with this complaint. According to researcher Nguyen Van Chinh, deputy director of Centre for Asian and Pacific Studies, the elegance that has been the trademark of Ha Noi was mostly defined over the centuries.
It largely involved the families of intellectuals and mandarins infused in the tradition of Confucianism. This elegance was born and developed by the families of immigrants, because most mandarins and government officials were recruited from regions. Together they formed the core of the elite.
It is true that Ha Noi has for years attracted a lot of people from regions. They include different categories of people. There are intellectuals coming here to work, students to study, labourers to find a job. Most of them find a place in the inner city and surrounds.
So we can say that the major part of Ha Noi's urban population since the Thang Long citadel was establishment in the eleventh century until now has consisted of migrants from regions.
Some historical documents record that in the 15th century, King Le Thanh Tong insisted that he would send back home everyone coming from regions to find a job in Ha Noi. But he regretted the decision soon after when he realised that immigrants largely contributed to the economic growth of the capital and paid taxes to the Court.
In 2010, the municipal authorities also wanted to limit the wave of migration to Ha Noi, in particular independent labourers and hawkers from the countryside.
After Ha Noi expanded its administrative boundaries, merging Ha Noi and Ha Tay Province in 2008, the capital city's population reached 7.1 million.
This bureaucratic enlargement of the city, however, did put extra pressures on socio-economic and urban infrastructure. And the arrival of people from regions has increased the number of poor people in the capital.
Specifically, it has caused an overload at local hospitals and schools, as well as problems for population control. It has also decreased the quality of family planning and reproductive health care services.
Ha Noi's average population density is about eight times higher than the country as a whole. In addition, the population increase has also had a negative impact on urban traffic, the environment and the quality of citizens' lives, because migrants usually live in areas with low living standards, such as along rivers and near markets.
However, I see several positive effects of the migrations. Newcomers help increase the labour force and also concentrate high-quality human resources.
People from different regions also bring with them different vareties of the same culture, different accents, and exotic varieties of food. We can learn a lot from those differences.
To sum up, in my opinion, migrants are an important part of the population of Ha Noi, in the past, the present and in the future. The immigrants not only bring to the capital vitality and socio-economic dynam-ism, but they also help create a more lively cultural life. That is why we cannot say that migrants introduce an uncivilised lifestyle to the ancient capital.
At the recent conference about the changes in Ha Noi, architect Pho Duc Tung was very optimistic. He said that wherever he went, he still found Ha Noi to be a most beautiful place.
"I hope that Ha Noi remains a place worth living, a place that everyone misses when they are away from it," he said.
It is important that inhabitants living in Ha Noi know how to keep the city clean and beautiful. They should help preserve the city's charming beauty and cultural values with simple daily gestures.
And as one architectural professor once said: "Every true Hanoian has a foot in two worlds - Ha Noi where he lives and an outside village where his family originated. This is why Ha Noi is so quiet over Tet!" — VNS