Nostalgic Future: Turning Banana Island into Green Lungs of Hà Nội

November 25, 2018 - 09:00

A small architect team trying to pitch an ambitious idea of turning the vast furtile land of Banana Island in the Red River into a green space for community activities, educational and volunteer work.

Poster mash-up: ODDO made a propaganda look-a-like poster for turning Banana Island into a public park. — Photo courtesy of ODDO Architects
Viet Nam News

by Nguyễn Mỹ Hà

We drive to Long Biên Bridge to get to Bãi Giữa, more commonly known as Banana Island, a 24ha stretch of land in the middle of the Red River. Running down from the centre of the bridge is a steel staircase leading to an island covered by a green canopy of banana, papaya and guava trees, interspersed with the cloudy-white flowers of the wild reeds.

The area is vast with no roads, just beaten paths zigzagging behind gardens and trees. It’s a world away from the hustle and bustle of the vibrant city we left behind.

"It’s very quiet down here," says Marek Obtulovic from ODDO Architects, as his colleague Nguyễn Hoàng Long nods in agreement. As we walk under the shade of numerous banana leaves, Obtulovic stops and says: “This is where our project stops. ODDO Architects have been working on an ambitious plan to turn the southern tip of Banana Island into a forest with native plant species, typical of the north Việt Nam. We need to pitch it to city authorities and above all, local citizens, who would benefit if the project is implemented.”

"Long Biên Bridge is a heritage for the Vietnamese people," he says. "They really like it. They take pictures. They come here for entertainment. If we could grow a forest of original species, it would allow nature to surround the bridge. We would combine the nostalgia of the past with a bright future for the forest, so I would like to call it Nostalgic Future."

Lush green: The still water between the riverbank and Banana Island is home to a small fishing community. — VNS Photo Đoàn Tùng

Planting a forest

In an interview in their office on a busy street in downtown Hà Nội, Obtulovic and his life and work partner Mai Lan Chi explain their dream community project in detail.

“I believe we need to take care of public spaces and the environment with volunteers to plant trees. Then we need people to care for them and protect them. I can imagine school children planting trees and inviting staff from the foreign corps in Hà Nội to take part.”

Coming from the eastern region of the Czech Republic, Obtulovic followed Mai Lan Chi to start ODDO Architects in Hà Nội.

“The forests in Europe are more or less mono-culture,” she says. “The jungles here are completely different. People here are not aware of what they are losing,” she adds. “We need to do something before the precious jungles are lost.”

Born in Hà Nội , Chi moved to the Czech Republic when she was six.

The boathouse anchored within the concrete fence protecting Banana Island from soil erosion, has been the meeting place for nature-lovers like Mr. Bính. — VNS Photo Đoàn Tùng

Having visited many conservation parks in Việt Nam such as Cát Tiên, Cúc Phương and Xuân Sơn, she says the rainforests excite her the most.

“You never know what’s coming at you,” she says. “You have to be very cautious in an original rainforest, which is a feeling you never had in a mono-culture forest in Europe.”

Having worked on a project they named “Green Lungs”, the team say they would like to plant big trees to make the island an oxygen source not only for Hà Nội but Southeast Asia.

“You know, in winter, all the trees in Europe and North America lose their leaves. So the global oxygen source remains Southeast Asia, Africa and South America.

“Banana Island is located on the flood plain, so no concrete buildings are permitted,” Obtulovic says.

“If we can plant trees, you will have shades for community activities such as cycling, team building, walking, and above all, people will have more clean air to breathe.

If we create a subtropical forest on the island, it would be very beneficial for Hà Nội in many ways, for example reducing CO2 emissions, creating a habitat for birds and wild animals and providing a space for kids to learn about nature.

Obtulovic says that "humans need to put Mother Nature first".

"It would be more than just a normal park or botanical garden; it would be the place where people are invited to respect the forest and nature. We are guests on this planet, so we should respect peace and cleanliness. This place will become a new green gem in Hà Nội, a place that makes all Hanoians proud."

Truly bananas: You cannot come to Banana Island without buying a bunch for the way back. — VNS Photo Hồng Vân

Thriving community

Banana Island is submerged in water during the flood season, which lasts from early June to late July.

There’s a fishing community who live on boats on the Red River, and farms on Banana Island where they also grow maize and vegetables when the water recedes.

Two other young people decided to start a community project a few years back and built a playground for children from the fishing community.

In 2013, architect Chu Kim Đức and journalist Nguyễn Tiêu Quốc Đạt founded Think Playgrounds in Hà Nội after they were inspired by a visiting tourist from the US Judith Hansen, who travelled the world to take photos of playgrounds.

She was shocked by the lack of public spaces for children in the city, which in turn inspired Đức and Đạt to set out building an affordable playground.

“It was actually our first project on Banana Island,” says Nguyễn Tiêu Quốc Đạt, a journalist and co-founder of Think Playgrounds. “It was a simple playground with basic seesaws, a swing and a slide. All the apparatus was handmade from recycled materials.”

So far, Think Playgrounds have built 106 areas for children across the country, and TPG was registered as a social enterprise in the early days of 2017.

“We install the facilities and then leave the playgrounds in the hands of local communities to maintain,” Đạt says. “A swing on Banana Island broke three years after we had installed it, so the local community fixed it. At other playgrounds, volunteers have done the same thing. TPG does not have the resources to maintain the playgrounds we build.”

Planning activities for the future Green Lungs Forest. — Photo courtesy of ODDO Architects

On our way to the edge of what would be the border of the future forest, we met Nguyễn Văn Bính, 60, who is member of a club of elderly men who spend time on their house boats anchored by a concrete wall that protects the riverbank from erosion.

"We’ve got power on the house boat now," he says, inviting us aboard. Inside a portrait of President Hồ Chí Minh hangs on the wall. "We have everything we need here; it’s like a family home.

"It’s wonderful here, especially in the summer!" he says. "If you live on a lake, it’s nice, but here on the river, with water flowing beneath you, it’s even better: The water’s cool during the summer and it gets warm during winter."

Simple and to the point: Nguyễn Văn Bính (right) learns about the proposed project. — VNS Photo Hồng Vân

Bính says he and his friends often work in the garden and then swim in the river. They make themselves tea, read or watch TV, and when they have a party, they sing karaoke. You can do anything you want here, but in an ecological environment.

During our time on Banana Island, many tourists walked down from the bridge to take a stroll along the wild paths. A biker stopped to take a photo of the Veterans Swimming Club, which is a destination for retired elderly men from the army.

"Who are the people that come here?" we asked Bính. "Bãi Giữa is a wild piece of land, so it’s open to almost everyone. There are a few groups: First are the farmers who come here to plant vegetables and fruit trees, second is the elderly who want to get back to nature for health reasons, and the third is the ’sophisticated members of society’."

Green future: The mainstream of the Red River sports a flushing powerful reddish colour of rich alluvium. Yet in the tributaries, it could be known as the Green River. — VNS Photo Đoàn Tùng

Back to Nature

Upon hearing about ODDO’s project, Bính stops Obtulovic and says: "I get it. It’s a fantastic idea. It’s going to be part of the green lungs of the city!" Bính does not speak English, but unknowingly blurts out the actual name of the project.

"It would be wonderful for everyone to get involved, but you need to get permission from city authorities," he says. "It’s quite hard, because this piece of land is gold, it’s sacred, and the local government may have other ideas. If this project can be implemented, it would be wonderful for the people."

Obtulovic says that he has met young Vietnamese people in their 20s who have never left Hà Nội and who cringe at the sight of an insect. "I see a problem with young city people who do not have a relationship with nature. It’s quite scary because if you do not have a relationship with nature, you don’t care about anything: not about logging in the forest nor exploiting nature.”

In bloom: Banana Island is in full bloom, and is a popular wedding photo destination. - VNS Photo Trương Vị

Bính says he had a stroke when he was 49, but since he moved to live on the boat he can cycle 200km a day and swim 20km from Thăng Long Bridge downstream to Long Biên.

"People are not born out of technology," he says. "Preserving life and nature is very important. It’s necessary to do this for future generations, especially when you’re young and you want to dedicate yourself to protecting the environment.

"I left my city life to go back to nature. It doesn’t give me a healthy life if I go to expensive bars or restaurants, nor live in a fully-equipped villa with expensive cars.

"Have a great time exploring!" — VNS