Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Hanoi Struggles to Mix Modern Trade with Ancient Past

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Hanoi Struggles to Mix Modern Trade with Ancient Past

Article excerpt

With its tiled roof and long, narrow rooms, Nguyen Manh Tuan's 300-year-old house is an architectural treasure, a relic of Hanoi's medieval past - and an example of Hanoi's architectural decay.

Once a home for wealthy merchants, the building now doubles as a warehouse for the dried foods that Nguyen sells wholesale to small-town traders. A sumptuous sofa inlaid with mother-of-pearl keeps baby food off the perpetually damp floor; a few feet away, the kitchen has collapsed into a pile of rubble. "Of course, I'm proud that my house is a relic of old Hanoi, but I'm afraid that it will collapse and leave us out on the street," says Nguyen, who would like to tear down his house and build a comfortable, modern one.

Throughout the city, demolition is well under way. Frustrated by years of neglect, residents have tacked on unsightly additions to the traditional two-story houses. Others have taken advantage of economic reforms to demolish their homes and replace them with small hotels that cater to foreigners.

A belated effort has begun to stem this seemingly inexorable change, but each day brings new pressures to replace the past with concrete and glass.

Until a few years ago, old Hanoi seemed threatened by little more than the region's relentless humidity. Spared serious damage during the wars with France and the United States and isolated until recently from Asia's economic takeoff, Hanoi is a reminder of the charm that used to be part Beijing, Singapore and Bangkok, Thailand,

The old city has two districts: a cramped "ancient quarter" of narrow homes and shops fronting a maze of streets and an imposing French quarter of broad boulevards and colonial-era structures. Lakes and tree-lined streets dominate the rest of Hanoi, built along the murky Red River.

Traffic, although growing exponentially, is still bearable. Rush hour lasts half an hour, and bicycles remain a basic form of transportation. Although crumbling and badly in need of renovation, Hanoi remains a throwback to a time when cities were built for humans, not automobiles. The city also is a potential tourism gold mine: Anyone can still take open-air pedicabs around the numerous lakes and along the shaded, bustling streets.

"In the next five years, if we are unable to preserve the old streets, we will have failed future generations," says Nguyen Vinh Phuc, vice president of the Association of Historians of Hanoi. "The next years are crucial if we are to succeed."

Thanks to people such as Nguyen Phuc - a self-described "Hanoiologist" who has published the only detailed guide to the ancient quarter - work has begun to save Hanoi.

Several Australians, for example, have formed an organization called Friends of Hanoi Architectural Heritage to raise money from corporate sponsors and foundations to help preservation. …

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