Slum-Free Hanoi

Wednesday, August 20th, 2014

Across the developing world, people move from the country to the outskirts of the city, where they build slums:

Their homes are built illegally, so there is no state provision of services — no electricity, running water, waste or sewerage provision. And shack by shack, the slum is born.

Hanoi has faced the same population pressures as other Asian cities. But thanks to vague and informal conventions, the state has been able to avoid extreme levels of disservice, even to the most impoverished new urban areas. And the construction of homes themselves has remained at least loosely connected to the regulations of the more formal suburbs. Together these factors have prevented the formation of slums as they are typically defined. But how has this come about?

By some estimates, 90% of the buildings in Hanoi have been built without official permission — the land untitled and never surveyed — the effects evident from even a cursory view of the city. Skinny buildings abut each other on narrow plots of land, and from the motorbike-choked thoroughfares, narrow alleys splinter off into neighbourhoods. The unplanned developments have been carried out by the quasi-legal construction industry.


Under socialist decree, all citizens were entitled to homes. Private property and construction was heavily restricted. Instead, housing was provided in state-run Soviet-style collective flats. But as growth increased, the new government struggled to maintain existing facilities and keep pace with demand. Occupants began building their own additions, often circumventing the arduous permit process. Other residents built illegally on public land.

Caught in a bind, having forbidden private construction but unable to house everyone, the government caved in and allowed private construction but with minimum standards. “Effectively, anyone could build a house on a minimum plot of about 20 square metres,” says Michael DiGregorio of the Asia Foundation. But oversight was limited, and a culture of partially and completely illegal construction began to flourish.

As the 1990s progressed, increased wealth fuelled demand, and illegal construction grew sharply. In 1995, there were about 1,000 illegal projects in the city — and those were just the reported cases. The city also began to spread out, progressively consuming villages and rice paddies to keep pace with demand for homes. Urban planners call this “spontaneous urban development”. Most of the world calls it “slums”. But in Hanoi, with the unusual mixture of basic regulation and control, a strange thing happened. “The negative side of this development was substandard infrastructure,” says DiGregorio, “but there was also a positive.” That positive came from the enlightened regulatory attitude of authorities.

In the culture of semi-legal construction, if someone built a structure that adhered to minimum standards, it became legal — and for the most part was provided with basic services such as electricity and sanitation. In most developing cities, those flooding from the countryside end up living in sprawling squatter encampments, lacking basic sanitation and vulnerable to eviction. But in Hanoi, the new arrivals could build houses that didn’t have official permission but often received basic services anyway. Because the buildings were legal, residents had incentive to improve and rebuild with stronger materials when their finances allowed. As well as these new homes, there was a similarly positive trend in the existing overcrowded and under-serviced public housing blocks, with an incentive for residents to improve the buildings.


  1. Cassander says:

    This reminds me a bit of bars and Prohibition. After Prohibition was repealed, the number of bars in big cities actually went down, because laws restricting bar creation (e.g. liquor licensing, prohibitions of bars near schools) began to be enforced again. Slums might be similar, the result of legal systems strong enough to deter the creation of real buildings, whereas the total, but unenforced prohibition in a place like Hanoi resulted in a speakeasy situation.

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