Hanoi / The emergence of popular housing

The impact of the privatization of property on the built environment of Hanoi is the emerging popular housing sector since the 1990s. Popular housing is a private-owned and self-built housing typology. It is a mixture of traditional tube house, with new desires for individualization, comfort, and new use of building technologies.

Popular hous267ing is a formally recognized private sector producing housing beyond legal requirements, which is not only an activity of the poor, but dominated by the middle and upper class of society. It developed from the state’s lack of capital and inability to provide housing, the institutionalization of land markets to stimulate urban development, and the relaxation of policy on the execution level.

The emergence of popular housing is actually a continuation of an already existing process of people building housing informally during the war years and also post war years. Before 1945, there was only self-built family housing in Vietnam. In the closed socialist period, housing was seen as a social service from the state. The state provided KKT housing and the former private-owned houses were subdivided and redistributed. Yet self-organized informal construction and alteration was a dominant housing process.

Since doi moi, some large private construction companies have emerged, yet they does not have much capital. In addition, foreign investors does not have a big share in the housing market. They can only participate in joint ventures with Vietnamese state companies in housing development. Moreover, the 1997 Asian economic crisis led to the big withdrawal of the foreign investment in housing market. Therefore, the small private sector dominates the housing market since it was legalized. The largest part of housing development continues to be informally built.

Popular housing represents the largest part of the private sector in urban housing in Vietnam. Even though housing development is officially planned in the city’s masterplan, the development is often delayed. The private sector acts much faster to supply housing than the official system does. The incapacity of the state to fulfill the urgent need for housing makes the city authorities handle constructions without permission with the flexible manner. In Hanoi, building constructions outside the official urban management and administrative system are de facto accepted by the authorities by means of paying the fine, which is not beyond the financial capability of the violators.


Plans, section and elevation of a typical popular housing in Hanoi. Source: Geertman, 2007.



Location of different housing types in Hanoi. Source: Geertman, 2007.

The state’s legislating of property ownership stimulates the booming of popular housing. If we go back to the boundary question, again, the state boundary is dissolved by societal power. The reality in Hanoi does not follow the preconceived idea that the state and society is polarized in a socialist country. They are interpenetrating each other.

History is written by the powerful, just like George Orwell’s sentence in his dystopian novel, “who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.” The same applies to the history of the city, as we usually trace it through historical maps and plans. However, the map is merely a representation, and the plan an imagination. They bear a virtual quality. If we only judge the city from a conceiving planning perspective, the urban environment of Hanoi is a total failure. The master plans are delayed over again; the socialist housing is collapsed by indigenous practice; what is planned is not achieved; what is not planned happens everywhere. However, when we start to understand the logic of the city and the local life, we start to realize the meaning of those ‘mistakes’: the tolerance in policy execution gives space for spontaneity; the spontaneous transformation of the socialist housing incorporates societal needs; the popular housing sector fills  housing demands. Instead of the city represented by the authority, the real city is more complicated, yet has more richness.


Geertman, S. J. L. The self-organizing city in Vietnam: processes of change and transformation in housing in Hanoi. Eindhoven: Technische Universiteit Eindhoven 10.6100/IR627198, 2007.


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