Hanoi / The breakdown of the socialist housing

The state boundary is dissolved by societal power. A physical reflection in Hanoi’s built environment is the high rate squatting and illegal construction applied to the socialist housing since 1980s.

Between 1958 and the late 1990s, many socialist housing estates were built in Hanoi. They were meant to construct a ‘red belt’ on the urban fringe of Hanoi. In Vietnamese, they are called KTT, Khu Tap The, literally ‘the collective’. This housing represented the socialist lifestyle of equality and central state control.

One example is KKT Kim Lien built before and during the war, in two phases 1960-65 and 1965-70. It was built on 40 square meters of rice field of the village Kim Lien. The initial plan was four-story blocks housing 20,000 inhabitants, each inhabitant having a four square meter living space. In the first phase, every six apartments were planned to share one kitchen and one washroom. In the second phase, the facilities were planned to be shared by every two apartments.


Kim Lien Apartment Block Type B Unit Layout Plan.

Within the Vietnamese context, the external model was diluted by indigenous power through alteration and addition. Under the socialist housing regime, the state had the will to repress private construction. There were strict rules for building construction and renovation. Numerous licenses and permits were required if any alteration wanted to happen. The state bureaucracy took many months, even years, to issue those licenses and permits. Meanwhile, the state’s attempt to provide communal housing turned to be a failure, due to poor economic condition and lack of capital. People in urgent need of housing were caught in a bind: constructing a dwelling privately was nearly impossible, yet the state was incompetent to meet the needs.

To overcome these obstacles, many people in Hanoi had gone fence-breaking. In the case of Kim Lien, illegal construction occurred from the 1980s. Violators built structures external to the buildings and made extensions and renovations to individual flat units. The ground floor apartments were extended towards the street to incorporate small shops. On the upper floors, suspended balconies were built to extend the living area. They also built small houses on the vacant space between housing blocks, which was called xay chen, or “squeezed-in construction”.


Top: General scheme of the transformation of KTT in Hanoi. Source: Cerise, 2001.

Bottom: KTT Trung Tu current condition.  Source: http://www.baoxaydung.com.vn, 2015.


The condition of Kim Lien in the late 1990s. Source: Cong Ty Tu Van Thiet Ke Xay Dung (CDC), a company under the wing of the ministry of Construction, 2001, (cited in Geertman, 2007).

The tolerance in the process of policy execution at the bottom level of bureaucracy contributed to the high illegal construction rate. In housing regime, ward officials issued construction licenses, monitored illegal construction, investigated cases to report to the district and carried out district orders. Their official role was to penetrate through society and conduct the policy from top to bottom. However, in execution, the state regulations was reduced into three grounds on which ward officials could decide to allow illegal construction: a construction activity is accepted by neighbors, it does not offend public works and there is a pay-off for the ward officials. Violators sought mediation from the ward and support from neighbors to negotiate the state laws, whereas ward co-operated with violators and helped them avoid dealing with the requirements with higher approval.

The spontaneous transformation of the state funded socialist housing indicates the controversy between the state’s demands for more discipline and the society’s demands for more liberty. The state boundary was dissolved by the societal power and negotiation and adaptation happened. The formality was diluted by the informality. The model of the socialist lifestyle was eroded by the hustle and bustle of the everyday urban life.


Cerise Emmanuel. La densifaction des quartiers de logement collectif, in Hanoï; Le cycle des metamorphoses. Formes architecturales et urbaines, edited by Pierre Clément & Nathalie, 2001.

Koh, David W. H. Wards of Hanoi. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2006.

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.

Hoai Anh Tran and Dalholm, Elisabeth. Favoured Owners, Neglected Tenants: Privatisation of State Owned Housing. In Hanoi, Housing Studies, 20:6, 897-929, 2005.


5 Comments on “Hanoi / The breakdown of the socialist housing

  1. It is interesting to know that the city has such a mediating subdistrict that are officially recognized yet at the same time with certain extent of freedom in the execution of policies. However, it seems that the leniency of the ward is not always a case of “meaningful tolerance” or demonstrating “the society’s demands for liberty”, as you mentioned in your previous blog. In the KTT Trung Tu’s case, it is more like a corruption where the wards would favour the rich and powerful. Apart from the tolerance on some illegal structure, do the wards also have other significance on the urban fabric in other ways or at other scale? Are there other examples of their significance with their role as a mediator between the state and society that go beyond the architectural aspect of the city?

    • Thank you for your comment.
      By using the word ‘tolerance’, I refer to the flexibility and relaxation in policy execution, as a way that society is negotiating with the state boundary.
      The questions you raised are very inspiring. Yet I find it difficult to answer them just by focusing on the role of wards. I’m now researching deeper into the boundary between the state and society and try to read the city of Hanoi as a way of negotiating the boundary between the two. My former posts will be adjusted to suit the larger theme that I’m trying to establish.
      I hope you can be still interested in my new posts!

  2. According to my understanding, the illegal construction is the residents’ response to the lack of dwelling space, and the housing codes along with the ward system is to apply the state’s control over the mass.My question would be why such illegal construction appears to be offensive to the autocratic regime? If not for safety reasons or the beauty of the city, how does the informality violate the state’s image of an ideal communist city? Is the state offended by the illegal constructions or the action of not abiding the regulations? Does the uniform housing scheme mean equality in the state’s eyes? If so, what’s the state’s attitude towards individuality and how is this reflected, in whatever scale, in the cityscape?

    • Thank you for your questions.
      Before the housing reform in 1990s, housing in Vietnam was provided by the state as a social service. There was no role of the market, at least in a legal way. Instead of equality, I think it is more the socialist command economy and the state’s central power in every aspect of society. The informality was operating outside the autocratic system, because the system could not fulfill the demands and solve the questions.
      The state’s attitude towards the informality was not hostile. The reforms, doi moi as the largest economic reform, and other reforms in policies and laws, tried to legalize the ongoing informality. The state was actually trying to take advantage of the social capital and power. In my later post, I’ll write about its consequence in the cityscape.

      • Thanks for your reply. This refreshes my understanding of the state’s attitude towards the illegal constructions. So the state is trying to absorb the informality to the legal system and sees the social capital as an important role in realizing the goal. And the role of the wards, for this reason, is to regulate rather than to prohibit. Here I see the dilemma between the communist ideology and the economic reality.The communist party on one hand bans the market effect and on the other hand is unable to provide enough housing. It would be interesting to study the different voices in the carrying out of the reform and how they influence the final results of the reform.

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