Hanoi/ Where is the boundary of the bell jar?

The urban environment of Hanoi is a paradox of control and liberation. Hanoi is a city with the mixture of rigid control from the state and autonomous self-organizing from society. The control side is mainly determined by the political structure of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, which has been ruled by the Communist Party as the only political party since 1956. The party-state is very central in every aspect of society and dominates the public and private life of people. On the other hand, a self-organizing city operates outside the rigid state order, which can be found in the city’s remarkable self-built housing and spontaneous economic activities. Meanwhile, the same state bears a certain tolerance and flexibility towards those societal changes.

The extra-legality in the former communist countries and developing countries has been studied by the economist Hernando de Soto. He emphasized the importance of legitimization of property rights in the process of capital accumulation. The metaphor of a bell jar is evoked to explain the difference between registered and unregistered property rights. Those within the bell jar enjoy state protection of their registered property rights more effectively than society-based, self-regulatory systems. Engaging with his work, I try to ground the understanding of Hanoi’s illegal construction on the state-society relation in property rights. However, the dominance of illegality in the built environment of Hanoi and the interpenetration between state and society questions de Soto’s sharp distinction between state-backed property rights and self-regulation.

Based on Hernando de Soto’s thesis, it is important for the government to legalize the informal sector into the formal property system as a way to transfer the dead capital of the illegal property assets into live capital. The question in practice is, where to draw the boundary of the ‘bell jar’?

The boundary of the ‘bell jar’ is the boundary between the state and society. In the 1990s Hanoi, the boundary is vibrating. It was redrawn over again by the state to involve the informality into the formal system. It was also dissolved over again by the informality happening outside the institutionalized structure. In my blog, I’ll read the city of Hanoi as a process of negotiating the boundary between the state and society, the legal and the illegal, the formal and the informal.

By looking at the urban space through the state-society boundary, I find it difficult to draw a sharp distinction between what is in control and what is controlled. It is difficult to define  space as an ontological category. It unfolds a set of social process.



Logan, William Stewart. Hanoi, biography of a city. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2000.

Soto, Hernando de. The mystery of capital: why capitalism triumphs in the West and fails everywhere else. New York: Basic Books, 2000.


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