Meet… Ha Phong Le, from Vietnam!

Ha Phong Le is worker in a landscape and urban plan firm in Paris. He has written a thesis in France entitled « Territorial stakes of containment in urban areas: evolution of the banks of the Red River in Hanoi». He also wrote a report in Vietnamese about the people living in Long Bien market. I asked him questions about migrants in Hanoi, the reasons why they left and the environmental impact of these migrations.


Formation of slums behind the Long Bien market in Hanoi


While studying the banks of the Red River from the urban perspective, Ha Phong Le noticed the slums and tried to to find out more.  “In the district of Long Bien, there are slums behind the market with houses floating on the river, North of the Long Bien market. The people who live in those houses are very often the poorest, and they live in an extremely precarious situation. They suffer from every change or disaster on the Red River (both directly, with the level of water near their houses, and on their main food source, fish). When I went there, I realised that it was very difficult to access those people because they are isolated and don’t really trust foreigners, especially since they do not have papers or the right to live there. At the beginning it was difficult but then I could have discussions with them, and I eventually interviewed a few of them.”


Rural to urban migration in Vietnam


Curious about how these slums formed, Ha Phong Le dug deeper and realised many people had migrated there. “In those slums, a lot of young people from the other cities and provinces of Vietnam come to work, especially in manual labour. They come from the North of Vietnam for the majority  (cities around Ha Noi). When explaining about the reason why they have migrated, they usually give more economic reasons than environmental ones, even if some of them have suffered from environmental disasters.”


Attracting migrants to Hanoi are economic reasons, especially work, and the perceived better quality of life in the city. “They decide to move to Hanoi to find a temporary job, and Long Bien market provides a lot of work. Also, the majority say that Hanoi is a good destination for beginning a new life. They come to work and settle. Even if they live in really bad conditions, it feels better than their hometown, and they have good incomes in comparison with the ones they would get there.”


But people are not just moving to find jobs in cities, they are also leaving the harsh conditions in their hometowns. Economic difficulties are reinforced by environmental factors. “Another reason why they have to move and live (in slums) is that, for the majority, they do not have land rights in their hometown. In addition, some young migrants have suffered from environmental disasters, such as losing their paddy fields because of floods. In the countryside of Vietnam, without paddy fields, you can do nothing and therefore migrations are mostly caused because of the lack of paddy fields. They are the poorest people and they have nothing to lose coming to Hanoi.”


Increased pressure on the urban environment and Red River banks


The slum conditions are already difficult but the increased demographic pressure makes these areas even less hospitable and is increasing environmental degradation along the riverbanks. “There is a huge environmental pressure on Hanoi, in particular around the area close to the Red River, which includes environmental pollutions from the Long Bien market. The migrants are also a source of environmental pollution since all their activities are polluting the Red River, for example, due to the fact that there is no water sewage. South of Hanoi, the lower-elevated district of Yen So recovers all wastewater and suffers from flood. This is another major environmental issue of Hanoi.”


A vicious circle: migration creates more environmental destruction in the city


By interviewing people living in the slums behind the Long Bien market, Ha Phong Le uncovered the multiple causes of migration from Vietnam’s provinces to Hanoi. The environmental factor linked to flooded paddy fields was brought up. People however also talked about the subsequent environmental degradation caused by the migrants. The question of land is very sensitive in Vietnam, because it is not clear for the citizens what investors and the government agree on. In the case of the Red River at the moment, it would be as relevant to speak about the environmental consequences of migrations for the city’s communities as to talk about environmental reasons to leave their home. Therefore the question is double, because when the urban areas will become even more strongly affected by environmental consequences, there will also be new environmental migrations.” ..But where to?


Interviewed by Emmeline Bergeon