In the last few months, the local authorities have abruptly knocked down or closed quite a few of Hanoi’s wet markets. Prior to this, the movement to modernize the city’s markets had always seemed rather long term, something that might eventually happen. But now they are serious. The Old Quarter market in Hang Be Street has been halved in size, the large Hang Da market has been closed pending re-development and the famous 19/12 Hell Market was demolished overnight a couple of months ago. Western style shopping malls and supermarkets will start cropping up all over town in the next few years. So it looks like it’s goodbye to yet another part of traditional Vietnamese culture.
As the city market scene changes shape, most of the stallholders have been relocated to temporary sheds along while construction takes place. Hundreds of tiny green sheds have further narrowed the streets or pavements of the old quarter, most noticeably along Phung Hung Street parallel to the train line. Many of the stalls actually have no frontage onto the street which makes merchandising their goods quite difficult. For many, I’m sure this situation has resulted in large reductions in their revenue. Most of the vendors are not happy and remain pessimistic about their capacity to afford the rent when the new premises re-open. The move has also affected consumers, many of whom are no longer within walking distance of their regular vendors. The 19/12 Hell Market stalls are now several kilometers away from their original location. No doubt one of the government’s objectives with these plans is to improve the hygiene and sanitation of Hanoi’s markets. Health scares raised in the media are often blamed on the conditions in wet markets. Presenting an image of modernization appears to be another reason for the redevelopment. Tall residential buildings and modern commercial buildings with glass facades are springing up all over town and I suppose the theory is that the rickety, temporary appearance of Hanoi’s wet markets is not in keeping with the vision for the city. This thinking is partly flawed. A modern market or supermarket does not automatically eradicate health fears. Shiny surfaces and lots of glass create an image of new and clean but the reality is that harmful bacteria can exist anywhere. Education about improved food handling practices and systematic cleaning is still required. Refrigeration is useful only if the food is stored correctly and the fridge is actually turned on.
Finding some kind of compromise between the old and the new does not seem to be on the agenda. Would it be possible to modernize Hanoi’s markets without completely stripping them of their original character and atmosphere? Should going to the market be an experience where customers simply pick up what they want and pay for it with very little interaction? Do we want Hanoi to be transformed into another Singapore or Bangkok, where only pockets of traditional culture are visible amongst the concrete and glass? Is there a risk that Hanoi’s modernization will alienate tourists looking for diversity and difference?