TRYHANOI brings together three Vietnamese and Canadian research institutions (University of Montreal, Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences and National University of Civil Engineering) along with the NGO HealthBridge, Vietnam’s Women Museum and Manzi Café and Art Space to explore the various ways in which young residents of the Vietnamese capital city relate to its public spaces.

This collaboration expands upon the Partnership Development Project “Youth Friendly Public Space in a Context of Rapid Urbanization” conducted in Hanoi in 2013-2014 (more info on this study are available on the Hanoi Youth Public Space (HYPS) website). As demonstrated by this earlier project, Hanoi combines some of the world’s highest densities with very limited formally-planned public spaces. At the same time, the city must deal with rapid demographic growth, a phenomenon fueled by the arrival of large numbers of young rural migrants looking for work in the city. In this context, providing public spaces where all youths can flourish—be they recently arrived or not—is a tall order for Hanoi.

Using public spaces and transgression as spatial and conceptual entry points, the TRYHANOI team seeks to understand how youths with different backgrounds and socioeconomic situations relate to this unique and rapidly changing urban environment.

Video credit: V. Beaumont, 2014


Since the Socialist Republic of Vietnam began its đổi mới economic reforms in the mid-1980s, the country’s major urban locales have undergone dramatic transformations. With a population now exceeding seven million, the capital city of Hanoi has been expanding rapidly. The city’s peripheral zones are experiencing the pressures of city growth as peri-urban lands are developed – often quasi-legally – into high-density neighborhoods, while land prices in the central city have skyrocketed. The rapidly changing skyline of Hanoi is becoming more and more jumbled as numerous different urban interventions appear in the peri-urban zones, including towering skyscrapers, while a rapid transport system is bulldozed through the muddle of eclectic housing and commercial forms in the city’s core. Crowded streets and highways crisscross the city in a chaotic fashion, with four lane highways often instantaneously narrowing to winding lanes. Over five million motorbikes weave along these streets together with about half a million cars and SUVs of the rising middle class. Yet, despite this expanding middle class and the growth of private businesses, intra-urban social disparities have also been mounting.

Since the initiation of đổi mới reforms, the interplay between Vietnam’s state and society has become increasingly ambiguous. While everyone remains aware of the centralized (some say authoritarian) power of the state and the need for caution, both loosely organized and more formal civil society organizations are reacting to and negotiating government decisions on urban planning in increasingly complex ways. Within this nebulous state of affairs, Hanoi’s residents respond to the plans and ambitions of the central and local municipal governments by drawing on a range of careful, everyday tactics to defend their existing rights to the city, including access to public spaces and livelihoods, to the best of their ability.

With a very high population density (272 persons per hectare), Hanoi has relatively little public space – less than two meters of green space per inhabitant, compared to 20-25 in many cities in the Global North. Sidewalks and other public spaces have long been used for domestic activities including cooking and washing food and clothes, for commercial purposes such as street vending and motorbike repairs, and even for family events such as weddings and funerals.

While this is a tradition in other Asian cities as well, since the introduction of đổi mới, Hanoi residents have increasingly experienced the destruction, commercialization and privatization of former public spaces. This includes not only the impacts of new shopping malls and residential areas, but also limits on the rights of vendors to trade on sidewalks, the infilling of lakes, the introduction of entrance fees to public parks, and the relocation of public markets into shopping malls. Against this backdrop, youth struggle to find public spaces to relax, meet friends, play sport, or organise civil society events. When such youth are rural-urban migrants, often negatively labelled, looked down upon, or stigmatized by long-term city residents, their ability to access to public space can become even more tenuous and limited.