Martin Rama, a Uruguayan economist with big love for Hanoi

Friday, 2017-12-29 21:42:22
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Martin Rama has fallen in love with Hanoi since he first visited the city in 1998.
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NDO – Martin Rama, former Lead Economist of the World Bank in Vietnam, has recently been appointed as the Project Director of the Sustainable Urban Development Centre under the Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences, a position usually taken over by a Vietnamese person but is now held by a foreigner. It’s worth noting that he serves as an honourary director, working without pay and even using his own money for the project.

Martin Rama has developed a great love for Hanoi since he first came here 20 years ago. According to the Uruguayan economist, while many large cities in Southeast Asia are becoming ugly or boring in an incurable manner, Hanoi is always a city worth living in and even an extremely lovely city. In Rama’s eye, Hanoi is like a dish made with fresh ingredients at an ideal dose. The buildings constructed in a variety of architectural styles are still standing in harmony with each other, from traditional to Soviet styles, from Art Déco to French styles and from the Beaux Arts style to Khu Tap The buildings (collective quarters). Temples and churches are interspersed with crowded shopping areas, while tree-lined streets are interwoven with narrow, Oriental-style alleys that are unconfusable.

“Hanoi was in a way like a bowl of pho, the quintessential local dish. One can only love the taste of pho, but so many different ingredients are needed to prepare a good pho!”

Martin Rama – the author of “Hanoi Promenade”, which received the 2014 “Bui Xuan Phai – For the Love of Hanoi” award made the remark as he introduced his book.

Martin Rama said “I fell in love with Hanoi the first time I visited. That was almost two decades ago, as I started working for the World Bank programme in Vietnam in 1998.”

Reminiscing about when he first came to Hanoi, the Uruguay-born economic expert said “I was charmed by the city, and by its people, and it didn’t take me too long to decide that I wanted to spend a meaningful phase of my life immersed in her”. For him, Hanoi is like a loved woman, so in his book he always refer to the city as “she” not “it”.

And he finally moved to Vietnam, as the Lead Economist for the World Bank, in 2002, going on to spend eight years living in Hanoi.

During the length of his stay in the city, he would go around with his camera on weekends, trying to capture whatever seemed interesting, but without any particular purpose.

“At some point, it became clear to me that I had enough visuals and information to put together compelling stories about Hanoi: stories combining texts and images, but also academic rigour and personal experience. That is how the idea of writing the book emerged, sometime in 2007,” Rama shared.

For Martin Rama, Hanoi is like a loved woman.

It was only around 2009, as he was classifying his photos, that he realised there were common themes, and enough material about each of them to support a potentially interesting chapter.

“At one level, I would claim that my book is a well-researched work. I did a thorough review of written and visual material in connection to each chapter, reading almost everything I could put my hands on, talking to journalists, and seeking views from friends,” he said.

He wrote the book in the spirit of a love declaration, almost as if Hanoi was a beautiful (and at times difficult) woman whom he was cohabiting with and the book was a way to praise what makes her so special in his eyes, according to Martin Rama.

The book is accompanied by colorful photos of Hanoi and illustrates his unique view of this city, which is in the process of rapid urbanisation but is still worth living in. Hanoi is described by Rama as beautiful and dynamic, with its busy street life.

Streets in Hanoi create a vivid picture of heavy traffic, street vendors, and street side beer shops. Foreigners may regard them as quite messy but that’s Hanoi’s colorful hectic life.

“I wanted to recreate the vibrant, at times chaotic atmosphere of Hanoi. In fact, one of the chapters of the book is entitled Chaos! When going for walks I would jump from one thing to another, from French architecture to Soviet style buildings, from vibrant business to quiet prayer,” he said.

The Uruguayan expert shared that he appreciated the mixture of architectural styles, with Chinese, French and Soviet influences nicely co-existing side by side in Hanoi.

“The diversity of its architectural styles is one of two important ways which makes Hanoi special in my eye. There is of course traditional architecture, with Chinese roots. Pagodas and communal houses fall into this group. Then, obviously, there is the French legacy: public buildings, elegant villas, tree-lined streets. In addition, Hanoi also had an important phase of Soviet architecture. It encompassed structures such as the Friendship Palace, on Tran Hung Dao Street, but also the many social housing projects that populate the city. Even the French style is not really French but still Vietnamese. Few other East Asian cities can claim such a rich architectural legacy.” he shared.

However, the people are what make Hanoi really special in his eyes. He said “Hanoi has a very vibrant life outdoors. People do a lot of things on the sidewalks. In the same way as Paris has a “café culture”, Hanoi has a “sidewalk culture”.

As a “big fan” of Hanoi, Rama said he would be very happy if he could contribute something in order to “make Hanoi shine as an excellent city loved by the whole world”. The love for the thousand-year-old capital city has driven him to launch a sustainable urban development project, which aims to find a way to do the necessary urban upgrading, in a profitable way, while preserving the character of the city. The main point is that value creation may be higher when key urban features are preserved than when everybody demolishes existing structures and re-builds anew.

According to the Uruguayan economist, preservation is not just about keeping some nice structures: a communal house here, a French villa there, a Khu Tap The building a bit father… A successful urban preservation project should find ways to preserve the social vitality that makes Hanoi so special. Many cities in advanced countries have managed to preserve beautiful architecture, but they have not been successful in avoiding gentrification, with historic centres becoming so nice that only the rich can afford to live there.

Martin Rama considers the old Khu Tap The buildings as a heritage that needs to be preserved in the common development process of the capital city.

Rama said, as the Project Director at the Sustainable Urban Development Centre, he would like to explore ways in which to support a “shareholders approach” to urban upgrading. Rather than having private developers take over the most valuable parts of town, and push the original population away, the key innovation would be to make current residents become part of the urban upgrading project. If some of the gains currently made by private developers can be appropriated by the current residents, they may be interested in staying in the “pilot” block, thus contributing to the preservation of the character of Hanoi.

He has chosen Hanoi’s old Khu Tap The buildings as the topic for his project, explaining that these structures are part of the collective memory of the city, as they are closely attached to the childhood of many generations of Hanoians. He considers the old Khu Tap The buildings as a heritage that needs to be preserved in the common development process of the capital city.

Hanoi currently has more than 40 old Khu Tap The buildings which have now become seriously degraded. The relocation of residents there in service of renovation work still faces a lot of difficulties. The original citizens in these buildings do not want to move to other places, while investors are not so enthusiastic about investing in these projects because of mechanism and policy constraints.

Rama said he is unconvinced by the current approach to the modernisation of Khu Tap The buildings, which basically amounts to getting rid of them and replacing them by modern structures. Their looks, with their yellow walls and their “Nha A”, “Nha B”, “Nha C”… blue signs are unambiguously Hanoian. And because of the way the apartments in Khu Tap The buildings were originally allocated, many of them still host closely-knit communities. At least a few of them should be modernised while retrieving the looks of the period when they were built, and preserving their original population.

Rama proposed that the old Khu Tap The buildings be maintained, but some firm pillars would be “transplanted” at the stairs in order to serve the construction of additional storeys above. The residents currently living here would not have to migrate during the construction process. After the upgrades are completed, they would be resettled to the higher storeys, and the lower storeys would become venues for business activities and profit generation. Meanwhile, the furniture of the building would be renewed, and flowers would be grown on the balconies. Rama said that before putting forward this recommendation, he had conducted a pilot with the old French-styled villa, where he used to live during his eight years in Hanoi. Therefore, he puts a lot of hope on the feasibility of the project.

With the project, Martin Rama wants to show Hanoi’s leaders that the preservation of an ancient city imbued with unique cultural identities by conserving and promoting ancient architectures alongside modern buildings is the most profitable and sustainable investment path for Hanoi.

He expressed his hope that after a few years in operation, the Sustainable Urban Development Centre can submit to the authorities of Hanoi a feasibility project to “pilot” a different approach to urban upgrading in a block in the central part of the city. This project may or may not succeed, but it reflects the amazing efforts of a foreigner who loves Hanoi wholeheartedly.