Public goods such as trees and parks can provoke passionate reactions in people. Witness the Gezi Park protests in Turkey in the middle of 2013, which protested the demolition of the large park to make way for a shopping center. In Hanoi, there have been small but unusual protests against the city authorities’ plans to cut down an astonishing 6,700 of the trees that line the streets in a $3.4 million project.
The trees are old and sick, said the government. Not that many of them, respond its critics. The government also said many of the trees, some of which are more than 100 years old, are of different kinds on the one street and are thus “a poor aesthetic choice.” Facebook protest pages have been started and experts have opined that the plan to replant is unconvincing. Also, what will be done with all the timber, much of which is valuable?
Such was the outcry that the head of the city People’s Committee asked that the plans be postponed until they could be reviewed. It is not the first time public outcry has led to a review of plans. Last year anger over plans for a cable car in Hang Son Doong, the world’s largest cave, caused uproar with many signing online petitions to stop it from going ahead. It is not even the first time the public has protested the felling of trees. Last year in Saigon there were protests against a much smaller culling and a Facebook group started called “Happy Tree in Saigon.”
Hanoians, it seems, value their heritage. They are not the only ones. “Charm” is a word oft-used by visitors to describe the city. Its old-world, tree-lined streets, numerous lakes, pagodas and colonial heritage ensure the city stays atop the endless must-visit lists put out by travel magazines and websites. In an age where so many Asian cities seem to develop at breakneck pace and everything looks like a version of Bangkok (a criticism often but unfairly leveled at Ho Chi Minh City) Hanoi’s old-fashioned charm as the “last” truly Asian city stands out.
The plan to cut down 6,700 trees out of a total of 29,600 (according to authorities) quickly drew public criticism and inspired protests and Facebook groups. One, “6,700 people for 6,700 trees” sought 6,700 “likes”; it has 55,000 at the time of writing. The administrator, who took pains to appear apolitical but concerned, quoted Gandhi’s “be the change you want to see in the world.” The government is from the people, after all, the administrator has said, who also pointed out the recklessness of a project to fill in a large part of the Dong Nai River, in Vietnam’s south, for a residential project.
The Vietnam Greenery Association, as quoted by Thanh Nien News, said that the construction department should “revise” its plan and give “full details of each tree to be felled and make the information public to avoid squandering.”
A protest numbering 500, according to Voice of America, was held Sunday with people wearing t-shirts and carrying banners saying (in English) “Trees Hug Hanoi.” That is also the name of another Facebook group protesting the proposed action. The same day Hanoi switched off the power for one hour as an “early observance” of Earth Hour, according to news site Tuoi Tre. Many people marched through the city, organized by local government, and lights were switched off at the People’s Council and People’s Committee and around central lakes.
Public protests are still not common in Vietnam but online protests and organizing have become more common in recent years. Facebook, now used by a quarter of the country’s 93 million citizens, is one of the most common venues. In fact it was most likely organizing against bauxite mining projects in the country’s Central Highlands that led to the social media site’s ongoing block in 2009. The government has since revised its stance (though it never stated it in the first place) and earlier this year Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung spoke of the need to harness Facebook’s power. At the same time environmental concerns have come to the foreground in Vietnam. Last year there were online protests and petitions to stop the building of a cable car in Hang Son Doong cave, the largest in the world. Some protesting that were also at Sunday’s protest, according to VOA.
At the same time much of the country’s colonial heritage has been knocked down to make way for new shopping centers or apartment buildings. In 2011 protests were held by residents to stop the destruction of the Eden building but were unsuccessful. A gallery of now-gone buildings from Saigon can be viewed here.
Helen Clark was based in Hanoi for six years as a reporter and magazine editor. She has written for two dozen publications including The Diplomat (as Bridget O’Flaherty), Time, The Economist, the Asia Times Online and the Australian Associated Press.