US Ruination and Socialist Housing in a Vietnamese Town

Hans Schenk

Vinh: a Vietnamese town, North of the ill-famous 17th parallel dividing (1954-1975) the socialist North of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) from the US-backed South; completely bombed and re-bombed by the US (1965-1973); rebuilt with support from the German Democratic Republic (GDR). The town contains showpieces of socialist housing, which became symbols of decay after the introduction of the market economy in Vietnam. This dramatic story has shaped Christina Schwenkel’s book on Vinh, Building Socialism: The Afterlife of East German Architecture in Urban Vietnam.

The US and Vinh

Schwenkel’s book is about much more than socialist building. First, it can be read as a forceful reminder of the devastating war that the US chose to undertake against a somewhat strategically located town in the North of Vietnam. She evokes in her first two chapters how Vinh was ruined. It is hard, even impossible, to “like” these chapters, as the contents are dreadful. US bombing in Vietnam may be generally well known, but it is good that Christine Schwenkel has it written down with so many details, and that she has – this is rare – focused on just one small and relatively unknown town. She reminds her readers of the arrogance and “techno-fanaticism” of the United States’ ruthless warfare: dropping sophisticated bombs as a “moral imperative, if not a historic responsibility to save Western civilization from the evils of communism (especially the ‘Oriental’ type)” (p. 26). She subsequently contrasts US attempts to ensure that this enemy will remain “outside modern history” (p. 38) with the field realities (Chapter 2). She gives statistics, like the number of bombs (3.5 tons per person according to a local source! 1 Pham Xuan Can and Bui Dinh Sam, 2003, History of Vinh City, Vol. 2. (in Vietnamese) ), but focuses on human documents: photographs and oral histories of survivors collected during her fieldwork some 40 years later. She gives special attention to the carefully planned evacuation of almost all inhabitants to more or less safe villages. This long, but quite justified, preamble is further continued in two chapters that follow, centring on the nascent collaboration between the (erstwhile) GDR and the socialist North of Vietnam to rebuild Vinh.


Vinh and the German Democratic Republic

The initial collaboration between socialist Vietnam and socialist Germany has been given shape in this book through additional fieldwork in Germany (e.g., archives, interviews with persons who were involved in the Vinh-collaboration project, etc.). Schwenkel characterizes the relationship in terms of the dominant attitudes in the GDR on world-wide solidarity among socialist states (Chapter 3). Among other initiatives, the collaboration led to the formation of German teams to work for a long time (often for years) together with Vietnamese workers and experts on the rebuilding of Vinh, which sometimes yielded social and cultural differences, misunderstandings, and the like (Chapter 4).

The German and Vietnamese came together to build a new Vinh. Thus, following all considerations about the modalities of collaborations, the core question arises: what, actually, did they do between 1974 and 1980? In Chapter 5, Schwenkel is not shy in framing their task: creating an “optimal socialist city, and with it, a flourishing population of enlightened proletarians” (p. 131). Paraphrasing the words of Ho Chi Minh, Vinh should in the minds of the Vietnamese be “bigger, better and more beautiful than before.” This was to be accomplished through rational planning of mono-functional urban zones, in the tradition of modernist planning, developed in the West European CIAM-movement after World War I. Moreover, rational, modernist planning was seen as “imperative to bring urban order and stability to postwar chaos” (p. 133). Some German planners came to Vinh with ideas of grandiose urban designs, popular in the model towns built in the GDR during Stalin’s time. Adapted to the case of Vinh, they designed a “monumental city center to celebrate military victory and the power of state socialism […] leading to a majestic Platz des Sieges, or Victory Square” (p. 145).

But the Vietnamese partners disapproved of this Stalinist socialist grandeur in Zuckerbäckerstil (“wedding cake style”): “One cynical architect […] saw the triumphal design as motivated by political ideology rather than the needs of the people that socialist planners aimed to serve” (p. 146). Eventually, both the German and their Vietnamese colleagues embraced the functional modernity of CIAM, which shaped urban planning in both capitalist and socialist Europe and much of Asia in the 20th century. Vinh’s Master plan consisted of monofunctional zones for working, living, recreation, and traffic. Despite some elaborations on diverging and converging views on issues like an urban center, Schwenkel focuses in the larger part of her study on a new Vietnamese-German housing estate in Vinh, or rather, on “standardized mass housing, a quintessential institution of state socialism” (p. 162).


Socialist Housing

The first brick of the first housing block in Vinh’s Quang Trung housing estate was laid on May 1 (Labour Day), 1974. Two photographs of this event reached Schwenkel’s book. This estate and its apartments form the material substance in Chapter 6, on what the author calls “Utopian housing.” “Modern housing” would not only improve living conditions, but also “create an entirely new socialist civilization” (p. 179). Thirty-six housing blocks, each five stories high, were initially planned. They were configurated in five clusters (“mikrorayons,” as coined by the Soviet Union) with kingergarten, school, a central shopping center, and ample open spaces. 2 The author relates the open spaces between the building blocs to socialist German public health discourses (p. 144), ignoring the much earlier CIAM fundamentals of access to fresh air and sunlight.  Twenty-two blocks were eventually built until the project closed in 1980, partly due to a faltering GDR economy. The blocks together comprised about 1500 apartments and 9000 inhabitants: workers in state factories and other civil servants in various institutions. Some blocks were built in a traditional manner, brick by brick, but the Germans also introduced prefabricated methods. Schwenkel describes an awe-inspiring scenery: “The sudden, almost magical appearance of imported technologies across the ruined city – bulldozers, cars, lorries, cranes, hoists, excavators, stone crushers, pumps, pipes, steel – was evidence of East Germany’s technological power and prosperity. Such material abundance, along with knowledgeable experts, reinforced optimism that socialism was indeed the best path to modernization” (pp. 180-1).

Technology was not the only thing at stake. Vietnamese designs of socialist housing differed from German ones. Vietnamese architects stressed the communal aspects of living in an apartment building, comparable to traditional life in a Vietnamese village. Hence, a simple multi-purpose room (of less than 20 sq. meters) would do, together with collective sanitation. The German experts, by contrast, valued self-contained apartments and private sanitation. Moreover, they introduced “walls” inside the apartments, creating functionality in the apartment as well as gender differentiation and the notion of privacy. Not surprisingly, the German-style apartments were bigger than the Vietnamese ones, and Schwenkel remarks that worried authorities saw these larger apartments as excessive and wasteful. The author summarizes these opposing views by asking whether the apartments should “produce a civilized life for as many as possible, the Vietnamese rationale, or the good life for fewer, the German approach?” (pp. 198-9). Yet, at the time when officials and tenants began to praise the private facilities, Schwenkel reports that after tenants moved in, “infrastructure broke down and the blocks decayed prematurely” (p. 207). 

Decay and Beyond

The gloomy announcement of decay is the subject of a final series of chapters, which range from undisciplined behaviour to popular modifications to the façades of the building blocks, to their interiors, and to the deliberate open spaces between the blocks. All this culminated in a partial dismantling of the estate and its replacement by new apartment towers, driven by the forces of the emerging real estate markets in Vietnam from the late 1980s onwards.

Decay manifested itself in breakdowns of the infrastructure, crumbling facades and pillars and even the fear of the collapse of decrepit buildings. This decay was easily and eagerly framed as a symbol of the collapse of socialism in foreign media. Schwenkel observes that Vinh’s Quang Trung estate lost its aura of front-runner in socialist housing. The narrative of “ideal-turned-undesirable architecture” (p. 234) forms the common thread in Chapter 8. Neglect and repair brought bitterness and protests among the residents. It also spurred gossip about corruption, or “eating the money” (the low, heavily subsidized monthly rents), as it was called. Many decided collectively to undertake maintenance and repairs themselves. However, this sign of solidarity among tenants broke down with the liberalization of the housing market in 1991. As one resident said to Schwenkel, “Things started to change after people began to mua lại [buy user rights] and move onto the premises. At first, we all knew one another and suffered hardships with each other. Afterwards, there were people we did not know, and sentiment started to decrease [tình cảm đã giảm]” (p. 245).

More individual modifications to the apartments are presented in Chapter 9, such as the illegal but tolerated hanging balconies, “tiger cages,” and lateral exterior extensions. According to Schwenkel, their presence and their variability indicates economic inequality, emerging “from what had been a relatively economically unstratified population of ‘new socialist persons’” (p. 273). Similarly, ground floor storage rooms were re-used, mostly by women who were forced out of the state factories after Vietnam’s economic restructuring. “[T]he proletariat encountered what was once unthinkable: unemployment” (p. 285), and so it entered into the informal economy. Shops, workshops and the like were created in former storage rooms and on public space.

Schwenkel discusses at length the last stages of the estate. Quang Trung was privatized: the apartments were sold to the tenants at a concessional rate. Tenants, however, “considered themselves as the rightful owners of their apartments which they received for their ‘outstanding achievements’ and commendable ‘service to the revolution’” (p. 296), and for which they paid rent for over 30 years. Hence, anger, and the inability for many to make the purchase, dominate the first part of Chapter 10. The second part discusses the final act: the demolition of the most dilapidated blocks and the construction of spacious condominiums for sale under market conditions. Evicted tenants in the torn-down blocks were given concessional ownership prices in these new residential towers, but others were relocated to the fringes of Vinh, as happens usually with such dispossessed in other cities all over the world.

Christina Schwenkel has written a rich book on socialist housing in Vinh, drawing wide societal circles around the narrow subject of just building. She has critically encountered the socialist state as it manifested itself after the US war. Sometimes, she is too critical in my view. I give just two examples. She frames the modernist estates as tools for the “for the state to penetrate people’s lives more deeply,” as labourers would be transformed into “consenting moral citizens who could be managed and molded into new socialist persons” (p. 152). Similarly, writing about the modernist open spaces between the blocks, Schwenkel states that in these spaces “children, youths and adults each had their designated commons to encourage sociality while promoting cultural and political activities for nation building” (p.182). I am a bit familiar with these semi-public open spaces in Hanoi’s housing estates (Khu Tap The), but I never got the impression that these magnificent opportunities to enjoy fresh air, have a chat, and more could be framed in terms of “designated” areas and “nation building.” The concept of a mistrustful Big Brother, using the modernist surroundings and a physical determination approach to watch, steer, and control Vinh’s population seems to me a distorted view on Vietnam’s society. The state is, moreover, not necessarily a monolithic unit, but rather a complex system of several layers and pillars of disagreeing and conflicting authorities, far remote from the ill famous Big Brother. 3 A good account of the relations between the ‘party-state’ and its subjects in wards in Hanoi is given by David W. H. Koh, Wards of Hanoi, Singapore, ISEAS, 2006.

Another point of criticism is that Schwenkel has not tried to compare her Vinh experiences with those elsewhere in Vietnam, notably in Hanoi. She makes occasional brief comparative but unspecified remarks only. But these give me the impression that she has compared her late 1970s data for Vinh with early 1960s data for Hanoi’s first generation KTT in, say, Quynh Mai or early Kim Lien. Standards of accommodation were then much lower than those in estates such as Trung Tu or Giang Vo of the 1970s. These younger KTT do not compare unfavourably with Vinh.

Christina Schwenkel praises, despite her critical remarks, finally the utopian socialist project in Vinh for “history’s perhaps most humane housing policies, where architects applied their skills to improving society rather than achieving fame” (pp. 294-5). Her detailed exposure of the hard work in Vinh to overcome US aggression and to try to “build socialism” is really to be praised as well.