H A N O I, V I E T N A M
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The streets of Hanoi are an anthropological study in migration, an urban sprawl created by millions of rural transplants in search of work. Vietnam's capital city is bulging at nearly 8 million residents today; city planners expect it will soon reach 9 million. A clear sign of the housing boom, enormous construction cranes hang over Hanoi. Every square inch is occupied, forcing pedestrians to navigate carefully along broken up cement and stone sidewalks. Lining streets and avenues, women stir cauldrons of piping hot soups and men stoop over tiny grills of meat; all rinse their dishes in buckets of murky water. Random open faucets provide curbside bathing, with suds sliding into gutters already filled with refuse. Motorbikes become sleeping beds with grown men draped over their saddles. At rush hour, scooters stuck in road traffic bounce up and over the curbs, which become the preferred fast lanes. The air is so thick with gas fumes thrown off by their two-stroke engines, riders and walkers alike wear masks. Trees punctuating the sidewalks are also pressed into service. Their gnarled roots and thick trunks become the base for Buddhist shrines, outdoor closets, barbershops, fruit and vegetable stalls, super-rigged electrical outlets, and of course, dog urinals.
The consummate market capitalist with strict Communist party control, Vietnam has made a decades long push for economic growth through open trade and investment. Unlike 1975 when Party dogma crackled nonstop through loudspeakers in every village, town, and city, the magoguery is greatly throttled back now. "We're more Communist than Communist over here -- we have Marxism, Leninism, and Ho Chi Minhism," the saying goes, but above all, Vietnam is Communist Practical. The basic rule: don't criticize the government.
The best schools and jobs are reserved for party loyalists, of course. Education costs far outstrip what the vast majority of Vietnamese can afford, while joblessness awaits most who manage to graduate. The government aims to soak up as many youth as possible in assembly line work, and money pours in from South Korea, Singapore, Japan, and Taiwan manufacturers who seek lower wage labor. In Vietnam's unregulated economy, working conditions are often harsh and abuses are many. The government is unbridled in its industrial push, which has employed millions, and prevented more from sinking into poverty. Industrial zones throughout the country offer every kind of incentive to attract the massive factories. Once built, entire towns are created and devoted to the production line, be it electrical parts, shoes or computer chips.
The extreme migration and aggressive development strategy wreak ecological havoc on the very air, soil, waterways, and coasts that are essential for sustenance and growth. The government is prickly about confronting environmental degradation. A Vietnamese court this year imprisoned a man for posting a video of local demonstrators whose livelihoods were erased after a major industrial chemical spill dumping cyanide destroyed 125 miles of fishing and farming along the country's northwest coast. Like others before and after him, he is serving time for "propaganda against the state".