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  • Land Politics and Livelihoods on the Margins of Hanoi, 1920–2010 by Danielle Labbé
  • Erik Harms (bio)
Land Politics and Livelihoods on the Margins of Hanoi, 1920–2010. By Danielle Labbé. Vancouver, Canada: UBC Press, 2014. 228 pp.

This slim yet insightful volume offers an empirically convincing, theoretically provocative, and well-researched study of urbanization in the peri-urban village of Hòa Mục, located six kilometres from the centre of Hanoi. Building on extensive research into the everyday lives of residents, the book offers a welcome contribution to the study of urban land politics, the history of Hanoi, peri-urban livelihoods, and the way that we understand urban development and state-society relations in Vietnam. While the author is a professor of urban planning, the book’s interdisciplinary research methods borrow successfully from a wide range of fields — including cultural geography, history, political science and planning — to give a wide-ranging and convincing account of the social-spatial transformation of this village, which was once part of an outer-city district (huyện ngoại thành), but which was incorporated into the inner-city district (huyện nội thành) of Cầu Giấy in 1997.

Labbé offers a clearly written and useful historical narrative of a process that scholars of urbanism call “in situ urbanization” (p. 69), which has produced Hanoi’s urban mosaic of villages in the middle of the city — what locals call làng giữa phố. By situating this process in a longer history, Labbé convincingly shows that residents are active agents in urbanization, and that a “periurban character” (p. 42) is not simply a result of recent state reform policies. Instead, it can be traced back as far as the 1920s, when Hòa Mục villagers began to supplement agricultural with non-agricultural activities (p. 41). These side occupations (nghề phụ) [End Page 277] not only included modest early activities, such as cutting wood and catching crabs for sale in the city, but they also grew to include textile production during the colonial era, brick production during the hardest years of the subsidy economy and other creative uses of household land in the post-reform era, like building dormitories for rural migrants and students. The author’s thoughtful attention to the role of these productive activities in the urbanization process shows how a pre-existing peri-urban character was not undermined but was in fact even further expanded during the socialist period, when the application of the socialist revolution was less complete than often assumed.

The chapter on “Uneven Socialist Revolutions (1940–1965)” is particularly interesting for the way in which it describes flexibly applied state policies in peri-urban Hanoi, where the hybrid mix of rural and urban pursuits that had already developed proved important for the functioning of the capital. Interviews with older Hòa Mục residents reveal fascinating details about how land was understood in everyday practice during high socialism. While all land may have been officially nationalized, “residential land” was treated “either explicitly or implicitly” as “pseudo-private property” because households retained most of the control over this land (p. 53). However, agricultural land — because it was fully seized by the collectives — completely lost this sense of private ownership. For this reason, household land became a space of private activities which later subverted the command economy. This is one reason that there is such an important distinction between residential and agricultural land in Vietnamese cities, a distinction that is so important to understanding recent land conflicts in the country.

The book’s compelling narrative adds much-needed depth to our understanding of the urbanization process in Hanoi. While urbanization may have increased in intensity over the last several decades, Labbé traces its roots further back in time. The peri-urban impulses of the colonial period and the way that collectivization heightened the importance of residential land, all contributed to the way that peri-urbanization proceeded during and after market [End Page 278] reforms. For example, in the early reform era, when the state became increasingly unable to feed its citizens, the fact that it allowed people to use their residential land...


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pp. 277-279
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