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A New Vision for Hanoi’s Wet Markets

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Written by: Stephen Davies, Consultant for HealthBridge Vietnam

At the 9th International Public Markets Conference in Barcelona in 2015, Chau Long Market in Hanoi was listed as one of world’s most endangered markets. That’s because city policy in Hanoi – now stopped through the efforts of Healthbridge and others – had been to demolish existing markets and convert the sites to shopping centers, with the traditional wet market submerged into the basement with little foot traffic. These markets became pale versions of their former robust selves.

While abandoning this approach, the question still remained: what should happen with the plus 350 wet markets in central Hanoi and surrounding districts? How can you "modernize" these traditional markets while still retaining their authenticity and core reason for being? Leaving them in their current, often decrepit, condition is not an option.

For one thing, they are too important to the future of the city. This map shows that their trade areas cover the urban core area of the city, making them ideal to maintain and enhance people’s access to fresh, healthy foods. Statistics show that wet markets remain the preferred place to shop for fresh food because of their convenience and low prices. Thousands of people – urban and rural – depend on these markets for their livelihood and it's these personal relationships between vendor and customer that bring people back, often every day.

Even though conversion to shopping centers is no longer an active threat, wet markets are still challenged by a perfect storm of other issues: modernization in a country that has one of the fastest growing economies in the world with one of the youngest populations; a lack of understanding of the value that markets bring to the city and why they are worthy of investment; rampant new development that could honestly be anywhere in the world; poor maintenance and food safety standards; and the fact that people now have choices ranging from entrepreneurial street vendors who line every major street to an ever increasing number of supermarkets, hypermarkets, and even on-line shopping.

One other curious challenge: shoppers are convinced that they must be able to drive their motorbike right down the aisle and stop at any stall. At one market we surveyed, 70% of the customers arrived by motorbike and only 4% parked them. This is presents a different kind of safety challenge – customer safety!

Last August, after I ended my 40 year run on the leadership team of Project for Public Spaces (PPS), I started a new company, Place Solutions Group, LLC, through which I remain engaged with PPS as a consultant as well as working independently. Now I have the time to focus on what was always the best part of my job – working with local communities on projects that make a difference. I am thrilled to have started this practice in Hanoi – as a consultant to Healthbridge – and I hope this is the first of many such "residencies" around the world where I can combine my skills and experience honed at PPS with local knowledge and talent to create places that are true centers of local economies.

For a month this past fall, I was in Hanoi working closely with the Vietnam Office of the HealthBridge, the Hanoi Architects Association, and, a new design center, AGOhub, who gathered over 20 young architects to volunteer to participate in our process. We based our project in part on policy work already completed by the city’s think tank, Hanoi Institute for Economic and Social Development (HISDED), which had prepared a lengthy report outlining recommendations for future action.

However, there was still little action. Our goal with this effort was to develop new design approaches to revitalize three "wet" markets in the city – Chau Long Market, Ha Market, and Ngoc Lam Market – and models for others. All had stakeholders who were interested in renovating the market in the near term, with varying levels of capital support available. The plan is to put ideas into action as quickly as possible so we can demonstrate the potential that the markets truly have. These projects could also be laboratories for identifying policy changes – and the changes in operation and management – that would be needed to make investments more effective.

The design workshop was framed around “Ten Principles for Successful Markets” a list adapted from my colleague David O’Neil. These principles recognize that design, while a critical and essential of market success, needs to be considered in the context of how markets are managed and operated, another weakness in the Hanoi systems. Leading up to the workshop we met with the management and key stakeholders for each of the markets; conducted customer and vendors surveys at one market (Ngoc Lam Market); did extensive analysis and audit of the market’s functioning; met with other key actors in the markets, including the World Bank, which had already invested in some 500 markets in Vietnam to improve the design of meat vendor stalls so they are more sanitary. We visited markets all over Hanoi, some in much better condition (which was encouraging) including some new markets and markets under construction. Following the workshop, the designs were presented to these same stakeholders and later to a larger group of policy makers. In general, the response has been enormously positive, including some 25 articles in local media, all of them positive.

But the design ideas that emerged from this project are just that: ideas. They are intended to stimulate interest and demonstrate the potential that Hanoi wet markets can achieve with the right kind of re-investment, management and operations, and policy support. As the design of the three model markets that were part of this pilot project are more fully developed, HealthBridge and the Hanoi Architects Association are following some core principles:

  1. Maintaining the core functions and traditions of wet markets. Markets need to be improved while still retaining their core functions as markets, not as second class tenants of shopping centers;
  1. Engaging vendors, customers, and key stakeholders. People are passionate about their markets and have great knowledge about them. When the actual design process begins, it is important to truly engage vendors and customers in identifying problems, assessing and evaluating solutions, and determining how they can actively participate in the market’s future.
  1. Identify phased approaches to market renovations. Sometimes simple changes can be made at first that are less expensive but that can be the first step to more major renovations and additions. This approach also enables markets to experiment with new designs before implementing more broadly.
  1. Support vendors to improve their businesses and design of their stalls. When people shop at markets they focus on the products, and if these products are well displayed on clean, well-lit, and well-functioning stalls, with adequate storage not visible to customers, sales should increase. Free design and other technical assistance, as well as micro-loans or grants, could help vendors improve their businesses.
  1. Carefully plan private investment and management of markets. The experience of markets in Hanoi, where private operators have not always adequately maintained wet markets, demonstrates that it is important to carefully plan and execute future private investor involvement that is currently the preferred government policy. The government needs to assure that public benefits and services are achieved when private investors become involved with market renovation and operation.
  1. Make markets “more than markets” with other complementary uses and public spaces. The wet markets should be envisioned as public destinations with a variety of other uses to attract people other than buying fresh food products. Public spaces adjacent to or within a market are worthy of independent public investment in themselves.
  1. Share design and management innovation more widely, and create a more unified system for all markets in Hanoi. Market operations across 12 districts in the city are highly segmented with some managed by a Market Management Board while others are private, district operated, or run by cooperatives. The lessons of cities such as Barcelona, London, and Hong Kong, which have established different forms of city wide policy and operational support, show the potential for Hanoi to shape its vast, largely untapped treasure of markets into a more coordinated system.

While Hanoi’s wet markets aren’t out of the woods yet, the progress to date gives Healthbridge a foundation for what it has done so well in the past: advocate for city policy change. For the wet markets, this means taking our report and recommendations to the national Ministry of Trade as well Hanoi Department of Trade and Industry, the key oversight agencies. Our goal is for them to recognize the recommended principles described above should be considered when approving any project to rebuild/ improve wet markets. Meanwhile, Healthbridge will continue to have separate meetings with local authorities in the districts of the three markets to discuss with them about plan to pilot the improvements of the markets, taking into consideration the proposed design concepts.

And watch for an update and full report at the 10th International Public Markets Conference co hosted by PPS and the Mayor of London on June 6-8, 2019!