Out of Control: Emergent Cultural Landscapes and Political Change in Urban Vietnam

Mandy Thomas

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Thomas, M. (1). Out of Control: Emergent Cultural Landscapes and Political Change in Urban Vietnam. Urban Studies, 39(9), 1611–1624. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00420980220151682

This paper plots the recent changes in the uses of public space in Hanoi, Vietnam. It is argued that the economic and social changes in contemporary Vietnam have paved the way for a dramatic transformation in the ways in which streets, pavements and markets are experienced and imagined by the populace. The efflorescence of individual mobility, street-trading and public crowding around certain popular events has led to the emergence of a distinct public sphere, one which is not immune from state control and censure but which is a flagrant rebuttal of the state's appeal. The immediate struggles over space herald a new discursive arena for the contest over Vietnamese national imagery as represented in cultural heritage and public space, memorials and state-controlled events which the public are rapidly deserting. The paper concludes by suggesting that the everyday cultural practices that have created a bustling streetlife in urban Vietnam will inevitably provide the vitality and spectacle for the destabilisation of state control in a struggle for meanings in public space.

Main finding
The author argues that changes in the way public space is used, as related to contestation over urban development and economic reform, have produced a civic-oriented public sphere which has become part of the country’s cultural landscape. One key aspect of this is not just the everyday apolitical use of politically charged governmental spaces, but that this everyday use has formed a new political meaning for crowds that form. In the past crowds formed in allegiance to political parties, now they occur more as expressions of desire and popular culture - prompting fears of subversion from the government as legitimate codes of conduct are challenged and broken. While the use of public space for non-state reasons has increased along with illegal uses (eg. once historically accepted street trading, performances, gambling etc.), there are no communal protests taking place - they remain on the individual or family level for now.

Description of method used in the article
The author does not explicitly declare any methods in this article, yet it is evident that archival research was conducted as well as participant observation and documentation of uses at the two case study public space sites. Additionally, the author consulted the works of Habermas and Arendt regarding how the public sphere forms, either as a manifestation of urban culture or mobilizations in public spaces over shared concerns, respectively.

Of practical use

Organising categories

Performance/Cultural Expression
Archival / Historical Participant Observation
Physical types
Geographic locations