Hanoi is a city very much caught in the past. History is a powerful tool used to demonstrate municipal power. This is done particularly in the built environment through statues, monuments, and signage. For decades, public signage has placed an important role in legitimizing Hanoi's ideal city.
Various historical events are woven through signage, many of which remain fixated on anniversary celebrations. Near my homestay house, on a large recently paved street, there are a set of three signs that commemorate the year in which the Communist Party of Vietnam took control of Hanoi. While these signs commemorate this landmark event, they also portray a sprawling cityscape, complete with tall silver skyscrapers alongside lush green spaces and a bright blue river. The sign exists as if to thank the Communist Party for the city we are and will soon become. A few miles away, there is a 15-foot tall statue lit up with blue and red electric lights. At the top is the official seal of Vietnam, an outline of a red pagoda on a white background. The text around this showy monument celebrates the anniversary of communism in Hanoi.
The municipal government capitalizes on this connection between Hanoi’s current beauty and its glorious past. To celebrate the millennial anniversary of Hanoi, the government created a 4-kilometer long mural alongside a highway. The mural was a visual narration designed to recall an idealized history, with sections showing different specific segments of the city’s past. Etched into stone, this mural carries with it a sense of permanence that adds to its power as a source of commemoration and beautification of the city.
Signage in Hanoi often references prominent Communist leaders, specifically Ho Chi Minh. He is featured on signs as a symbol of the prevailing power of the Communist Party. One sign shows him on a red background with words celebrating the enduring existence of the socialist republic of Vietnam. Flashing above a main Vietnamese highway are three electronically cycling signs that remind drivers of the historical value of their city. The first sign reads: “President Ho Chi Minh lives forever in our career and lives long in our life.” The second reads: “The socialist Republic of Vietnam for many years.” The third reads: “Communist Party of Vietnam glory forever!” These signs serve as flashing reminders of Hanoi’s legacy.
None of the signs I witnessed contained images of people. Instead, they all use cartoons. One sign shows a cartoon family dressed in old-fashioned clothing. In the background is a farm and tractors, an ode to Hanoi’s agrarian past. Underneath this is the text “Happy family—happy society.” It can thus be assumed that a focus on the past brings an improved life. Even signs that talked about present policies, specifically a 2017 Social-Economic Plan, showcased cartoon people in environments that were far removed from the surrounding area. Some signs incorporated Ho Chi Minh amongst the drawn people as if to situate the image further in the past.
The intense focus on history nullifies the present conditions of pain and inequality. These present and future conditions must be discussed, especially in a city where my host dad told me that “in photographs you see a happy and beautiful Vietnam, but deep inside it’s not.” It seems that the municipal government prefers to remove itself from this conversation with signage rooted in the past. These signs, full of cartoon characters and unrealistically drawn cityscapes, are increasingly harder to relate to. It has gotten to the point where according to my host dad: "no one believes [the signs] anymore."
These city signs are only credible if they have actions behind them. They are estranged from reality as they fulfill ulterior motives, justifying political oppression or suppressing opposition to neoliberalism. No matter how much effort a political movement may expend on the creation and validation of a city brand, the real city will impose itself upon the ideal city. Hanoi may need to jump out of their singular temporal contexts to address larger structural concerns that exist cross temporalities. Until that happens, signs should be seen as empty scraps of tin.