Cao Bằng, Vietnam


How residents negotiate public and private space in a small, upland city

How do residents negotiate public and private space use in a small city? What spaces are deemed appropriate for certain activities such as inline skating and dancing? Who gets to decide and how do local people contest those decisions if they want to? This project aims to find out…

Cao Bằng city is centrally located within Cao Bằng province, 30 km from the Chinese border and 286 km from Hanoi. During the French colonial era it housed a French military outpost, was the site of anti-colonial resistance during the First Indochina War, and was heavily damaged during the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese war. Today, the city is a Class Three urban center (all cities in Vietnam are ranked from 1-5 as well as ‘special class cities’) located on a peninsular within a valley produced by the convergence of two rivers.  The city has a demarcated center with a park surrounded by large government buildings, including the provincial People’s Committee, a culture hall, a post office, and a community center. This central area is the location of public events, recreational activities, and a fair amount of early morning and evening socialization.

As of 2015, the total population of Cao Bằng city was 68,546 individuals. The city’s ethnic composition comprises about 47 percent ethnic minority Tày, followed by the Kinh (Vietnamese lowland majority, 32 percent) and the Nùng (20 percent).

There are big plans for this small city: including for Cao Bằng to become a regional transit center and hub for provincial tours. The state also aims to promote clustering in the city center for administrative services and set up a new cluster of commercial centers in the western part of the city. Overall, there is a distinct lack of academic literature concerning Cao Bằng city and no academic literature that focuses on how local residents negotiate public space use in this small upland city. Our research aims to help fill this gap in the literature.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 Current Research


Alternative Urban Realities: Negotiating Public Space Use in Cao Bằng, Vietnam

Urban growth is a challenge highly relevant to sustainable development in the northern Vietnamese uplands. In this region, state and private enterprises are dramatically transforming rural landscapes for natural resource exploitation and ‘development’ potential (Bonnin, 2012). As a result, the region’s small cities are steadily growing in population size as rural-dwellers migrate to urban areas and lowland migrants are attracted to take advantage of new employment opportunities (Hardy, 2000). Elsewhere in Vietnam, Thomas (2002) contends that state urban planning and infrastructure are embedded with symbolic power and shape how citizens engage in everyday activities. Despite rapid urbanization occurring in northern Vietnam (Turner and Pham, 2015), there is little written on the production of urban spaces in the region’s small upland cities or negotiations over their use. This study will help fill this gap in the literature by investigating the co-creation of urban space by citizen groups and state officials in Cao Bằng city, the capital city of Cao Bằng province in northeastern Vietnam. This knowledge can hopefully inform how the state addresses potential social challenges of rapid urbanization not only in Vietnam, but also elsewhere in the Global South, particularly in other socialist states such as China and Laos.

The questions guiding this research revolve around:

  1. First, what are the current-day dominant official ideologies regarding architecture and urban design for Cao Bằng city, and have these changed through time?
  2. Second, how are historical and contemporary design decisions, and geographic features currently embodied in the physical space of Cao Bằng city?
  3. Third, how do residents perceive urban spaces in Cao Bằng city on a continuum of public-private space?
  4. Fourth, how do different residents use, navigate, and appropriate urban spaces in Cao Bằng city in their everyday lives?

Ammar Adenwala (MA candidate, Dept. of Geography, McGill University) and other project members.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.