Packed cities, empty villages: Vietnam's migration dilemma

By Tran Thi Minh Ha, AFP

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This picture taken on September 21, 2015 shows two migrant workers having lunch at a small restaurant run by migrants Le Van Mung and Ngoc Anh (not pictured) in Hanoi. Some 7.5 million people moved to Vietnam's cities between 2000 and 2010, according to World Bank figures, an urbanization rate of 4.1 percent. Photo: Hoang Dinh Nam/AFP This picture taken on September 21, 2015 shows two migrant workers having lunch at a small restaurant run by migrants Le Van Mung and Ngoc Anh (not pictured) in Hanoi. Some 7.5 million people moved to Vietnam's cities between 2000 and 2010, according to World Bank figures, an urbanization rate of 4.1 percent. Photo: Hoang Dinh Nam/AFP
When Vu Thi Linh moved her family from their spacious rural home to a tiny rented room in Hanoi, she hoped her children would be able to get the education she never had.
The Linhs are among hundreds of thousands of people moving to Vietnam's bulging capital and southern Ho Chi Minh City every year, part of what the World Bank says is one of the fastest rates of urbanization in Asia.
But as economic growth accelerates, Vietnam's cities are struggling to cope with the huge numbers of people abandoning the grind of country life, while only the elderly and the young are left in the villages.
Linh moved to Hanoi in June after her two daughters won a place at a university in the capital.
"I didn't think life in the city was exciting, but because of my children's future, I've had to change my opinion," she told AFP.
"They have become more educated and now they don't want to come back to live in the countryside."
Since decades of war ended in 1975, Vietnam has developed rapidly from an impoverished nation plagued by food shortages to a middle-income country and World Trade Organization member.
Despite lingering issues in the banking and state-run sector, gross domestic product (GDP) is growing faster than expected this year and analysts say Vietnam is one of the only countries in Southeast Asian with swiftly rising exports.
Some 70 percent of the 90 million-strong population still lives off farming in rural areas, but top party leaders have said they want a "modern and industrialized nation by 2035".
Many move to the cities to work in export-orientated manufacturing -- often in industrial zones on the outskirts of big urban centers -- construction and services.
Better wages
For many of these new arrivals, life is not easy.
Linh has swapped 500 square meters (600 square yards) of garden and fruit trees and a vegetable plot in northern Thai Binh province for a 20-square-meter rented room she shares with her two daughters.
But the 300,000 dong ($13) she brings in each day as a cleaner and scrap metal collector is considerably more than what she would make in her village.
Le Van Mung moved to Hanoi a decade ago and has few regrets.
"Life in the countryside is too hard. We cannot make much money and we have to work really hard in the fields," he said.
Originally from northern Ha Nam province, Mung now works as an electrician and his wife runs a small restaurant. Together they earn some $600 a month -- enough to pay for rent and schooling for their two children.
"Life is also not easy here in Hanoi. But we're trying to earn money for our children. I think they will have better lives than we do," he said.
Some 7.5 million people moved to Vietnam's cities between 2000 and 2010, according to World Bank figures, an urbanization rate of 4.1 percent. Among the 14 countries the Bank refers to as East Asia, only neighboring Laos and Cambodia have higher rates, it said.
Vietnam now has 23 million people living in cities, making it the sixth most urbanized country in East Asia, a major -- and rapid -- change.
"There are more well-paying jobs and opportunities than in the countryside," said Dang Nguyen Anh, director of Vietnam's Institute of Sociology in Hanoi.
Moreover, younger generations have turned their back on the traditional rural lifestyle.
"It is difficult to resist the attraction of city life," Anh told AFP.
Creaking infrastructure
Officials say around 100,000 people move to the capital every year and some 130,000 move to southern business hub Ho Chi Minh City.
For a country where the phrase "go home" translates literally to "go back to the countryside", this is a major transformation.
The new arrivals -- mostly students and unskilled workers -- bring benefits, but also put "pressure on culture, education, traffic, health care," said Hanoi city official Pham Van Thanh.
Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City have been struggling to build enough infrastructure -- roads, water supplies and drainage can hardly keep pace with the city's growth.
Traffic congestion has become a major issue, while schools and hospitals are overloaded, experts say.
In Ho Chi Minh City, some 85,000 new pupils enter the schooling system each year and, in some areas, up to half of these may be from other provinces.
Vietnam has a household registration system which makes it more difficult for new arrivals to access free schooling and healthcare in the cities -- although widespread corruption means there are ways around this.
Authorities make "no effort to minimize the number of migrants," Hanoi official Thanh said.
But this is also hurting rural areas. Whole swathes of the countryside are now made up of the elderly and the very young -- with all the working-age adults heading to major cities or industrial zones.
Sociologist Anh said the changes are entirely understandable. "If you find a good job, you will not want to return to your former homeland," he said.

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