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Hanoi Orders New High-Rise Buildings to Cut Off Top Floors

A construction boom is underway in Hanoi, with new office and apartment towers going up all over the city. But the city government has told the owners of several tall new buildings to chop off the their top stories, which they say violate zoning rules. As Matt Steinglass reports from Hanoi, developers are complaining the rules for building height are unclear.

Hanoi's new Intercontinental Hotel is just one of many massive projects under construction in Hanoi's booming real-estate scene.

But the city government has ordered developers of several new towers to cut multiple stories off the tops of their buildings, saying they violate local height limits. A 17-story shopping and office complex in the south of the city will have to scrap its top five floors.

Hardest hit is a new apartment building on the shores of the city's Truc Bach Lake. It must shave its 21 stories down to 13.

Pham Sy Liem, vice chairman of the Vietnam Construction Association, which represents the industry, says the government is partly to blame.

Liem says the government long imposed only moderate fines on developers who sidestepped cumbersome official procedures. With real estate prices skyrocketing, developers found it more profitable to build higher and pay the fines.

Liem also says in many cases, the official height limits are not clear.

He says that where height regulations are unclear, some officials set arbitrarily low limits for new projects to induce developers to bribe them for extra stories.

But Do Manh Tuan, of the government's Department of Construction, says developers are at fault.

Tuan says the government in some cases ordered the violators to halt construction, but they went ahead anyway, expecting to pay only small fines.

Michel Cassagne, a French architect who works for the Vietnamese firm Archetype, says the general height regulations for each neighborhood are clear, but for individual projects, things are more complicated.

"The authority knows people can cheat, so they always give you a lower figure. So knowing that, you always ask for more. And after that, there is sort of this in-between way, it's basically open to negotiation," he said.

Cassagne says architects welcome the stronger enforcement by the authorities.

"As an architect, it's very frustrating to not know the height you can build," he said. "The client goes back to negotiate with authority, and comes back and says can you please put 2 more stories on my building, or can you please increase the footprint by 10 per cent. So from a designer point of view, I back up the Hanoi construction department to start to be stronger."

Meanwhile, west of the city, the Korean design and construction company POSCO last week broke ground on a huge new planned neighborhood. The development will include twin 65-story towers, three times as high as the tallest building in Hanoi today.

While developers in the center of Hanoi fight battles over height, in the suburbs west of the city, the sky is the limit.