Hundreds of Vietnamese farmers have camped out in front of a government office in downtown Hanoi to protest the seizure of their land for a state-sponsored housing development. Once unheard of, such protests are starting to become common in Vietnam.

For the past few days, hundreds of farmers from Hung Yen province near Hanoi have taken over the sidewalks of an entire city block.

The protesters say they represent 3,000 people in three different villages. They are angry at the government's decision to condemn about 500 hectares of their land and turn it over to a private housing development. They say the compensation they have been offered is far too low.

Nguyen Thi Hien, who raises ornamental plants, says the farmers were never involved in the discussions over the land deal. She says they were ordered to accept less than four dollars a square meter, while she earns about $25 a square meter from every crop.

The developers, a private group called Viet Hung Limited, received government approval for the project two years ago.

Nguyen Bat Khach, vice chairman of the People's Committee of Hung Yen District, says the government followed the law in the project. He says Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung approved it when he was still a deputy prime minister.

Khach says the compensation offer has been raised to the point where it is now equal to that of an urban area like Hanoi. But he says most of the landowners still refuse to accept it.

Protests like this one are extremely rare in Vietnam. Public gatherings are illegal without government approval, and organizers can face arrest.

But landowners resent government land expropriations. The value of land in Vietnam has skyrocketed in recent years; real estate prices in downtown Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City can be as high as those in Tokyo.

Government efforts to condemn land, even for public purposes such as highways and industrial parks, meet strong local resistance. Villagers have stoned officials trying to build a golf course in the Hanoi suburbs, and small groups of protesters often come to the capital during National Assembly sessions.

Vietnam expert Martin Gainsborough of the University of Bristol in England says Vietnam's rapid development makes such conflicts inevitable.

"You know industrialization inevitably involves getting people off the land and getting them to work in factories, and it's also about getting them off the land in order to pursue these kinds of development projects," he said.

But large protests like the one this week are unusual. In recent months, demonstrations over land issues have also been reported in Ho Chi Minh City.

These protests come in an atmosphere of increasing political openness, which began before the Communist Party Congress last April. The national media increasingly criticize government policies, and this summer has seen a wave of exposes of government corruption.

Hien, the protesting farmer, is glad the country is becoming more open.

Hien says the media should push the government to lessen farmers' suffering. If the situation continues, she says, the result could be turmoil for Vietnam.