Post/Socialist Affect: Ruination and Reconstruction of the Nation in Urban Vietnam

Peer Reviewed


This essay explores the engineering of affect in socialist urban design and subsequent changes in the affective register of a rapidly growing city in late socialist Vietnam. The setting is the north central city of Vinh, destroyed by aerial bombing during the American War and rebuilt with assistance from East Germany. A primary focus of urban reconstruction was Quang Trung public housing that provided modern, European-style apartments and facilities for more than eight thousand residents left homeless from the war. Drawing from interviews, images, poems, and archival documents about reconstruction, the essay foregrounds the complex historical, ideological, social, and gendered meanings and sentiments attached to a particular construction material: bricks. It argues that bricks have figured prominently in radical and recurring urban transformations in Vinh, both in the creation and the destruction of urban spaces and architectural forms. As utopic objects of desire, bricks gave shape to an engaged politics of hope and belief in future betterment, as construction technologies once reserved for the elite were made available to the masses. In the context of Quang Trung public housing, bricks symbolized a particular global socialist aesthetic and utopian sentiment that over time, as Vinh’s urban identity shifted from a model socialist city to a regional center of commercial trade and industry, came to signify unfulfilled promises of the socialist state and dystopic ruins that today stand in the way of capitalist redevelopment.

Keywords: war, affect, urbanization, ruins, post/socialism, architecture, infrastructure

Editorial Footnotes  

Cultural Anthropology has published essays about architecture, building projects, and state imaginaries. See Filip De Boeck's "Inhabiting Ocular Ground: Kinshasa's Future in the Light of Congo's Spectral Urban Politics" (2011); Ana María Alonso's "Conforming Disconformity: "Mestizaje," Hybridity, and the Aesthetics of Mexican Nationalism" (2004), Krisztina Fehérváry’s "From Socialist Modern to Super-Natural Organicism: Cosmological Transformations through Home Decor" (2012), Mia Fuller's "Building Power: Italy's Colonial Architecture and Urbanism, 1923-1940" (1988), and Alex Weingrod's "Changing Israeli Landscapes: Buildings and the Uses of the Past" (1993).  

Cultural Anthropology has published essays about ruins and decay in relation to war, financial crisis, and empire. See Andrew Alan Johnson's "Progress and Its Ruins: Ghosts. Migrants, and the Uncanny in Thailand" (2013); Joe Masco's "'Survival is Your Business": Engineering Ruins and Affect in Nuclear America" (2008); Ann Laura Stoler's "Imperial Debris: Reflections on Ruins and Ruination" (2008); Karolina Szmagalska-Follis' "Reposession: Notes on Restoration and Redemption in Ukraine's Western Borderland" (2008); and Liam Buckley's "Objects of Love and Decay: Colonial Photographs in a Postcolonial Archive" (2005).  

For the numerous articles Cultural Anthropology has published on Postsocialism, Cities, and Affect, see relevant Theme Lists.

About the Author

Christina Schwenkel is Associate Professor of Anthropology at University of California, Riverside. She has conducted extensive ethnographic research in Vietnam since the late 1990s, as well as in former East Germany in the early 1990s and again since 2006 when she began a new project on the legacies of socialist humanitarian practices in postwar Vietnam. Schwenkel’s work has examined the relationships between transnationalism, historical memory, affect, and visual culture – from representations of war and suffering to postwar politics of “reconciliation” and “healing.” She is the author of The American War in Contemporary Vietnam: Transnational Remembrance and Representation (Indiana University Press 2009) and a co-edited special issue of positions: asia critique (with Ann Marie Leshkowich) on Neoliberalism in Vietnam (2012). The special issue includes Schwenkel's essay on GDR urban design in Vietnam and new forms of neoliberal urban governance and planning, entitled, "Civilizing the City: Socialist Ruins and Urban Renewal in Central Vietnam" (2012). Schwenkel’s previously published article in CA is, “Recombinant History: Transnational Practices of Memory and Knowledge Production in Contemporary Vietnam” (2006).

For additional information on Schwenkel's research and publications, see her webpage.


Hồ Xuân Thành / Christina Schwenkel, "Cycles of Destruction: Then and Now." Aerial bombing of bookstore in downtown Vinh, 1972 (above; photo by Hồ Xuân Thành) in same location as contemporary demolition to build a new shopping center, 2010 (below; photo by the author).
Hồ Xuân Thành, “Bombed back into the Stone Age.” Central Vinh City, Vietnam, 1972.

"East German-designed, Quang Trung Wohnkomplex," central Vinh, 1978. Courtesy of the Nghệ An Provincial Museum.

Hồ Xuân Thành, "Laying the first brick at Quang Trung to rebuild Vinh City," May 1, 1974.

"Socialist Iconography: The Gendering of Bricks." Postwar Reconstruction of “Beautiful” Cities in Vinh (left, 1974) and East Berlin (right, 1949).

"Feminization of brickwork in the press." Nghệ An newspaper, 1978.

"Brick production to support the construction of Quang Trung." Photograph courtesy of the Vietnam-Germany Friendship Association of Nghệ An.

Christina Schwenkel, "Bricking up balconies to raise chickens and pigs in Building A5."

Christina Schwenkel, "Plans to rebuild Area A into a multifunctional business and apartment complex," 2010.

Christina Schwenkel, "'Twin Towers' of PetroVietnam across from Building A5," 2011.

Christina Schwenkel, "Women and contemporary brickwork today: New Chinese machinery in old East German factories," 2011.

Questions for Classroom Discussion

What is socialist affect as described by Schwenkel? What is postsocialist affect? How are the two related in this essay?  

This essay treats bricks as “symbolic cultural objects” whose signification has varied dramatically over colonial, socialist, and postsocialist landscapes. Schwenkel shows how aspects of gender, economy, geopolitics, and affect in Vinh City have been configured over time in relation to bricks. Are there materials in your fieldwork which could be similarly productive? Which actors, aspirations, and relations would come forward in paying attention to this material?  

The author raises the question, “How might one study the history of a socialist city through bricks and their affective resonances?” Bricks were central to Vinh’s rebuilding, but not everyone in Vinh was able to live in a brick residence such as Quang Trung. Would it be possible to tell the socialist city’s history through a different, minor, or less iconic material such as thatch? If so, would it yield a different history, with different affective resonances, or different cycles of optimism and disenchantment?

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