Into the labyrinth

Hanois Old Quarter is a delight for visitors but living there is something else entirely.

By Le Diem on June 06,2017 02:51 PM

Into the labyrinth

Photos: Le Diem

It’s daytime but a porch light is still necessary in this laneway or everything is quite dim. Just a few steps outside is the boisterous Old Quarter, the centre of Hanoi, and a highlight for most visitors to the capital. It’s also a popular gathering and entertainment spot for local people and expats. Right behind sparking hotels, shops, restaurants and lively bars and clubs, however, lies a series of gloomy, tiny houses down dim laneways, where tens of thousands of people live a life lacking sunlight and beds and must share a public toilet.

As soon as Vietnam’s capital was moved to Hanoi more than 1,000 years ago, the Old Quarter became a commercial area with various trade streets. It then became the city’s centre in the 15th century. It now gets busier every day, with more and more shops opening and its population density heading upwards.

On an area of 81 ha, the Old Quarter is home to more than 66,000 residents, or about 84,000 people per sq km, according to figures from the Hanoi People’s Committee. There are nearly 4,500 house numbers, including laneways. Each has an average area of 90 sq m, where three to five households live, for 0.5-1.8 sq m per person. Nearly 1,000 old houses built more than a century ago are nice from an architectural standpoint but represent poor living standards. Moreover, about 500 houses have been temporarily set up but used long term.

Aboveground ‘tunnels’

Into the labyrinth

Everywhere in the Old Quarter you can find small laneways that you may think is a narrow space between two houses. The random restoration of old houses has encroached upon public space, with just enough room left to get in and out of a laneway. Some have an open-air space at the end, where some sunlight breaks through. Others are more like tunnels. No one wants to pay to light up a public space so people become used to walking in virtual darkness. A stranger may feel as though they’re exploring a cave.

Some of the ‘caves’ are large enough for residents to squeeze their motorbikes through, if it’s not so big and they sit on it while edging along. If they could afford to buy a scooter, they wouldn’t be able to get it home.

But such people are still luckier than those living in laneways just 50 cm wide, such as 13 Ngo Gach, 13 Dong Xuan, and 24 Hang Dieu. Residents here must pay to park their vehicle elsewhere. These laneways are just wide enough for one person at a time to pass through. Two people approaching each other must work out who is to wait and who is to proceed. Those who are a little overweight need to think carefully before trying to go along these laneways, lest they become stuck.

One good thing about these little laneways is that they can bring residents together. Living in Laneway 13 Dong Xuan, Van Thoa remembers the time he bought a new refrigerator but was unable to get it down the laneway. He had to ask the shop next to the laneway if it was okay to get the fridge up to the balcony and then on to two other houses to get it to his place. Each house shares common walls so it worked, though it might have been the delivery man’s toughest job.

Even a first-aid stretcher is difficult to get down these laneways. When an ambulance came to take Ngoc Vuong, a resident in Laneway 51 Hang Bac, to hospital after he suffered a stroke during the night, the stretcher couldn’t get to his place. His wife had to wake up some neighbours to help carry him out.

Likewise with a coffin. The wall of one house in 14-16 Ngo Gach has a strange rectangular part covered by cement instead of paint, right next to a stairway. A few years ago, when someone upstairs passed away, the coffin got stuck and the only solution was to knock a hole in the wall. It was then covered by cement, and is then broken again when the next coffin is called. In even smaller laneways, the deceased is covered with clothing and taken out.

Dwarf houses

Down these little laneways are very small houses with many family members. Two to three generations living together is common in Vietnam, like many other Asian countries. But five or more people sharing a 7-15 sq m house in a big city is limited to places like the Old Quarter.

Different to Western culture, most Vietnamese still live with their parents after they reach adulthood and even their whole life. When they get married, the wife moves in with her husband and his parents. Therefore, it is not unusual for households, including those in the Old Quarter, that have two or three sons to divide what little space there is into areas for each couple with sleeping mats on the floor. Beds or tables and chairs aren’t used, to save space. A flimsy curtain provides ‘privacy’. The more fortunate might have a little attic. People here don’t prefer having sons as much as other Vietnamese do, as space for their future wives and kids is a real concern.

Such houses, though, could be described as being ‘medium-sized’. Others are even smaller still. No 8 in Phat Loc Laneway is regarded as the house with the most nails in the city. The four sq m room used to be the kitchen of its owner’s mother, Thi Tinh, who now lives there with her son, daughter, and a granddaughter. Everything is put in bags, which hang on nails on the four walls.

Meanwhile, the house at 44 Hang Buom is known as the ‘no-standing room’. With a length of 2.7 metres, a width of 2.5 metres, and a height of 1.2 metres, there’s just enough space for the father and son who live there to sit or lie down. Before Van Xuan was married, he shared the place with three other brothers. Each had 60 cm to sleep on. He’s always believed his wife left him because she could no longer handle living in a ‘matchbox’.

Many houses in the area are more like a studio apartment. There is no living room or bedroom, just one room that serves all purposes. The kitchen and bathroom are shared with other families nearby. The common space at the end of laneways is lively in the late afternoon, when people wash their clothes or pots and pans. The smell of detergent mixed with food and smoke from charcoal cooking fires finds its way into each and every house.

Such laneways are also animated in the morning. If you think Vietnam doesn’t have a queuing culture, visit a laneway in the Old Quarter at daybreak and see how strictly people queue to use the bathroom. Everything is old, including the toilets, with two or three in each laneway for dozens of residents. Those who don’t want to line up must hold on until they get to work or school. Someone having a stomach problem is a major issue for everyone.

Still home

Into the labyrinth

Despite the difficult living conditions, many residents refuse to move to new, bigger apartments in other districts when local authorities conduct relocation projects to clear some space. It’s not only because they want to stay in the house of their ancestors or maintain an ancient lifestyle. As a popular old saying has it: ‘Better to be poor in the Old Quarter than rich in the countryside’.

One day working hard in the fields brings in less than a few hours of doing business in the Old Quarter. Hanging clothes in front of the laneway or preparing a basket, a table and some stools on the footpath; anyone can open a spontaneous business to offer something to the crowds passing by.

Offering iced tea and cigarettes, Tinh earns an average of VND300,000-400,000 ($13-17) a day. ‘I’ve done this job for 20 years. I have no qualifications. I don’t know any other job I could do if I moved to another place,’ she said.

Thu Hoai, another resident in Hang Buom, quit her job as a cleaner to sell fried rice cakes and papaya salad after the number of tourists increased and the area around her house became a pedestrian mall on weekends. Her husband also quit his job to work with her, as they can earn more than his old job as a security guard paid. ‘Living here is cramped and we lack modern facilities,’ she said. ‘But we are used to it. In the end, the house is just somewhere to sleep. We spend more time outside. Everything, like food, drinks, clothing, and entertainment, is all around us, which is convenient. Others must come here for them, so why should we move?’

Others like Xuan, the owner of the ‘no-standing house’, wants to move. But he has to wait to be added to a list of relocation projects. As a xe om (motorbike taxi driver), he can’t afford to either buy a house at preferential prices for those who voluntarily relocate or rent another house.

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