The Tube Houses of Hanoi's Old Quarter

by AFP/Ian Timberlake , Jan 7, 2010 | Destinations: Vietnam / Hanoi

HANOI - She stands in the narrow doorway, a dark tunnel stretching behind her until it ends at a patch of light half a block away.

Inside the tunnel are tiny rooms the old woman and her family call home.

"I enjoy living here and I will die here," says the 83-year-old, her mouth stained the colour of red wine from chewing betel nut. She declined to be named.

The stream of tourists passing her tunnel in Hanoi's Old Quarter could easily miss it, along with the many similar dark spaces throughout this neighbourhood whose roots go back almost 1,000 years.

As much as life in the Old Quarter is lived on the noisy, crowded streets, it also takes place -- unseen by casual visitors -- inside these long, narrow homes known as "tube houses."

Civic authorities have deemed many of these homes unsuitable. They are seeking approval to move about one-third of Old Quarter residents to highrises to improve their living conditions, state media reported.

"We share the same toilet with dozens of others," says Tran Dinh Nam, who has spent all of his 45 years in one Old Quarter house and is proud of his neighbourhood.

He and other tube dwellers vow to stay put.

"I don't want to move anywhere else, even to the next street," says the old woman who has lived in her house for 60 years.

Her quarters were not always as cramped as they are now. She said the tunnel is a relatively recent addition, dividing her family's space from that of others whose entry doors open onto the dark corridor.

Such renovations are typical, says a booklet based on research by Hanoi's Ancient Quarter Management Board and Japanese universities.

"If there is an empty space, a dwelling will be built on it," the booklet says. "Almost every available space between existing buildings has been developed or infilled."

The Vietnamese capital in 2010 will celebrate its 1,000th anniversary, and the Old Quarter has been its heart throughout. The district developed around 36 streets named for the goods once made and sold there.

Hang Bac, where the old woman lives, became known for its silversmiths. Jewellers still ply their trade on Hang Bac but are now side-by-side with all manner of other businesses: a bakeshop, a small hotel, travel agencies and a cafe offering Western food for passing backpackers.

It is a scene repeated throughout the Old Quarter, where pedestrians weave past sidewalk vendors selling drinks and snacks. The narrow streets are filled with motorcycles and the ear-splitting sound of their horns.

"The density in here is too high," says one Old Quarter resident familiar with the redevelopment plan. "They want to move people out, make a better life", he said, adding that the plan has been proposed but not yet approved by civic officials.

There are 21,900 households in an area of less than 100 hectares (247 acres), the Ancient Quarter research booklet says, citing a 2006 census.

"In many houses, an entire family may occupy no more than a single room," it says.

Nguyen Thai Hau, 63, has lived almost 50 years at a house on Hang Ca street, named for the fish once sold there.

She says her house, built in the 1940s, originally belonged to one wealthy man and his wives.

"Now there are six households here with about 30 people," she says.

Reached through a short tunnel, the two-storey structure rises from a courtyard where Hau washes rice for cooking in a small kitchen.

"Of course, the living conditions are not good... but we are used to it," says Hau, whose family sells clothes from the sidewalk in front.

Her 30 square metres of space (322 square feet) is small but, like others in the Old Quarter, is extremely valuable.

"It may reach nearly 20 billion dong (one million dollars) this year, I guess. I did not sell it as my elder son refused to go anywhere else. He said it's easier living here, at the centre of Hanoi."

Others agree the convenience of Old Quarter living compensates for the lack of amenities.

Tradition is also a factor, says the old woman on Hang Bac. She says some residents have bigger houses elsewhere "but still no one wants to sell because these are the houses of the ancestors."

The state's Vietnam News said the plan calls for moving 25,000 of the area's 84,000 residents, beginning late next year when 1,900 households will go to a new development called Viet Hung, across the Red River.

With its wide streets and broad sidewalks devoid of almost all people and vehicles, the mix of high- and low-rise apartments certainly has something the Old Quarter lacks: a feeling of space.

That is not enough to entice Nam, the life-long Old Quarter inhabitant with a shared toilet.

"We don't want to live in a high-rise block," Nam says. "We are not used to it."

Nobody will be forced to go, said the other local resident, who is familiar with the plan. Authorities will take time to find out what people will need to make them feel comfortable in their new neighbourhood, he said.

"This is a very difficult project. We have to spend lots of time to study," he said.

As a first step, after two years of negotiation, several families who squatted inside a Hang Bac temple have been moved to new accommodation and given compensation, he said.

The overall relocation plan should not affect the Old Quarter's character, he added, countering the fears of some foreign tourists.

"It would destroy it," said Jean Kennedy, 65, an Australian archeologist. "This is a living city."

Cha So-Yeon, 29, of South Korea, said the area's street activity appealed to her.

"We want to see the lives of the people," she said.

But Polish visitor Paul Paanakker, 54, making his second trip to the Old Quarter, said he is unlikely to return.

"It's too crowded compared to Saigon," he said.

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