Bulging dwellings, compressed alleys

Vietnam Heritage, August-September 2011 -- Alley 14 in Ngo Gach Street, Hanoi, is only 50 cm wide. Mrs Nguyen Thi Nga, who had lived there for more _than 30 years, was cooking in a kitchen of 40 cm by 100 cm on coal stoves.
Mrs Nga’s children have never dared invite friends. They are ashamed as well as not having room for guests to sit.
At the end of the alley are four bathrooms, each with a lock on the outside. About eight households occupy the alley.
The wall between Mrs Nga’s house and her neighbour’s is a bamboo screen.
It used to be that when somebody died they would be slid on a bamboo screen down to the first floor through a hole. Now the hole has been closed and they have to die elsewhere. If they die in the alley, they must be carried out on someone’s back.
‘I would move immediately if the authorities give me a chance,’ Mrs Nga said. ‘This kind of suffering can only exist in Hanoi.’
Among the countless narrow, deep and dark alleys in Hanoi’s old quarter, Alley 25, off Hang Buom Street, is at the top of the list. I had to place my hands on the walls to fumble my way in.
It used to be a warehouse belonging to a Chinese family. When they left, it was divided into small rooms. Now it has been cut short. It used to reach Dao Duy Tu Street.
Mrs Pham Kim Hao, formerly famous as a beautiful daughter of Mr Khoi, a diamond dealer, talked to me at house number 25, the front part of which is a fashionable clothes shop. Right in front of the shop is an eatery, further off is a bicycle-repair shop.
Mrs Hao said, ‘The kids here just run in the dark alley and never fall . . . Children can only play in the alleys; but they just play and grow up normally.’
The alley-dwellers make their living on the streets during day and only go home in the evening to rest for a few hours.
In Alley 80, in Dong Xuan Street, I could reach the ceiling. Mr Hung, who lives in the alley, said, ‘Previously, this alley was not narrow and didn’t have a low ceiling like this. The people around just expanded their houses when they repaired or renovated them, making the alley this narrow. It now has a low ceiling because they have built a place like an attic to live in … This alley is now too narrow for a stretcher. A fairly tall person has to lower his or her head to go in or out. We have filed a complaint several times but the local authorities have remained quiet. If a fire breaks out, it will be very hard to evacuate the alley-dwellers.’
[Hanoi’s old quarter is 100 hectares with 68 streets. Now about 82,300 people share one square kilometre. (Tien Phong newspaper, 30 July 2011).]

Text by Viet Nga, pictures by Tran Hai
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