Hard up in an historic Hanoi ruin

Vietnam Heritage, September-October 2011 -- People living in the 130-year-old house, one of the oldest in Hanoi, at 47 Hang Bac Street, often sigh and say it is famous for its old age, but very uncomfortable to live in. Only a third of it is still usable. Most of the roof tiles have been replaced with canvas. In spots mortar is gone, displaying the bricks. Unenclosed toilets and kitchens vie for space. For years, there have been bad smells on sunny days and flooding on rainy ones. The foot of a 7.5 metre-tall ironwood post is decayed and two pieces of wood are fixed to it as splints. The decayed staircase with a rusty iron handrail feels like it is about to collapse. Sometimes small pieces of the structure are found in food, residents say. The back part of the roof has fallen at least twice.
Originally, the house, facing north on to the street, had a ground area of 206 sq. m and a width of 7 m. It was a house of two storeys and had three sections front to back. There was an opening between the second and third sections to admit a breeze and sunlight. There was a 1.4-metre-wide passage front to back. On the ground floor, only one window faced the street. To avoid bad northerly winds, no window was put facing the street on the upper floor. Seventy per cent of the house was made of precious wood like ironwood and canary wood. The walls and ground floor were of bricks.

Mr Nguyen Van Ngoc, 87, is the oldest in the house and has lived there longest, 60 years. ‘This house has been in bad condition the past few decades and it has become badly disfigured recently,’ he said. ‘Sometimes a piece here and there has to be removed because it is in danger of collapsing. We feel sorry about pulling down an old structure, but we have no choice.’
At times as many as 40 people have lived in the house. Most were Mr Ngoc’s family. Then some couldn’t bear it any more and left. Currently, seven families, nearly 30 people, are there.
Mrs Nguyen Thi Que, who has been living a hard life as a daughter-in-law in the house, said, ‘Last year, two days before Lunar New Year’s day, the family was preparing for the holiday when part of the roof fell, nearly killing me. We had to fix it because it might rain and make the house all wet. But building-material shops were all closed then. We bought some canvas to use as a roof. We live in the heart of the capital, but it is worse than a tent at a camping site. We can’t relax even during holidays.’
There are nine members in Mrs Que’s family. They live in an area of 16 sq. m.
The second floor of the third section has been left unused and unrepaired for years. Mrs Que’s husband, Mr Thanh, said, ‘One supporting beam is being destroyed by termites. It may collapse at any time. The stairs are decayed. Who dares to go up there?’ Mr Thanh uses it as a place to worship the family’s ancestors.
Because the house is an old structure, the owners need to get a special permit to pull it down or repair it. The family has written to the local authorities asking to fix it but at the time of writing, October 2010, has received no approval. More than once the city officials have said they will restore it, but nothing’s been done. It is not easy to reach a decision in a house with seven families.
Mrs Que said, ‘There’s no way out. There’s nothing interesting about the old house but discomfort and suffering.’

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