Hanoi: a giant with feet of clay

Hanoi is no ordinary city. The Vietnamese capital is growing, changing, getting richer… As is so often the case, these changes are occurring to the detriment of a small number of people who, trapped in the outskirts or forgotten in the city centre, are struggling to find decent housing. 

_DSF1732We are in the “36 Old Streets”, a well-known area of Hanoi commonly frequently by tourists. Old houses with damp-ravaged walls bare their unprotected façades to passers-by. In one of them lives Mrs Minh, a likeable and dynamic octogenarian. Mrs Minh is the grandmother of a student sponsored by Children of the Mekong, Nguyen, who is at school today. Mrs Minh arrived in the house she lives in today in 1954. She calls it a house, but it is more like an apartment block. Forty people live there, from six families, and Mrs Minh occupies a small part of the first floor with her two daughters, her son-in-law and her grandchildren.

The only window, which looks out onto the street, provides inadequate light for a room  measuring no more than 20 square metres, chock-full with piles of improbable objects. The rent is 2 million dongs (around 70 euros) a month, and there is only one bathroom, on the second floor, which is shared by all the building’s occupants. Mrs Minh apologises for her memory, smiles, takes off her glasses and puts them back on again, as if checking they were still there. “Prior to 1954,” she says “the house belonged to a French officer. He lived with a Vietnamese woman, but we didn’t know if they were married. At the end of the war, perhaps even a little before, they fled the house and left for France. We don’t really know what became of them.” She recalls the time of the liberation: a period when hope could be written with a capital H, when anything was possible. After that, as ever, things got complicated. “Better tomorrows have become sad todays”.

Mrs Minh’s house

_DSF1295The old lady nods her head, suppresses a little shiver, remains silent for moment, and then laughs: “It’s the Palace of Draughts here”, she says. If you close your eyes, you can begin to imagine what the house was like before. Strangely enough, we imagine it on a sunny day. The room that is so dark today is bathed in light and the walls exude an air of insouciance. You then imagine the Frenchman and the Vietnamese woman in their final days here: the sighs, the fears, the hushed discussions by the light of an oil lamp, and finally the shamefaced escape one morning in July 1954. The house remains empty for a while, and then Mrs Minh and her husband arrive: a young married couple placing their timid white hands on the precious-wood handrail of the staircase. And there, quite another story begins.

Mrs Minh and her daughter know that they could be thrown out of this apartment from one day to the next, at the government’s whim. This is the way things are: what the one hand giveth, the other taketh away. They consider themselves lucky just to have the apartment and to pay such a low rent for it. It may be run down, they may have to pay for all the repairs themselves, but all the same, it’s a rich people’s house!

Fifty euros for five square metres

Phuong has the same worries about the apartment where she lives with her father, her mother and her elder brother: how much longer will they be able to stay there? 14-year-old Phuong, a motivated secondary-school student with a passion for French, intends to compensate for the limitations of her schoolteachers by learning the language herself on the internet, with the help of the program “Le français facile”.

Phuong’s father is a taxi driver. One cannot stress enough just how thankless and difficult that job can be in Asian cities. Her mother sweeps floors at a city centre restaurant. The apartment they live in was given to them by Phuong’s grandfather, who, like Mrs Minh, moved in after 1954. And like Mrs Minh, they have a small, dark room with all sorts of things piled up in it. Rats sometimes join the conversation, as does the neighbour’s ear-splitting music, which a simple partition wall, with no door, does little to shut out.

A little further on still is 50-year-old Nha, who lives with her young son in a room with a steel roof which cannot be more than 5 square metres in area, for which she pays 1.5 million dongs (over 50 euros) in rent! Five years ago, Nha lived along the Red River, in a sort of shanty town that has since been demolished. Opposite her was Phu Xa Island.

 An island refuge in the middle of the river

si place seulementNot so long ago a simple sand bank, dominating the famous Long Bien Bridge and surrounding the Red River, Phu Xa Island is now an informal island. For those who are struggling in sub-standard housing in Hanoi, this island is something of a refuge. More precisely, it is the island where some of them intended to rest a little before swimming off again towards the bank, where the first neighbourhoods of the city of Hanoi, at least on the western bank, begin in earnest. Only things didn’t go as they had hoped.

60-year-old Chu Duoc has lived here for twenty-five years and is the unofficial head of the village. He stands at the door of his house – one of the only ones built on solid ground (the others rest on drums floating on the river, so as to guard against flooding) – and observes Long Bien Bridge, known under French rule as the Pont Paul Doumer, shrouded in mist. He knows the history of the inhabitants of Phu Xa island inside out, because it is his story too. Like everyone else, he used to live in the countryside: “a few kilometres from Hanoi”, he says with a vague gesture towards the north, or the east, let’s say the north-east. One muggy, misty day, probably much like this one, he decided to try his luck, leaving behind the fields and rice plantations where he could no longer survive, and heading for the city.

A little slice of countryside

_DSF1799But with the communist administration of the time being what it was, it was impossible for him to live in Hanoi. It was forbidden, as, theoretically at least, he was not allowed to leave his village. But you can see it in his eyes: Chu Duoc is not one to stand by and accept his fate. True to form, he applied one of those old eastern precepts: “If the front door is closed, go in through the back window.” So forty or so families now live with him in Phu Xa, all of them from the countryside, all having one day hoped to move to Hanoi, all having had it made painfully clear to them that that was not possible, and all having decided, for want of a better solution in the meantime, and without any possibility of turning back, to live on the island.


How do these people live? Very simply. They grow vegetables on the island and sell them on the bridge. What do the authorities say? Almost nothing. Sometimes the police descend, usually on the grounds that clandestine card games are taking place on the island. On this point, Chu Duoc, who takes a drag on his cigarette, with a steaming-hot tea in front of him, remains enigmatic, seeming reluctant to open up too much. The island, then, operates as a kind of autarky. It is a little like a parallel universe. It’s not really Hanoi, and it’s not really the countryside. Administratively speaking, Phu Xa island doesn’t even exist. And there is little hope of the authorities one day deciding to rectify this situation.

Words and photos: Jean-Matthieu Gautier. Originally published in Enfants du Mekong magazine.