Fearful and hoping against hope: Hanoians in crumbling apartments

By Pham Chieu, Vo Hai   November 24, 2021 | 03:16 am PT
Despite the Damocles' sword that comes with living in buildings on the verge of collapsing, Hanoians are staying put and refusing to relocate for "practical" reasons.

Nguyen Van Thu doesn't plan to move out of his 30-square-meter home, an apartment on the third floor of the old residential quarters C8 Giang Vo in Ba Dinh District anytime soon even though it was classified as dangerous and unsafe eight years ago.

He was given the property in 1983. Thu and his wife, two children, and an older sister live there.

Nguyen Van Thus 8-square-meter living room in a crumbling Hanoi apartment. Photo by VnExpress/Pham Chieu

Nguyen Van Thu's eight-square-meter living room in a crumbling Hanoi apartment. Photo by VnExpress/Pham Chieu

The apartment has two bedrooms, each with an area of around 10 square meters, and a living room with a TV, a table, some chairs and a sewing machine. Everything is pushed back against the walls, which are moldy and have green moss, to create an empty space in the middle where the family normally dine, study, sew and do other things.

A washing machine, an induction cooker, sink and dish drying rack are placed by the entrance, leaving a narrow 70 centimeter passage that will make two people have to squeeze each other when passing through.

For many years now, the purchase of a new appliance or replacing an old one gets the whole family to think hard about where to put them.

Thu, a Hanoi native, is very reluctant to invite relatives and friends over, fearing "bad press" for his downgraded house. His family and the neighbors usually hang out in the front corridor to enjoy some fresh air. They are tired of the moldy walls that are in very bad shape.

The passage inside Thus home is narrow due to the placement of the home appliances. Photo by VnExpress/Pham Chieu

The passage inside Thu's home is narrowed by home appliances. Photo by VnExpress/Pham Chieu

Since it is dangerous for residents, local officials have used iron bars to set up temporary barricades in the dilapidated balconies and placed some against the stairways to provide some strength and support.

The five-storied C8 Giang Vo apartment complex was built in 1979. With each apartment having area of just 30 square meters, many occupants have installed burglar bars outside to expand their space.

In 2013, the Institute of Science and Technology and Economy Construction Hanoi inspected the quality of the complex and classified it as unsafe. It urged all residents to evacuate immediately.

The following year, the then Hanoi Chairman, Nguyen The Thao, arranged for the relocation of families living in the building in September.

Residents were to be provided temporary accommodation for resettlement on Trung Hoa Street, Cau Giay District, and each family would receive financial support of VND6 million (around $265) each month.

However, according to the Hanoi Department of Construction, 18 out of 36 households still live in the C8 Giang Vo apartment as of July this year. Thu's family is one of them.

"I would be lying if I say I'm not afraid. But relocating to a temporary home is very inconvenient. All our legal documents are registered at this address and it is more convenient for my children to go to school from here.

"We do want the new building to be quickly constructed. But we don't know when or how long it will take. If we move out now, will it be done in 10 or 15 years from now? How can we be sure?"

The corridor of the C8 Giang Vo aparment building is moldy and has many cracks.

A corridor in the C8 Giang Vo apartment building is moldy and has many cracks. Photo by VnExpress/Pham Chieu

In 2016, the complex’s residents had a meeting with the authorities and nearly 90 percent of people voted yes to build a new apartment on the plot of land and agreed on the contractors to be appointed.

Thu thought then to himself that the newly built 60 square meter home would help his children " confidently invite friends over to play" and give family members a more spacious place to live.

But the plan has not been implemented so far.

Now the apartment’s condition has worsened and Thu does not want to repair it. It would also be very inconvenient to move things inside his narrow apartment.

"We will not leave until we see the construction unit bring the construction materials and machines here."

Locked out

Nguyen Thi Ngan’s family were also residents of C8 Giang Vo. They moved to the temporary accommodation in 2016, but moved out after five months. She said that even though the new place was quite comfortable, it was very far from the schools of her two children.

Since local authorities locked and blocked the entrance to her apartment after she relocated, Ngan couldn't move back in. So she rented a room nearby.

"I sell refreshments on the street right opposite my old apartment. This helps me keep a watch on my property," she said.

Ngan revealed that her apartment was just 18-square-meters, so when the city introduced a policy to renovate the apartment building, she was not interested at first.

"They wanted to make each apartment have an area of 70 square meters, which meant I would have to spend more money in order to continue living here. I just sell refreshments and struggle to make ends meet already, how would I be able to buy a new, bigger apartment?"

About five kilometers away, another apartment complex, H1 Nguyen Cong Tru on Pho Hue Street, Hai Ba Trung District, built in the 1960s, is also in bad shape.

During the rainy season, rainwater from the fourth floor flows down to the first floor. Outside, the paint has been peeling off in large patches.

Le Thi Thuy, whose house is on the fourth floor, said that she entire ceiling in the corridor is damaged and roof tiles are also broken.

"I, like dozens of families living here, live in fear, always worried about the possibility of collapse," Thuy said.

The damaged ceiling and roof titles inside the corridor of H1 Nguyen Cong Tru apartment building. Photo by VnExpress/Pham Chieu

The damaged ceiling and roof tiles inside the corridor of the H1 Nguyen Cong Tru apartment building. Photo by VnExpress/Pham Chieu

Like Thu, Ngan and Thuy about 250,000 Hanoians live in old dilapidated apartment buildings.

The city has 1,579 apartment buildings that are 40 years or older. Of these, 179 are classified as "dangerous" or "severely damaged." Most were built between 1960 and 1994, and some before 1954, when Vietnam achieved independence from the French.

These apartments are severely degraded and get flooded often. They also have a poor fire protection system and no parking space.

A renovation plan was set out by Hanoi more than 20 years ago with the goal of taking down all the old apartments by 2015. However, only 19 apartments have been upgraded or rebuilt and work is going on at 14 others.

Five years ago, 19 investors registered to study renovate 30 apartment buildings. So far, things have only gotten as far as the first and second blueprints. Some enterprises have also withdrawn from the renovation project.

There have been many other meetings on this issue since, but no significant change has happened.

Dang Hung Vo, Former Deputy Minister of Natural Resources and Environment, said that at current pace, Hanoi will have to renovate both old and new apartments at the same time because the latter would have become old then.

Most recently, this September, the Hanoi People's Council approved a resolution on the project to renovate and rebuild the old apartment buildings. In the 2021-2025 five-year period, the city plans to urgently relocate households and renovate 10 old apartment buildings that are on the verge of collapse.

His apartment building is on the list. Thu is fervently hoping that "the project will not be deadlocked like previous times."

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