Cramped quarters in the Old Quarter: two live in 2.5 m2 home

By Thuy Quynh, Tung Dinh   November 1, 2019 | 05:23 am PT
In a dark alley in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, a 2.5 m2 area has been home to a father and son for 26 years.

In a country like Japan, famous for people living in minimal spaces, 25 square meters is the minimum recommended residential space for a single person in an urban area. That minimum space for a single person in Japan would be a palace for 72-year-old Chu Van Cao and his thirty something son.

On the crowded Thuoc Bac street in Hanoi’s famous Old Quarter, alley No.63 is just one meter wide, just enough for one person to walk in. In this place where the sunlight cannot reach, many residents have been living for many years.

At the end of this alley, a light shines from the ceiling. That is the entrance to the house of Cao and his son.

Ten steps up from the ground, between the first and second floors of an old dormitory, is Cao's house, or "Uncle Tom's Cabin" as he calls it. He and his son have been living here since 1993. Their home is 2.5 meters long, 1 meter wide, and 1.1 meter high.

Caos hut is at the and of an alley. Photo by VnExpress/Tung Dinh.

Cao's home is at the end of a narrow alley. Photo by VnExpress/Tung Dinh.

"I have just replaced the door with a newer one and re-decorated the walls. It looks beautiful now," Cao said.

His family used to live in a house on Kham Thien street in Hanoi for a very long time. When Cao was 17, he enlisted in the army and became a driver on the battlefield. When the war was over, he returned, got married and moved to a 10-square meter house on Thuoc Bac Street.

The house used to have one floor with a mezzanine and "a hut" for storage, which is the only thing Cao kept after spending all he had on a business that failed. The first floor and the mezzanine were sold.

Having no place to live, his wife got upset and left. The man moved to the hut and did any job he could get to earn money and bring up his son, who only finished secondary school, because he wanted to work and help his poor father.

"We visit our relatives sometimes and then come home to burn incense for our ancestors. The house is tiny. If people come here, they will have no seat," said Cao.

Over the years, he and his son never invite anyone to their place, which has no private restroom, forcing them to use a shared one.

Cao sits in his hut. Photo by VnExpress/Tung Dinh.

Cao sits in his "apartment." Photo by VnExpress/Tung Dinh.

"Home-cooked meals are not for us. When I was in the army, dry food was my choice. After getting married, my wife cooked sometimes. Since I have moved into this house, I've only eaten food on the street because we have no kitchen. We are just two men, so cooking is not necessary."

In his hut, Cao spends his free time reading and listening to the radio. Sometimes, he talks with neighbors in the small alley. He thinks that his accommodation is enough because he has everything he needs to keep him warm in the winter and cool in the summer.

After 26 years, the man and his son have got used to living in the small space. They bend low when walking into their home and bend their knees while sleeping. They can do everything in the dark without hitting their heads on the walls. Having no valuable items, they are not afraid of thieves and leaving the door open.

Sometimes, when Cao reads the newspaper in his cramped house, his son has to sit on the stairs outside and only go home to sleep.

Cao spends time reading a newspaper. Photo by VnExpress/Tung Dinh,

Cao reads a newspaper in his house. Photo by VnExpress/Tung Dinh.

Cao gets emotional talking about his son, who is reserved and an introvert, due to his family's condition. The father worries that his son cannot have a proper wedding in the future.

Then, he rallies: "No matter what, I believe in my son. He will take care of himself and control his life."

Despite all he has gone though, Cao remains optimistic and happy with what he has – a place to shelter from the sun and the rain.

Some people have offered to help, but he has declined it. He thinks there are a lot of other people out there who need help. As far as he is concerned, whether it is "a big or a small house is not as important as having a big heart."

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