Fire hazard stalks Vietnam’s tube houses

By Long Nguyen   April 9, 2021 | 05:23 am PT
With only one exit and inadequate safety standards, Vietnam's so-called 'tube houses' pose a severe fire risk to their occupants.

In just one week recently, there was a fire each in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh which claimed 10 lives.

The one in Saigon's Thu Duc City on March 30 killed six members of a family after completely engulfing their house. It is not known yet if they were burned to death or died of asphyxiation.

On April 4, four people died in the capital’s Dong Da District after their house, which had an infant clothing store, caught fire.

No one could save them no matter how loudly they screamed behind their barricade and metal bars.

The two shared one common tragic feature: both houses had only one entrance, and the occupants were trapped inside.

The fire in Hanoi’s three-storied house with a 3.2-meter facade took firefighters three hours to put out and it took them another hour to cool it down after its occupants had run up to the attic and died there.

The only entrance, the main door on the ground floor, burned fiercely.

Due to high house prices and urban security issues, city dwellers tend to utilize their living spaces for business or storage purposes, installing burglar bars along balconies. In doing so, all possible emergency exits are accidentally deleted.

Land price in downtown Hanoi is around VND100 million - 1 billion ($4.342 - $43,425) per square meter.

Facade of a row of tube houses in the center of Hanoi, Vietnam. Photo by Shutterstock/lulu and isabelle.

Facade of a row of tube houses in the center of Hanoi. Photo by Shutterstock/lulu and isabelle.

Traditional tube houses, so called because of their tall, narrow appearance and providing living and business spaces in crowded metropolises, have dominated the urban landscape for decades.

In recent years fires in such houses have claimed many lives, sparking fear as people gradually become aware of the deadly threat posed by the absence of emergency exits and fire safety regulations.

The lack of exits is the main culprit in deaths caused by fire since people trapped inside cannot escape and firefighters have to break open solid doors to reach them.

Le Thi Anh Dao, who lives in one such house in Hanoi’s Ba Dinh District, explains the rationale: "Burglars are everywhere. So just one entrance is enough. We even have two layers of doors to keep thieves at bay."

Thus, some 120,000 of Hanoi’s 500,000 multistory tube houses lacked fire exits, an official from the city Department of Fire Fighting and Prevention had said in 2017.

Many homeowners also install metal grilles on balconies to keep out thieves, eliminating a possible escape route in case of a fire.

Besides, as Colonel Nguyen Van Son, deputy director of the Hanoi's Department of Fire Fighting and Prevention, once lamented, firefighting in tube houses is a nightmare since they are often situated in tiny alleys and are very close to each other.

According to local officials, most households have no escape plans in place for emergencies like fires.

Many are not even aware of the need for such plans, and so do not have fire extinguishers or the skills needed to escape from a burning building.

"I have never thought about having fire extinguishers at home, but the recent fire that killed four people in Hanoi has changed my mind," Dao said.

A day after the fire she installed two fire extinguishers and smoke detectors in her five-story house.

But there are no regulations that mandate fire safety measures when building houses.

According to architect Tran Anh Tuan, the construction licensing process has "forgotten" fire safety regulations.

There are rules for construction standards, density, height, etc., but not fire prevention measures and equipment, he added.

An inspector from the city Department of Construction admitted that fire safety regulations only apply to hotels, guest houses and motels that have more than five floors or are more than 5,000 square meters.

The absence of fire exits and safety regulations have led to many tragedies.

Last year there were 537 fires in Saigon in which 12 people died, 11 of them in houses.

Firefighters bring the body of a victim out of the house in Dong Da District of Hanoi where a fire killed four family members on April 4, 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Nguyen Dinh.

Firefighters bring the body of a victim out of the house in Dong Da District of Hanoi where a fire killed four family members on April 4, 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Nguyen Dinh.

Trade width for height and depth

One of the main reasons for the popularity of tube houses can be traced backed to the village trading culture, Bloomberg quoted Michael DiGregorio, Vietnam country representative of the Asia Foundation and an expert in urban planning, as saying.

People would usually build their stalls before constructing living quarters behind them, he explained.

As cities grow and attract more migrants, people tend to build houses with a number of floors and use the ground floor for shops, cafés and stores on the bustling street below.

Some 120,000 tube houses in Hanoi have shops in them, while the number for the entire country is around 4.4 million, the Vietnam Fire and Rescue Police Department said, adding half of all fires have occurred in them.

The dense population and traditional family structure are also reasons for the popularity of tube houses.

Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City have populations of 8.2 million and 9 million, and migration to these cities continues in large numbers, which drives up house prices relentlessly.

The tube-like structures with many floors and rooms are a cost-efficient solution for large families with multiple generations. Besides, if more space is needed with the arrival of new members, more floors could easily be added.

"My parents live in the third floor, my husband and I and my son live in the second floor," Le Thu Huong of Hanoi’s Long Bien District said.

Following the numerous fire accidents in recent years, architects are now advising people to have more exits for their buildings and learn about fire safety.

Pham Thanh Tung, a Hanoi architect, said: "Instead of only one exit, a house must have an exit on each floor. Occupants must be able to escape when they face threats."

Some people have installed fire extinguishers and smoke detectors in their houses.

"I have not built more exits in my house, but I am seriously thinking about having one more," Dao said, adding that her new fire detectors help her sleep better.

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