Foreigners discover delights of Hanoi’s alley apartments

By Thanh Nga   June 2, 2024 | 03:18 pm PT
At first Trevor regretted renting an apartment in a century-old building on Hanoi’s Tong Dan Street, but he soon discovered its charm.

The 21-year-old American was initially struck by the darkness, aged and damp exterior walls and the deep, somber staircases of the old housing complex in Hoan Kiem District.

These old apartment buildings dotting urban areas across Vietnam were built starting in the 1950s. Unlike the high-rise apartment towers built in recent decades, these buildings typically have only four to six floors and lack modern amenities like underground parking space and pools.

However, after waking up on his second day in the city and seeing residents hanging laundry and conversing loudly, Trevor felt a renewed spirit. He was also happy with how his room had been renovated and decorated in a distinctive Vietnamese manner using bamboo and rattan.

"After spending over a month here I have gradually come to understand and appreciate the lifestyle of the Hanoi people, especially the friendly neighbors in this old collective housing," he says.

Trevor (front) during his stay at an old apartment complex in Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi, May 2024. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Nga

Trevor (front) during his stay at an old apartment complex in Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi, May 2024. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Nga

The apartment cost him VND1 million (US$39.3) per day, relatively high compared to average hotel rates in the old quarter. But he was attracted by the freedom of checking himself in, keeping his own keys and self-service.

During his stay of over a month, Trevor often rose at 5 a.m. to join locals for breakfast and iced tea on the sidewalk, immersing himself in an experience seldom had by foreigners. He appreciated the housing rules, which included timely garbage disposal at the ring of a bell, communal bike parking in the courtyard and the tranquil evenings.

"During my previous visits to Vietnam, staying in large hotels, I never experienced the slow, peaceful rhythm of life like I have in this old collective housing."

Dr Nguyen Thanh Nga of the Academy of Journalism and Communicationsays: "Many foreigners are captivated and pleased to live in alley homes away from bustling streets and among multi-generational families and hidden eateries.

"Some even spend money to live in mountains, forests to harvest rice and collect agricultural produce like locals," she added.

Given the demand, the supply has adapted. Since 2015 converting homes and rooms in old apartment buildings into homestays has become increasingly common in Hanoi.

Nhat Hoang converted six rooms on the second and third floors of his family home on Hang Luoc street in Hoan Kiem district into guest accommodations in 2021, keeping only the first floor for the family.

He installed six to eight bunk beds in each room, and his property was fully booked for the first three months of 2024, primarily by long-term guests who enjoyed sharing common spaces with residents of Hanoi’s old quarter.

Russian Sofia opted to stay in a hostel in an old apartment building on Hang Luoc Street during her time in Vietnam. She was drawn to the place’s narrow entrance, winding stairs and balcony overlooking the bustling old quarter.

Sofia (R) dines with her host family during her stay at a hostel on Hang Luoc Street in Hanoi’s Hoan Kiem District, Feb. 2024. Photo courtesy of Sofia

Sofia (R) dines with her host family during her stay at a hostel on Hang Luoc Street in Hanoi’s Hoan Kiem District, Feb. 2024. Photo courtesy of Sofia

She found the hostel rates of VND100,000-150,000 per night ideal for her extended stay in Hanoi on a budget. The inconveniences of sharing facilities such as the bathroom, drying yard and balcony with other guests at the accommodation did not bother her; rather, they facilitated new friendships.

"Life here is fun like in a dormitory, and the place’s location in the center of the old quarter is incredibly convenient for exploring a different Hanoi and Vietnam," she says.

After staying in the old house for four months, Sofia considers the homeowners family.

She says that during the Lunar New Year holidays in February she was invited to try traditional dishes like banh chung, the square-shaped sticky rice package with pork and bean fillings wrapped in green leaves typically prepared for the occasion, pickled onions and cold cuts by the owner. She was even invited to visit their hometown for the holidays.

"I am very grateful to them. I feel as comfortable here as at home because everyone is friendly."

After starting in 2019 Hong Nhung, 35, now owns 10 homestays in old apartments and houses on old quarter streets such as Tong Dan, Le Phung Hieu, Nguyen Khac Can, Dao Duy Tu, and Ta Hien.

Her properties are often rented out to foreigners for VND800,000-1.5 million per night, and tenants are required to adhere to rules like timely garbage disposal, locking the alley gate at night and maintaining quiet.

Nhung says she chose locations that have preserved their ancient architecture or homes tucked deep inside alleys typical of old Hanoi since they enable foreigners to live like locals and experience the culture. However, due to the deterioration of old apartment buildings, she has often had to renovate the interiors to ensure guests’ comfort.

She says the number of guests since Oct. 2023 has doubled compared to the same period the previous year, with over 90% of her properties fully booked. Some 70% of her guests are aged 18-29, and most are from the U.S., Canada, Russia, France, and South Korea. Most opt for extended stays of several weeks to months as they are digital nomads or freelancers.

Explaining why hostels in Hanoi’s old apartments and houses are becoming a popular choice of accommodation for foreigners, Nhung says besides giving them a close-up look at the local culture, they also allow guests to stay with their whole family rather than in different rooms like in hotels.

Yet, these are not everyone’s cup of tea.

German woman Anna, 24, decided to check out after a few days at a homestay in an alley off Hang Be Street in Hoan Kiem.

"The lack of light and the cramped space made me feel unsafe," she says. "This environment is only suitable for a few hours of experience."

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