HCMC market residents endure half century in 5-6 sq.m homes

By Dinh Van   July 6, 2024 | 03:44 pm PT
In dwellings measuring only 5-6 square meters at the Ga-Gao Market in HCMC’s District 1, some families have members sleep in shifts due to the tiny space.

Nguyen Dat Tin, 63, lives in a two-story house that is less than two meters wide. Half of it is occupied by a small refrigerator, an altar and a gas stove, leaving only a modest space for him.

"The house is so small that turning over in my sleep is difficult, and stretching out my legs always results in kicking something," he says.

Nguyen Dat Tin in his six-square-meter house in Ga-Gao Market in District 1, HCMC. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran

Nguyen Dat Tin in his six-square-meter house in Ga-Gao Market in District 1, HCMC. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran

Tin has lived here since birth. It had originally been 12 square meters in size, but around 1990 his family had to reduce it by half to settle debts. After his parents passed away, four of his siblings left with their own families due to the cramped space, leaving only him and a younger brother.

He works as a kitchen assistant at a nearby eatery to earn a living. With a low and unstable income and challenging living conditions, Tin never had any intentions to marry.

In his tiny dwelling space, he cooks simple meals in large quantities to last several days for the sake of convenience. His two-square-meter bathroom serves as a place for bathing, washing clothes, food preparation, and dishwashing.

His house is surrounded by tiny alleys less than a meter wide and densely packed with houses.

Many people living there stretch tarps above to protect against the sun and prevent water from entering their homes during rain, making the area perpetually dark and damp. Days that are sunny in the morning and rainy in the afternoon see the heat and foul smell from the sewers intensify.

In the evening, when many residents return from work, motorcycles crowd the walkways, and people must weave to navigate through them. Tin says local authorities once encouraged alley residents to park their motorcycles at a lot outside the alley to ensure there is an emergency escape route, but with the nearest lot being over 300 meters away, which many find inconvenient, people continue to park in front of their homes.

Tin’s is among nearly 300 tiny dwellings in the Ga-Gao Market area in Cau Ong Lanh Ward, with some as small as four square meters.

Existing since before 1975, the market is bordered by Yersin, Vo Van Kiet and Nguyen Thai Hoc streets. Its stalls were enlarged and converted into houses for vendors for business convenience. Some initially had houses measuring more than 10 square meters, but after gradually selling parts of them they are mostly left with only a few square meters.

A few houses away from Tin’s lives the family of Nguyen Phuong Thao, 49, also in a six-square-meter place.

Born and raised in the area, she inherited the house from her parents. She had three children, and her eldest daughter, also married with a child, lives there as well, forcing "six people to crowd together like sardines in a can."

Phuong Thao cooking outside the narrow pathway next to her cramped house in HCMC’s Ga-Gao market. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran

Phuong Thao cooking outside the narrow pathway next to her cramped house in HCMC’s Ga-Gao market. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran

With so many people comes much clutter, and the unoccupied space inside is only enough for one person to lie down.

So the family members stagger their work and home schedules. Her son-in-law drives for a ride-sharing company during the day and only returns home at night while her daughter works on a night shift. This way everyone rests in turn.

During meals, each person takes their bowl to one corner to eat as there is no room to sit together.

Thao says the area was previously known for its chicken (ga), rice (gao) and grocery vendors, and hence the name Ga-Gao Market. Over time fewer vendors have remained, but many families continue to live there.

For decades the crowded market area has been vulnerable to fire hazards. It has experienced three fires, the most recent in late 2015 that destroyed 13 houses.

To improve living conditions there, the city has repeatedly called for research and investment in renovation of the market and construction of apartments to resettle the occupants.

PHOTO: HCMC’s Ga-Gao Market seen from above. Photo by VnExpress/Dinh Van

PHOTO: HCMC’s Ga-Gao Market seen from above. Photo by VnExpress/Dinh Van

At a meeting late-June with businesses interested in investing in the renovation, District 1 Party chief Duong Anh Duc called for feasible solutions to revamp the area pointing to the residents’ pitiable condition. He cited a survey as finding that many families sleep in shifts due to the lack of space.

Nguyen Thanh Phat, head of the district’s urban management division, said the area is less than 3,400 square meters but has 474 homes and stalls with nearly 1,000 residents. The homes and stalls, ranging from one to three stories, serve as both places of business and residence and have many flammable materials.

The infrastructure, over 50 years old, is deteriorating, and the alleyways do not meet fire safety and escape requirements, he said.

A plan for a new development spanning over 6,300 square meters with a building density of not more than 50% for a population of 700 has been formulated.

But the maximum construction density of 50% and height limit of 50 meters, according to current regulations, mean only around 600 apartments could be built, each with an area of 50 square meters, said Nguyen Le My Hung of major property development company Novaland.

If the existing residents want to be resettled in the same area, the project’s developer needs to provide them with 300 apartments, leaving only 300 for commercial sale, "too little" to ensure reasonable profits, he added.

He suggested calculating the total cost of the project, including normal profits, and making adjustments to the coefficient based on it.

Le Thanh Nam from another major property developer Bitexco Group made a similar suggestion, saying since the site has a fairly large frontage, the maximum height of the towers should be increased to 80 meters, allowing 24-30 floors to be built.

Based on this, the occupancy should be revised from 700 people to 1,400.

"The existing population is over 1,000, and planning for just 700 will be very difficult," he said.

As relocation and resettlement remain challenging, experts believe the city needs to consider amendments in order to accommodate all its current occupants.

Despite their modest living conditions, Phuong and her family have no plans to move elsewhere due to their familiarity with the place and financial reasons.

"Over the past 50 years this place has not changed despite becoming more crowded, making it increasingly cramped," she says.

She adds that if the government offers appropriate compensation and relocation options, they might consider moving to a new place to live more comfortably.

go to top