Venerated apartment complex in Hanoi a North Korean inspiration

By Phan Duong   March 1, 2019 | 09:17 pm PT
Not many people know that the famous Kim Lien complex in Hanoi carries a distinct North Korean influence.

Living in the Kim Lien apartment complex was once a dream for most Hanoians, since its conveniences were among the best during the last century.

In the 1954-1965 period, the Kim Lien apartment complex was among the highest-quality constructions in Hanoi, erected with the help of foreign experts from communist countries, mainly North Korea.

The apartment complex was constructed with the support of North Korean experts between 1959 and 1965, according to Dao Ngoc Nghiem, architect and former director of Hanoi's Department of Planning and Architecture.

The Kim Lien apartment complex is now fully included in the central district of Dong Da. The old complex includes three zones. Zone A is now the Kim Lien Hotel, Zone B is now the Kim Lien apartment building and zone C is the Vietnam – North Korea friendship kindergarten.

The apartment complex used to have 38 four-storeyed buildings and several public constructions. It used to accommodate 2,600 households with a standard area of eight square meters per person. It was a spacious and high-quality living place.

A corner of B5 building in Kim Lien apartment complex. Photo by VnExpress/P.D 

A corner of the B5 Building in the Kim Lien Apartment Complex.

Kim Lien complex was built in a closed sub-zone structure, with all functions including houses, cafeterias, department stores, schools and zones, Nghiem said.

"The design has shown its advantages. Zone A, which was completely built by North Korean experts, has a spacious structure and a lot of green space. This helped us to later build the Kim Lien Hotel as we see today. The Vietnam-North Korea kindergarten also has a special structure with wide, open spaces," said Nghiem.

Stamped for posterity

The image of the Kim Lien apartment complex has been printed on a stamp, said photographer and painter Nguyen The Son.

"As we compare, we can see that the Kim Lien apartment complex resembles the original structure of a North Korean apartment complex," Son said.

Similar features include the rows of houses that run in parallel, and the wide yard between the buildings. Usually, the yard’s width was 1.5 times the house’s height.

"They calculated that if Hanoi happens to suffer an earthquake and the building collapses, there will still be space on the yard. People standing there can survive," said Son.

The structure of the complex also makes it very convenient for the residents. It only takes three minutes to reach the department store and 10 minutes to take children to the kindergarten.

The stamp retains the original image of Kim Lien apartment building (above) and the North Korea apartment building (below). Photo courtesy by Nguyen The Son 

A stamp commemorating the Kim Lien Apartment Complex (above); and a North Korean apartment building (below). Photo courtesy by Nguyen The Son

"A North Korean standard apartment, with an area of 50 square meters, has two rooms. To meet the demand of our country at that time, an apartment was used by two families who shared the kitchen and bathroom," said Do Van Yen, 76, security team leader in Kim Lien Ward.

Yen and his family have been living in the apartment for 50 years.

"At that time our life was hard, but all the families here were united. We took turns to cook and take a bath," said Yen. "We ate and drank with each other, because we bought everything from the nearby department store. On a day when the store sold just fish, the whole area would smell," he said.

The department store that Yen mentions has become a two-storeyed building on Luong Dinh Cua Street today.

After 1990, the residents started to change the original apartments, building walls to separate kitchens and bathrooms. Along with the fast-paced urbanization of Hanoi, the Kim Lien complex became dense, prompting people to expand their living space. The residents put "tiger cages", metal fences, on their balcony to create more space.

The original architectural features have been changed drastically, but Yen still finds the house’s structure solid. The wall has almost never cracked, metal window bars and wooden doors remain intact.

A stair leading to an apartment building was kept intact. Photo by VnExpress/P.D

Stairs leading to an apartment building are still intact. Photo by VnExpress/P.D

Uncle Ho wanted it

The intention to build the Kim Lien complex originated during President Ho Chi Minh’s visit to North Korea in 1957, said Nguyen Manh Hong, 73.

Hong is the custodian at the memorial dedicated to President Ho Chi Minh's visits to the complex.

Seeing the complexes in North Korea with houses, department stores, kindergartens, playgrounds and clinics, Ho Chi Minh wanted Vietnam to have a housing model for Vietnamese officers. So he requested that North Korea supports the construction.

Seven members of Hong’s family currently live in a 50 square meter apartment here.

He is proud to live in one of Vietnam's first apartment complexes. "Even now the house is still durable, the campus is still beautiful, just a bit outdated," he said.

After 60 years, the city administration has approved a renovation plan for the Kim Lien complex. However, people who have spent a lifetime in this place like Hong, regret the loss of a way of life and are loath to bade farewell to the place.

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