Life goes on in crumbling Hanoi apartment building

By Quynh Nguyen   October 26, 2022 | 04:29 am PT
Mai must move around gingerly in her nearly 70-year-old apartment, not daring to set heavy items on the ground for fear of collapse.

Her family is one of three continuing to live on the second floor of the 1A apartment complex at 67 Vong Ha Street in Hanoi's Hoan Kiem District.

The 66-year-old building once housed dozens of families. However, many relocated after termites damaged the timber beams and due to concern over possible fires.

"Who would want to live in houses constantly in danger of collapse?" Mai, a woman in her 50s, asks.

"We decided to remain here due to our financial situation."

Mai is her apartment in 1A building at 67 Vong Ha Street in Hanois Hoan Kiem District on October 6, 2022. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Nguyen

Mai in her apartment in the 1A complex at 67 Vong Ha Street in Hanoi's Hoan Kiem District on October 6, 2022. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Nguyen

Her apartment is 25 square meters in size and has a loft, bedroom, living, and dining area large enough for her family of five.

It has a bed and closet.

The family recently turned the corridor outside into a cooking area, with the shelf with utensils and dishes close to the wall, reducing the load on the wooden pillars below.

Mai, who lives in the heart of the capital, rarely invites guests over since the house is too small, too cold in winters and too hot in summer.

Furthermore, the nearest public restroom is a good hundred meters away down the street.

Mai says: "The most difficult thing is that even when there is water up to our calves during rain bouts we have to wade through it to get to the bathroom to shower.

"The building does not even have water. Residents have to carry buckets to get water from the public restroom."

But the queues have shrunk since some owners have added their own facilities, buy water in tanks or have relocated in recent years, she says.

Hers is one of the few remaining families to rely on public facilities.

Dinh Cuong, Mai's neighbor for more than 15 years, had to renovate his apartment due to termite damage to the wooden floor, which caused subsidence and peeling and exposed the wall.

Whenever it rains, the roof leaks due to the rotten bamboo slats.

"We have to stay here and restore it when needed because my wife and I both work full-time but our finances are unstable," he says.

Since he lives in a building possibly on the verge of collapse, he does not dare leave valuable items in the house.

"Our greatest wish is for authorities to quickly determine a proper resettlement agreement or provide enough compensation for us to relocate."

Wooden staircase leading to the second floor. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Nguyen

A wooden staircase leading to the second floor. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Nguyen

According to statistics from the city Department of Construction, the building is one of 1,579 apartment towers that are 40 years or older. Of these, 179 are classified as "dangerous" or "severely damaged."

Most were built between 1960 and 1994, a few before 1954 when Vietnam achieved independence from France.

The buildings are severely degraded and flooded often, have poor fire safety systems and no parking space.

A renovation plan was announced by the city more than 20 years ago with the goal of demolishing all old apartments by 2015.

Five years ago, 19 investors signed up to renovate 30 of them, but things have only reached the first and second blueprint stages. Some have withdrawn.

However, only 19 apartments have been upgraded or rebuilt and work is ongoing at 14 others.

This has left many families disheartened and without hope of finding a new home.

Le Quang Binh, head of the local residential quarter, says the building covers around 1,300 square meters and was built in 1955.

Life is difficult for the three families on the second floor and more than 10 on the first floor, he says.

"People want to renovate and repair their homes, but there are many hurdles. The local administration has reinforced them to ensure safety as their occupants wait for final resettlement plans. We always advise people to be cautious and follow fire prevention measures."

Nguyen Van Vinh, chairman of the Chuong Duong Ward People's Committee, says the building is one of the ward's oldest remaining structures and is severely damaged.

"We have petitioned the district and city to request plans to handle and clear the ground in order to improve people's quality of life as soon as possible," Vinh said.

Dao Quang Tho, 68, has lived on the first floor of this building with his family for almost 40 years. To lessen the electrical load and avoid fire accidents, he carries the portable kitchen to the family's restaurant at the end of the alley twice a day to cook.

The electrical system is old, and the bundles of wires are tangled on the wooden beams and wrapped in bamboo woven sheets. If regrettably, a fire is sparked, it can burn down the entire house.

He said he has seen mice the size of his calf with shed hair and long tails, frightening both cats and humans alike. The residents of both the upper and lower floors are kept awake by the rats' raucous foraging and running at night.

"While we did try trapping them, our efforts were ultimately unsuccessful. Perhaps this is why this place is referred to as a 'slum region' in the heart of the capital," he lamented.

The 1A apartment building is

There are 13 households living in the 1A apartment block. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Nguyen

According to documents from the Hoan Kiem District's Department of Natural Resources and Environment, the 1A wooden house was part of the city's planning to be renovated 20 years ago.

However, more than ten households have remained living here and have been unable to relocate due to financial challenges and impediments in the process of compensation and resettlement. Many wish to live in the same building once it has been renovated rather than moving elsewhere.

Tho said that despite many inconveniences, he wants to stay.

"My ancestors have farmed, traded, and otherwise made this area their home for several centuries. Even though it's undesirable to move away from the city, I can only pray that the city will accelerate the renovation of old buildings and that it will be convenient for me to live here once it's done," he said.

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