Life in the dark, narrow alleys of Hanoi’s old quarter

By Thanh Nga, Quynh Nguyen   June 21, 2024 | 05:06 am PT
Whenever she reads about a fire in a building somewhere, Yen gazes down the tunnel-like, lightless alley where she lives, aware that escaping a fire there would be challenging.
Life in the dark, narrow alleys of Hanoi’s old quarter

The tiny alley off Hang Chieu Street in Hanoi’s Hoan Kiem District has been the main place of residence for Nguyen Thi Yen, 66, for over 40 years.

Life in the dark, narrow alleys of Hanoi’s old quarter

From the main road, she has to enter an alley barely a meter wide, turn left twice, climb a staircase, and pass through a workshop to reach her home.

Her nine-square-meter house, with two floors added to it, now accommodates seven family members.

Life in the dark, narrow alleys of Hanoi’s old quarter

Unlike the decrepit wooden-floor apartments in the old quarter, her house has been made over into a solid concrete building.

Nevertheless, the fear of a fire always looms due to neighboring households having experienced them in the past. Fortunately, they were always detected in time to prevent any casualties.

To mitigate the risks, Yen has fire extinguishers in every room, and an emergency exit on the top floor with a rope ladder. In case of an emergency, the seven residents can break through barriers and descend from the fourth floor.

But she is realistic: "If a fire is unnoticed, toxic smoke will spread quickly, making escape difficult through the nearly 100-meter-long alley which has nearly 20 households."

Life in the dark, narrow alleys of Hanoi’s old quarter

"However, compared to life before the 1990s, our condition has improved significantly."

When her father-in-law passed away in 1992 they could not carry his coffin down to the first floor since the narrow staircase was too narrow. They had to lower it with a pulley through a second-floor window.

Yen’s family planned to relocate several times, but was put off every time since its main source of income is from a small shop at the alley entrance.

Life in the dark, narrow alleys of Hanoi’s old quarter

Nguyen Thi Phuong, 58, along with her husband, daughter, and grandchildren, lives in the ground floor of Yen’s apartment-house, with their door facing the alley barely wide enough for a motorcycle to pass.

Life in the dark, narrow alleys of Hanoi’s old quarter

In their nine-square-meter house, Phuong and her husband have built a loft for sleeping. The space beneath it serves as a living room, kitchen, and storage area. They share a bathroom and laundry room with four other families living at the end of the alley.

Living on the ground floor in such a cramped space has many inconveniences.

Phuong recounts numerous instances of flooding after heavy rains, despite having a threshold that is over 20 centimeters high.

Cellphone signals are not great in the narrow alley, and residents have go out into the street to make or receive a call.

Thin walls mean noises at neighbors’ places above of falling objects and footsteps at midnight startle her, causing years of sleepless nights.

Phuong says: "If we want to install an air conditioner, we have to ask for permission from neighbors to place the outdoor unit. Even then, we only run it for a few hours every night to avoid the noise and heat blowing on passersby."

Life in the dark, narrow alleys of Hanoi’s old quarter

A couple of houses down the alley, Pham Manh Kien, 45, and his wife prepare ingredients for their duck noodle cart they operate in the evenings.

Their seven-square-meter house has been home to three generations of the family. They have converted the loft into a bedroom, study area for their children and dining space for the family.

The space below serves as their food processing area, and is also equipped with a refrigerator and washing machine.

Years of living in dark, cramped conditions have fueled Kien’s desire to move away, but he says he can only rely on the government because his family lacks the means to buy a house.

Life in the dark, narrow alleys of Hanoi’s old quarter

Hang Chieu Street is also home to Dao Thi Tuyet’s family.

The 55-year-old woman lives on the ground floor with her husband, and her children and grandchildren occupy the second and third floors of their old nine-square-meter home.

The upper floors are reached by a makeshift wooden staircase outside the shared entrance.

Tuyet cooks in the open space opposite the house.

Life in the dark, narrow alleys of Hanoi’s old quarter

While the house is small and barely has room for a wardrobe, with someone having to sleep on the floor near the alley, Tuyet has become accustomed to it after four generations of her family living in such conditions.

"Even though we live in a narrow alley, the close proximity to the main street is convenient for selling iced tea, which is our livelihood, making relocation difficult," Tuyet admits.

Life in the dark, narrow alleys of Hanoi’s old quarter

Three blocks away, in an alley over 100 meters long on Hoan Kiem district’s Hang Ngang Street, lives Nguyen Thi Ke, 67.

To reach her house, she wriggles through a small alley behind a clothes shop on the sidewalk. After two left turns through the dark alley, her home appears on the right, the only one with natural light from a skylight.

Life in the dark, narrow alleys of Hanoi’s old quarter

Her 15-square-meter house, once home to three generations, now houses only Ke, her husband and their youngest daughter.

They use the front yard to allow sunlight in, and 11 households share a water tank.

Though each household now has its own bathroom, their sewage often runs directly into the gutter, causing a year-round stink in Ke’s home.

During heavy rains, the wastewater overflows, creating a horrible mess.

The small, cramped space is also a problem when it comes to organizing ceremonies like weddings and funerals.

Ke recalls that in the late 80s they had to knock down a part of a wall to carry her father-in-law’s coffin outside before rebuilding it.

Life in the dark, narrow alleys of Hanoi’s old quarter

Hoan Kiem District is home to over 1,000 narrow alleys, most too narrow for more than one person to pass at a time and with little sunlight at any time of the year.

Since 1998 the city people's committee has been undertaking works to relocate residents from the old quarter.

In 2013 an urban expansion plan aimed to reduce the population density there from 823 people per hectare to 500 by 2020.

However, 20 years later, the plan has yet to be implemented.

Many of the old quarter’s residents are hesitant to leave due to their familiarity with and the convenience of the place despite their deteriorating living conditions.

Tran Huy Anh, a member of the Hanoi Architects Association, warns of the fire hazards posed by deteriorating infrastructure in narrow alleys.

"The risks are significant," he says, noting that most buildings have only one escape route, and many households have makeshift structures that are vulnerable to theft.

"In addition to government efforts such as promoting safer construction practices and installing fire alarms, residents need to be more aware and always vigilant against the threat of fires."

Photos by Thanh Nga, Quynh Nguyen

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