Space-saving in Saigon: How tiny lives squeeze into the big city

Sleeping in the street, cooking in the alleys and squeezing the most out of Saigon.

In Ho Chi Minh City, every inch matters. Tiny houses and business squeeze into even the smallest corners of the space-starved city, whether it's a souvenir store or a home for a 10-member family.

With a population density of over 9,000 people per square kilometer, the highest in the country, dwellers face the harsh reality that housing is in increasingly short supply, and finding a place to rest their heads at night is becoming harder than ever.

VnExpress International has scoured the southern metropolis to find out how people are managing to fit into the melee.

A thin house on Dien Bien Phu Street

The businesses

This triangular convenience store on Hoang Sa Street (Binh Thanh District) is around 6 square meters (65 square feet). Bao, the 45-year-old owner, showed us the widest part of the house where he also lives.

“It’s very narrow, but I’ve got used to it over the last 30 years," Bao said.

Another store selling mobile phones on Hoang Sa Street has just enough room for a glass display case. “My house was knocked down 20 years ago to make way for a road and a park running along Nhieu Loc Canal. I have to rent another house for my family to live in and use this street-front corner for business.”

This thin house has been turned into a bike repair stall on Dien Bien Phu Street (Binh Thanh District). Manh Hung, the owner, said the business is doing well thanks to the good location.

This house on Truong Sa Street (Binh Thanh) is a coffee stall AND home to a couple. “We pay VND2 million ($88) a month for this tiny room,” said Lien, the wife. “With all the chairs, a fridge and a closet, it’s not really comfortable to sleep at night, and we have to leave a lot of our stuff outside.”

Lieu, the owner of a souvenir shop on Pasteur Street, said she is happy with this one-meter-wide shop in the middle of District 1.

Squeezed between two buildings, this clothes shop on Dong Khoi Street (District 1) has been open for over 10 years. Surrounded by high-end stores and hotels in the tourist district, the street is notoriously expensive for retailers. 

The landlord of this house rents out the spacious upstairs for a restaurant and uses the narrow hall on the floor as a gallery to sell art.

The houses

Phan Thi Hoang’s seven-member family has lived in this tiny house with a ground floor of only four square meters (43 square feet) for 20 years on Nguyen Thi Minh Khai Street (District 3). Hoang, 64, a street vendor who only gets home at 2 a.m., usually sleeps in a chair outside the house.

Things get harder when Hoang's children got married and have children. The youngest daughter is the "lucky one" when she is allowed to sleep in the house, with her husband and two children on the bunk beds. 

“But we don’t have enough room to stretch our legs,” said the daughter. “And it’s really hot and sweaty inside, even with a fan running full blast.”

Others sleep on folding beds out in the alley next to their open air “kitchen”.

They don’t have a bathroom of their own, so they have to share with their neighbors.

At night, they lock their valuables up by the front door.

 “We can’t afford a rented room, let alone dream of a bigger house,” Hoang said.

This tiny, triangular house under a bridge in District 8 is home to Nguyen Phi Vu’s five-member family. Costing VND3 million per month, they have rented it for 7 years.

They eke out a living from repairing bikes and running a drinks stall in front of the house.

With so much stuff inside, it's impossible to close the door, even at night.

Every space is multi-purpose: the living room and the kitchen are in fact a small space in front of their house, and the bathroom doubles up as a garage for Vu’s repair shop.

At 1 a.m., they cover everything in canvas and lock up for the night.

“It’s hard to find a place to live and work in the city,” Vu said, briefly.

Van, a 60-something-year-old woman, lives with 10 of her relatives in a 15 square-meter (161 square feet) house on Ly Tu Trong Street (District 1).

“Except for bathing and going to the toilet, everything else happens outside, including cooking and washing clothes,” she explains.

They hang everything on the walls to make room to sit and watch TV on the floor, where three family members also sleep.

This tiny attic serves as a bedroom for four family members. The rest of the family sleep on the sidewalk or outside neighboring stores, regardless of the weather. “We wake up at five, before the stores open,” Van said.


By Quynh Tran, Nhung Nguyen

By Nhung Nhung, Quynh Tran