Every force evolves a form.
- Mother Ann Lee, Founder of the Shakers
Nature isn't frivolous. Every form in the natural world, however odd it may be (seahorse, caterpillar, platypus) is an adaptation, a response to the forces that call it into being. The gnarled tree perched at the edge of a cliff gives form to the steady force of the wind, just as ice crystals give form to the steady force of the cold. Force begets form - that's how everything in the world evolves.
Hanoi is a city of impossibly narrow, tall houses - an architectural form dubbed the "tube house." Historically, two forces militated in favor of this design. First was the imperial tradition of levying taxes based on the width of the house. The second force was the long-held Vietnamese tradition of housing multiple generations under one roof. Together, these two forces, one pushing inwards, the other upwards, evolved a style of architecture that, while bearing French influences, is uniquely Vietnamese.
The house I live in, on Van Ho 3 Street, is a fine example of these forces at work. The house measures no more than 15 feet wide, but stretches five stories upward, towering over its neighbors. There are balconies on every floor. The first floor is fronted by a sliding green metal gate. Traditionally, the first floors of these tube houses usually served as storefronts; the family would live upstairs. This is still often the case in Vietnam. On the narrow, winding alley that is Van Ho 3 Street, about every third house has a grocery store, sandwich shop, hair dresser, or other entrepreneurial enterprise fronting the street. My house does not; the first floor contains a foyer (where the motorbikes are stored), living room and kitchen. Bedrooms occupy the rest of the building: one in front, one in back on every floor. A narrow spiral staircase provides the central spine.
View from my front door on a quiet afternoon
The owners of this building, my landlords, are a kindly couple in their 50s named Thanh and Dung. The Vietnamese custom of addressing people as family members means that I address them as Anh (elder brother) Thanh, and Chi (elder sister) Dung. They live on the second floor. Their two daughters - 20 -year-old Phuong and 10-year-old Ly - take up one room on the second floor and the back half of the third floor. None of these people speaks English, and I consider it a plus that I am forced to use my fledgling Vietnamese to communicate with them. At any rate, with a large house, and relatively small family by Vietnamese standards, Thanh and Dung began renting the top floors of their house to foreigners less than a year ago. I'm the latest addition.
We all coexist more as lodgers in a boarding house, than as housemates, per se. The front half of the third floor hosts a young British couple, David and Tracy, who I hardly see. The fourth floor has a Finnish anthropologist named Saara, who has been incredibly helpful to me with her good nature and near-fluency in Vietnamese, and in the back half of the fourth floor is a young man from the "Soviet Union" (his words, not mine) named Ali.
View of Van Ho 3 Street from my balcony
I have the fifth floor all to myself. My room is on the front, with a private balcony; the back, overlooking Lenin Park, is an open-air patio containing the washer and clothes lines (no need for a drier in this part of the world). I share a bathroom with Saara and Ali, but thus far this has not been a problem. The kitchen on the first floor is open to all of us, but we are asked to be aware that the family uses it between 6 and 8 pm. With the abundance of delicious street food in Hanoi, there is no reason to impinge on their routine.
My room is small, about 15x15, but its tall ceilings give it a sense of spatiousness. The family has kindly provided me with a desk, a small rug that for some reason has a Western horse motif, and a bed covered by a bright yellow bedsheet decorated with blue stenciled fairies (I kid you not). The bed is, let us say, firm: my first time upon it I nearly chipped a tooth. But the private balcony alone is worth the price of admission. It overlooks the entire alley, including all the adjacent rooftops. It's not a spectacular view, but I like the height, and it catches the afternoon shade. Between my room and the balcony is a small room that contains the family altar; other than keeping my water dispenser there, I ignore the room completely.
By western standards this is spartan living, but at US $140/month (plus $15 more for electricity and high-speed Internet), I feel I've gotten a bargain. After living alone in a spacious three-story house for the last few years, the lifestyle suits me; it clarifies the difference between wants and needs. The location is a major plus: my work is five minutes' walk in one direction, and the university where I am studying Vietnamese is an equal distance in another direction. My entire life, if I wished it, could be lived within a ten-minute triangle.
For my 46th birthday, the family today surprised me with a large bouquet of flowers and a cake. We sat in the narrow living room hooting and hollering, eating cake, and making a fuss. It didn't matter that my Vietnamese consists at this point of a few phrases that I use to link together words I pick out of the dictionary. We are all inhabitants of the same tube house, brought together by whatever those forces are that bring people together. Call it kismet, call it nature. Call it life in the tube.
In the next installment, I hope to describe for you the humming beehive that is Van Ho 3 Street.