Sunday, January 10, 2010

Hanoi Sanctuary

What is the value of sanctuary?

Two months ago, construction began around the house at Vân Hồ 3. Across the narrow alley, workers began gutting the top three floors of a modern, five-story Vietnamese tube house. The jackhammers were 30 feet from my pillow. And they started at 6:30 A.M.

At first, I tried to wait it out. The few months before Tết are always filled with noisy construction; everyone's trying to complete their home improvement projects before the lunar new year. Hanoi takes on the look of an adolescent with braces, awkwardly smiling through scaffolds and cranes. I couldn't imagine escaping anywhere in the city.

So for nearly two months, I tolerated a daily barrage from early morning till well into the night. At all hours of the day, the noise was jarring, a constant assault on the nervous system. Rings appeared under my eyes. I became irritable at work.

Then another building project began behind the house – a smaller project, just adding a couple of extra floors. And then they began tearing down the house next door. Jack-hammers pounding directly into the walls. With the whole house shaking, I felt like a wartime refugee trying to sleep through an air raid. It was time to move.

At this point, my friend Hương came to the rescue. Some weeks ago, Hương had told me of a furnished, one-bedroom apartment near the Hanoi Opera House (Nhà hát lớn Hà Nội). It was beautiful, it was perfect, but the owner wanted $600 a month, well outside my budget. Hương chatted with the owner, we waited a couple of weeks, and the owner called back: she was willing to go down to $400. We arranged a visit to the apartment. Upon walking in, I realized I was home.

From here on, Hương took over. She negotiated further, and got the rent down to $360/month – nearly half the original price. Hương looked over all the contracts, noting discrepancies between the English and Vietnamese-language versions, making sure all was according to Hoyle. I was useless, a smiling wallet, offering nothing but the promise that I'd be a decent tenant. In the end, I signed a one-year lease, and last Monday I moved in. Without Hương it would never have happened; I am grateful beyond words.

The apartment is 45 square meters, on the fourth floor of an apartment building in a prime neighborhood in central Hanoi. The décor is faintly modernist with Asian touches. The lighting is soft and delicious, with rice paper coverings to all the lamps. The living room is tastefully furnished, with two soft beige sofas around a glass coffee table.

The bedroom is slightly elevated, separated from the living room by a sliding glass door. It has a comfortable queen-sized bed and modern dark wood furnishings. Tucked in corner is a work desk. I have cable TV and high-speed Internet. Large frosted glass windows allow for ample light. In the back of the building, away from the street noise, I overlook a courtyard filled with plants and laundry.

The kitchen is spacious by local standards, with four gas burners (incredible for Hanoi), and a small kitchen table with four chairs. No oven, but there is a microwave, rice cooker, and ample cabinetry.

I also have a roof-top terrace all to myself. Once the weather warms up I envision getting some nice chairs and a table, and doing some grilling. The only drawback to the flat is a shower pump that wheezes like an emphysemic old man. Since I only need to turn it on when I shower, I don't consider it much of an inconvenience.

The neighborhood is brilliant: two blocks from the Hanoi Opera House, a block from the historical Metropole Hotel, five minutes' walk to Hoan Kiem Lake (Hồ Hoàn Kiếm). A short hop from the chaos of the Old Quarter, my street is quiet. In the morning, I wake up to the sound of birds.

There is a small altar on the wall above my work desk. My first act in my new home was to light incense and give thanks. Sanctuary is a holy place, a place of refuge and asylum. I have my sanctuary in Hanoi, and I am grateful.


  1. Wow, Hal, that looks like a fabulous new place! What a gem your friend must be to assist in making it all happen. Enjoy your new quiet neighborhood!

  2. That looks great! Welcome home.

  3. Just beautiful, Hal. You are so blessed.

  4. I am happy that you have found peace and quiet, and that you have such a good friend to have helped you.

  5. That place sounds and looks like heaven, Hal, congratulations, and very good job! to your friend Huong. My own apartment, where I've lived since 1990, is very much my sanctuary, the only one I've ever had, so I know the feeling well. Again, congratulations on finding a place that fits you and comforts you so well.

  6. Sounds amazing! I'd gladly pay $600 for a sanctuary in Oakland!

  7. Happy New Home, Hal!
    Sounds -- and looks -- loverly... almost as nice as Fisk Street!
    Your neighbor,

  8. congratulation my dear teacher! Yr home looks so warm and nice ^_^ Nice preparation for Tet holiday, hehe
    1 evil in Eas2 :P

  9. Hello,

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    Our show follows house hunters through their search for a home in countries around the world. The contributors must be fluent in English and be 25-50 years old. Participating in our show is a lot of fun and a great way to document your exciting search for a home and new life abroad. In addition, you will receive compensation for your time and efforts.

    If you might be interested in participating with our show, let me know and I can send you more information. Please contact

    Have a wonderful day.

  10. how beautiful apartment is!i like it.happy new home,Hal!

  11. 困難的不在於新概念,而在於逃避舊有的概念。.........................

  12. Very swish, best of luck in your new home.

  13. Ha! The jackhammer is my Hanoi nemesis! We are surrounded on 2 sides by construction and we just moved in :(
    Thankfully, the jackhammering is now infrequent instead of the former incessant 18 hour day cacophony. My daughter would love your new neighborhood...close proximity to ballerinas is always a main selling point for a 3 year old. Congrats on your new pad.

  14. Awesome! Saw this on House Hunters International.