I recently attended a talk at The Bookworm entitled “Stories houses tell” and given by Linda Mazur, a Canadian who has been living in Hanoi since 1998. Not only are the stories fascinating in themselves, but the buildings she focuses on — built during the 1930s — are worth a look for anyone interested in architecture or history, and the area she speaks most about is a very pleasant place for a wander on a warm day. The following information is based on information gleaned from that talk and a further conversation with Linda, as well as access to the draft of her upcoming book. Thank you Linda!
For a self-guided tour, start on Nguyen Gia Thieu, to the north of Thien Quang Lake. During the French colonial time, starting in the 1930s, Nguyen Gia Thieu Street housed the young families of the government administrators who were mostly Vietnamese or of French and Vietnamese mixed ancestry.
There are still a few houses worthy of a look along this street, which runs from Quang Trung to Tran Binh Trong. It’s interesting to note that as white was the cheapest paint, one indication of a household’s status was whether they could afford to paint their house in appealing pastels — as this was a wealthy area, the houses were painted in a beautiful array of colours.
The house at 7 Nguyen Gia Thieu was once the headquarters of the Vietnamese Nationalist Party, and corpses of kidnap victims and murdered enemies were found buried in the garden in 1946. Also check out the three-storey house at 11 Nguyen Gia Thieu, which had electricity and running water and modern bathrooms on each floor, but cooking was still done on a charcoal fire in the back garden. 14 Nguyen Gia Thieu is another fascinating building, with a curved central stairwell.
Number 14 sits on the corner of Nguyen Gia Thieu Lien Tri Street. At the northernmost end of Lien Tri the street was narrow — it still is — and there were no trees, houses were small and narrow and, when built, had no electricity. Head south on Lien Tri to Nguyen Du, which runs along the north of Thien Quang Lake, and take a wander around the lake.
Back to houses, on the corner of Nguyen Du and Tran Binh Trong is the beautiful 59 Nguyen Du. This large house is a superb example of the style of the time and still retains a sense of its original grandeur: in the 1940s its grand ballroom would have hosted many elegant parties. Even now, in its weather-beaten state, you can imagine the residents and guests enjoying its verandas, which would have protected them both from the sun and the rain of Hanoi.
There are a number of other houses of the era along Nguyen Du, running away from the lake, now mostly hidden from sight by tea rooms, shops and other streetside paraphernalia. Most unfortunately, number 68, once home to Vietnamese artist Nam Son, was razed overnight in 2011, to many protests. However, this helped to prompt the University of Construction to establish a list of villas which should preserved.
Finally, walk down to Nguyen Thuong Hien. The house at 5 Nguyen Thuong Hien was the tallest house on the street in 1940 and provided an unrestricted view of Van Dien cemetery, 11 kilometres away. The design and build took into account the climate and other practical requirements — not the case for current buildings — so the walls are up to 60 centimetres thick to keep the house cool in summer and warm in winter, the ceilings were high to allow the air to flow through the house and there was a fireplace in the corner of each room. The French-built water towers ensured there was enough pressure to force the water to the top floor, without the need of a pump to supply the modern bathrooms.
Linda is open to providing informal tours of the area, if you’re interested she can be contacted on email@example.com. Her particular interest is in the people who lived, and still live, in these houses, so she will be able to provide a lot more interesting detail than I’ve given here, and having met her I’m sure the tour would be extremely interesting and informative.
Photo of 14 Nguyen Gia Thieu courtesy of Linda Mazur.
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