The region of SaPa in north Vietnam is eye opening to your average Westerner for several reasons. Firstly, it’s hard to comprehend the sheer volume of frenetic construction that is going on in the gateway town that was once a sleepy hill station. Difficult to understand, too, are the planning laws which would allow the blight of a mammoth hotel to overlook the picturesque paddy fields and ruin the view. Propaganda bellowed out at ungodly hours of the morning (think just before 5am) through loudspeakers also comes as something of a surprise. Yet by far the most enlightening experience the region has to offer is the opportunity to meet and overnight with local families, who graciously host travellers in their own homes. Not only does this give a privileged glimpse into family life but is also a window on a world where they’ve never heard the phrase “architecture for the masses”.
The village of Ta Van lies overlooking a valley that stretches to the Red River. Dotted amid the rice paddies where beamy water buffalo wade are houses that are built on family land, that has been divided and then gifted to sons (not daughters) for generations.
The houses that cling to the hillsides here are designed by the owners themselves and built communally. It’s not uncommon for the men, with carpentry skills passed down from father to son, to head out into the forests to cut down and haul back, by sheer gargantuan effort, large trees from which to hew out the framing structure, held together by single or double tenon joints. This done, the infill and roofing begins, with family and neighbours on hand to help out. At significant junctures along the way, great feasts are prepared to thank the volunteer workforce.
Houses are traditionally built from what can be found in the forests – bamboo, wood and mud. They’re often set on stilts, a simple solution for dealing with land that is either prone to flooding or is steep. The added benefit is that air flows beneath the house to keep it cool in summer. Ideally, houses are built to face the fields – the rice terraces – and thus a localised neighbourhood with a central focus is created.
There are generally two levels to the typical home: downstairs the living room is divided off from the kitchen by a mud wall. The floor is soil. Kitchens are not as we know them: cooking is done over an open fire which also serves to warm the home and, if there is running water here, it will not be heated. With few windows, the interiors are usually dark.
Upstairs are the sleeping quarters – often just mattresses on the floor, with compartments delineated by curtains, and mosquito nets suspended above them. The covered verandah is an important space – a pragmatic addition, that delivers a version of ‘indoor outdoor living’. In modern terminology, it’s the ultimate flexi space. It serves as a dining area, somewhere to dry clothes, a rumpus for the kids to play, and as an overflow kitchen. Leading from it, is a simple shower area.
Humble yet functional, these homes provide shelter (albeit in winter the wind whistles through gaps in the wooden boards) places to eat, sleep and socialise. Furnished minimally (one dining table usually moves indoors or out depending on the weather), traditional low wooden stools mix it up with cheap plastic chairs as seating. Decoration consists of the odd treasured photograph of a family member and colour is brought in with embroidered fabrics draped along walls or beneath rudimentary shelving.
Recently, with investment from the fruits of the tourism boom, a couple of new power plants have been constructed in the region so that many more homes now have electricity. With families still eking out a living though, this has not meant a rush on appliances such as, stoves, washing machines or dryers although TV sets now bring another form of entertainment – and a link to the outside world.
Living standards for the minority tribes of North Vietnam are improving slowly but the build-social philosophy has not changed– nor should it. While we would hope that better constructed homes with adequate sanitation and insulation are on the way for all, there is value that should be held onto – tightly. Using plentiful resources sourced locally, mucking in to keep costs down and living minimally but within the societal richness of a close-knit community seems like a sustainable way forward for us all.