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Exploring a few “urban caves” in Vietnam’s capital city

By Trong Nghia  &nbspSeptember 1, 2018 | 09:31 am GMT+7

Off Hanoi’s broad roads lie narrow alleys that get no sunlight, but life hustles and bustles in these dark spaces.

These winding alleys are sometimes so narrow that they can only accommodate one person in one direction at a time. Even two pedestrians would have to squeeze past one another. One such place is 22 Gach Alley, Hang Buom Ward in the central district of Hoan Kiem, which is all of 80 centimeters wide.

These winding alleys are sometimes so narrow that they can only accommodate one person in one direction at a time. Even two pedestrians would have to squeeze past one another. One such place is 22 Gach Alley, Hang Buom Ward in the central district of Hoan Kiem, which is all of 80 centimeters wide.

But there is more than one such alley in this area. Hang Buom Ward is home to numerous dim and damp alleyways, which may send chills down the spine of newcomers. Food odors linger the alley and sticks on its walls. In these perenially shadowy places, even moss cannot grow on the walls, it seems.  

But there is more than one such alley in this area. Hang Buom Ward is home to numerous dim and damp alleyways, which may send chills down the spine of newcomers. Food odors linger the alley and sticks on its walls. In these perenially shadowy places, even moss cannot grow on the walls, it seems.  

At midday, Alley 53 on Hang Buom Street is completely in the shade. Footsteps and shouts echo here. Except for late in the night, houses keep their lights on all the time.

At midday, Alley 53 on Hang Buom Street is completely in the shade. Footsteps and shouts echo here. Except for late in the night, houses keep their lights on all the time.

Alley resident Nguyen Van Hanh, 65, is annoyed at seeing strangers. The alley, just 80 meters long, has six households living in it. Very few outsiders step inside here. Hanhs house is right at the start of the alley and she cooks on the pathway to ease the stuffy atmosphere. I am lucky to have a shaft in the house, something many people wish to have, she said.

Alley resident Nguyen Van Hanh, 65, is annoyed at seeing strangers. The alley, just 80 meters long, has six households living in it. Very few outsiders step inside here. Hanh’s house is right at the start of the alley and she cooks on the pathway to ease the stuffy atmosphere. “I am lucky to have a shaft in the house, something many people wish to have,” she said.

On sizzling hot days in Hanoi, soaked clothes can dry in two hours outside but would stay damp and smelly for 2-3 days in the house of Mai Van Khai, 60, resident of Gach alley. These narrow alleyways have existed for more than 50 years. I have been here for more than 20 years; three generations of our family are here, said Khai.

On sizzling hot days in Hanoi, soaked clothes can dry in two hours outside but would stay damp and smelly for 2-3 days in the house of Mai Van Khai, 60, resident of Gach alley. “These narrow alleyways have existed for more than 50 years. I have been here for more than 20 years; three generations of our family are here,” said Khai.

Conditions are similar in another corner of Dong Da District, Alley 200 off Ton Duc Thang Street. The 400-meter alley is two meters wide, but with many houses encroaching into the upper space; with protruding constructions on higher floors, all the sunlight is blocked out. Some people inside the alley said their houses stay wet all year round from the humidity; many people suffer from respiratory illnesses in summer and winter. But living in a dark alley also has its benefits. The alley becomes a very cool space, very pleasant to return to after working under the scorching sun, one of the residents said.

Conditions are similar in another corner of Dong Da District, Alley 200 off Ton Duc Thang Street. The 400-meter alley is two meters wide, but with many houses encroaching into the upper space; with protruding constructions on higher floors, all the sunlight is blocked out. Some people inside the alley said their houses stay wet all year round from the humidity; many people suffer from respiratory illnesses in summer and winter. But living in a dark alley also has its “benefits.” The alley becomes a very cool space, very pleasant to return to after working under the scorching sun, one of the residents said.

Contrary to popular perception, life bustles in these quiet alleys, said Xuan, a long time resident. There are many alleys and small paths; motorcyclists have to use their horn to notify people going in the opposite direction, so as to avoid each other. Here, it is only quiet late at night, she said.

Contrary to popular perception, life bustles in these quiet alleys, said Xuan, a long time resident. “There are many alleys and small paths; motorcyclists have to use their horn to notify people going in the opposite direction, so as to avoid each other. Here, it is only quiet late at night,” she said.

Tran Ngoc Anh, a vegetables vendor for 10 years in Thinh Hao 3 Alley, Dong Da district, needs to turn on her motorbike light even during daylight. This is her favorite spot to do business. The surroundings might be dark, but for me, its always beautiful and cool, Anh said, adding people are friendly, no one shoos me away. With the upper space blocked, she has no worry, rain or sunshine. Plus, sometimes people even buy spoiled fruit as it is too dark inside the alley, she joked.

Tran Ngoc Anh, a vegetables vendor for 10 years in Thinh Hao 3 Alley, Dong Da District, needs to turn on her motorbike light even during daylight. This is her favorite spot to do business. The surroundings might be dark, “but for me, it’s always beautiful and cool”, Anh said, adding “people are friendly, no one shoos me away.” With the upper space blocked, she has no worry, rain or sunshine. Plus, sometimes people even buy spoiled fruit as it is too dark inside the alley, she joked.

At almost 12 p.m in Thinh Hao 3 Alley, the sunlight barely comes through. The lane is not too narrow, but it is very dark due to protruding balconies.

At almost 12 p.m in Thinh Hao 3 Alley, the sunlight barely comes through. The lane is not too narrow, but it is very dark due to protruding balconies.

At the alley entrance, Giao has opened a street café in front of her house. She usually turns on just one light bulb to save electricity. Her children are not too happy with this arrangement, since she is old now and her eyesight is poor.

At the alley entrance, Giao has opened a street café in front of her house. She usually turns on just one light bulb to save electricity. Her children are not too happy with this arrangement, since she is old now and her eyesight is poor.

Behind Giaos house, Alley 87/1 on the same street is less roomy and more gloomy. In this 100-meter long alley reside 16 households. A single ray of sunlight shines into the alley in front of Nguyen Thi Saus house. In other places, people standing a few steps away can barely see each others face.

Behind Giao’s house, Alley 87/1 on the same street is less roomy and more gloomy. In this 100-meter long alley reside 16 households. A single ray of sunlight shines into the alley in front of Nguyen Thi Sau’s house. In other places, people standing a few steps away can barely see each other’s face.

Sau is worried about fire safety and the health of her relatives, but, she adds: Hanoi is crowded, so we have to accept it. When it rains heavily, many houses need fixing, the ceiling leaks. 

Sau is worried about fire safety and the health of her relatives, but, she adds: “Hanoi is crowded, so we have to accept it. When it rains heavily, many houses need fixing, the ceiling leaks.” 


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