Why Are Houses so Narrow in Vietnam? The History of the Tube House

Blogs - Vietnam: Oct. 6, 2017

This seems a common question among travellers to Vietnam, especially in big cities like Hanoi and Saigon. The narrow facade, in contrast to the seemingly endless extension behind it, and the stacking up of three to five floors—these characteristics have given this particular type of house a name: “tube house”.

Rumour has it that this is due to an outdated taxation law from the 19th century, which calculated taxes based on the width of the facade. However, the real reasons behind this modern symbol of Vietnamese urban architecture have more to do with practical needs.

The Traditional Origin

If you have ever come across paintings of Hanoi’s Old Quarter in the ’60s-’70s by artist Bui Xuan Phai, you will see the same narrow-shaped houses standing side by side, even though they look more antique and aesthetic than their modern counterparts.

pho co bui xuan phaiImage source: lehai.com.vn

In fact, they look more like the houses in Hoi An today. The difference is that narrow houses of the 20th century had only two floors, with traditional ceramic tile roofs. The interior of those houses was also different, as one or even two air wells were incorporated in the middle of the house for sunlight to enter.

pho co hoi anImage source: foody.vn

Living History Today

This can still be observed today at places specially preserved for tourism, such as Cafe Pho Co (Old Town Cafe) at 11 Hang Gai and the Old House at 87 Ma May, Hanoi. The many old houses in Hoi An are also exemplary of this style of architecture. These are the remnants of the past, standing proud amidst the storm of modernisation and commercialisation that swept through the big cities in the ’90s and transformed their architecture.

Old house 87 ma mayImage source: hanoiweather

As the Vietnamese economy went through reformation, the cities became densely populated. Central areas like the Hanoi’s Old Quarter became the prime locations for business, and the value of the old houses suddenly soared. The first floors of these houses all turned into shops and cafes, while families continued to live at the back or on the second floor.

Other families sold their houses to move to more spacious and modern residences, and as more and more business owners flooded into the already packed area, the narrow houses became narrower to accommodate the growth in numbers of small businesses.

Building Up the Tube

For decades, generations in a family had been sharing the same space, and when advances in construction techniques allowed them to do away with the tile roofs and build more floors, the houses became higher and higher, so that a big family could live together. This saved people a lot of money, because many Vietnamese still desired their own homes on a plot of land with private entrances, as opposed to living in apartments.

nha ong ha noiImage source: thoidai.com.vn

Before long, “tube houses” became a common sight and a symbol of city life. As the cities continue to expand in newly constructed areas, land and houses are sold in the same fashion, with a narrow facade and an elongated living area, mostly for economic reasons. It is an efficient and cost-saving solution for the ever rising urban population, and the choice for middle-income families who prefer earthbound housing.

Since this population increase largely consists of people coming from rural areas, many of whom consider the city a temporary place to live, the shape of the house is not deemed a big problem. Their ancestors’ houses in the countryside, with gardens and trees and familial connections, are still their true homes.

Banner photo by: Brice Coutagne