TOWNS, VILLAGES AND HOMES IN VIETNAM

VILLAGES IN VIETNAM

A typical large village is located near the bank of the river, includes sacred communal house, pagoda, temple, shrine. In traditional Vietnamese society, people gathered together to form villages in rural areas and guilds in urban areas. These villages and guilds have been forming since the dawn of the nation. The organization gradually developed, steadily becoming more stable and closer together. Each village and guild has its own conventions. The purpose of the conventions is to promote good customs within populations and organizations. All are different, but of course are always in accordance with state law. There are tens of thousands of such conventions kept in the History Museum in Hanoi and other museums throughout the country [Source: Vietnam-culture.com vietnam-culture.com ]

Lowland villages in northern and central Vietnam have traditionally been packed close together and surrounded by a bamboo hedge, or sometimes an earthen wall. Other important sites include the school and the market places. Ancient Kinh (Vietnamese) villages were usually comprised of mud-wall houses and surrounded by bamboo groves. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993) |=|]

Northern Vietnamese villages have traditionally been placed along roads, waterways or on knolls or hillsides. They have tended to be relatively closed communities, both physically and socially. In the old days, villages paid taxes and provided laborers to build dikes and soldiers to fight wars. Otherwise the villages were independent and controlled most to their own affairs. Southern Vietnamese settlements and villages, particularly around the Mekong Delta, have traditionally been more separated and scattered and less tightly bound by a defined community structure. Most are stung out along roads or waterways and sometimes in the countryside. |=|

In villages, there is often no running water or indoor toilets. Extended families from grandparents to infants sleep under the same roof. The streets of many villages are little more than winding paths. The barking of numerous dogs and the presence of many small children, make the arrival of a stranger in "town" a well known fact within an exceedingly short time.

Many villages are famous for producing a particular craft such a lacquerware boxes, mother-of-pearl inlaid furniture, broom or conical hats. In recent years some of these crafts have been industrialized and have grown large enough to produce products for the export market. |=|

Matt Gross wrote in the New York Times, "Sa Dec, population 96,000, may be the quintessential river town. Sandwiched between two branches of the Mekong, it is threaded through with streams and canals over which arc bridges of all sizes. All along the water, there are shops and warehouses sending rice flour and pigs along a trade route that has served the town for centuries."

Vietnamese Village Dinh

Every village has a dinh , a communal house or temple with a pond in front and a shade tree in the back, and often a Buddhist pagoda or shrine. The dihn is where village elders meet and a guardian spirit—usually associated with a Vietnamese hero—resided. Every year festivals are held to celebrate this spirit. The Communists discouraged the worship of guardian spirits and the use of dihns but they have made a comeback in recent years.

The Dinh is a combination of the temple and the community center in many Vietnamese villages. It is within the Dinh that the housewives offer prayers not said at home. It is here that they also offer food to the guardian spirit called "thanh hoang" in Vietnamese. At such times, the "thanh hoang" is asked for protection against the various natural disasters and for his good will toward the individual worshipper or the worshipper's family. [Source: The Religions of South Vietnam in Faith and Fact, US Navy, Bureau of Naval Personnel, Chaplains Division, 1967 ++]

The "thanh hoang" can be a spirit (ghost) of someone who died a violent death, an unnatural death such as murder, childbirth or failed to be buried; or a supernatural or celestial spirit without human origin. Though the villager may claim his faith as Buddhism, Confucianism, or another of the ten or so faiths in Vietnam, the animistic belief of "spirits" who can affect and control destiny is very strong. Often the courtyard of the Dinh or adjoining temple has a lotus pond with the large round green leaves floating on the water's surface. The lovely flowers of the several varieties of lotus rising above the dirty water, give color to the area. They remind the beholder that, as the beautiful flower grows in such a humble environment, so good may come from each regardless of surrounding conditions. ++

Should the village have a Buddhist temple or even a Taoist one, it will normally be the most elaborate structure in the village. As the foreigner listens in the quiet of the day, the sound of the monk's almost monotonous prayers and sermon recitations, with or without audience, will be broken from time to time with the rhythmic beat of the mo, which is a wooden instrument normally found on or near the altar, or the ringing sound of the altar gong being struck with a small wooden mallet. If the government does not have a school in the village, the chances are that an elementary school will be located near the temple and taught by someone of the religious organization of the community be it Buddhist, Roman Catholic or Protestant, except among the tribespeople villages where many have no formal schooling. ++

Vietnamese Village Schools and Market

Schools in Vietnam normally teach their students by rote with very limited supplies of books, pencils, paper, or the items which Americans take for granted in this generation, but under conditions similar to those experienced by Americans a hundred years or more ago. Often there are not enough seats for the children; desks are very scare if present at all; lighting is normally inadequate; yet, while the teacher and student have all these and other similar problems, as well as the war conditions, the need for knowledge and development of youthful minds grows more pressing each day. [Source: The Religions of South Vietnam in Faith and Fact, US Navy, Bureau of Naval Personnel, Chaplains Division, 1967 ++]

The village market place has many varieties of fresh vegetables, nuts of all kinds, fresh fruits, bananas, oranges, grapefruit, lemon, tropical fruits of all kinds, baskets of peanuts, trays of meat exposed to both dust and flies, fish, tobacco, sugar and salt. These are intermixed with stalls or crude spaces filled with items of clothing, cloth and small hardware items, making a sight to be remembered. The entire market, large or small, is often crowded with people who come to look, to buy or to gossip. As typical throughout Vietnam, it is the women who are merchants, and who seem to dominate the market place. ++

The important buildings of any Vietnamese farming or fishing village are the Dinh and/or temple, the market place and the school. The conduct of Americans both individually and collectively in these areas can be vital to the success of the present assignment of the Navy/ Marine Team in Vietnam. Be alert to the differences between Vietnam and your home; ask questions in order to gain information, but ask them as you would desire a visitor in the States to ask about something in your hometown. By so doing you will establish friendships that could save your life. ++

Typical Central Highland Tribal Village and House

The Muong live in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. Muong villages typically have about 50 households and are situated on the slopes of mountains. The houses that are raised off the ground on stilts or piles and have a wood frame, bamboo walls and roofs thatched with elephant grass.

The houses are typically divided into two unequal size rooms by a shoulder-high bamboo screen. The smaller room is a bedroom and has traditionally been used by women and unmarried girls. The large room serves as a guest room and an area for cooking and dining. An altar for ancestors is located in a prominent place. Both rooms are reached by separate staircases. The front side is reserved for males. The back side is reserved for females.

Each house has an upslope side without a window and a downslope side with a window and a view of the valley. Where people sit in the house is associated with their status. High status people, male elders and guest are seated towards the window. Lower status people, females and children sit on the non-window side. This arrangement is maintained even when families are relaxing or eating.

Typical Northern Tribal Village and House

Ta Thu Giang wrote in the Viet Nam News, "Seeing Ho’s home of Chon Then Village from a distance, it gives the impression that the houses are clustered together like colossal mushrooms. The village stands at more than 1,000m above the sea level and is home to 48 Hanhi households. They live on rice cultivation of burnt-over land or terraced fields. They are one of the few groups who have traditional experience in reclaiming land for terraced fields on mountain slopes, digging canals and building small dams. They use ploughs and harrows pulled by buffalo to work the fields. Their gardens are often close to their houses. Carrying a bamboo basket on her back braced by a wire tied round her forehead full of farming. [Source: Ta Thu Giang, Viet Nam News, March 12-25, 2010 +++]

"Like others in the village, Ho’s family lives in an earthen-walled house. It has no window, but the house is always cool in summer and warm in winter. The house’s wall is about 9 meters long and 8 meters wide, in between there are small stones. Each house measures some 65-80 square meters with a four-cornered roof covered with dry grass. There is a main door and one door inside, with the room housing a bed and an open kitchen. Deputy chairman of Y Ty Commune People’s Committee, Trang A Lu, says local residents always build houses on mountain sides near untouched forest. Rites for construction are simple but meaningful. After digging the foundation, the house owner throws three paddy grains into the foundation which represent the wish for a large family with many children and grandchildren, good animal husbandry and bumper crops. Animal husbandry and cloth-weaving are common. Most Hanhi can produce clothes for themselves. +++

"Lu says almost all Hanhi men know how to build earthen-walled houses and do carpentry. Walls are made of compacted soil so houses must be built in the dry season from September to January. Local residents always help each other build houses without charge. Lu recalls the day a year ago when he began building, many of the neighbours came to share the work. This traditional custom helps bring local villagers closer together."In the past, women always helped cut thatch to make roofing, while men cut trees to make the house frame. Nowadays, many local families use fibro-cement instead of thatch so the women help the owners by making a meal and cleaning the new house," says Lu. When the building is completed, the house owner usually invites neighbours to a party. If the houseowners are not in a position to invite the neighbours, they will only invite their relatives. +++

Affluent New Towns in Vietnam

Grant McCool of Reuters wrote: "A new city has risen out of a swamp south of the winding Saigon River, part of a real estate boom that is reshaping lifestyles in developing Vietnam and enriching some speculators. The smooth roads, condominiums, apartments, offices, convenience stores and restaurants of Phu My Hung (Saigon South) are a far cry from the congested, squalid streets and housing in much of Vietnam's largest city of about 8 million people. [Source: Grant McCool, Reuters, March 10, 2008 |:|]

"Saigon South was chosen by the Communist Party government as a model for new towns across the Southeast Asian country, whose emerging market economy is growing at more than 8 percent a year, prime time for property developers and investors. "The schools, the shopping, security and everything are very convenient and very different from where I grew up," said Le Uy Linh, 32, who bought a villa in Phu My Hung three years ago. She was born and raised in District 5 of the old city, which most people still call Saigon. Linh is director of an investment firm and other companies. She and her husband, a doctor, have two children. They are typical of the young professionals the "new towns" want to attract. |:|

"Plans called for the streets to be a certain width, for a certain mix of greenery and a mix of tenants, Vietnamese and foreigners who work in the city. In the style of South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore or the Philippines, plans for a plethora of "new towns" outside of crowded cities are replete with spacious housing and schools, businesses, golf courses, movie theaters and concert halls. Several such developments have been built in and around Ho Chi Minh City in the south, the capital Hanoi in the north and the central city of Danang. Set on large tracts of land, they epitomize a higher standard of living that a new Vietnamese urban middle class aspires to -- and that was unimaginable for earlier generations who endured hardship in the Soviet-style command economy. The government began gradual economic reforms in 1986, but it was not until the last five years or so that market-oriented capitalism became more conspicuous. A year ago, Vietnam joined the biggest free-trade club, the World Trade Organization. |:|

"Local small investors have been turning away from the fledgling stock markets to buy real estate, lining up in thousands to deposit cash for condos and apartments that have not yet been built. They included the Vista high-end complex of Singapore's CapitaLand, Southeast Asia's largest property developer. In February, the group announced plans to expand in Vietnam. Speculation is rife and some economists and businessmen see a property market bubble. The Vista was fully booked at prices that rose to about $250 a square foot from about $125 a square foot in just weeks. "Vietnam is still a poor country, yet some of these prices are more like New York, Tokyo or Singapore," said a financial services executive who asked not to be identified. "It's not just about lack of supply." |:|

Prices for some city luxury apartments tripled last year and speculation is rife. Office rents in Ho Chi Minh City shot up in the last year by 40 percent and will cost about $6.50 a square foot this year as foreign companies expand, commercial real estate agents said. Marc Townsend, managing director in Vietnam of CB Richard Ellis, the global commercial real estate services firm, said that "it all comes down to lack of supply." |:|

Homes in Vietnam

More people are moving to cities, but most Vietnamese are still farmers. Houses are sometimes built on stilts to avoid flooding. Materials such as earth, straw and bamboo may be used for walls, and red clay tiles or sheets of corrugated metal for roofs. City homes are often made with brick, wood and/or tile.

A traditional northern Vietnamese house is built with mud or brick walls, a thatched or tile roof, and earthen or concrete floors. Large houses are set around a courtyards and are open-fronted with a sloping red-tile roof supported by heavy wooden pillars. A traditional southern Vietnamese house has walls of woven bamboo, brick, wood; earthen or concrete floors; and a roof of palm leaves or thatch. In recent decades corrugated iron or metal sheets made from recycled aluminum cans have been used to make roofs.

A typical modern house in Vietnam is made from concrete. A typical rural family of five in Vietnam lives in a 860 square foot house that consists primarily of one large room. The kitchen is usually in a small room attached to the house. In the Mekong Delta a typical three room house has a living room and two bedrooms (one for parents and one for the children). There are some stilted houses there. [Source: Peter Menzel, "Material World," Sierra Club Books, 1994]

A typical bathroom in Southeast Asia is an outhouse in back of the house with cinder blocks walls and a metal door and roof. The toilet is a either a Wester-style toilet of hole in the ground surrounded by concrete. People squat instead of sit. Most guesthouses and hotels used by foreigners have Western style toilets. The bath is often nothing more than a cauldron with a dipper. The kitchen is sometimes separated from the main house.

In the cities many people live in cramped apartments. Until fairly recently many had no electricity or running water. People still sometimes cook outside using stoves fired by bricks made from coal and mud. Government-owned apartments have rent as little as $5 a month. In Saigon many people live on boats or in stilt houses placed over the canals and rivers because a city law once decreed that property over water was not taxable.

Buildings are made using bamboo scaffolding.

Vietnamese houses usually have one, three, five or seven rooms because even numbers are considered unlucky. The open house celebration is a popular custom in Vietnam. After a family has moved into a new house, friends, relatives and neighbors are invited to a party to share with the house owner happiness. After the party all guests give gifts normally a little money to house owner and also best wishes for health, happiness and a prosperous life. In the past, building a house was considered one of the three most important events in Vietnamese life. These were purchasing a buffalo, looking for a wife, and building a house. So building an own house is very important to Vietnamese. It even shows his position in social structure. Vietnamese who die without ever has his own house is considered poor and disadvantaged. [Source: Vietnam-culture.com vietnam-culture.com

See Architecture

Homes of Ho Chi Minh and His Grandfather

The thatched cottage where President Ho Chi Minh used to live during his childhood is built from bamboo and wood. It has five rooms. The interior furniture is similar to that of other farmers' houses: a wooden bed, a bamboo chong (a bamboo bed without raised walls at the two ends), a hammock made from hemp, and an altar. It and the “Worship House” described below are tourist sights today.

The “Worship House” is a simple cottage built by Hoang Duong, Ho Chi Minh's maternal grandfather, in 1882 to make it a place for worshipping his paternal grand grandfather, grandfather, and father. The altar is decorated in a simple but solemn fashion. The pair of parallel sentences hung in the front of the house, which praise the family clan's fame. The house has five rooms and two lean-tos. Three outer rooms adjoin with the worship house; so it is well ventilated. Mr. Hoang Duong used to teach his students while sitting on the wooden bed placed in the first room. In the second room, there is a bamboo sofa and a table where he placed his pen-brushes and ink-slab. He and his students would take a rest on the bed put in the third room.The remaining two rooms were used as his wife's bedroom and the family's living room.

Rural Vietnamese Houses and Households

The Vietnamese farmer's house is built normally for practical uses rather than beauty. It may have roofs composed of thatch or palm leaves, tile or due to the current struggle in Vietnam, tin. Some Americans have observed walls and roofs of houses made of uncut beer company tin with the various advertisements of the companies already printed on the metal. The story of how such commercially marked tin has reached such remote areas and strange usage without first being formed into beer cans would probably be an interesting one. [Source: The Religions of South Vietnam in Faith and Fact, US Navy, Bureau of Naval Personnel, Chaplains Division, 1967 ++]

The house is normally made of such local materials as are available. This may include bamboo, straw, mud, and other products of the area. The mud may be daubed directly onto the plaited bamboo to form the walls. It may be shaped as brick which can be sun-dried as adobe or, in more rare cases, dried in regular kilns. With the current war effort, cement has joined tin as a material used whenever it is available, Whenever the house is made of mud or clay, the eaves of the thatched or tin roof are extended well over the walls so that the heavy rains of the monsoons will not wash the walls away. They also act as an aid to keep the house cooler in the hot sticky climate of the major areas of Vietnam. ++

The house of the ethnic Vietnamese peasant class is normally divided into three to five rooms of varying size. The main room is the central one in which the ancestor shelf holds the place of honor. Even in the poorer home, there is always a display of candlesticks, incense, scrolls, tapestries, burners, and a shrine which contains the ancestral tablets. These "sacred tablets" contain the names of ancestors through the fourth generation to whom devotion is encouraged and expected. Ancestral spirits are regarded as always present to witness happenings in the family. Most Vietnamese, regardless of what other religious faith is professed, are devotees of ancestor veneration, which has grown out of the Confucian teachings instilled in Vietnam by the Chinese occupation of over 1,000 years. Exceptions to veneration of ancestors are the animistic tribespeople, who fear spirits but do not worship ancestral spirits, and the Protestants who represent a small part of the Vietnamese population, The Vietnamese Roman Catholic Church permits ancestor veneration as a cultural expression of the commandment to honor thy father and mother. ++

The main dwelling, even in the village, is normally built in a V shape with space reserved for grandparents, parents and children. Servants and hired farm hands may be quartered either in the main house or small houses of their own in the same compound. The family compound also contains shelters for the oxen or buffalo, farm tools, grain storage, the inevitable pig sty and chicken pen. Often a small garden of vegetables, a tank for storing rain water, as well as a pond or pool where the children and adults bath and wash both clothing and dishes, complete the interior of the compound which maybe enclosed in a wall of greenery. This screening wall of growing plants-areca palms, guava trees, mango trees, bamboo clumps, banana trees, etc.-protect the occupants from curious villagers and others who pass by. ++

Traditional Vietnamese Stilt House

Four thousand years ago, Vietnamese people were building stilt houses similar to those in use today. Suited to flood-prone plains and to steep mountain slopes, these houses remain popular among many of Vietnam's 54 different ethnic groups and among Vietnamese who live along waterways or places that are frequently flooded. [Source: vietnam-culture.com <^>]

Stilt houses are made from wood, bamboo, cane, or rattan. A traditional stilt house typically has an area for drying rice, set one or two steps below the main level. The area under the house is either unused or used as a pen for livestock. As well as being somewhere to eat, entertain and sleep, a stilt house is where a family worships its ancestors and works at tasks like weaving and embroidery. The most important room is the kitchen, which is usually set in the center of the house and serves as a meeting place where the family gathers at the end of the day. <^>

Since Viet people traditionally lived on flat, spacious plains, their stilt houses are wider. A typical Viet stilt house has two staircases on the left and right sides. The walls are made from thin boards. The roof rests on one or two pillars and two beams. The right side of the house is used for worship, entertaining guests and the men's quarters, while the left side is reserved for women. <^>

Vietnamese Ethnic Minority Stilt Houses

Tay and Nung people in northwestern Vietnam (including Lang Son and Cao Bang) typically build their stilt houses up against a slope. Ideally, the front of the house should overlook fields; close views of mountains, rivers and forests are avoided. The Tay and Nung believe that a mountain peak is like an arrow, which, if pointed at a house, might injure its residents. Trees, meanwhile, are associated with fierce beasts, and thought to bring bad luck to livestock. Nearby streams are thought to cause money to flow away from a house. Tay and Nung houses are usually narrow in front and supported by seven or nine rows of columns running along the sides. Villages typically consist of houses set parallel to each other along a hillside. [Source: vietnam-culture.com <^>]

Muong people build stilt houses that include characteristics of Viet, Tay and Nung houses, while Thai people have a very distinctive house style. All houses in a Thai village face high mountains and forests, since this view is thought to increase vitality. It is considered unlucky to build a house facing a gap between two mountain peaks. <^>

Like other groups, the Thai position their houses facing north to south. They divide the living space into two: a higher level, restricted to family members, is used for worship, relaxation, and sleep; the lower level is where the family entertains guests, cooks and weaves. There are two doors and two covered porches. The left-hand door is called chan and the right-hand door is called quan. Family members may use both doors, but visiting women must use the chan door, while visiting men must use the quan door. A new son-in-law sleeps in the right porch, which is called the tang quan. The left porch, or tang chan, is used for drying rice and clothes. Thai houses have beautiful windows, measuring 60cm by 100cm, set close to the floor in the front wall. The roofs are highly distinctive in that they are comprised of four panels. Two flat panels are linked by curved gables over the porches. <^>

Bana, Xedang, and Giarai people living in Vietnam's Tay Nguyen (Central Highlands) build huge stilt houses known as rong. The roof of a rong is incredibly steep and tall, like the blade of a hole. In front of a rong stands a balcony. These stilt houses serve as communal halls. The Ede, a matriarchal group in Dak Lak province, live in stilt longhouses. The homeowners' bedroom faces east, while the guest room faces west. The roof is highly unusual in that it is trapezoid-shaped, with the longer end at the bottom. This roof is supported by columns and extends from one to one-and-a-half meters in the front and back. The interior is equally strange, as the roof is so tan and narrow. Most of the house is taken up with the living room, supported by four columns: the master column, guest column, drum column and gong column. Guest seating entails benches made from old trees, 27 to 30 meters in length, which are intricately carved. <^>

Possessions in Vietnam

A typical rural family of five shares one television with relatives, owns no telephone, VCR or carm but has a motorbike. The father's most prized possession is his house and the mother's most treasured possession is her health. In the future, the family hopes to have enough money to afford new beds and a better motorcycle. [Source: Peter Menzel, "Material World," Sierra Club Books, 1994 \\//]

In the 1990s a typical rural family's possessions included 2 bicycles (1 Vietnamese and 1 Czech), insecticide pump sprayer, kettle, 2 beds, bedding, slippers, earthenware urn, large metal pot, chair, a desk, , a few books, hoes, rakes other farm tools, bamboo bench, sideboard, china, Chinese-made thermos, a tea set, an electric fan, a ceiling fan, baskets, serving trays, pots, pans, bowls, 2 stools, and chest with 2,200 pound of rice. The also have 4 pigs, 2 piglets, 20 chickens, a rooster, 11 ducks, 50 banana trees and two star fruit trees \\//.

An average village home in Vietnam contains a few chairs and tables, frame beds, a television, a small alter, and portraits of family members and Ho Chi Minh. In Hanoi, mattresses are relatively new amenities and are regarded as luxuries. In rural homes home there is often little space. People sit on the floor. Food is often cooked on a charcoal stove in the kitchen. Televisions often run on batteries. Many people sleep on thin mats spread on the floor, which one journalist wrote makes it difficult to sleep late in the mornings.

Ancestral altars and shrines, with pictures of deceased loved ones have traditionally dominated the front room of a house. Members of the household bow before it, light incense and pray. Altars are decorated with incense, fruit and flowers during Tet. Some Buddhist altars are situated outside in front of the house. After Tet, chicken feet are hung from the front of the house to ward off evil spirits. If the feet turn black it means a year of bad luck is ahead.

Many people keep their front door open all day. Sometimes their prized possessions are placed in such a way that people from the street can see them. Fine furniture often has exquisite mother of pearl inlays. During the war some families buried valuable possessions such as china and furniture with mother of pearl inlays to keep them from being destroyed. If the family ran out of money they could dig it the items and sell them.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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