During our trip to Vietnam, we were very circumspect in selecting the places we would be visiting so that we would have, at least, a deeper understanding of the country, its people, and its way of life. In Hanoi, one of the places we checked out was an old house — a heritage house — that has been restored to its former 19th century style.
The Ma May house is located at 87 Ma May St. in Hanoi’s Old Quarters. The house is technically called a “tube house” because of its narrow width and very long length. Traditionally, the house functioned as a shophouse. This means the lower portion, specifically the front, was used for trade, while the rest of the building was used as a house. While the function of the Ma May house is a shophouse, its design is unique and not similar to the shophouses in Melaka or Singapore or in Vietnam’s Chinatowns because their layouts differ.
The current style and layout of the house was restored to its pre-1950 style. I first did not understand why they pointed out this fact until I learned from the brochure that during the Communist government era, the house was appropriated and five families of different trades lived there. As a result, the house was remodeled to fit the five families. As indicated in the brochure, a multi-level structure was added to the third area of the original structure.
The Ma May house was built in the late 19th century at the time when the French was still in control of Vietnam. The house was one of the many “tube houses” in Hanoi. These houses are called as such because the Vietnamese people were trying to get away with being taxed heavily by the French as the French taxed real property in accordance with the width of the building. So, ingenious that they are, the Vietnamese people built their shophouses narrow and long. The Ma May house is composed of two storeys, three areas, and two courtyards in between. This is where the Ma May house differs from other shophouses in Asia — the occupied area and courtyard alternate layout. The first room in the lower ground is a shop. Currently, it is a souvenir shop selling products from Hanoia (luxurious products made by Vietnamese people using Vietnamese materials, such as silk). The second room in the lower ground is a receiving area/dining room. Traditionally, this room served as the “production room” where the products sold in the store are made. The third room in the lower ground is the kitchen and the toilet. On the second floor, the first room is the most important. It has the family altar and is also used as a receiving room for guests. The two other rooms in the second floor are bedrooms. The courtyards are used for ventilation.
The house is made of ironwood (dark, strong, hard wood). The bed on the second floor was so heavy, I wondered how they were able to bring up to the second level (or they constructed the bed in the room) and how they are able to clean the floor underneath the bed. This was also the first time I noticed that Vietnamese people are small people, basing on the narrow steps of the stairs and the chairs at the Ma May house.
There is an entrance fee of 10,000VND (Php22.00, $0.20) which I did not mind paying at all especially because they allow visitors to take photos of the house. At 1:00 PM, the house was not crowded with visitors but because it is a small house, you need to wait for other visitors to get out from a room before you can get in or else it can get suffocating. The afternoon heat in Hanoi could be unbearable it would make you want to lie down on the hardwood bed.
Photographs by Joel Lopez.
Kien, To, 2008, Conservation pressing task and new documentation of old tube houses in Hanoi Old Quarter through the case of No. 47 Hang Bac Street house.