The courtyard of apartment block 2C on Le Phung Hieu, Hoan Kiem, hums. Entering feels like stepping into a ship’s hull as the vibrations of rapidly turning gyros fill your ears. Ironically, among the reverberations is the rush of running water, ironic because this seemingly idyllic apartment block has a water shortage.
Built in 1989, a stone’s throw from Hanoi Opera House, the building’s design had inherent failings regarding the water system. Both the connection from the water factory to the well, and the pumping system to get the water up to people’s houses, have never worked.
That explains the humming sound. The apartment block’s courtyard is home to a cage containing a maze of water pumps, all working away in unison. Below, they are connected to a well that the residents paid to have dug when the original became too polluted. Fanning out from pumps is a dizzying jungle of pipes. At the well, where they are thickest, the pipes resemble the roots of bamboo. They crawl in parallel directions following the balconies and vertically up the corners of the courtyard, always taking the path of least resistance, like light-hungry creepers.
Minh Chi runs an electrical repair shop on the third floor of the apartment block. He was one of the first tenants and was part of the group who built the network of pipes in 1993. He explains how each of the 100 apartments has their own pipe coming from the grid of communal pipes. Some houses have two or three because when one breaks, they just build a completely new pipe and don’t bother to take away the old one.
Each house sets up and repairs their pipes themselves, learning through necessity and practise. Minh Chi studied how to repair electrical equipment in Germany but, like all the other residents, has no plumbing background or education.
“At first we spent a lot of time trying to repair the pumps because nobody had any experience of fixing them,” he explains. “We had to work it out ourselves. It started with a couple of houses making their own system and everybody learning from each other.”
Such resourcefulness and ingenuity is visible every day on the streets of Hanoi. It’s the reason why your motorbike may often be fixed with whatever comes to hand, be it a hammer or the foil wrapper of a packet of crisps. But of course, it’s also the reason why everything breaks.
“It’s not smart,” says Chi. “It’s completely wrong! The west does things properly. What we’ve done isn’t an improvement, it’s a step backwards!”
When the residents first realised that their new homes were faulty there was no one to blame. Minh Chi says they argued and blamed each other before getting on with finding a solution as it became clear that nobody was going to take responsibility for this communal problem. More than 20 years later the situation hasn’t moved on. A housing committee made up of residents was given a quote to install a new system but the cost is beyond their means.
A woman in her mid-40s has a stall selling crisps and ice tea at the entrance to the apartment block. “It’s been in newspapers and on TV,” she complains, “but still the water can’t get up to the houses. All day people come and take photos […] we’ve still got a water shortage.”
An old man is wandering around happily holding his granddaughter. He has no doubts about the future of the issue. “We’ve been talking about it forever, but nothing happens,” he says. “The people in charge aren’t doing anything, each house has to sort it out privately.”
The predicament of the residents and the sight of the jungle of pipes brings to mind the Vietnamese saying ‘cha chung, khong ai khoc’ (‘nobody cries at the death of the communal father’), which essentially means something very visible on every street in Vietnam’s capital: when it’s nobody’s responsibility, nobody cares.