"As a child, I wanted to be a ballerina, an astronaut, a vet, but I never wanted to be a writer. It demands too much concentration and revision. So my first challenge was the writing itself,” says Linda Mazur.
She’s just released her first book, Hidden Houses of Hanoi, a guide to the art-deco houses near Thien Quang Lake where artists, intellectuals and mandarins lived in the 1930s.
“I fell into this project through the generosity of hundreds of people,” she says. “One thing led to another. Just as I was ready to call it a day, someone entered my life with new information or an introduction to someone who held the key to one piece of the puzzle.”
Linda became enamoured with this style of architecture because of its understated design, clean lines, and simple geometry, which act as an antithesis to Hanoi’s chaos. Over eight years, she studied the neighbourhood, getting to know its long-time residents and recording their stories.
Beyond the Gates
“Helpful people pop up in the most incongruous places, like the sculptor Cao Thi Thanh Tha, who watched me dodging traffic trying to get a clear photo of 42 Trang Thi, the home of the first Vietnamese architectural offices of Luyen, Tiep and Duc. After seeing my mock-up book, she took charge and cajoled the current owner, Nguyen Tien Vo, into opening the gate and giving me a grand tour of his home.”
Linda explored homes like 59 Nguyen Du, the home of mandarin Vi Van Dinh, whose family ruled Lang Son for 13 generations. Over the years, it was used as a guest house for visiting dignitaries, a ballroom for elite parties, and the office of the weekly Communist publication, Hoc Tap.
She spent time studying entire streets like Nguyen Thuong Hien, nearly hit by a bomb that landed in Thien Quang Lake during the American bombings of Christmas 1972. The street was home to the famous painter Le Pho, the composer of Vietnam’s national anthem, Nguyen Van Cao, and Tran Van Can, who painted Vietnam’s ‘Mona Lisa’, Em Thuy.
“The houses in the book are special,” says Linda. “Most were designed by Vietnamese architects for Vietnamese families in a style which was au courant, an indication of the desire to be seen as modern.”
Preserving these structures is a struggle. The law only protects temples, pagodas, communal houses and French colonial designs. Fortunately many historic houses are now being protected by private interests as nostalgia grows. Linda hopes her book can raise awareness and fan the flames of preservation — in the back she has included a map that can be used for personal walking tours of the area.
“Their stories need to be told as a small window into the life of Hanoi during the 1930s and 1940s,” she explains. “It was a time when different factions in society began to voice their ideas, when literacy rates grew, when it was easy to connect to the international community.”
The Hidden Houses of Hanoi is available at bookshops throughout Vietnam and can also be found at Hanoi Social Club and Bookworm
Photos by Julie Vola