Location :

Delta du Mékong, Vietnam

Client :

AFAP Vietnam

Area per housing unit :

63 m2

Cost per housing unit :

1 500 $

Period :

2012 – 2015 / project not realized

Text :

Diane Heirend

The adventure begins with need. The need for decent housing.

Housing comes in a whole range of forms and options. The types of housing must be weighed against construction techniques and depend on the climate, historic factors, and the traditional knowledge of how to manage those parameters. We must therefore take the context into consideration.

But let me talk first about Vietnam. More specifically, about South Vietnam: about the hamlet of Suoi Sau, in the commune of Suoi Kiet, in the district of Tanh Linh, in the province of Binh Thuan.

To fix South Vietnam firmly in your mind, if it is not already there, reread Marguerite Duras’ “The Lover” (because Duras deserves to be reread!) or let yourself sink into the world of Minh Tran Huy’s “The Princess and the Fisherman”.

The hamlet of Suoi Sau is just 150 km from Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon, capital of the Republic of Vietnam until 1975), and yet is light years behind the economic powerhouse that has become the Socialist Republic of Vietnam’s largest city. To get to Suoi Sau, the best way to travel is on foot or by bicycle, or maybe by motorbike. The roads are not true roads, but rather uneven paths that are marshy and slippery. There is no electricity on these roads. (from Enfants du Vietnam, Luxembourg)

 In 1986, following the years of the devastating post-colonisation and civil wars (Vietnam War), the Vietnamese Communist Party authorised and even encouraged a market economy, through the ‘Doi Moi’ economic reform. This policy of openness led to spectacular growth for the country. Although not everyone benefits from that growth yet, the country’s continual objective is the eradication of poverty.

The conscious choice to live carefully is in fact a tradition, and of course depends on the building resources available to people.

Vietnamese architecture is a harmonious mix of Chinese, French, Indian and Khmer architecture, due to the historic influence of foreigners in the country.

There are two types of traditional homes: the Vietnamese homes in the deltas and the stilt houses built by the ethnic minorities in the mountains.

Traditional urban planning and architecture represent a heritage of high environmental quality. The configuration of public roads and ways, often lined by magnificent and even imposing vegetation, has for centuries provided people on foot with places of respite.

In the tropical climate of South Vietnam trees and projecting roofs provide shade for passers-by and buildings alike, and if necessary can protect from downpours, which are truly impressive during the rainy season.

Currently one type of home in particular is popping up everywhere, not only in the cities but also in the new areas on the outskirts of cities, in villages and even in the middle of fields: the “tube house”.

These very narrow, tall, deep houses draw light and air for natural ventilation from the shady interior courtyards. The idea of modularity, currently a popular idea, is inherent to the very nature of this type of home.

The initial house would probably have been a small stall with a straight façade. Houses then extended backward, through the back garden, adding a series of rooms and small courtyards. As people began to have more money, another floor would be built. The rooms did not have lateral windows, as those were adjoining walls. The only openings to the outside, apart from in the front, were the interior courtyards. In cities, the initial entrance would serve as a living area: shop, garage, living room, corner stove, dining room and sleeping area (at least a bed for the shopkeeper), all in one. (from Scènes du Vietnam, Solidaires du Monde )

 Once could certainly write a wonderful report on housing in Vietnam. Of course, in an era in which the individual air conditioning unit has become the kingpin of Southeast Asian architecture, it is important to realise that those behind ideas with high environmental quality have for centuries been closely linked to Vietnamese architecture and urban planning.

Now, let us come back to the idea of this pilot residence in Suoi Sau, on behalf of ‘Enfants du Vietnam Luxembourg’ (‘Children of Vietnam Luxembourg’). Faced with need and given the above context, perhaps I might ask an essential question – not an architectural one, but rather a human one:

How can one humbly help weave together the threads of someone else’s story; the threads of a story that is not one’s own?

First, one must be modest.

Let us glance back for a moment and put this into context.

You most likely are familiar with that photo which even today represents the horror of the Vietnam War. On 8 June 1972 in Trang Bang, South Vietnam, a young nine-year-old girl runs naked through the street, crying and screaming, her body burned by the napalm strike against her village. The photo, taken by Nick Ut, won the Pulitzer Prize. The photographer also turned out to be a guardian angel for that little girl, who today is a beautiful woman living in Canada.

Trang Bang is located 200 km from Suoi Sau.

When taking part in the development of housing in a small hamlet in South Vietnam, therefore, one must go beyond the standard response and prove one’s legitimacy. It turns out that the most universal of all constructive common denominators is simply common sense.

Common sense is the medium between ignorance and well-informed knowledge. It is wisdom without the arguments. (from Encyclopédie de l’Agora)

 I admit that I find this to be very apt.

Let us take a look at some guidelines for design.





In Paris, the concierge may live in the stairway, but in Vietnam, houses live in the street.

Most of the time the house’s ground floor in fact plays a dual role. The space is juggled: the shop becomes the living room, and once the iron roller door is closed, the living room becomes a garage and sometimes also a bedroom, with the motorbike parked next to the bed.

The next morning when the shop opens again, the pavement – if there is any – and the street again become an integral part of the home.

In Suoi Sau, there are no roads, as such. It would therefore be a good idea for the range of houses to create a roadway and thus bring it alive.

In any event, the street is a kitchen.

Lifestyles and styles of architecture have struggled to evolve under pressure from today’s globalised consumption-based society, but certain ways of life persist. For the Vietnamese, eating in the street is in fact an art de vivre. ‘Phô’ for breakfast (a noodle soup with beef or chicken), delicious rice dishes, grilled meats, shellfish, seafood… In addition to the visual warmth it generates and the fact that it is accessible to everyone, street cuisine is also a reason for the whole family to go out. In classical Feng Shui texts, the kitchen is often known as the “bad-luck room”, and moving it outside the home solves all sorts of problems.

In Suoi Sau, a group kitchen, located in a central location, protected from the sun and the rain and equipped with mini-stools and mini-tables would perhaps create jobs for the hamlet’s excellent cooks while also generating a friendly “urban” atmosphere.

Building traditions and systems

When researching construction materials and systems, references are often made to traditional architecture and to contemporary architecture anchored in the Vietnamese cultural identity. The durability of the materials and the simplicity with how they are used play an essential role here. The humidity in the region hovers around 80%; this, combined with economic conditions, defines the materials used: wood, bamboo, earth (bricks and tiles) and stone.

In Suoi Sau, artisans from the village and the region will be consulted on the method of construction and materials chosen, as a basis for discussion and in order to refine the pilot project.

We briefly mentioned Indian architecture in Vietnam. Are you familiar with Studio Mumbai?

Studio Mumbai is a human-oriented structure made up of highly-qualified artisans and architects who create and build their designs themselves. (fromWork-place Studio Mumbai, edited by Archizoom)

I find this method to be the best and most promising method there is. Let us try to achieve as much.

The home’s ‘skin’: protection, filter and decoration

The idea of the home’s ‘skin’ encompasses the notion of protection: protection against storms, floods, mosquitoes, overwhelming heat and theft. The objective is to build homes in which the inhabitants feel safe from the vagaries of nature.

Family life often involves the community, and so the home’s skin also acts as a threshold, a link between the inside and outside worlds. This skin – at least where it meets the street – must therefore be able to disappear and reappear at different times of day.

The skin is responsible for natural ventilation. The roof, for example, can be folded back or hidden in the shade of a tree so it does not become too hot.

This skin is also a filter for light. The material used and the openings made in it define how much light will enter the house, contributing to its elegance. Sometimes, the skin is simply decoration.

In traditional houses, columns are decorated and wooden framework is often finely sculpted.

In Suoi Sau, there will not be any sculpted decorations because no money is available for that. However, just like the Vietnamese take precautions when building their houses (waiting for the right time, day, month or even year to lay the foundations), the way in which artisans work, assemble and treat the chosen materials can in fact make the home beautiful.

For decorative details also provide a certain dignity.

The heart of the home

The heart of the home is clearly the ancestral alter, which occupies the place of honour.

In my parents’ home, there is a mahogany sideboard, in which are placed framed photos of our deceased, a few incense burners and a jade Buddha surrounded by small dishes of fruit. Every month and on their birthdays we honour our relatives and ancestors with prayers and offerings. … We let the incense burn down, the smoke rise and the ashes fall; we leave the dishes of Peking duck and sautéed vegetables to grow cold; we leave the bowls of rice and asparagus soup in front of the portraits in their silver frames; and the plates of fruit – clementines, litchis, oranges and bananas – are like a still life painting under their frozen stare. After what seems to me to be forever the ceremony is over, and we heat up all the food… (from The Princess and the Fisherman, by Minh Tran Huy)

 In Suoi Sau, the ancestral alter may not be made of mahogany, but it is there. Let us then finish our houses by including a fitted alter.

The creation of this pilot home for Suoi Sau will have reached its successful conclusion when the inhabitants trust in their new homes. Our objective:

1 house + 1 tree + 1 climbing flower = the chance for a better life