Crumbling legacy of colonial heyday

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 06 January, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 06 January, 1999, 12:00am

It must have been an incredible event. More than 5,000 French colonialists deserting their prized Hanoi mansions as the Viet Minh guerillas took charge in 1954.

The new communist rulers considered demolishing the mansions as symbols of 'repression'. But pragmatism and a housing shortage won the day, and now the formidable architectural legacy of nearly 1,000 villas in two key areas of the capital remains.

Stand on certain street corners and let your thoughts drift, and a time of extreme decadence can be conjured up. Many mansions have floors of old French tiles, while Italian ceiling fans stir the air.

The isolation of war and poverty has been both blessing and curse. A few homes have been restored to their former glory as embassies, state firms or banks, but most lie mouldering under the weight of congestion and neglect.

One of the first comprehensive studies of Hanoi's villas - the finest in French Indochina - has just been published, illuminating an aspect of Hanoi that cuts to the turbulent heart of life in one of the world's last socialist capitals.

Dutch academic Anne Koperdraat focused on the old French quarter and found about 10,000 residents are crammed into the 358 villas still used as homes after being passed through generations.

Most were nationalised and became the homes of party and Government officials of various ranks. Others, mostly purchased just before the departure of the French, remain in private hands.

If you had land rights and were not considered part of the bourgeoisie - private capitalists - you could keep the whole house. If not, you have had to co-exist with families moved in by the state to share the building.

'There were class problems,' one owner admits. Another talks of never getting on with the families who were moved in in 1960. It was not until 1993 - six years after economic reforms - that he was able to complete the highly complex but lucrative operation of leasing to a foreign concern.

Now, like many of those who have relocated, he misses the atmosphere of the old place, despite the financial benefits.

Villas given to high-ranking officials remain the least populated - an average of 15 people per house - while those given to the lower ranks hold an average of 40 residents. Some nationalised private dwellings have families of five living in single rooms.

In Hanoi, property still represents position.