Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Potemkin Houses

Back in the 50's I remember looking forward eagerly every month to the Children's Digest - it was filled with adventure stories, cartoons, games and easy recipes for children. That's where I first learned to spread mustard on the bread when making grilled cheese. For some reason a historical cartoon about Catherine the Great has stuck with me to this day. Crude line drawings of poor myopic Catherine cruised down the Volga as General Potemkin pointed out the glorious towns he had constructed along its banks. Catherine was too short-sighted, in more ways than one, to see that they were canvas and wood stage scenery that the wily General had trundle from one location to the other. Everything was facade - even some of the cheering people were cardboard.

Some unusual architecture in Hanoi and along Hwy 1 brought that old cartoon to mind the past few days. In town the streets and roads are crowded with three or four story narrow buildings with elaborate facades - cupolas, balustrades, baroque details - in vibrant sherbet colors faintly reminiscent of that polyester yarn my mother used to make slippers. In the countryside these rococo concoctions stand alone in the middle of fields or beside squat traditional dwellings.

Those facades may be a riot of French, Dutch and British colonial details but the sides are completely bare of anything other than gray concrete, in most cases devoid of windows or doors.

In town these properties are known as tunnel houses. Under the French administration you were taxed on the width not the depth of your property - so common sense and a desire to avoid taxes says build narrow but deep. The logic for not finishing the sides? Someone was going to build next to you anyway so what was the point of wasting good money! Spend it all on what will show. But often the house next door will not be the same height or profile and is most certainly not the same colour. It gives most towns an endearing crazy quilt in progress appearance that is uniquely Vietnamese.

After nightfall, at the end of the 10 hour train ride from Sapa to Hanoi we caught glimpses into many of these houses as we crawled from the countryside into increasingly larger towns. Often the interiors were concrete walls adorned with ornate picture frames, set with elaborately carved furniture, some harshly lit by overhead neon but always with the illuminating glow of a TV set at one end of the room. Unlike Potemkin's houses these elaborate facades were filled with families - cooking, eating, playing games, occasionally watching us go by - living their daily lives.

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