20131101_141709I was home last week to help my parents move out of the house where my sister and I grew up.

I remember well the first day we moved there. I was 6 and my sis was 11. Our previous place was a simple nhà cấp 4 (one story) with a pig sty and a couple of chicken coops on the side and a large vegetable garden in the front. The new house was a lot more urban, although most of the lots around were still vacant. No pig grunting or chicken squeaking. And it has 3 stories! We ran up and down, laughing and yelling and rolling on the cold marble floor, marveling at how spacious it was.

The newness and bigness didn’t last long. The house kept getting smaller each year as we grew up. My parents rented out the front half of the first floor to a nail and hair salon (and I eventually became intolerant to chemical smell). The back half was our kitchen, dining and living room. 2nd floor belonged to my parents. And third floor, only half built, was the territory of the sisterhood. We shared one 15m2 room where we each had our own study desk, and slept together in a single bed. It was also our altar room, and ancestors witnessed our many fights and bickerings. The terrace overlooks a small but busy Y-fork. In the morning, you can watch all the processions at the funeral house a few steps away. And at night, I would step out look up at the sky and get a breeze of fresh air. We used to be able to watch fireworks over the West Lake and Ngoc Khanh lake from here, before the construction boom in the early 2000s blocked the view on all sides.

The house’s architecture was typical of the early 90s. Full-length balcony, intricate details, doors and windows everywhere. Only 4x10m, it has 2 big accordion doors, 1 smaller side door, and 1 big window on the first floor, 4 big windows and 2 doors on the second floor. In the beginning it was nice to have different ventilation options depending on the season, but later as the neighborhood got crowded and traffic became nonstop, it was a losing battle fighting back the noise and dust invasion. And the design intricacy came back to bite us in the butt. Cleaning windows bars and staircase railings was always an exercise of creativity in finding the most efficient way to nudge the wet cloth into all the tiny corners.

Just like with my sister, I grew much fonder of the house after I’d moved out. My mom constantly talked about tearing it down to rebuild but I always vetoed. Not having to deal with the inconveniences of living there anymore, I acquired a rose-tinted nostalgia. The house to me was one of the most beautiful and unique in the neighborhood. As houses after houses built up into tall modernist boxes with glass windows and no balconies, our house looks like a cute little villa. And the fact that it was 100% hand-built makes my hipster heart flutter. There was no electricity line there when it was built, and the builders didn’t have power tools either. Every piece of wood was cut with a handsaw. Every brick and bag of cement was lifted up using the pulley. Our doors had diamond pattern that took the carpenters a few months to carve. They had to use wooden nails for the joints since there weren’t any iron ones. I also have to mention that all of the wood and many of the bricks weren’t bought at the time of construction. My mom was 33 when she started building her first house. And she’d spent 10 years hoarding up materials. Whenever it comes to hard work, I greatly admire my mom, and I wonder how she feels giving birth to a lazy complacent ass like myself.


first drawing