Over a thousand residents have been living in slums inside 66 old villas in the hilly city of Da Lat.
On average one villa, most of which were built by the French around a century ago, now acts as the residence of 15 people spanning generations. For example, the 457 square-meter villa located at 13 Tran Hung Dao Street houses 72 people from 19 households.
After Liberation Day in 1975 the owners of the villas fled and the buildings were put under the administration of the Da Lat Houses Management Center. Several villas were turned into offices, others were assigned to State officials, and the rest were left empty.
As a result, homeless and poor people occupied the public villas and turned free space into their own ‘nests’ until there was no more room left.
The ‘nests’ are partitioned by sheets of plywood. Normally, a villa accommodates more than ten such households.
In 2004 the center conducted an inventory and discovered that over 1,000 homeless people had occupied the villas. Local authorities then agreed to let the villas be rented by the occupants and registered their residence.
Most of the residents are vendors or do unskilled seasonal work.
Pham Van Thieu, who has lived in the No.13 villa for 25 years, said the public villas have been left unoccupied for years and are dilapidated. They are commonly called ‘haunted’ by locals.
Thieu arrived at the house in 1988 and occupied a 16 square meter room. After getting married and having two children, he turned his room on the first floor of the villa into a two storey ‘slum’ where the upper floor is only 80cm high and is for sitting and lying down.
Thieu blamed his bent posture on living in the slum, since he can only enter by bending over.
“Many residents in this villa are hunched over,” he said. “Parents here recognize that their children are becoming taller when they see swollen bruises on their head from hitting the upper floor.”
A 'box' of Ms. Nguyen Thi Nuoi in the villa at 16 Hoang Dieu Street, Da Lat. Eating and sleeing is at the same place (Photo: Tuoi Tre)
Darkness and a strange, musty smell cover the entire villa. The odor became apparent when we followed Mr. Thieu to the door to the stairs in the villa.
In the middle of the day, Thieu had to use a flashlight to navigate the dark stairs inside the villa. When he opened the door to the stairs, a stink which is hard to define emerged.
“The odor is from a combination of different smells from waste water leaking somewhere inside the villa, cooking, and the smell of toilets in the partitions. Since everything is stagnant, the smells combine and can only exit through the staircase,” he explained.
Ms. Hoang Thi Danh, one of many residents in the villa, said she had to ask for permission from other residents to dismantle some partitions when her husband died to hold the funeral ceremony.
Mr. Dang Van Danh, who lives in the villa located at 16 Hoang Dieu Street, said one night he was woken up while sleeping in his ‘box’ by a sudden stream of urine running down from the upper floor, which is made of pieces of wood.
Ms. Nguyen Thi Nuoi, who lives on the highest floor of the villa for 37 years, said that people living inside couldn’t repair the leaked roof because the girders are rotten and can’t support further weight.
In addition, the tiles from the roof, which were manufactured almost a century ago, can no longer be found, she added.
Mr. Dang Nguyen Van Tich, director of the Da Lat Houses Management Center, told Tuoi Tre, “The city now needs from 500 to 1,000 apartments to relocate the residents in the villas. But due to the lack of investment capital, the city’s authorities have to prioritize other projects.”