The unbelievably narrow living space in the ancient village of Tho Ha in the mountainous northern province of Bac Giang may stun anyone visiting it for the first time.
Located 50km away from Hanoi, the rural village has a population density of 20,000 people per square kilometer, equivalent to that of urban districts such as Thanh Xuan, Cau Giay, or Hai Ba Trung. With an area of a fifth of a square kilometer, it has 4,000 people in 900 households.
The village, situated in Van Ha Commune of Viet Yen District, holds several ‘unexpected records’, such as a rural village with no agricultural land, the most houses with no yard, ‘super narrow’ alleys, ancient houses used for keeping pigs, and land prices as expensive as in Hanoi.
Cap Trong Viet, head of one of the four hamlets in Tho Ha, stressed to Tuoi Tre, “My village is not narrow, but to be more precise, super narrow.
“My village is non-agricultural and so it is unique in this locality.”
The village has one main street running along the dike of the Cau River. The four hamlets are linked together by a grid of small alleys crossing the street like a fishbone. Each alley is from 100m-200m long, running from the dike to a cramped pond behind the village.
Most of the alleys are just 90cm wide, so a bike is unable to turn round. The most ‘spacious’ alley is from 1.2m to 1.5m wide. They look like the alleys in Hanoi’s cramped central districts.
These alleys are so narrow because locals encroached on them when they repaired their houses, according to Viet.
No one could prevent this encroachment, and so they are terribly narrow, he added.
Ms. Ha, a Tho Ha local, told Tuoi Tre that, “My village has no playground for children because it is cramped. Alleys have no space for two bikes to pass each other. It’s dangerous.”
“Before, this village was not packed like it is now. It has become worse due to erosion along the Cau River. A square meter of land along the dike costs VND10-12 million [US$480 - 577],” said 87-year-old Trinh Dac Cuong.
“This price is ten times more expensive than in other villages.”
The terra cotta village
In the past, Tho Ha was famous for producing hand-made terra cotta jars to keep human ashes after tomb excavation.
Thanks to this skill, locals also used terra-cotta jars to build the walls of their houses. Now, the village still has several ancient, unique houses that are hundreds of years old.
However, many ancient houses have been torn down to re-build new houses to save space. Some people use parts of old houses to keep pigs, as they have no agricultural land.
But locals here worry their village may receive the status of ‘ancient village’ from the government. Such a title would ban them from rebuilding their own houses, according to Mr. Cuong.
“My village is not considered ancient yet, but we fear it might be. No one wants to live in a village named an ancient village,” said Mr. Dac, 61.
Authorities in Van Ha Commune have created a plan to reduce the population in Tho Ha, but it is infeasible because of the expensive land prices.
Since giving up pottery production, Tho Ha locals now mainly live by processing food products such as fermented pork rolls, brewing wine, and even keeping pigs.
With hundreds of families raising pigs inside their narrow houses, the village has a permanent bad smell.