Building a house- how hard can it be!

Trip Start Feb 10, 2014
Trip End Mar 08, 2014

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Flag of Vietnam  ,
Sunday, March 2, 2014

Sapa-Tavan (far northern Vietnam)

 The House

A bit of a long story but bear with me…

Building regulations are not invented to make things difficult but have mainly to do with structural design and safety. In Vietnam, no doubt larger buildings in cities and industrial complexes are subject to these costly rules. Creating an architectural drawing from sketches and having someone to Project Manage it to ensure that everything is constructed according to the plan.

Now here comes the anomaly!

What happens if you have limited funds?

In western countries if you have limited funds you can't build. In third world countries you just go ahead and do according to what you think is right, do what you have seen in other houses, what the local rice farmer advises and perhaps a stray carpenter who gives his opinion while intoxicated on rice wine.

When I arrived in Tavan and viewed Eddy’s house under contraction I was just awe struck with its location. You can see the pictures and just imagine what it will be like sitting in the lounge or veranda taking in the absolutely breathtaking view.  But ahem… we aren’t there yet.   

Many years ago I took it upon myself to build a house in Cairns in northern Australia, an area subject to possible cyclonic winds during the monsoon season.  After the destruction of Darwin in Dec 1974 building regulations were adjusted in so much a newly constructed house is supposed to be "cyclone proof". One of the main design changes was  that houses  now had to be built on a concrete slab and the roof fastened to the concrete floor by means for steel rods. The reason was that houses, as there were constructed before, ’74  were able to withstand  very high wind conditions until… a window or windows would blow in  and the house would act like a wind sock which would result that within minutes the roof would lift off and the house crumble.

It was with some astonishment that I noticed that the wooden frame of Eddie’s house is standing loose on the concrete stumps. If it was my house I would ensure metal plates to be connected between the wood and the concrete stump before the roof went on.  The house is situated on the slope of a mountain and they do have hurricanes in this area. In my book it is a must to anchor the house to the ground

Eddy wants to create something different than the standard seen in the valley. This is problem number one  as “out of the box thinking” is close to nonexistent.  This creation is going to be a double story house with a “separate” single story house (the kitchen) on a 90 degree angle. A little 60 cm or so space in between would be filled with a glass panel. (at a 45 degree angle. Horizontal double glazed windows will create a panoramic effect; the end result will be stunning.  But how do you bring this across. 

Eddie  has everything in his head. His very obliging brother in law wants to help and do all he is can; this includes that he also want to makes design changes  different to what’s in Eddy’s head.

The problem is that that’s almost nothing on paper…

The brother in law does not speak English. Eddie’s wife  (Hi-en )helps out with translations which at times goes lost in space. The “builder” a very pleasant young man just smiles and laughs and keeps laying some bricks and makes the footings for the posts which hold up the verandah. By doing so he places one in an awkward position which throws the kitchen building out of alignment. Now there is a discussion of 2 hours that we need a second post 30 to 60 cm away from the other post, but what happens now to the roof line? All this I observed on morning number one, it was almost amusing however, I can feel Eddie’s frustration with it all and am glad that I can give him some moral support. The morning of my first day ended up with raised voices as Hi-en is clearly caught in the middle of it all trying to be accommodation to Eddy and her brother at the same time. Lucky the dog just looks on and shakes his head, and for the time being I say as little as possible. Let’s go down for lunch was the best solution for the time being.  Clearly two things were missing here. A proper set of drawings and a project manager.

Not much had happened for days or weeks before I arrived,  I noticed this by looking at the wooden frame which is going to hold the roof. The idea is that you place the roof frame and then roof itself very soon after as otherwise the roof battens will warp with the moisture and sun acting on them. Tuan, Eddie’s brother in law was suppose to chase things up but had not done this with any sense of urgency, it seems that he needs to be told what to do.  People need to be told what to do and very few act by themselves or take a lead. I don’t blame them, the have been brought up differently and think different to us. Twan has a heart of gold but lacks initiative, although soon after my arrival suddenly a truckload of bricks arrived. Another observation: The “road”  in front of the Bamboo Bar is 2.5 to 3 meters wide. Most traffic consists of walkers , motor scooters, dogs and the occasional buffalo wondering past. So what do the delivery truck drivers do? Dump the bricks , sand, building materials half way on the road and in the ditch on the side  and that is it.  I think they reason that everyone can still go past the pile as 50 cm or so is still available for traffic (until a truck or the occasional car arrives)

Eddie started piling up the bricks while I was talking to Hi-en, after a few minutes I said Excuse me, but I need to help Eddie, within a minute two guys who had visited the bar the previous night and had stopped for a drink joined in and without saying anything we collectively stacked the bricks into neat pile on the side of the road. The truck  had the bricks neatly placed in the back; a worker moved the entire load to the back and just threw them out in front of us; his mate, the driver… Just stood there for an hour long watching all of us, because he is paid to drive and nothing more.

The next day a man was employed for the going rate of $10 per day to place 20 bricks a time in his box on the back of his scooter and run this up the mountain track to the house all day long. I could write a book about it, but will try to keep it short. Yesterday a strange thing happened.  The second building (kitchen) is not square because the back follows the side of the land border at an angle. I don't know the exacts size but say one side is 2.7 meters deep and the other is 1.9 meters deep. There was a long discussion that we can’t use wooden posts and that we should use concrete ones... God knows why. Then Eddie and I suggested that to match the house we should use wooden posts at the front and concrete (if that is cheaper)at the back. Then we were told that you can’t have building that is not square! This makes sense as all buildings in this valley are square and they have never seen anything else apparently.

So this was a literal out of the(square) box  situation.  What happened next was absolutely amazing. Suddenly a guy appears who says that he is a carpenter and says…while half drunk in rice wine… that the off square construction is no problem at all, and suddenly Tuan and the builder (bricklayer) agree. So suddenly everyone is happy and we can continue. No wonder Eddie is frustrated and glad that I am here to vent it all, while I try to add my bit of knowledge and reasoning to make it easier for him. Anyway things are on the move now and we even have made sketches of how things should be done and what it should look like. Pity my time and means are limited. I would have loved to have some space with a large working area, rulers, pencils and a decent measuring tape and large pieces of paper to at least put some clear sketches together. At present  they have  to with Eddie walking from left to right and saying arei,arei,arei (from here to here to here)Taking big steps and putting a brick down where the veranda should end. Meanwhile we have done some design work and action taken on new banners for the Bamboo bar to be made and placed in strategic positions. First together and later alone we have visited the sign/banner makers and have come up with a design and wording. The last say to Eddie to adjust the letter font and that is done. Later at home I will make designs for a new menu card which is easier to read in the dark and with new items and adjusted pricing.  I leave my bike behind. As I said ,Eddie’ brother in law is a man with his heart in the right place and just as frustrated with it all due to cultural differences. I gave my bike to him to look after and hopefully he will use it as a motorcycle taxi to earn some money for himself.  

So…want to built a house in the far north of Vietnam? Easily done. Bring some designs from home and someone who can assist and speak both languages .  The question is, what do you really want. A million dollar house with a $50.000 view? Or a $50.000 with a million dollar view.  Judge for yourself
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Stefan on

Hello Richard, I see you are feeling good in Sapa.
Just remember, in Romanian, the word "tavan" means "ceiling"...wonder how...?

Ab Brielle on

Bouwen, ja, ja !!
Wij hebben net 85 pagina's !!!! sterkteberekeningen naar de gemeente gestuurd om een .............. schuur te mogen bouwen. Hopelijk worden ze goedgekeurd en kunnen we beginnen. Natuurlijk moet er iets op papier worden gezet en 85 pagina's voor het bouwen van een ziekenhuis van 12 verdiepingen, daar kan ik me iets bij voorstellen, maar voor een schuur ??
Dus erg leuk om te lezen hoe dat daar gaat.
Sterkte maar weer vriend.

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