Nguyen Thi Kim moves her arms along the wall as she slowly goes down the stairs that creak every single step of her way.
She sighs in relief on reaching the ground.
The 56-year-old goes through this several times a day as she lives on the second floor of an old villa in Hanoi built during colonial times that now serves as an apartment block housing several families.
There are many such villas in the city downtown where hundreds live in constant fear. The buildings are not the responsibility of any particular agency, and have deteriorated over the last century without any maintenance.
Hanoi has around 1,600 houses built by the French between 60 years and more than a century ago, most of them in the downtown area.
Nearly 600 now belong to private users and the rest are under government management.
The public houses were given to various state agencies who either use them as offices or have redesigned them for their employees and their families to use.
Some private owners have restored their houses though without expert advice.
Kim said more than 50 people live in her villa, which is in an alley along Tran Hung Dao Street, with each of 13 families living in a room of around 16 square meters plus an attic.
They share the kitchen and bathrooms.
Tung, a man living on the ground floor of the villa, said the place is so old that if one taps the wall lightly mortar falls off.
“It would be bad luck to say this, but if it collapses there is nothing I can do but die.”
The concern has never been so real as a 110-year-old villa also on Tran Hung Dao collapsed on September 22 after heavy rain, killing two vendors at the nearby market.
People working inside the building felt shaken and ran out after the collapse.
Without better management, the risk of more villas collapsing is
very real, architect Tran Huy Anh warned following the incident.
Tran Bich Lan, who lives in another old villa in the alley opposite, said she cannot sleep well at night since the incident.
Her villa shakes any time a large vehicle passes by on the road, she said.
In many of the colonial houses, the concrete has worn off at parts, exposing rusty iron frames.
“I have removed the ceiling fan since the roof has become very weak,” a woman living in a house that is older than the one that collapsed said.
A woman inside a house built by the French in 1888 on Ngo Quyen Street, Hanoi. Four families live in the house whose walls have become mossy and mortar has worn off. Photo: Giang Huy/ VnExpress
French companies that built the houses in Hanoi started sending warnings to Vietnam in the 1970s that the houses are no longer safe to live in.
Vietnamese experts have suggested that the governments should take over the houses and restore them to preserve as relics.
A senior official at the city Department of Construction told news website Dan Tri that the villa that just collapsed and many others of its kind have never been examined for structural integrity.
Dr Nguyen Hong Thuc, director of the Institute of Human Settlement Studies in Hanoi, said the French houses in the capital are “invaluable” as they let visitors see various layers of the city’s history, something not found in regional countries like Thailand or Malaysia.
But that value has not been well protected due to the lack of regulations and the “mess” related to ownership, she said.
Anh also pointed to the “unclear” responsibility for managing the houses.
He said all French houses were built using good materials and techniques, but “they are basically abandoned and thus easily damaged.”