The first walls in Vietnam were military defenses, which came to contain the first settlements that nourished them. They were their own worlds, safe from the uncertainty beyond them.

When the French came, they demolished the city walls but soon put up walls of their own, dividing up their cities.

But a strange thing happened in the self-determined era: these walls became the hallways of the cities, canvases for their id, with layers like tree rings for their eras. Coats of paint are their patina, concrete their backbone, house gates their expression.  They act as community message boards, and borders for alley life — it’s easier to sell vegetables in front of a wall than in front of someone’s house.

They give the massive cities a cloistered feeling, a clear separation between inside and outside. And the resultant courtyards give people a place to store their motorbikes, even if some would rather park them inside their houses. But that’s only at night. In the daytime, the doors of the house are usually open, the inside mingling with the outside, the shadows buffering the harsh sun in a cooling process envisioned by the buildings’ original architects.

(Where the vision was kept truly intact one sees trellised features like brise-soleils, cutting direct sunlight with whimsical shapes while allowing air flow to pass through.)

Inside the apartment blocks, doors stay open, smells wafting through the hallways. Their balconies often end in steel grating — called ‘tiger cages.’ These enclosures give added security, a place for children to play and washing to be hung and, occasionally, a cramped space to raise chickens or a pig.

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