Millions of women, children and old people cook daily in degrading and uncomfortable conditions. Kitchens, both urban and rural, are hot, dirty, smoky, narrow, dark and present a constant threat of fire.

The rural kitchen

About 78 per cent of Vietnam's entire population still lives in rural areas. One, two, or even three generations may live together in one house as a traditional family group. The houses, with a garden, are simple, and are constructed by the people themselves using local materials. In most cases the kitchen forms a separate unit, and has a very poor appearance compared to the main living quarters. The kitchen is usually very narrow and, in total, is often no larger than 7.5 square meters. The outer walls are made from clay, bamboo, or low-quality bricks, and the roofs are either thatched with straw or leaves, or are clay-tiled. In mountainous areas, kitchen activities take place within the house where in addition to cooking the fire also provides heat during cold weather and a welcoming place for visitors. The smoke from the fire preserves and dries forest and agricultural products. In the middle and river delta zones of Vietnam, where biomass is particularly scarce, households are dependent upon very poor-quality fuels, and kitchen conditions are made even more unhygienic by the closeness of housing for pigs and other livestock. There is a trend for rural settlements to move near to roads in order to run small businesses more easily. This, however, increases pressure on the land that is available for building houses, and supplies of suitable materials to construct traditional rural kitchens have been harder to find. As a result, kitchens are becoming smaller and even more 'slum-like' in appearance.

The urban kitchen

The urban kitchen is also changing, influenced in the main by economic transition. The traditional urban house is very narrow and long, with the kitchen - often measuring less than 6 square metres, with brick walls and a timber or bamboo roof - situated in the middle near an inner courtyard. There is a door and a window which provide some light and ventilation. Only a third of the houses are fitted with simple hoods with chimneys for stoves, and these do not function very well. The beautiful villas with gardens built during the French time have been divided up to house several families. In most of these villas the kitchens have been built separately from the main two-storey house; they are spacious, and have cooking stoves and surfaces for working whilst standing. Hoods and chimneys are provided over the stoves. The natural lighting and ventilation make conditions very much better than in most homes. As several families use the same kitchen, however, there can be problems with sharing the cleaning, repairs, and maintenance.

New, private sector housing

Kitchen construction and management vary enormously depending on the family's wealth, level of education, and cooking practices. Nearly two thirds of new homes in Vietnam have their kitchen inside the house and combine it with other utility areas (for example toilet, bathroom, storage). The remaining third are built with separate kitchens. Cooking is done using mostly electricity, kerosene, or coal, none of which give off as much smoke as biomass fuels. The main problem with kitchen design is how to create an area which is both an improvement on current kitchen conditions, and can cope with the venous activities that take place there (for example cooking, washing clothes, etc). Another consideration is that of energy saving - household energy expenditure is very high, accounting for about 20 to 25 per cent of the household income. It is in the private sector that households show most interest in modernizing their kitchens. Naturally, contractors are emerging to take advantage of these developments.

State-owned multi storey buildings

Until 1960, the Vietnamese Government built five-storey apartment blocks. People's preferences were not major concerns and the buildings were designed more for economy than for comfort. Each block contained two to four apartments with a shared kitchen, toilet and bathroom. These facilities proved to be inadequate and degrading for the families who were forced to live there. In 1961, multi-storey housing design improved, and each apartment had its own kitchen, toilet, and bathroom. However, the individual design details remained the same: kitchens were very narrow, and no larger than 3 to 4 square metres. The hoods and chimneys do not function properly, and most kichens still remain very dark, smoky, hot, damp, mouldy, and full of unpleasant smells.
Figure 1: Diagram for simple cooking hood

Lessons for the future of Vietnamese housing

Real kitchen improvements depend on long-term solutions to energy, indoor environment and construction problems. Housing plays a very important role in building a better future for Vietnam. Currently the housing sector uses three fifths of all the building materials being marketed, and consumes nearly half the total energy consumed in the country. The inadequacy of kitchen design, the dependence on low-quality fuels and their high consumption are major factors which contribute to poor living standards in Vietnam. The Hanoi Architectural Institute and the Lund Centre for Habitat Studies have been researching; and developing methods and approaches towards finding new options for better kitchen design. Provisional findings show that:
  • Improved stoves can reduce fuel consumption by 30 to 40) per cent, shorten cooking times by 15 to 20 minutes; and give off less smoke. Their higher capital costs and ineffective methods of dissemination remain a major constraint to expansion.
  • The separate kitchen layout has some advantages, and lessens the harmful impact of smoke on other members of the family. The cooking window (hood with chimney) can be an effective means of evacuating the smoke, but further research is needed before it is suitable for use in multi-storey buildings (see figure 1).

The full version of this report, contained in 'Kitchens, Living Environment and Houshold Energy in Vietnam', April 1993, is available from Lund Centre for Habitat Studies, Lund Institute of Technology, Lund University, Box 118, S-221 to LUND) .Sweden.

Last edited by Miriam Hansen .
Page last modified on Monday October 4, 2010 16:20:59 GMT.
  • A practitioner's journal on household energy, stoves and poverty reduction.

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