Villages built out of laterite are typical of Vietnam’s Northern Midlands. Tran Tri Cong writes about this impressive natural building material and the people who use it.
“Homes built out of laterite are durable. They are easy to heat in the winter and stay cool in summer heat.”
The thick layer of soil located under residual soil is called laterite. Rich in iron and aluminium, laterite is formed in hot and wet tropical areas. For generations, Vietnamese people have used this durable material to buid houses that are able to adapt to different weather conditions.
In My Luong village near the tranquil river of Tich Giang in the Chuong My District of greater Hanoi, the harvest is over. Muscular young men armed with spades and shovels go off in search of laterite. Digging laterite requires a special type of spade called a “thó”. This spade is made of iron and measures about two meters long. The lower edge resembles that of a shovel but is split in two and called the “lăn thó”
The “lăn thó” is used to chip laterite into pieces. A laterite brick used for construction normally measures 30x16x15 cm. On the upper edge of the spade lie smaller wings called “én thó” that allow the workers to chip the laterite accurately.
As they have done for generations, young men of marriageable age flock to the fields in search of laterite with which to build their own house. It takes at least a month of hard work to produce enough bricks for a small house. Only workers with at least five years of experience can produce larger bricks that measure 40×20 cm.
The Thach That district in greater Hanoi is known as “the capital of laterit”. The name “Thach That” actually mean “the zone of laterite-built house”. In this area, laterite buildings are everywhere. Hundreds of laterite blocks surround the Tay Phuong Pagoda (built between 865-873AD) and form the 237 stairs that lead up to it.
“ Six out of the seven ethic groups living in Vietnam’s Northern Midlands Region build homes out of laterite”
In Duong Lam village, rough and raw bricks are stacked to make walls. Those bricks create a simple beauty that gives visitors a glimpse of the past. Passerby are enthralled by the earthy yellow laterite walls gleaming in the sunset.
Vietnam’s Northerm Midlands Region is home to seven ethnic groups: the Kinh, Muong, Nung, Cao Lan, San Diu, Chinese and Dao. Only the Dao do not use laterite to build their houses.
While urbanization has replaced traditional architecture with cold cement buildings, laterite is a natural material that lends houses charater and simple beauty. Laterite can be chipped into small pieces to make walls. Using laterite can cut costs and add artistic value to a house. Large laterite bricks create a sense of solidity and strength. In the garden of the Dam Sen Club in Quang Ba, Ha Noi, laterite has even been turned into status. With their melting colors, these statues are mysterious and deeply moving.
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