Students made to sweat in accommodation scramble

A typical image of a row of rented rooms for students in Ha Noi. A large proportion of immigrant students have to rent rooms while attending university as dorms cannot not provide enough accommodation. — VNS Photo Doan Tung

A typical image of a row of rented rooms for students in Ha Noi. A large proportion of immigrant students have to rent rooms while attending university as dorms cannot not provide enough accommodation. — VNS Photo Doan Tung

by Bich Huong and Hang Nguyen

HA NOI (VNS)— Trinh Nguyet Minh sits down at the small folded table, wipes the sweat from her face and attentively opens her pamphlet offering advice to first-year university students. The temperature in the 10-sq.m room is 37 degrees Celsius. Some newly-washed clothes hang by the door, drying in the sunlight.

The room feels very stuffy, as it is full of books, shoes, bowls, kitchen equipment and a bulging wardrobe.

Minh moved in here, in Ha Noi’s Thanh Xuan District, last week after a long search for accommodation,

“I spent two weeks exploring lanes all over the city before finding this place, which costs VND1 million (US$47) per month and so fits my budget,” says the 18-year-old girl from northern Hung Yen Province. This amount is nearly half the monthly allowance provided by her parents, who are farmers, she explains.

“It’s not perfect. The room with the metal roof gets really hot on summer days and it is 10km away from my university. However, it doesn’t matter as I will spend most of my time at school and I don’t mind cycling,” she says with the eagerness of a young adult about to start an exciting new adventure fresh from receiving excellent university entrance results.

Minh was not alone in her hard search for lodgings. About 80 per cent of 300,000 first-year students across the country have not been offered a place in their universities’ dormitories. Many are still struggling to seek a room, even though the new school year has already started.

Tran Thanh Binh, former head of the Viet Nam School of Research and Design under the Ministry of Education and Training, says that a housing shortage for tertiary students has existed since the 1990s after universities began to thrive in Viet Nam, especially in big cities like Ha Noi and HCM City.

According to the latest reports, almost half of 400 universities and colleges nationwide can only accommodate about 20 per cent of their students. Land for student housing and other support facilities accounts for less than 4 per cent of their areas.

“Limited land funds have led to a substandard educational environment at these universities, including insufficient dormitories,” Binh says, adding that infrastructure is equally as important in education as training programmes and teachers.

Most existing universities were established on sites of less than 10ha and 15 universities hover on as little as 1ha of land. The average living area for a university student in Viet Nam is 35.7sq.m, while the figure in Ha Noi is about 13sq.m and in HCM City, 10sq.m. Many of the universities and colleges in the two cities can only offer 5sq.m of space per student. They are struggling to expand their dormitories and upgrade other facilities.

Minh says that the dormitories at the University of National Economy, where she will study, can only provide accommodation for 1,000 of the nearly 18,000 students.

“Undergraduates who come from mountainous or remote areas are prioritised, as are the children of war invalids and martyrs,” she says, noting that she does not belong to any prioritised group.

Making ends meet

Finding a room for rent is just the beginning for students like Minh adapting to life in a big city.

She must also pay an additional cost of VND300,000 ($14) for electricity and water every month, which is much more expensive than back home.

“Everything’s so costly and I fear that the owner may raise prices without reasons or warning, as I’ve heard that that can happen,” she says. “It’s good life experience though, as I pay a lot of attention to what I’m spending. I need to cover the rent and utilities, take care of myself and pay for a billion other tiny things on a fixed fund from my parents.”

“There are many challenges ahead for Minh,” says third-year student Do Thi Truc Anh, 21, from the Ha Noi University.

Anh moved rooms five times during the first six months of her first term. The owner of her first rented house locked the common gate before 10pm even though her part-time job ended at 11pm, while her second house was situated next to a welding workshop and the noise was unbearable. Bad and uncaring landlords also played a role.

Now, Anh plans to move to yet another because a couple of days ago she returned home from school to discover that her laptop had “vanished into thin air” from inside her locked room. Anh confronted the owner of the house and they said they had no idea what happened and refused to take responsibility.

“It’s hard for me to focus on studying when I’m busy worrying about whether I will find another room and the troubles I have to deal with from my current landlords. Each time you move to a new room, you have to re-arrange everything from A to Z and adapt to a new environment, which can be hard,” she flows.

Pham Sy Liem, vice president of the Viet Nam Federation of Civil Engineering Associations, says that the failure of universities to prepare enough land for their students to live on could be seen as a business opportunity to others, especially local households.

“People usually build simple rooms and offer them to students who mostly come from other provinces and prefer to spend a modest sum for rent,” he explains.

“As a market rule, quality and the price of products run parallel. If you pay a low price you will most likely get a poor house.”

Private households often fail to ensure proper conditions for their clients and may not care about their complaints. Professional housing companies, on the other hand, are not interested in investing in the sector because of low profits, Liem claims.

He would like to see more Government’s incentives for investors involved in social housing projects, including those for students.

Binh sees the relocation of universities from inner city areas to the suburbs as urgent in order to ensure there is enough land to develop functional constructions, including dorms.

The model of university towns containing several universities could create a better educational environment and allow them to make full use of new lecture halls, sports facilities, libraries and dorms, he envisions.

“Housing projects for students should not stand separately but in connection with schools, at least in terms of transportation, residency management and convenience. Travel time should be minimised as much as possible.”

To reduce hardships for freshers like Minh, older students like Tran Thi Minh Hue, now in her third year at the Posts and Telecommunications Institute of Technology, joined voluntary student groups.

“We collect information about renting houses, including locations, prices, the pros and cons of each room and take the new house-seekers to visit suitable ones,” she says.

“After several months, students can find a room to rent by themselves via suggestions from classmates or online websites.”

Minh claims that if she could get a place in her school dormitory, her housing spending would reduce at least five times, relieving the burden on her parents.

“Learning at university is totally wonderful if every student gets a place in a dormitory,” Minh says while collecting her now-dry clothes. In the absence of that option though, she is ready to adapt to life in the big city and step out bravely into her new future. — VNS