Mekong Delta home preserves disparate regional architectures for centuries

By Minh Tam   February 13, 2023 | 03:00 am PT
This 200-year-old house, the oldest in Tien Giang Province's Dong Hoa Hiep ancient craft village, is a fusion of Vietnam’s ancient Ruong house architecture with traditional southern Mekong Delta design.

This out of the ordinary southern Vietnamese treasure was originally inhabited by Le Van Ky and his wife Pham Thi Lau. The home in An Thanh Hamlet, Cai Be District, was built between 1818 and 1821 by craftsmen from Hue hired for the uncommon build in the Mekong Delta.

Most of the house’s original designs have been unaltered, an atypical fact that in 2014 made this rarity a local landmark recognized by local authorities as a Provincial Architectural and Artistic Monument in 2014.

Unaltered traditional homes are uncommon in Vietnam. And a historic house built as a fusion of disparate regional styles is almost unheard of.

Le Quang Xoat and his wife, Doan Thi Tri, have been the primary caretakers of the historic home for the past 40 years. The 69-year-old husband is the fifth generation of his family to live here.

Tri says that after she married into the family, her in-laws assigned her the responsibility of maintaining the property.

She says she resented the burden at first, but as she became more invested in the role, her feelings changed and now she adores being the keeper of the unique and unparalleled relic.

Some say the home is unequaled in its singular design.

Doan Thi Tri stands in the entrance of her husbands familys century-old ancestral home in Dong Hoa Hiep village in Tien Giang Province on January 18, 2023. Photo by VnExpress/Minh Tam

Doan Thi Tri stands at the entrance of her husband's family's century-old ancestral home in Dong Hoa Hiep village, Tien Giang Province on January 18, 2023. Photo by VnExpress/Minh Tam

There are very few homes in Vietnam, and almost none in the south, that look like this one.

The layout of the 750-square-meter house is based on the conventions of the ancient Ruong house tradition from central town of Hue.

Hue’s old-school style

There are distinctive styles of Ruong houses. Roofs can be made of wood, bamboo, thatch, or tiles, if their owners are wealthy enough to afford them. There are three main structures for the interior of a Ruong home from Hue: One large room with two lean-tos, three separate rooms or wings, three rooms or wings with two lean-tos, or five-room homes.

Tri's house has a total of three separate rooms with two lean-tos, all of which are works of art immaculately carved with images that either stand alone or represent scenes that tell a story.

The centerpiece of any Ruong home is the alter, which is placed in the central wing of the house and serves as the heart of the home, where families and friends gather to eat, pray, worship, nap or simply sit and spend time together and/or socialize. This space serves as a kind of living room, with the ancestors and the respects paid to them always taking center stage no matter what’s going on.

The floors of these houses are made with hexagonal tiles. The ceilings are often carved with yin and yang-themed images, which represent the ubiquitous philosophical idea of "balance" in Vietnamese culture. The columns, trusses, walls, flooring, and altars are all built with sturdy materials, and iron frames are often supported by reinforced wood or metal crossbars.

These homes are also known for their memorable – and at times mesmerizing – impeccably crafted doors, columns and fences, which are all artfully carved with images of birds, dragons, phoenixes and good luck flowers.

The house boasts intricate carvings of birds and florals. Photo by VnExpress/Minh Tam

The house boasts intricate carvings of birds and florals. Photo by VnExpress/Minh Tam

Two marble platforms are laid outside the home for owners and visitors to sit and socialize, or eat, in the fresh air.

Enthralled antique collectors often fall in love with the home and frequently offer exorbitant prices for the family's collection of antiques. But they refuse to sell any of the home’s endangered décor.

In 1920, the home's facade was given a French architectural feel with the addition of white cement columns at the entrance.

Tran Du, 35, head of An Thanh Hamlet and Tri's neighbor, says he was awed by the house's historic architecture when visited to play as a kid.

He said that every year, Tri and her husband spray termite and weevil repellent on the wooden frames of the home to stave off the insatiably hungry insects, who’ve been known to destroy whole homes in the delta, including farm structures.

"This property is not just Xoat's and Tri's house. It is also the cultural treasure of the Dong Hoa Hiep village," said Du.

According to Duong Van Phuong, Vice Chairman of the Dong Hoa Hiep Commune People's Committee, there are 7 homes in the area that are 180 years old or older, as well as another 29 with 80 to 100-year lifespans so far.

There are still intricately carved tables and chairs, one-of-a-kind porcelain vases, and mosaic sets on display in most of these homes today.

Phuong said that Xoat's home in Dong Hoa Hiep, an ancient village, is the oldest and most outstanding example of traditional Mekong Delta architecture. However, both of the house’s giant kitchens and large storehouses/pantries have been renovated due to wear and tear over the years. The wet climate of the south is often not friendly to manmade structures built of natural materials. Which is another reason these homes that have survived are so remarkable. And not only have they survived, they’re fully functional and gorgeous.

The living of the house. Photo by VnExpress/Minh Tam

The living room of the house. Photo by VnExpress/Minh Tam

Dong Hoa Hiep commune leaders and members of the community have discussed the possibility of repairing Xoat's house, but at this time they lack the resources to do so.

"The home's design and decor reflect the country's rich heritage. I’m really delighted to see that my hometown still preserves the old heritage of our ancestors," Phuong said.

Since the day they moved in, Xoat and Tri have been planting fruit trees on their roughly 9,000-square-meter plot of land in order to generate additional income for the family.

"The house is lovely and has a big garden. So on holidays and the Tet Lunar New Year festival, children and grandchildren always congregate here in fits of delight," Tri said.

Ten years ago, termites chiseled away at the wooden columns in front of the house. So the couple reworked the structure with cement and installed a new gutter to collect rainfall out of fear that the house would collapse.

Tri said the repairs cost the family around VND100 million ($4,264).

She and her husband hand-painted the porch of the house white last December for their daughter's wedding.

Tri admits that maintaining the family's ancient home is "a huge responsibility."

However, she said that when she sits back to admire the fruits of her labor: a singularly designed historic home, meticulously clean, with precious centuries-old relics preserved in near-mint condition, her fatigue disappears.

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