Buying up the past

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Nguyen Thi Lan welcomes guests to her stilt home with a basket of boiled sweet potatoes.

"The taste of home!" said Lan, as she settles down under the palm and bamboo thatched roof after a long day of work.

The home has no air conditioning. There is no television. But Lan appears content with fresh air and cool breezes.

The quaint house is one of 10 historic homes she purchased. Lan says the structures, which vary in size and style, come from every corner of the country. Lan had each and every one dismantled, restored and reassembled on the bucolic lanes of Phuoc Long Ward in Ho Chi Minh City's District 9.

The main byways of this outlying district are lush with shade trees. There is quiet seemingly a world away from the choked, frenzied pace of the city's central districts.

Wooden houses line these byways. Fish and lotus ponds flank the homes and small fruit orchards fill the yards"”both front and back. Some of these classical homes appear to still be under construction.

Signboards and posters advertising restored traditional homes let you know that you too, could own a piece of the past.

In the past ten years a growing circle of well-heeled and nostalgic Saigonese have begun buying up ancient homes all over the country and having them dismantled, restored and reassembled in the city's outlying districts.

Master rebuilder

"The people who buy these homes aren't just attracted to their antiquity," said Nguyen Thanh Tuan of Cu Chi District, who began restoring houses in 1999. "These homes have a refined beauty"”craftsmanship you can see in every last detail."

According to Tuan, antique house collectors are very choosy and cautious. Tuan often takes long trips to scour the countryside in search of diamonds in the rough.

"It's ridiculous to build a faux antique home using freshly cut wooden pillars and bricks that look like they just came out of the press," he said. "My goal is to offer masterpieces bearing the hallmark of time created by artisans in old days."

Tuan says he's restored more than 100 houses from north to south and counts himself an aficionado of traditional regional architecture.

One of Tran Thy Binh's ninety houses located in Cu Chi District in Ho Chi Minh City

He says that the classic southern home generally consists of three rooms and two verandas or five rooms and three verandas. The roofs feature a double layer of tiles and the frames are built from iron wood, redwood and ebony. The houses are typically decorated with icons of dragons, qilin, tortoises, and phoenixes.

Tuan said he has spent more than eight years trying to purchase what he considers to be an outstanding southern home. The owner now wants more than US$50,000 three times the initial asking price.

"If they agree to sell, I am willing to pay the price at any cost to have it," Tuan said.

The collector

Tran Thy Binh says her love for traditional homes began 18 years ago during a charitable trip to the central province of Quang Nam.

"One of families we visited was building a fire out of fine, antique carvings," said Binh, who recalls snatching the wood from the fire and stamping out the flames.

Taken by the beauty of the craftsmanship, Binh arranged to buy the home and relocate it to HCMC.

"Starting with the house in Quang Nam Province, I found myself totally taken with the work of these gifted, devoted artisans of the past," she said. "I began "˜hunting' for such masterpieces as my way to preserve Vietnam's cultural legacy."

Since then, Binh says she's purchased a total of ninety homes.

Of all her homes, Binh is most pleased with a stilt house she picked up in the Mekong Delta province of Dong Thap. Binh says it took three years to find artisans capable of reconstructing and restoring the home in her hometown.

The structure sits atop a series of shiny, ironwood pillars. Traditional ceramic tiles form the roof. Wooden furniture inlaid with mother-of-pearl design work adorns the interior and traditional calligraphy panels line the walls.

The houses have all been relocated to the site of the future American Pacific University campus in Cu Chi District.

Binh, who directs two other schools under the same name in HCMC, hopes that the restored homes will provide the ideal setting for students from all over the world to learn about Vietnam.

"Thanks to such living artifacts, I can help both local and foreign students build their love for Vietnam's culture as well as create a peaceful, natural environment for study," she said.

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