Da Nang heritage homes face uncertain future

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Da Nang lists old houses in need of conservation but offers no help

The front view of two-hundred-year-old Tich Thien Duong in Tuy Loan Village of Da Nang City

Nguyen Thi Hue, 81, seldoms leaves her house in Tuy Loan Village these days.

However, it is not age or age-related ailments that have constrained her mobility and confined her to her home in Da Nang City's Phu Vang District.

She cannot move out because she is busy from morning to evening, especially when her son is not around, receiving guests tourists and culture researchers from different places in the country and abroad.

Her house is around 200 years old and has a fascinating history, but the octogenarian is puzzled by the recent attention.

"I don't  know how they [the tourists] are told about my house, but for the last six years, many have visited and most of them are westerners," said Hue, who is proud of being the third eldest daughter-in-law of the Do family as the house's owner.

Named Tich Thien Duong (literally House of Good Works), the 140-square meter building, which is 14 meters long and 10 meters wide, stands on 36 big pillars and consists of three compartments and two lean-tos.

Apart from its double-tiled roof, the structure's beams and furniture are made of jackfruit wood and depict sophisticated carvings. The wood has developed a reddish brown color through the years.

The furniture is decorated with artifacts including copper trays, earthern pots, mould for snow-flaked cake making, and several old dishes and bowls, which, according to Hue, is gathered and kept by her 58-year-old son Do Huu Minh.

The house stands amidst a big garden of 3,500 square meters called Do Gia Vien (Do Family's Pavillion), according to a board hung on the right side of its beautiful wooden gate. The garden lies along the banks of the Tuy Loan River.

Outside and inside the garden grow various kinds of plants and trees that create a typical scene of garden and the countryside in the central area of Vietnam. Green bamboo clusters and arecanut trees stand along the village alley that leads to the house, and the red color of dâm bụt (rose of Sharon) flowers and the white and yellow colors of a  hundred-year-old mai (apricot blossom) tree in the center of the garden.

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Minh has built some octagonal and hexagonal wooden shelters and a bonsai and rock garden, a small pond and placed hammocks for visitors' comfort as they enjoy the shade and the cool atmosphere of the garden. Visitors can enjoy drinking tea in sylvan surroundings and fish on the river bank during their stay. The cool wind from the river carries pleasant scents from a lotus pond in the village's center.

Here and there in the garden and the house are scattered traditional items like a rice mortar, fishing basket and palm-leaf raincoat that were used in the past.

When Hue is not so busy, even at her age, she sits on a camp bed in the kitchen making traditional cakes, an attractive sight, especially for foreign visitors.

"They [the visitors] are very tall and can bump on the ceiling. After taking a tour and some photos, they request to see me preparing traditional foods and then eat."

Unique stories

The house by itself and several items in it have their own stories that Hue and Minh are happy to share.

Minh says the house was built by his great-great grandfather Do Van Ninh, a Confucian scholar.

"It took my great-great-grandfather three years to gather enough wood from Hue and other nearby provinces and then another three years for the construction, carried out by carpenters from the renowned Kim Bong Village in the Quang Nam Province's Hoi An Town," he said.

Thanks to the hard, durable jackfruit wood, Tich Thien Duong has stood firm, weathering hundreds of floods and storms.

Pointing at a pillar, the daughter-in-law said, "There was a time the flood waters rose higher than my height, everything was under water, but the house stands still thanks to the wood."

The house's foundation, is a mixture of leaves, lime and molasses, is also in good condition and was recently paved with stone.

Since 2006, the family has spent more than US$10,000 to restore and repair Tich Thien Duong while keeping its original design and architecture unchanged.

"Things have changed a lot, but culture and its values should be an exception," Hue said.According to Da Nang City's Department of Culture, Sports and

Tourism, Tich Thien Duong is among 100 ancient houses in the city, and 80 percent of them are located in the districts of Phu Vang and Hoa Vang. Each of these houses has their own unique features, artifacts and stories attached to them.

While Tich Thien Duong is known for its architecture, Le Thu's house in Quan Nam Village, Hoa Lien Commune, looks like an ancient bookstore with hundreds of precious, old books of the 17th and 18th centuries collected by Thu's father, partriotic scholar Le Quang Vy.

In the house with three compartments and four lean-tos, the scholar held classes to teach the Han script and Vietnamese to the villagers.

"The house was destroyed partly during the war, but most of its ancient, traditional structure is being maintained well, said Thu, who also said he and other family members' gain health benefits from living in the house.

"It is very comfortable to live in the house despite the harsh, severe weather conditions of central Vietnam. It is warm in winter and cool in summer," Thu said.

Located in Hoa Vang District's Duong Lam II Village 12 kilometers away from the city's downtown area is a 100-year-old house owned by Bon Tro. The house features a harmonious combination of western and eastern architecture. It was used as a base for

Vietnam's soldiers during the resistence war against French colonialists and later, during the Vietnam War.

 
81-year-old Nguyen Thi Hue, a great-great granddaughter-in-law of scholar Do Van Ninh, who built Tich Thien Duong two centuries ago

Dilapidated houses

Tich Thien Duong and Thu's house, are among the few old houses in well-preserved condition, since most of the other houses are owned by poor farmers without the wherewithal to maintain them. Some of the farmers, ignorant of the true value of the heritage in their hands, have sold several artifacts to traders and collectors.

Dang Thi Tuy Phong's house in Tuy Loan Dong 2 Village was conferred the title of Tứ Đại Đồng Đường (Four generations under the same roof) by King Bao Dai the last monarch of Vietnam before 1945. The building's original design, including interior wooden frames and furniture remains the same, thanks to the family's effort. However, some years ago, the dilapidated and leaking tile roof, the brick floor and walls were replaced.

According to the house's owner, many visitors have complained about the half modern, half traditional architecture of the house.

"We feel so sorry, but as farmers, we cannot afford to restore the house to its original state," said Phong.

Doan Cong Thuong's 200-year-old house in Tuy Loan Tay 1 Village, is even in worse condition. Most of tiles are rotten and leak badly during the rainy season.

His children are the fifth generation of the Doan family living in the building.

"Before my father passed away, he requested me to preserve the building no matter what happens, because it was built by the bone and blood of the ancestors, but..." said Thuong, sadly. He and his wife work hard day and night just to earn enough to feed their children and take care of their ailing mother.

The traditional tiles used in Thuong's house are produced in Hoi An, but they are too expensive for Thuong to order and have the roof replaced.

No assistance

At present, any preservation work on the old houses are being carried out by their residents with no assistance from the city government.

All that the municipal administration has done is to list the houses among those that need restoration. In its focus on modernizing the city, it seems to accord low priority to preserving its architectural heritages.

Minh said: "Only those who have a passion for architecture, money and knowledge of restoration can do the preservation work well.

Though at present, the house's preservation is the owner's business, the local government should facilitate their preservation and support us with funds to maintain the sites..."

"Our ancestors are being remembered through these houses. However, it is a tough task to preserve them because there's nothing that can remain forever, let alone houses several hundred years old."

Agreeing with Minh, Tran Ngoc Phat, who owns an old house in Hoa Chau Commune, said that his house was only being used to worship ancestors. "Our wish is to keep the house for the next generations," he said.

Nguyen Thuc Dung, head of Hoa Vang District's Department of Culture and Information, said that for now, house owners have to find the budget to restore their homes on their own.

"We did send the list of ancient houses to the city and carry out some research with local archaeologists in Hoa Vang District in 2012, but we have been waiting for the policy and money for years."

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