Ho Chi Minh City’s most ancient house, more than 200 years old, in the Archbishop’s Palace is being dismantled, reportedly for restoration.
The brick roof and doors have been removed from the worshiping house on Nguyen Dinh Chieu Street.
The roofing, including those enameled with blue celadon, are piling up in the front yard, around a tent put up to store construction materials. Large flower pots that once occupied the yard have been moved elsewhere.
A sculpture of two dragons worshiping a cross has also been taken off the rooftop.
Bui Ngoc Tham, a manager of the archdiocese who has lived there since age 10, said the house of 136 square meters is not being removed but restored to its original structure.
“Documents at the archdiocese say that the house was completely made of wood in the beginning, that the ancestors used techniques to put the wood together using the wood itself and without nails.”
But when it was moved from a different part of the city to the palace area in the 1900s, changes were made to the house, like the walls on both sides and the back being rebuilt with bricks.
“We feel the need to rebuild the walls with wood and restore it to the original material,” Tham said.
A posting on the Ho Chi Minh City Archdiocese website says the house, now called Tan Xa, was moved to the current location in 1911 when the palace construction was completed.
It was first built in 1790 under the order of Lord Nguyen Phuc Anh, who became the first Nguyen emperor – Gia Long – in 1802, as a bamboo house with a thatched roof for French Catholic priest Pierre Pigneaux to mentor prince Nguyen Phuc Canh.
The lord had the house improved with wooden walls and a brick roof in 1799. Pigneaux died the same year and the house then hosted priests coming for work in the city.
In 1864, the house was moved to an area along what is now Alexande Rhodes Street as its location was taken for the city zoo.
Tham said the restoration will use “cam xe” (Xylia xylocarpa), one of the finest kinds of wood in Vietnam.
“We will have to replace beams that have been damaged by termites after so many years and are threatening to collapse the house, but we will completely follow the original shape and styles,” he said. The original doors and door frames were carved with a lot of floral decorations.
After a survey in 2003, Ho Chi Minh City officials listed the house among 57 constructions having the potential to be recognized as cultural heritages.
The restoration is expected to take a month, Tham said, not revealing the estimated cost.
Vietnam has won the UNESCO conservation award for five restored projects, including the historic village of Duong Lam on Hanoi’s outskirts in February, a lost bomb shelter at the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hotel in Hanoi (2013), the Tang family chapel (2009), an ancient Vietnamese house (2004), and the historic old town of Hoi An (2000).
But not all restoration has been good news.
Culture officials in the famous Hoi An Town have been complaining that some of its old houses have lost their original features as their restoration is being done using concrete materials, or cheap and low-quality timber instead of kien kien (Hopea pierrei) that has become rare.
Vietnam has more than 3,100 national relics in addition to around 900 cultural heritages belonging to the nation’s 54 ethnic groups. Time, climate change and urbanization are rapidly degrading many of these buildings, documents and artifacts.
Time will tell whether the country succeeds in sustainably preserving its precious cultural heritage.
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