Installation art... by nature

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Central Vietnam village is itself a work of art thanks to residents' ingenuity and innate aesthetic sensibilities

A stone alley in Loc Yen Village in Tien Phuoc District, Quang Nam Province

Architect Prof Hoang Dao Kinh was amazed at the fairytale setting of the old mountainous village of Loc Yen in the central province of Quang Nam when he first went there last August.

"I thought the village was appreciated only for its century-old houses, but the minute I arrived I found that"¦ the site's unique beauty mostly lies in the harmonious combination between the landscape, weather, the buildings, and the lifestyle of people," the former head of the Institute of Relic Site Preservation says.

Kinh, a member of the Vietnam Council of Heritage, says in terms of cultural and tourism credentials Loc Yen surpasses its two renowned counterparts, the old villages of Phuoc Tich in Thua ThienHue Province and Duong Lam in Hanoi.

He had recently worked on restoring them.

Loc Yen is situated in Tien Canh Commune, Tien Phuoc District, 35 kilometers west of Tam Ky Town.

The village nestles amid lush banana and pepper trees, terrace fields, shady stone paths, and rocky cliffs.

Except for the rường (traditional wooden houses), it is built mostly of stone stairs, walls, fences of pig and hen pens but without any mortar.

The stones are classified by size and the bigger ones are placed lowest.

The stone buildings, after hundred of years, are now green with moss. In their gaps grow wild plants that help to keep cool during the heat of summer.

There are 150-year-old wells here. The mossy stone wells have never gone dry, providing cool water in summer and water that is warmer than the air in winter.

The village looks more like a giant installation art piece than anything else, Kinh says.

But what fascinate him most are the Loc Yen people, who, generation after generation, have been skilled and artistic enough to adapt the architecture to the environment to create a unique living space for themselves.

"They pave the paths with stone not only for transportation but also decoration, creating folk installation art," he says.

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Nguyen Van Diep, an 87-year-old villager, says: "The stone buildings here are at least 100 years old, and whenever they deteriorate they are repaired immediately by the people, and so remain in perfect condition."

The 1.2-meter-high stone fences not only separate the houses but also protect the houses and fields from landslides.

Nguyen Van Dien, 70, who has lived in Loc Yen since birth, adds: "War and wild animals have kept away from the village thanks to its stone walls."

Loc Yen consists of four types of houses. The first (which was popular before 1940) is a cottage with two roofs, with the one inside made of bamboo and soil to keep the house cool.

Then there are double-tiled houses with walls of stone, clay, and jackfruit wood that were built after living conditions improved; newly-built houses of modern design; and rường houses owned by the village's richest.

Rường houses, built a century and more ago by skilled carpenters from Van Ha, another village in the same province where, sadly, the craft has now disappeared have three rooms and two lean-tos, and their backs abut the mountain behind. In front is a deep stone valley. Such impressive views make these modest houses seem like villas.

In the houses' pillars are etched flowers and leaves as a tribute to nature.

Though there are only 10 of these houses left in the village, they have all survived since the war ended in 1975, unlike old houses elsewhere in the province that have been dismantled and taken away to other places, thanks to the villagers' determination to protect their heritage.

Most of their owners now are poor farmers who earn just enough to feed their families.

The 160-year-old house owned by Nguyen Dinh Hoan is the most beautiful out of the ten. It was built by Hoan's great-great grandfather Nguyen Dinh Hoang with 28 pillars made of jackfruit wood.

Hoan says his late father Nguyen Huynh Anh told him that Ngo Dinh Diem, the first president of South Vietnam between 1955 and 1963, visited the house in 1939 and offered to buy it for a large amount of money. But his father declined.

In 1960 Diem again sent people asking to buy it, this time more forcefully Hoan does not say what tactics were used but Anh refused once again.

He then told his son that no matter what he should never sell the house.

Earlier this year the province spent nearly VND200 million to restore the house which was in poor condition.

Le Tri Hieu, deputy chairman of the Tien Phuoc District People's Committee, says a project to promote Loc Yen as an ecotourism site is being carried out by the district to enable the villagers to improve their livelihoods and prevent the houses from being bought by outsiders as is happening in many places now.

Kinh is also considering ways to develop tourism in Loc Yen, saying as a place that blends nature with heritage buildings, it has the edge over Hoi An. He calls it is a perfect tourism product and a ready-to-serve cultural tourism feast, but warns that more than making money, the focus should be on balancing the villagers' benefit with safeguarding the environment and natural beauty.

"Unlike the restoration work in Hoi An, which focuses only on ancient houses, the mission in Loc Yen is to preserve a living village instead of transforming it into a museum."

He cautions against adding new, foreign elements in a misguided effort to enhance the beauty of the site, saying it would detract from the place's authenticity.

The province plans to promote tourism to Loc Yen Village which not only takes in its natural beauty but also enables tourists to experience life in the village.

Hoan's wife Nguyen Thi Kim Suong says: "Sometimes we get Vietnamese and foreign tourists. We are excited to welcome people to our place."

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