Life's mission: preserving central region's wooden houses

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A 102-year-old bamboo house, considered the oldest of its kind in Vietnam, has been restored by Le Van Tang after he bought it from 87-year-old Pham Thi So in Quang Nam Province

The famous old town of Hoi An stands unaffected by the creation of another old town nearby, this one "˜virtual,' which has been open to visitors since 2002.

The new "town" has 18 wooden houses and 15 other wooden structures, and is a museum of traditional architectural styles from different parts of the country. But the more interesting aspect is that it owes its existence to the extraordinary passion of an ordinary carpenter.

Le Van Tang, a former local officer and the third generation of a carpenter's family from the once-renowned Kim Bong Carpentery Village, quit his job 16 years ago, wanting to do something about wooden houses in his locality, which had more than 400 of them over 150 years old, falling into disrepair because of harsh weather conditions and the lack of money needed to preserve them.

Tang watched in pain as several such old houses were pulled down by the owners because the expense for restoring them was five to six times the costs incurred to build a new concrete house.

"Penniless, my wildest dream was to have money to buy all those dismantled buildings for restoration later," recalled Tang, who then took a big risk by borrowing two million dong (which is worth more than 40 million dong at the present time) to buy a house in  Binh Nam Commune.

On the third morning after he had reassembled and repaired the house in his front yard, the carpenter and his two helpers were approached by three men who came in their car. "They asked me to sell the wooden house for six million dong, but I said no," Tang said.

The men returned in the afternoon and doubled their original offer, but they were turned down again.

"The next morning they came back the third time with VND28 million, and cold sweat broke out. I had never thought that the house could be sold for such a high price. This time, of course I said yes."

The profit from the deal set Tang off, hunting other houses that he could restore.

He traveled from Quang Nam to other neighboring provinces to look for houses in both bad and good conditions.

When he came across well-preserved wooden houses, the carpenter asked the owners' permission to study their homes, including copying sophisticated patterns with carbon papers, taking notes on their history and structure.

On the other hand, he was willing to pay money for houses even in badly dilapidated conditions because they could provide useful materials to save other houses in future. In some instances he was willing to buy a whole house because of a single beautiful piece that he could salvage.

The artisan's experience, which enables him to tell the age or origin of a wooden building even after it has been pulled down, has helped his work greatly.

Tang, who along with his son leads a team of dozens of craftsmen and sculptors, said a house, even after being well restored, is at just 50 to 60 percent of its original condition, because it is impossible to find skillful, talented artisans as in the past. (He has opened a 3,000-square-meter workshop for 300 local carpenters and sculptors from Van Ha and Kim Bong villages in Quang Nam Province to promote the craft.)

Tang and his men, however, amazed the Ong family in Hue after they successfully replaced the whole rotten frame of the temple dedicated to worshipping their ancestor Ong Ich Khiem (1831 1884), who served as a general under the Nguyen Dynasty, without removing the structure's roof and tiles.

Since 1997, Tang has helped restore a countless number of old houses from the north to the south. Tang said a 4-story French style wooden house belonging to ao dai designer Si Hoang was the most difficult case because of exacting demands from the client. It took 40 carpenters six months in 2000 to restore the 140-year-old house, which is now located at 36-38 Ly Tu Trong Street in Ho Chi Minh City's District 1.

To move a house from its original location is the last thing Tang wants to do, but it is still better than seeing it being destroyed by the wear and tear of time and/or the lack of money.

"The best thing is to restore the structure back to its original state, before handing it over to those who are really interested and can afford it."

Tang's eldest son Le Van Vinh, director of Vinahouse Space, the company that was set up to fulfill the carpenter's vision, said that it often takes years to convince the owner to sell her or his house.

"Only when the house is seriously damaged and the family is not able to have it repaired will they agree with us," said Vinh, who has accompanied his father since he was a teenager.

However, Tang said that the secret to his success, however, is being devoted and doing good deeds, both for the building and its owner. He said they are not afraid to travel to a mountainous area just to repair a small detail; or offer lower restoration charges to enable owners to hold on to their ancestral heritage.

Even when a house is purchased, it is a long process, Tang said, since he voluntarily builds a new house for the seller as payment, attends the housewarming ceremony and chooses an auspicious day to install the new family altar, before taking the old one. 

"Most of those who have no other choice but sell their houses are needy and lack knowledge (about their houses' real value), so who else but us to help them to settle down?"

TANG's COLLECTION

The 11,000 sq.m Vinahouse Space in Dien Minh Commune, Dien Ban District, 15 kilometers away from Hoi An, is home to the nha ruong (a wooden house with carvings on pillars and rafters) with the highest number of pillars in Vietnam.

Previously owned by Thao family from Quang Nam Province's Dai Loc District, the house, which is more than 200 years old, has 108 pillars engraved with unique motifs, according to a group of Japanese architects from Nihon University and Showa Women's University.

A 102-year-old bamboo house, considered the oldest of its kind in the country, was purchased and restored by Le Van Tang. He bought it from Pham Thi So, 87 years old, because it was severely damaged and the owner could not afford to restore it. She sold it only after Tang and his son Vinh promised to keep the house intact and not move it to places outside the province. It took for years for the father and son to persuade So to sell her house. 

The collection includes: the three-compartment-two-wing house built by Nguyen Dynasty mandarin Ton That Dam (1864-1888), one of the leaders of the Can Vuong (aid the king) movement (1885-1889) against the French colonial rule; a typical pyramid-shaped house in the central province of Quang Tri; a northern-style multi-storied house, and typical stilt houses built by ethnic minority communities in the country. A six-floor fishing basket-shaped structure made of wood is currently being built at Vinahouse Space after the inauguration of a four-storied one of similar design earlier this year.

All the buildings, which are now valued at around US$10 million in total, are surrounded by outdoor decorations including bonsai creations, ponds, and flora from their original hometown.

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