A nearly-200-year-old house in Coc Thon Hamlet in the suburb of Hanoi
The urbanization juggernaut has proved unstoppable in Vietnam, and evidence has been mounting about the inability of rural and suburban households to resist it, consigning beautiful homes with traditional architecture and long histories to extinction.
The situation at Cu Da Village in the suburbs of Hanoi, where an influx of compensation money has triggered the destruction of many stately homes, is still fresh in mind.
It was balm for a wounded heart when I found several old houses unharmed and well preserved in Coc Thon Hamlet, neighbor to the Duong Lam Village that is renowned for its ancient houses.
The hamlet is home to around 200 houses of which over 60 were built in the late 19th century. It is still a relatively unknown world although it is situated just several hundred meters away from Duong Lam.
The wooden buildings with its layers of brown tiles bearing the color of time stand in perfect harmony with the green rice fields and other typical features of a North Vietnamese landcape. They do not have the polished look of the well-preserved houses in the neighboring village, but this only adds to their beauty.
Nguyen Ba Tao's six-compartment house made of cedar wood is one of the most beautiful ones in Coc Thon, located in Cam Thuong Ward, Ba Vi District.
The house is supported with a network of five pillars and walls made of laterite stones and has interior decorations typical of Vietnamese traditional homes. A carved wooden frame, altar, partitions, narrow high desk, horizontal lacquered boards (engraved with Chinese characters), and a pair of wooden panels inscribed with parallel sentences all stand in good condition and look well cared for.
Tao said that his 84-year-old mother has mentioned that the house was built before she married into the family. Research conducted by a group of experts 10 years ago estimated that it is nearly 200 years old, he added.
His friend, who owns one of the oldest houses in Duong Lam, said the interior decorations of Tao's house is even more beautiful and sophisticated than his own.
The house was also visited and praised by a group of scientists from Japan's Osaka University and the Hanoi Architecture University five years ago.
A carved roof in a typical Vietnamese pattern
According to La Thi Du, head of the Coc Thon Hamlet, whose family owns a house at least a hundred years old, among the 60 ancient houses in the hamlet 20 are unique ones.
"It is said that it took at least ten years to build such houses in the past. Every year, after harvest time, the men went deep into the forests in Ba Vi mountains to look for precious wood that was stored until there was enough to build a house. The construction of a house took at least one year, which is why we have such beautiful, reliable houses until today," Du said.
According to Quach Thi Hong, culture officer of Cam Thuong Ward, ten years ago, the ward numbered the ancient houses in the locality for preservation work in future. So far, only one house of its kind was broken down after it was purchased by new owner, she said.
Hong said there were several reasons why most of houses here are well-preserved. The local government encourages residents to treasure and preserve their houses, and the villagers themselves hold on to their traditions, turning their backs on the urbanization onslaught that has seriously affected Cu Da Village and others across Vietnam.
La Huu Nghiem is among many people in Coc Thon who are so proud of their houses that are cool in summer and warm in winter because of their "smart, unique architecture."
"I am capable of building a new house, but who is confident enough to say that the new one will be more beautiful than this? And this house bears the mark of my ancestors and has its own cultural value," he said.
Tao concurred. "How can we forsake these houses? These are the fruits of our fathers' hard labor, and even the newest most modern houses can not be compared to them," he said.
However, despite the historic, cultural and traditional values of these houses, there is no official policy on their preservation. The local government is only encouraging their preservation.
Nguyen Tien Lien, president of Cam Thuong Ward's Fatherland Front, whose house is nearly 200 years old, said: "We need experts and responsible ones to determine the age of these houses." He said he was worried that not every owner can afford to have their houses maintained properly since they were poor.
Dang Duy Chinh's house, for instance, has been degrading steadily and one of its compartments collapsed recently because he could not afford to repair it. Another house in the same situation is that of Nguyen Hong Cong. Cong said there were others houses in the same condition as well. The windows and doors of his house are being eaten by worms, but he does not have enough money to build new ones with the same materials and designs, he said.