DONG THAP — Do you know what is the most famous house in Viet Nam? Maybe you’d answer “No” because even I only discovered it by accident.
The southern province of Dong Thap is wellknown not only for its populous and fertile land, known as the “rice bowl” of the nation, but is also home to the house made famous by Marguerite Duras in her novel The Lover.
Located in Sa Dec, the oldest town of the Cuu Long (Mekong) Delta, the house first became a tourist site in 2007 and has since welcomed thousands of visitors.
The house was the home of the lover Duras took when she was just 15.
Her story tells of a couple who fell in love at first site on a ferry-boat running along the Tien River from Dong Thap to Sai Gon (now HCM City). They failed to have the support of their families who were from different classes and nationalities.
Huynh Thuy Le was a local inheritor of the province’s richest family while French Duras was a daughter of Marie Donnadieu, a poor principle at the L’Ecole Primaire de Jeunes Filles de Sadec (Sa Dec Primary Girl School) the oldest school in the province, now renamed the Trung Vuong Primary School.
They fell deeply in love with each other although they could not tell to anyone, especially Le’s family whose father had arranged a marriage between Le and a beauty from Tien Giang Province, whom later became his wife.
They knew about the obstacles but could not stop their love from developing for over a year and a half before his family became aware of the affair.
Le had to marry the arranged bride, while Duras and her relatives returned to France.
Years after the war, Le came to Paris and made a phone call to Duras to say his love for her would continue until his death.
Fifty years after their separation, the call relived the memories of the affair for Duras as though it was yesterday; and from those recollections the novel L’Amant (The Lover) was published in 1984.
The novel became a best-seller, with more than 2.4 million copies printed. In its first year of publication The Lover grabbed the Goncourt prize, a prestigious French award. The semi-autobiographical novel was then translated into 43 languages including Vietnamese and dramatised into a movie of the same name by director Jean-Jacques Annaud in 1992 starring Jane March, Lisa Faulkner and Tony Leung Ka Fai.
Apart from the love story, the house also attracts many people because of its beautiful combination of Eastern and Western architectural styles.
The 250sq.m old house at 225A Nguyen Hue Street, was constructed mainly of wood in 1895 by Huynh Cam Thuan – a wealthy local man. The Vietnamese three-roomed house was then upgraded into a French-styled villa which is what visitors can see today.
The floor was paved with patterned tiles imported from Ardeche, France. The 30-40cm-thick wall is constructed by solid bricks covering the wooden structure.
The roof consists of double tiles with two curved gables making it look like a boat, a typical symbol of the Southern waterways region.
The Western architecture is displayed by the house’s front, ceiling, windows and balconies. All of them are decorated with Renaissance-styled reliefs. Meanwhile the Eastern aspects, mainly in Chinese style, are the furniture such as wardrobes, beds and altars which are carved and lacquered skilfully with flowers, animals and trees, displaying the original landlord’s wealth.
When Le died in 1972, his family moved to live in France and the house was nearly abandoned. The Dong Thap Tourism Company was assigned to manage the house in 2006 and the house welcomed its first visitors a year later.
“The house is almost identical to how they left it, as Le’s daughter on a visit to Viet Nam provided us with decorative details that we could copy,” said Huynh Thi Kieu Xuan, a company tour guide.
The interior of the house has photos of the French writer and movie scenes on display.
The house which is also known as the Green House because it was previously painted in green [it is white now] while the rooms were decorated with wood and green glass.
The entrance fee is VND10,000 (US$0.5) per person. The fee includes a guide who can speak English or French, while tea and sugar-coated ginger are served for free. But interested tourists can also book a homestay here at a cost of $30 per room per night which covers a breakfast and lunch or they can enjoy lunch or dinner with Vietnamese and European dishes readily available.
“The house is on the list of must-visit places among foreigners, especially the French, who have read the book or watched the movie,” said Tong Duy Minh, director of the Dong Thap Tourism Company.
“Many of them love to stay in the house and act as what the house owner did in the past although the conditions here are not comfortable for them. There isn’t any air conditioning, nor fridge or bathroom inside the house,” Minh said.
The house which was recognised as a national relic in 2009 has received an average of 1,000 visitors per month, double the figure of 2009.
“They want to be here also because of the house is next to the river and a market. Visitors can make a walk through and witness local residents living and working. We have already received some students who have booked the room for a week to discover life here,” Minh said.
Minh said that the house would be much more beautiful in the future as the provincial museum is collecting more of the house’s lost objects from Le’s relatives. — VNS by Thnh Ha