Old Saigon's architectural gems

15/11/2017 11:48

Anyone with an interest in the architecture of Ho Chi Minh City should head to Phu Xuan - Nha Be, home to some fascinating old wooden mansions

Of all the administrative regions named Phu Xuan in Vietnam, two divisions are linked in a special relationship: Phu Xuan in Hue and Phu Xuan in Nha Be. During feudal times, Duke Vo Nguyen Phuc Chu dispatched a general, Marshall Nguyen Huu Can, to expand his realm southward. Hamlets in Nha Be became administrative divisions of Tan Binh District, Saigon Province in the Phien Tran Region. The advent of the history of Nha Be was recorded in the “Geographical Records of the Unified Greater South” as follows:
“In those days, inhabitants were still sparse. The location was far off, accessible only by small boats and coracles. Passengers had trouble finding food… Vo Thu Hoang collected bamboo to make rafts, raised houses and furnished them with cooking utensils so that passengers could use them as needed without charge.  Afterwards, other merchants also made boats and sold food, in groups of up to dozens of rafts that gathered in floating marketplaces, thus the subsequent name "Nha Be" (The Raft House)…”
The Phu Xuan region of Nha Be was founded by mandarins of the Nguyen Dynasty. Upon reaching Nha Be, they decided to name the place Phu Xuan after the Hue Citadel as a dear reminder of their origins.

  The oldest remaining house in Phu Xuan – Nha Be is now owned by the family of Mr. Nguyen Kim Chung at No. 18/09 in the 7th Quarter, Nha Be Town. This mansion has been in Mr. Chung's family for five generations. Mr. Chung explains the house's origins as follows: “The great great grandfather of my family was a mandarin under the reign of Emperor Minh Mang, known as Nguyen Van Trong, born Nguyen Hien Hao. He was sent by the emperor to expand southward and built this mansion in 1879, when he was 50. As a child, I was told by my grandfather that this mansion was built with great toil, because the entire region was a huge wetland, so he had to secure a foundation of green marble to prevent the house from sinking. The mansion was modeled after a typical Hue beam house, because my entire clan came from Hue. I still remember in detail that my grandfather told me that when the mansion was completed, it took carpenters and carvers three straight years to finish decorating the wooden furniture alone."

  Seen from outside, this old mansion has a square master plan and roofs in the shape of ú cakes (two main steep roofs and two lesser roofs on both gables). Based on the number of pillars on the veranda, the mansion can be classified as having three compartments and two gables, in accordance with the architectural regulations and guidelines of Hue beam houses. In the third year of his reign, Emperor Minh Mang (1820 – 1841) issued a regulation that constructions outside the Imperial Palace must not exceed three compartments and two gables, or be taller than the palaces. As a result, most beam houses in Hue had one compartment and two gables, small pillars and low roofs. Further south, designs were revised to feature greater distances between pillars, higher roofs and surrounding walls in a Western architectural style, resulting in the special eclectic architecture seen in this old mansion in Phu Xuan, Nha Be Town.     

  This old mansion is surrounded by an exuberant garden, while its “light exposed hall” is structured according to traditional rules of fengshui with a lotus pond in front. This mansion was influenced by Western European colonial architecture, as seen by its surrounding walls, which form long corridors bordering the four corners, highlighted with decorative patterns on the balusters and window bars, French floral floor tiles, bas-reliefs of flowers and leaves and arched balconies set between pillars. The design of the corridors ensures a spacious hall and shelters the entire timber mansion from bad weather. As such, its three compartments and two gables have survived over a century and retained their original beauty.

While most old mansions in the South were renovated to suit families' changing lifestyles, this old mansion has retained its original design typical of a Hue beam house, characterized by the “altars on the inside and guest reception on the outside”. Behind the entrance door lies a guest reception hall. The three main compartments lie below the roof beam and are dedicated to ancestral altars. They are flanked by a living room and a dining room. The interior features sophisticated wood carvings that portray typical Asian floral motifs, including vine patterns; spruce and fish poison trees; ochna flowers and birds; hibiscus and pheasants; and the Four Seasons, etc.

Mr. Nguyen Kim Chung once owned another imposing building next door to his old mansion but sold it to Mr. Vuong Hong Sen in 1952. It was then converted into the Pavilion of Van Duong at 11 Nguyen Thien Thuat Street, Binh Thanh District. Another old mansion in Phu Xuan is located at 34/14, Hamlet 5, Nha Be. This charming building attracts filmmakers seeking an authentic historical backdrop.

Only a few century-old beam houses remain in Saigon. Each of these old buildings boasts its own special architecture and artistry, and serves as a reminder of the city's tumultuous history. Seeing these buildings' timeless beauty gives us the opportunity to preserve great moments and memories. In an era of rampant urbanization and reckless preservation efforts, we can only hope these architectural gems will survive.

Nguyen Dinh

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