Travelling back and forth along busy Dinh Liet Street, not many people catch a glimpse of the old garden house – the oldest of its type still standing in Ha Noi. Follow the small lane through a moss-covered arch, visitors enter an environment of peace and tranquillity, feasting their eyes on a large garden filled with plants big, small, tall and short. Many of them, such as bamboo, star-fruit trees or areca (betel nut), are more than 40 years old. In the middle of the garden there remains an old well.
The house and its 180sq m garden – a five-minute walk from Hoan Kiem Lake – is a national treasure. The Ha Noi People’s Committee has ordered its preservation and it will probably be preserved as a private museum. In the 1940s, Pham Thi Te, now 98, and her husband – the then owner of the famous Su Tu (lion) Silver brand – bought land fronting both Hang Bac and Dinh Liet streets. They had four daughters and four sons.
There, they built a two-storey, 16-room house of mixed French-Vietnamese design and gave their married children and their spouses two rooms each.
Previously, the main gate to the house was at 115 Hang Bac Street, and the back gate was on 6 Dinh Liet Street. With time gone by, the 600m living area has been reduced to about 200m and the back gate has become the main entrance.
From afar, one may think the house is a temple. Each corner of the tiled roof is embellished with knives stylised in the image of a dragon hovering in the clouds.
“For the past 70 years, we have clearly understood the value of the land, but we are determined not to sell so Ha Noi can boast of preserving an old garden house with a mixture of both traditional and Western architecture – a destination for tourists,” said Te.
Time has passed, but everything in the house remains intact, from the carved wooden doors and the furniture. Throughout the house, there is a rare combination of cultures and architecture: wooden pillars, designs on walls or doors imprinted with images of flowers, animals or letters like Tho (longevity) which imply happiness and longevity for the whole family.
The architecture has drawn many visitors, both local and foreign, to the house, including those from the Canadian embassy here in Ha Noi or a group of heritage officials from France, Te’s eldest son, Pham Ngoc Giao said. The house is also listed in Japan’s guide book The 36 Guild Streets in Ha Noi’s Ancient Quarter.
Architect Dao Ngoc Nghiem, former head of the municipal planning and architecture department, said the house presented a unique architectural achievement. “Tube houses are typical in the city’s ancient streets. This garden house was not influenced by that style, thus, it has a rarely seen value,” Nghiem said.
Giao said it was not that his parents were rich enough to buy and build such a large garden, but that they wanted to have an environment filled with green trees and fresh air to subsidise for the loss of rural life after they moved to Ha Noi from Hai Duong Province.
Sitting by the table set, which dated back to Giao’s grandfather, he said it was of the same age as a set of tables and chairs in the guest room at the Opera House.
Giao said besides its architectural value, the house carried much-respected spiritual value. “It’s regarded as part of the country’s cultural heritage. But it should be filled with a soul. We are determined to keep the house to honour our mum’s wish,” he said, emphasising that they are living to protect not only the house, but more importantly the family ties and values – the soul of the house.”
Respect for the elders and others has been a living principle for Te’s descendants and respect for others means the entire family values gender equality. “The house accommodates five generations, counting my grandparents. As people born and raised in the Old Quarter, we have always enjoyed a warm family.”
That’s why visitors to the house always see a living, not a dead museum, Giao said. Recently, a group of Thai teenagers in a tour to Ha Noi came and asked for permission to perform their typical dances in the living room. Te’s great grandchildren joined in with some Vietnamese songs and dances. Witnessing this, Giao said happily that the house was once again a place for cultural exchange.
This article is written by Lan Nguyen.