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10 Aug 2007 (Vietnam Net Bridge) – The city of Hue seeks to preserve its 100-year-old garden houses.

Imperial city struggles to retain gifts from the past

Hue city in central Thua Thien-Hue province is struggling to retain one of its lesser known but highly valuable cultural resources. The garden houses (nha vuon) that dot the city’s landscape have experts concerned that unless concrete steps are taken quickly to restore and preserve the unique structures they will be lost forever.

Over 100 years old, in disrepair and confronted with sky rocketing land prices many of their owners have been forced to demolish or sell the homes that have been in their families for generations.

The city of Hue is home to ancient citadels and the extravagant tombs of the Nguyen Kings that through an explosion in tourist numbers over the last five years in particular have become known throughout the world, but it is the homes that Hue’s citizens feel are symbolic of the spiritual life of the city and it’s people.

“Nha vuon” is a characteristic cultural trait of Hue, a city on the poetic bank of the Huong (Perfume) River and the capital for the royal dynasties of the Nguyen until the French occupation of the country began in 1884 .

The homes themselves are built and eventually lived in using the ancient Chinese design method of Feng Shui that believes each home is must blend harmoniously into the natural environment and that the success or failure of this basic principle will directly correlate to the inhabitants health, prosperity and luck.

Each aspect of the “nha vuon” building process, in particular the gate and front doors, must strictly adhere to a rule of measurement based on the Luban carpentry ruler, which was originally designed by an 8th Century Chinese engineer. The ruler is separated into segments thats measurements signify amongst others longevity, wealth, happiness, success, academia, good and bad fortune, property loss and separation.

The calculations derived from the ruler map out the internal and external physical features of the home, that in turn translate to intangible predictions of the households future.

A typical “nha vuon” in Hue comprises of both a front and back entrance, a surrounding fence, a “binh phong” (masonry screen), a garden comprised of various plants, trees, bonsai, a water-lily pond, and at the centre of the garden, a “nha ruong” (a small house for worship that has been designed according to geomancy and the owner’s spiritual personality and life skills).

Roofed with brick tiles, “nha ruong” is made entirely of precious and solid wood, such as lim (iron wood), gu (sindora) or thong xanh (teranthera pine). Its frame is made up of criss crossed beams and pillars that are all beautifully carved and joined by mortise and tenon, not nails. The entire home stands on large pillars that are placed on a round or square stone base.

A tree is often placed in front of the home’s front gate. The gate is always decorated with elaborately-carved designs and is topped with a small roof that is large enough to give passers-by temporary shelter from the elements.

The path leading around the wall from the entrance gate is lined with tea bushes or apricot trees and from time to time sits beside a half-moon shaped lotus pond.

The first row of flowers that are farthest away from the house are made up of decorative plants according to the taste of the owner. The second row must include slim fruit trees, such as thanh yen (a type of citrus tree), arena or lime trees as these are offered to Buddha or the ancestors at the family’s altar.
The third row is composed of large fruit trees such as jack-fruit, longan or guavas that is followed by rows of aromatic herbs or medicinal plants.

The rules for the houses are rigid, each home must follow the principles closely if they wish to maximise their fortunes and be bestowed with good luck. But it is this very rigidity and adherence to the rules by families that have lived in the “nha vuon” for generations that make them so culturally significant.

According to a recent survey conducted by Hue People’s Committee in 25 communes around Hue there are around 890 garden-houses, of which 705 are “nha ruong” with s ome 237 of them being designated as being in need of urgent restoration.

The city’s provincial authorities had previously initiated a programme to provide a portion of the costs of refurbishment to homeowners that were prepared to undertake preservation work on the houses. However there proved to be little interest as most homeowners were not financially able to meet even part of the costs of repair.

To date almost 40 of the sites that were designated to be in the most need have been either demolished to make way for land sales or sold outright, which more often than not has proved to end with demolition in any case.

In a bid to deal with the problem, the city has kicked off a project to save the “nha ruong”, that is being funded by the French region of Nord-Pas de Calais. 150 homes have been selected to become cultural heritage sites, with the first four to undergo restoration this year a cost of 558.6 million VND.

Experts hope that the programme proves to be a success. If not and if the trend continues, what is left of the “nha ruong” will be relegated to the history books.

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