(VNS) Nearly 30 years ago the French film director Jean Jacques Annaud went to the southern city of Can Tho to shoot scenes for his filmThe Lover. He was seduced by the beauty of the ancient house of Binh Thuy, and decided that it would form a part of his movie.
Many people saw the house in the film – which featured Jane March and Tony Leung Ka-fai as a French girl and a Chinese man who fell in love in 1920s Viet Nam – and have made the journey to Can Tho to visit it.
Recently I was one such visitor. During a short stay in the city I braved the rain with a friend, rented a motorbike and visited the house, which can be found in Bui Huu Nghia Street, Binh Thuy District, 5km from Can Tho.
To our surprise, the house appeared even more beautiful than the one we remembered from the film. The grey skies overhead could not dim the spectacular beauty of its East -West architecture and the radiant flowers sitting in front of the green windows above the balconies painted pink.
The colourful look of the house made us forget that it was built more than 140 years ago.
Annauld found the unique design of the house particularly appealing, with its combination of eastern and western cultures.
While the outside appearance of the building is a French design, the interior is totally Vietnamese.
The centrepiece of the house is a large ancestral altar, which is lacquered in red and trimmed with gold.
The house's biggest surprise however is its treasure trove of ancient objects that have been preserved for generations. There is a round marble table dating back to the 18th century, a couple of 19th century hanging lamps, and a set of French table and chairs from the 17th-century reign of Louis XIV.
The house is also equipped with beautiful ancient wooden furniture, and everything from the wash basin to the jars in the kitchen are valuable antiques.
According to Ngo Thi Ngoc Lien, the old woman charged with looking after the house and receiving visitors, many collectors regularly come to ask the family to sell the ancient objects. Their request has always been refused, even during times when the life of the owner's family was very difficult.
The 300sq.m house has witnessed the rise and fall of her family through Viet Nam's turbulent history. It was built in 1870 by a family named Duong, who first arrived in the southern region by the late 19th century.
The actual owner of the house is Duong Chan Hien, the grandson of Duong Chan Ky, a landlord who was a developer in the 20th century. According to Lien, when French colonialists occupied the region they forced her family to leave the house, and soldiers lived in the building during those years.
The house has now become a place of worship for the Duong family. During festive days and anniversaries of family members death, the children and grandchildren gather together to commemorate their ancestors and organise big celebratory parties. Except on those special days, the house is open to visitors for the whole year.
Lien said that she has welcomed tourists from many different countries, a lot of them drawn to the house by The Lover.
"I am surprised to see such an old and beautiful house. The quiet ambience of the place is very reminiscent of some scenes in The Lover. I am touched to see that such an old place could be preserved and stay undamaged," says Tran Nhu Nguyen, a visitor.
I was completely charmed by the house; its architecture, its history and also its wonderful 4,000sq.m garden. We were given a quick tour of the garden and enjoyed the wide range of flowers planted. It hosts various kinds of orchids and cacti.
Lien explains that Duong Van Ngon (1905-85), from the fifth generation of the Duong family, loved orchids. He tried to collect various kinds along with other flowers. His descendants have cared well for the garden, which includes a 40-year-old 10-metre cactus.
After our tour we sat down at a stone table under the yard's giant trees and took another look at the outside of the house.
The rain continued to fall heavily and so we sought shelter under a wooden roof where the Duong family used to drink tea in the old times. The downpour made me remember the rainy scene from The Lover where the Chinese man begs his father to allow him to marry the French girl that he loves.
Inspired by the success of the location in that film, numerous local directors have chosen to shoot their movies in Binh Thuy. It has starred in Chan Troi Noi Ay (The Distant Horizon), Nhung Neo Duong Phu Sa (The Silt Ways), and Cay Tre Tram Dot (the Hundred-Knot Bamboo Tree).
Thanks to its antique beauty, it has been recognised as a national relic for architectural arts by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism since March 2009. This new recognition has made the house even more attractive to visitors.
The provincial government and descendants of the owner are trying to keep the house protected while also publicising it all over the country. — VNS