Leafy LIVING

Through the ravages of war, weather, and time, the most beautiful garden house in Hue remains mostly intact and is one of the city’s greatest attractions.

By Jessica Nguyen on June 09,2019 08:26 AM

Leafy LIVING

PHOTOS PROVIDED BY AN HIEN GARDEN HOUSE

"The Vietnamese house - now there’s an interesting topic. Forget about the hasty judgements of short-term travelers standing in front of grey thatched roofs. They only see carelessly-built huts of cheap materials. On the contrary, they are carefully constructed pieces of architecture with precise rules, representing long experience and an aesthetic preoccupation.”

So wrote French anthropologist Pierre Gourou when he studied houses in rural Vietnam in the 1930s. Today in the former imperial capital of Hue, tourists may be surprised to find neatly designed, solid wooden houses hidden away in splendid gardens. Such house-garden combinations can be found in many places around Vietnam, but those in the north instead feature large red-brick yards in which to sun-dry rice and other agricultural products, surrounded by low trees and bushes.

In Hue, however, a more harmonious combination is achieved with the house set in the middle of a garden fringed by tall trees. Of more than 85 palaces of royal family members still in existence in the former capital, the An Hien ancient garden house is the most representative and showcases how people lived in harmony with nature.

Located at 58 Nguyen Phuc Nguyen Street, the 100-year-old An Hien Garden House is near Thien Mu Pagoda, about 5 km west of the city center. The house is typical of its kind, with many valuable historical, cultural, and architectural values, and has recently been opened to visitors following a long period of restoration.

Exceptional architecture

Once the residence of a Nguyen Dynasty princess 136 years ago and on an area of 6,500 sq m, An Hien garden-house is designed in accordance with ancient Hue garden architecture, which is influenced strongly by “feng shui”, where architecture, nature, and humans are intertwined in harmony.

Not only is it a special home marking many generations of the royal family, An Hien is also an ecological space that is lush green all year round. Plants and trees are arranged in three tiers: tall, old trees that provide precious wood, like jackfruit and enrythrina indica, fruit trees like mangosteen, durian and dragonfruit from the south, apricot, persimmon and litchi from the north, Thanh Tra, or Bouea Macrophylla, and figs from the central region, and ornamental and flowering plants, including jasmine, Aglaia and Chloranthus.

Many are more than a hundred years old, including Tien Dien persimmon. It is said that Mrs. Tuan Chi, the former owner of the house, was presented by a grandchild of the great poet Nguyen Du with 14 precious trees of Tien Dien persimmon, which were once only used as tribute to the emperor on special occasions. The garden also has Giang Chau mangosteen trees - another precious fruit in Hue.

Besides the beauty of the lush green garden in harmony with nature, An Hien Garden House is also famous for its “wooden house” architecture in the Hue royal style.

According to the ancient law of “feng shui”, “the back of the house must be leaning against a mountain, the door must face a river”, and An Hien Ancient House was built facing the romantic Huong (Perfume) River. Its gate is an arch shape, underneath the middle of which is a panel with two Chinese characters for “An Hien”, inlaid with white and white-blue clay on a black background.

From the main gate, strolling down the long road, visitors will see a brick wall symbolizing a mountain, bending slightly to the west to shield the main worshipping house. Behind this is a small lake with water lilies, in front of the main house’s yard.

The 135 sq m house features three spaces with two separate wings on either side and is a great example of traditional Hue architecture under the Nguyen Dynasty. The house is built from jackfruit wood to ward off termites. Connecting beams link the two main pillars of the house at the ceiling, giving stability to the entire frame. The beams also create a platform for a small attic for the family’s precious possessions. The roof is covered with different layers of roof tiles in the Chinese ying-yang style.

The middle space is the “worshipping area”, containing altars positioned on the principle of “the Buddha altar is at the front, the Ancestor altar behind”. As per the rules in feudal times, the spaces to the sides are for receiving guests, under the principle of “men to the left, women to the right”, while the two wings obey a similar rule: the living space for men is on the left and the space for women is on the right.

Many precious treasures from the Nguyen Dynasty court are on display in the house. In the middle space are two horizontal boards hung on two wooden pillars. While the front board bears the text “Tai quan quan trong” (“An important person to the royal court”), the board behind has “Van vo trung hieu” (“A loyal mandarin”), both of which were written at the direction of Emperor Bao Dai (1913-1997) and donated to the owner of the house in 1937. Many poems written by Emperor Thanh Thai (reigning from 1889-1907) are also displayed.

In Hue, however, a more harmonious
combination is achieved with the house set in the middle of a garden fringed by tall trees.

In Hue, however, a more harmonious combination is achieved with the house set in the middle of a garden fringed by tall trees.

Changing hands

The first owner of An Hien Garden House, which was built in 1883, was the 18th princess of Emperor Duc Duc (1852-1883). In 1895, the house was awarded to Mr. Pham Dang Khanh (also known as Mr. Thap), the son of a mandarin in the time of Emperor Gia Long (reigning from 1802-1820).

In 1920, Mr. Khanh ceded the entire garden house to Mr. Tung Le, a prosperous land owner in Tri Thien province (now Quang Tri province) and renowned for his benevolence towards the poor. In 1936, Mr. Nguyen Dinh Chi, who was the leader of Ha Tinh province in the north, heard about Mr. Le’s kindness and so decided to buy the garden house. After his death in 1940, his wife, Mrs. Dao Thi Xuan Yen (aka Mrs. Tuan Chi), continued to take care of the house until she died in 1997.

She was the first woman born in the central region to study at the French Albert Sarraut School and earned her Baccalaureate in 1933. She was also the principal of Dong Khanh High School in Hue in the 1950s and was a delegate in the National Assembly in the 1980s. Mr. Dinh Chi and Mrs. Xuan Yen were both prestigious and high net-worth individuals that had close friendships with writers, artists, and mandarins. An Hien Garden House therefore became a place where poets and intellectuals often dropped in, including musician Pham Tuyen, poet Che Lan Vien, poet Huy Can, and author Hoang Phu Ngoc Tuong. It was also where Mrs. Xuan Yen welcomed hundreds of domestic and international cultural and diplomatic delegations.

Later, due to the need to welcome more guests as well as to preserve the house, she had another French-style house built to the left side of the main house for living purposes. In this new house is her library, with 338 books of various genres such as fiction, history, politics, law, and “feng shui” in Vietnamese, French, English, Russian, and Japanese.

A hundred years on, having passed through the ups and downs of history and the harshness of time, An Hien is now a peaceful place, a cultural venue and a familiar stop for tourists to the former capital. Entry is VND35,000 ($1.5), with performances of Hue singing held daily from 9am to 10.15am and from 3pm to 4.15pm.

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