The Garden Houses of Old Hue

Ask anyone who’s looked long and deep into the Vietnamese arts, and they’ll tell you that the highest achievement in Vietnamese art is in its architecture. This confuses some because next to the glories of the Eiffel Tower, the Colosseum and Fallingwater, it hardly seems that the buildings developed by Vietnam’s best and brightest hardly measure up. And they don’t.

It’s only when you integrate architecture of structure with the landscape of Hue and the marvels of geomancy or feng shui or phong thuy, as it’s known to the Vietnamese, that the glories of Vietnamese architecture really come to the surface.

 An Hien Garden House

Hue, unlike Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City, is the beneficiary of an incredible collection of garden houses, known as nha vuon (literally house garden) or nha ruong(house panels). Many of these homes were built by Hue’s more affluent families during the imperial era when the Nguyen Kings ruled from their throne in the Palace of Supreme Harmony.

These homes were built with large roofs of terracotta tiles that kept out the heat of summer and retained the heat in winter, and colonnades of pillars made of ironwood or jackfruit wood. The front of the house was much wider than it was deep, and was divided into several rooms within. Structurally, garden houses subscribed very much to a distinct architectural style. In other words, they looked a lot alike. But each was set on its own lot with due regard to the vagaries of the wind, the flow of water and the orientation of the heart.

A garden house just feels right. In the old days when space was not as expensive as it is today, and the demands upon the land not a great as they are with the present population, each garden house reigned within its own yard.

Go out to the Kim Long district of Hue, where some of the garden houses are open to the public, and loiter awhile in these gardens. Bring a book. Sit. Read. Wait until the brilliance of the design asserts itself. It’s then, and maybe not until then, that you’ll understand why the Vietnamese believe architecture is esteemed beyond all of the other native arts.

By Phan Trong Minh, General Manager La Residence Hotel & Spa