Story: Tran Huyen
Photos: Jet Huynh, Amachau

“Can Tho, white rice, pure water
All who come never wish to leave”

This verse, which comes from a Vietnamese folk song,  is a sweet invitation to Can Tho, the capital city of the Southwest – Tay Do. I accepted the invite. In the land of “white rice, pure water”, “fragrant flowers, sweet fruit” and warm and sincere people, I discovered a culturally rich region, populated by ancient structures that are not only cultural heritages and proof of East – West harmony in architecture, sculpture and decoration, but also serve to preserve the way of life and the culture of the Mekong Delta’s inhabitants.

A Tay Do woman rows a sampan on the river

While visiting the Can Tho Museum, my colleague Trieu Vinh gave me a book titled Ancient houses in Can Tho City introducing 16 historic structures, most of which were erected in late 19th – early 20th century. They still tower in the heart of Tay Do today, despite the ways in which war, time and the “storm of urbanization” are constantly trying to destroy these age-old structures.

The guide book of the Can Tho City Museum introduces 13 ancient buildings once owned by crazily rich and respected families in old Tay Do and three public buildings, namely: Can Tho Cathedral, the Collège de Can Tho (currently Chau Van Liem High School) and Can Tho Dome Market. The guide book is full of information about the construction history, architectural value, and artistic value of these ancient structures, as well as interesting myths about these buildings’ former owners.

The house of the Duong family in Binh Thuy District, Can Tho City

I spent my entire first night in a Can Tho hotel reading straight through the 142-page book given to me by Trieu Vinh. The next day, escorted by Pham Viet Ngoan, one of my students from Can Tho, I rode around the city by motorbike to discover Tay Do’s old buildings, as instructed by the book.

Our first destination was Binh Thuy Communal House, also known as Long Tuyen Old Shrine, which was located in Binh Thuy District. Constructed in 1844, this building became a witness to the Vietnamese migrants who explored and settled in the Southwest. It bears significant value in terms of its architecture and aesthetics, and was associated with Governor Huynh Man Dat, a major figure in the Nguyen Dynasty, who played a significant role in governing Nam Ky’s Six Provinces.

Binh Thuy communal house

Next, we visited some iconic old houses in Tay Do, namely Duong House’s Church and the house of Village Chief of Police Duong Lap Cang (both in Binh Thuy District); the house of Mr. Huyen Cang (Ninh Kieu District); the house of merchant Thieu Phat (O Mon District); and the house of Mr. Phan Quat (Cai Rang District), etc. Two days was not enough time to discover other well-known old houses.

A common and easily recognizable feature of old houses in Can Tho is their combination of Eastern and Western styles in architecture and adornment, furniture, and the design of worship areas. Most of them have wooden frames, as per the Southern Region’s typical “ruong” house layout. Their interiors were either “three-compartment-and-double-wing” or “five–compartment-and-double-wing” arrangements, consisting of two or three buildings interconnecting in “chong yan die wu” (literally “multiple buildings sharing the same foundation”) style, an extremely popular design in Hue’s palace architecture. However, these houses have a pleasant twist: the wooden frame bears sophisticated carvings of elegant, native Vietnamese patterns paired with a facade and enclosing walls designed and adorned in the style of Western Europe, consisting of spiral staircases with baluster handrails, and door posts and arches decorated in Gothic or Art Nouveau styles, then popular in Europe.

The interior of the Duong family’s house in Binh Thuy District, Can Tho City

Inside the houses, although Western materials were used for floor tiling and ceilings, and European furniture was used for decoration, their arrangement heavily suggested strong Asian influences, exampled by horizontal lacquered boards with Chinese characters, and decorations themed after Vietnamese and Chinese lore, legends, history, culture and arts.

It is safe to say that having been built in the context of strong exposure to Western culture in the South Region, the houses were heavily inspired by Western architecture and fine arts. However, they managed to capture and preserve an Asian cultural quintessence in their worship spaces, and in chosen themes, patterns and vignettes in interior and exterior adornments. This is how the true values of cultural heritages have been preserved in Tay Do.