The house – in all its ornate, shadowy excess – embodies the doomed days of French colonialism, and provides a window into the country’s complex history.
The French writer Marguerite Duras lived in Sa Dec between 1928 and 1932, when her mother – a bankrupt colonial widow – ran a school there. It was in Sa Dec that Duras as a 15-year-old schoolgirl met Huynh Thuy Le, 27, the son of a wealthy Chinese family.
The two began a love affair that inspired Duras’s 1984 Prix Goncourt-winning best-selling novel, The Lover (L’Amante) that has been translated into 43 languages and has sold 2.4 million copies. A film version proved more popular in Vietnam despite erotic scenes being censored.
Duras never lived in the Lover’s house in Sa Dec on Nguyen Hue St across the road from the steamy Mekong. Huynh Thuy Le’s family frowned on the affair and forced him to marry a Chinese woman, but he loved Duras until his death, and before she died in 1996 she admitted that she had loved him too.
Interestingly, Duras’ mother and older brother would not countenance her marrying a Chinese man either – both families saw the union as beneath them – a significant symbol of the dissonance of the times.
The house, one of Sa Dec’s many old French colonial mansions and merchant homes, was proclaimed a national relic for architectural arts in 2009.
It’s now open to the public and we are visiting as part of our Treasures of the Mekong luxury Scenic Spirit cruise through Cambodia and Vietnam.
Though this is a place whose time has passed – abandoned, full of painful memory, its personal story of doomed love, disenchantment, brutal power shifts, and rejection finds a parallel in Vietnamese Indochinese history.
Following the 1954 Geneva Accord, the French evacuated Vietnam, and French Indochina expired, though Vietnam bears many French colonial legacies – the ornate architecture, the Latin-based alphabet, French cuisine-influences like Bahn-mi or baguettes, filtered coffee, and the wide French-style boulevards.
We’ve reached the Lover’s House from the Scenic Spirit via sampan down the watery byways of the Mekong’s “Nine Dragons” delta, negotiating the powerful river, the floating villages, the laden barges with their painted-on eyes to ward off evil, the thick rugs of water hyacinths and, finally, the slippery uneven steps that deliver us into the wholesale food markets.
Sa Dec itself with its 150,000 inhabitants, is not touristy, and the market is busy and authentic – the word bedlam springs to mind: hawkers yelling their wares, goods-laden motorbikes coming at you at speed, wholesalers pushing barrows packed with water mimosa, chillies, dragon fruit, dried catfish, tapioca, rambutans, limes, durian, or writhing eels, and who cares if your ankles are in the way.
Sa Dec, known during colonial times as “the garden of Cochin-China”, is still famous for its flower gardens. We’re visiting not long after the Tet festival when many Vietnamese visit from Saigon for flower shopping.
The market is an absorbing insight into Vietnamese market culture and in utter contrast to the stillness of the Lover’s House. It helps to take with you a sense of context, otherwise this is merely another gorgeous home built in the Sino-French architectural style.
Duras’ novel is by no means a sentimental portrait. She writes of a sense of alienation in a strange land and “a terrible loneliness”, something that is reflected in the house itself. And yet in The Lover, she writes with passion about the river:
“My mother sometimes tells me that never in my whole life shall I ever again see rivers as beautiful and big and wild as these, the Mekong and its tributaries going down to the sea, the great regions of water soon to disappear into the caves of the ocean. In the surrounding flatness stretching as far as the eye can see, the rivers flow as if the earth sloped downwards.”
Ensconced in the high-ceilinged hall, we sip ginger tea and nibble candied ginger while the Vietnamese guide, dressed in a beautiful traditional ao dais scarlet gown, explains this symbolic importance of water to Chinese culture, showing us the hallway tiles sunken due to the Mekong’s rising water.
The walls are covered with photographs of Huynh Thuy Le, his Chinese wife and children, as well as glamorous scenes from the film – the late Huynh Thuy Le sadly not half as glam as his filmic counterpart.
The house was originally built from wood in 1895, but then brick-coated in the French architectural style in 1917. The roof has yin-yang double tiles in the style of northern Vietnamese pagodas, but the French facade, floors, balconies, and ceilings have Renaissance-style embossing.
The classical domes above the doors, windows, and gates point West, a counterpoint to the interior’s red and gold-trimmed Chinese carving and lacquering, featuring dragons, birds, and plants like orchids, apricots, bamboos, and chrysanthemums, denoting wealth and rank. The living room ceiling is carved with a dragon surrounded by four bats with coins in their mouths symbolising affluence.
A prominent altar honours Chinese antiquities general Guan Yu from ancient times, worshipped for loyalty, integrity, power, and prosperity. A plaque in the main hall translates to “China and the West admire together”.
Valuable antiques from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries litter the house, including a Louis XIV table and chairs, and furniture with intricate inlaid mother-of-pearl.
Huynh Thuy Le died in 1972, and his family lives abroad though they retain the house. Perhaps if he had been allowed to marry his young French lover, the house would not stand abandoned today, a symbol of lost passion.