The pseudo-ancient house hunt
  • | Tuoi Tre | January 05, 2012 07:33 AM

From hundreds of millions of dong to hundreds of billions, brownish-black houses with curved point tiles and sophisticated carving details in the style of ancient generals’ mansions, or modeled after palace designs, are becoming more popular. 
An old house is relocated and set up as a pseudo-ancient house for its new owner

Phong, a renowned pseudo-ancient house maker in Nam Dinh, says, “The traditional profession in our family is carpentry. I was about to quit after trying various jobs but, eventually, the family job proved to be profitable due to the rich classes’ hunt for pseudo-ancient houses”.

He has years of experience in searching for, building, and renovating old and ancient houses into pseudo-ancient houses for the wealthy all over the country.

Bustling trade

Phong says it was during the 22nd SEA Games in 2003 that he first hired a van to transport a whole wooden house from Nam Dinh to Hanoi to build a restaurant.

After that, his business took off. Hundreds of old wooden, pseudo-ancient houses have made their way back and forth across the country, becoming private homes or restaurants for many.

Hundreds of houses have even been exported to the US.

“The affluent nowadays not only need a Western style house with full amenities, but many are seeking houses in the traditional Vietnamese architectural style to show off their class”.

Phong says he has just completed a pseudo-ancient construction in Hanoi, comprising of five meticulously built houses, worth nearly VND200 billion ($9.5 million).

“I’ve just taken on another job in District 2, Ho Chi Minh City, which is worth nearly VND300 billion, and is considered the most expensive investment in pseudo-ancient houses today”.

Another pseudo-ancient house maker named Tien, in Nghe An, says: “Each year, my crew and I make dozens of houses. The more money people have, the better the quality of lumber. We do it at all kinds of price”.

For example, if the lumber belongs to the “hard-four group” (including teak and ironwood), the house will be more expensive than those made of lower quality lumber.

A house with five compartments and six rows of columns with details on the truss, along with carved pictures on the partition between the main hall and rooms, requires 50 cubic metres of lumber and 450 hours of labour.

If such a house were made with ironwood, it would will cost around VND3 billion, if it was made with mixed lumber, it would cost only VND300 million.

A pseudo-ancient house in Huong Linh of the central province Nghe An 

High-class fever

Tapping on the antique-oriented psychology, many with some knowledge of pseudo-ancient houses have hunted for old wooden houses.

The ideal targets are those made from the “hard-four” lumber group, because such houses can last over 100 years.

“However, not everyone grasps this knowledge of lumber. Many spacious houses are only as good as they look.

Peeling away the outer skin doesn’t reveal the quality of lumber. We have to use a knife’s spine or hammer to knock on it.

Even after being in the trade for several years now I still mistakenly buy half-useless wooden houses sometimes”. – says Phong.

The areas around Hoa Binh, Nghe An, and Ha Tinh has become the country’s hot spot for ancient house building and collecting in the country.

Artist Thanh Chuong in Hanoi is the initiator of the “tradition revival” movement for ancient Vietnamese architecture, including typical Northern style houses, which have become tourist attractions.

Chuong contends that the reason for hunting for hundred-year-old pseudo-ancient houses is that “I have loved traditional artistic values from a young age.

The cultural heritage left for us is vast, but it was also damaged during the wars. Apart from conservation purposes, development of those values is worth trying”.

L.M.H, a wealthy car merchandiser in Ho Chi Minh City, has just spent over VND180 billion ($8.6 million) to ask 40 builders from Nghe An to fly in and build an ancient house in the post-Le dynasty style in District 9.

He says: “Money is not the issue. I only want an ancient house that cherishes the country’s origin, resembles the life of our ancestors, and at the same time demonstrates my top-class taste.

Illegal lumber exploitation to build houses

Recently, although demand for ancient houses has been high, new lumber has been the material source for the construction of pseudo-ancient houses.

Nguyen Phuc Huy, of HCMC, a connoisseur in finding and merchandising ancient houses, says lumber sources are not scarce, but good-quality lumber can only be bought in Nghe An and Thanh Hoa.

At a concentration point of lumber for building pseudo-ancient houses in the middle of Vinh City, thousands of cubic metres of lumber, big and small, are piled up.

In front of the gate are trucks carrying padauk lumber with diameters of up to 50 centimetres.

“This lumber is exported to China and is transported at night. The price of each cubic metre is VND50 million.

“If customers have a real need to build pseudo-ancient houses, the lowest we can charge is VND22 million a cubic metre for ironwood”, says the establishment owner.

For the same type of lumber, other lumber supply owners in Vinh City and Nghe An contend that this is an impossible price, because the cheapest lumber from Laos already costs VND30 million ($1,400) each cubic metre.

Apart from some types of wood which are certified as imports from Laos and South Africa, the majority of Vietnam’s teak lumber is exploited in local forests and transported to Vinh via river.

Thus, the lumber is mostly illegal, and varies widely in cost despite being one of the members of the “hard-four” group.

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