It took six years of hard work and the help of master craftsmen, historians and geomancers to build this spectacular garden.
In 2006, I met Madame Tran Thi Tuyet and her husband while they were in Hue searching for skilled artisans to build their dream garden in Dong Nai province.
This was a lucky coincidence. Like them. I longed to recreate the ancient royal gardens of the Nguyen Dynasty. After a long and congenial conversation on the subject of gardens, the couple asked me to advise them in designing their garden.
Fortunately, the artisan Truong Van An – the eldest son of Master Artisan Cuu Lap – agreed to erect a traditional wooden Hue – style house and the main gate. Master geomancer Vinh Cao advised on the geomantic features of the terrain and water, and suggested a name for the garden. The couple’s friends also offered help and advice.
Words fail to describe the passion and hard work that Mr. and Mrs. Dang put into this garden. Over a period of six years, the couple traveled far and wide to collect materials. They visited the distant mountain ranges of Vietnam’s Northwest and the remote Southwest. They went from the Limestone Mountains of Ninh Binh to the thick jungles of the Tay Nguyen Highlands, then on to Hue and through the Central Region. They investigated every rumor concerning skilled artisans, beautiful plants and bizarre stones.
In the old day, Phu Xuan – Hue was the nation’s capital, while Dong Nai was a remote area in the South. An old verse states:
“As man one must behave a man
Then reach Phu Xuan and conquer Dong Nai”
A native of Dong Nai, Mr. Dang wished to create a garden that recalls the charm of Phu Xuan in the old days. He named the garden NHA VIEN. The word “Nha” expresses the meaning of both “Exacting” and “Elegant.” The word “Vien” does not only mean “Garden” but also connotes the meaning of “Fullness” and “Perfection.”
The garden measures exactly one mau ta – a Vietnamese acre, or 5,000 square meters. It is large enough to hold a few houses, a narrow brook, flowerbeds, ornamental shrubs and several rockeries.
The small brook that flows from west to east is named Huong Tuyen (Perfume Brook), to remind people of the Perfume River in Hue. The brook receives water from Mount Ngu Phong, a large ornamental rock. At the back of the Hall is a well. Ngu Phong Waterfall empties into a small pond where colorful water lilies add to the romantic atmosphere.
Five small bridges span the stream. The one in front of Phu Xuan Hall is called kim Nghe (Golden Unicorn) Bridge. A stone bridge in the old Hue style, it is shaped like a rolling unicorn – a symbol of Hue. Behind the main gate and opposite Nam Bo (South Region) House lies a simple wooden bridge.
In front of a large and exotic red tree, which curves a moon gate shape, lies Long Nhi (Little Dragon) Bridge, which is made from a single slab of stone resembles a small dragon raising its back to invite visitors to pass. On the other branch of Huong Stream a large flagstone curves like a tortoise shell over the flowing water. This is Quy Kieu or turtle Bridge. In front of the Luong Phong bower lie six stepping stones.
Nha Vien’s owners wished to incorporate the cultures of Vietnam’s three regions into their dream garden. The left side of the garden will hold the South – Central styled Tu Quang Hall, and the right side is to hold a stilt – house of distant Northwest origin. Opposite the pavilion lies Nam Huyen Hall in a traditional Southern style. To remember their ancestry, future generations need only learn to pronounce the buildings’ names corrected and to know their intended purpose.
Mount Linh Phong was erected with three large rocks accompanied by one small rock. At the base of the “mountain” lie three other stones, bringing the number the number of rocks up to seven. The number seven represents the That Son Mountain Range – the main mountain range in the South.
A small path with the name Bach Bo Lien Hoa (Hundred Lotus Step) stars at the main gate and meanders through the garden. Visitors can stroll to their hearts’ content. Nha Vien conveys the joy of spring, the beauty of autumn and the romantic scent of a waning winter.
Building a garden takes determination. Maintaining it requires willpower. It is my hope that Nha Vien will continue to become more beautiful and more elegant. Five years from now, Nha Vien will not only be an asset to the Dang family but a famous garden in the South. It might even become a cultural heritage site for generations to come.