83-year-old Le Thanh Cong just doesn’t care. Why do we want to see his house? Oh, people always come to see the house, he doesn’t mind. Can we take some pictures? Sure we can take some pictures.
But when we ask details, his willingness hits a roadblock. Why was the house built out here? He doesn’t know. How old is it? He can’t say. He’s just an old man who will die soon, living here.
Until a few years ago his mother also lived in the house, along with the seven members of younger generations currently residing there. Her room is still unoccupied. Faded letters reading “Mung le thuong tho ba Nguyen Thi Quy 100 tuoi” — “Happy birthday and long live 100-year-old grandmother Nguyen Thi Quy” — stay glued to the wall. A 100-year-old cabinet made of the rare wood his family trafficked in, sits in the front room between alabaster-white pillars.
Through the Generations
Cong’s grandfather, Le Minh Tri, built the house before Cong was born. Owing to a recent stroke and the vagaries of old age, he hardly remembers anything about his elder, besides for his Annamite origins — Tri came from modern-day Central Vietnam.
But Cong does remember one thing about the baroque structure his grandfather built, whose pointed roof breaks the fence-line separating it from Binh Thanh’s busy No Trang Long Street. No concrete was used in its building — the uneven hues of its surface, cracked but remarkably well preserved, are a product of a simple lime-and-sugar mixture.
The pointed roof itself is the rarest feature of the house. The Notre Dame Cathedral is the only other building in Saigon with that type of hinged, pitched-tile roof, curlicue embellishments occurring rhythmically down its stone ridges.
Cong’s father, Le Thanh Tri, harvested wood from forests to the north — Trang Bom and Dinh Quan forests in Dong Nai Province, and Dong Xoai forest in Binh Phuoc Province, site of the Battle of Dong Xoai in 1965.
Although Cong managed a lumber business, he didn’t have to “go to the forest”. And soon, the wilderness around 237 No Trang Long began to change. From a “haunted area” — with tales of wartime bodies dumped into the nearby Saigon River — post-1975 the neighbourhood began to develop into the populous area of today. What was once a solitary outpost among rubber plantations, the gateway between central Saigon and an unsettled world, is now only an outpost of memory between a Thegioididong electronics store and a garden café. And the world continues to progress, outside the vine-wreathed fences of 237 No Trang Long. — Ed Weinberg