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Ancient woodblocks housed in luxury villa

Update: August, 02/2009 - 00:00

Ancient woodblocks housed in luxury villa

Heritage: Nguyen Dynasty woodblocks are expected to be recognised as world cultural heritage by UNESCO. — File Photos

Powerhouse: A villa formerly owned by powerful members of the Sai Gon puppet government.


Nguyen Dynasty woodblocks are being preserved in a house that has seen its own share of history. Uong Thai Bieu reports.

One of the country’s most likely candidates submitted for UNESCO recognition is a collection of woodblocks from the Nguyen Dynasty, but the building it is housed in is drawing just as much attention.

The 34,000 woodblocks, illustrating literary and historical works, are now being preserved in the State Records and Archives Department at the National Archives Centre No 4, according to director of the centre, Pham Thi Hue.

The blocks are made up of a plate of wood with letters carved in Chinese or Han Viet. The letters are carved in reverse so when the image is printed it will appear the right way round.

Record making

The blocks represent an important part of the country’s feudal history. Under the Nguyen Dynasty, the woodblocks were made to print information publicising social standards, articles on the lives and careers of the aristocracy and historical events. These were original records of the time and it is for this reason that they are considered so valuable to the nation.

According to Nguyen Thanh Chau, a Chinese and Han Viet teacher at Da Lat University, most of the woodblocks are made of wood of the thi tree (which is yellow, soft and tough). According to Chau, this kind of wood is especially good in preserving the shape of the carvings.

Woodblocks are held up by experts as good sources of reliable history to help people study, compare, and review materials to help research Vietnamese history.

There are many valuable and rare woodblocks, including Dai Nam Nhat Thong Chi (History of the unification of Great Viet Nam) and Dai Nam Thuc Luc (Royal annals of Great Viet Nam).

They also include poems and literary works written by prominent Emperors like Minh Mang, Thieu Tri and Tu Duc. Therefore, apart from historical value, the woodblocks also are important in terms of their art and skill, marking the development of the woodblock carving and printing profession in Viet Nam.

Director Hue says the Nguyen Dynasty woodblocks are being stored using the country’s most modern equipment. The facility is capable of storing 5,000m of documents, preserved by a concentrated air-conditioner system.

The facility itself is located at the former residence of Ngo Dinh Nhu, who was the younger brother and chief political advisor of South Viet Nam’s first President, Ngo Dinh Diem. Nhu was widely regarded as the brains behind Diem’s autocratic regime. His wife Tran Le Xuan, popularly known as Madame Nhu, was considered the First Lady of South Viet Nam from 1955 to 1963.

There are three magnificent villas situated on a hill slope occupying the best view point over Da Lat City.

The first of the three villas is Bach Ngoc (While Gem), which used to be the venue where Nhu’s family would entertain generals and high-ranking officers of Sai Gon’s administration. The second building, Lam Ngoc (Deep Blue Gem), was a weekend resort and finally Hong Ngoc (Ruby) was built for Xuan’s father Tran Van Chuong who was US-based Ambassador of the Republic of Viet Nam in that time.

It is said that no one dared to come near Ngo’s private residence. All they knew was that the buildings housed power-wielding men from the Sai Gon puppet government.

No one knows how much money Xuan spent to build the villas, but its exquisite and luxurious facade are still in good condition today. The grounds cover an area of 13,000cu.m which today include convention halls, offices, discotheque and guest houses.

Just as in the villas’ glory days, the area still houses a warm-water swimming pool and a Japanese garden. Behind the garden there is a lotus lake. When it is full of water, an image of a map of Viet Nam appears. Reminiscent of the times, there is also a bomb-shelter inside Lam Ngoc Villa, which is made of reinforced iron that can withstand firepower.

During that time, this private residence was a restricted area. Tens of policemen and guards were on duty all day and night. It was said that if a bird strayed into the garden, it would be shot immediately.

After political upheaval in 1963, South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem was killed by his own US-backed troops during a coup. After this, the villas were became the Central Highlands Museum of Ethnic Groups.

The Ministry of Home Affairs invested more than VND50 billion (US$2.8 million) to set up the National Archives Centre No 4 here to preserve many important documents including Nguyen Dynasty’s woodblocks.

The area has become a hot spot for tourists. Many domestic and foreign delegations have registered to visit the area to learn more about the country’s history. — VNS

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