Madame Hang Nga's Crazy House

Like a Disney animation of a Grimm's Brothers fairy tale,

Maggie Huff-Rousselle

DA LAT, VIETNAM MAGGIE HUFF-ROUSSELLE Special to The Globe and Mail

A cool hill station far from the bombing and guerrilla warfare in the southern part of the country, Da Lat was a resort during the Vietnam War and has remained a resort, with still-intact colonial villas designed at the turn of the last century by celebrated French architects. The Crazy House, built by the daughter of Ho Chi Minh's right-hand man, wriggles up amidst the surrounding architecture as a bizarre contrast. Bizarre for Vietnam. Bizarre for Southeast Asia. It is like a Disney animation of a Grimm's Brothers fairy tale sculpted by Salvador Dali on the grounds of a classic French colonial villa.

The modest villa serves as restaurant and reception area. The décor is unchanged in the half century since the tentacles of the French Empire lost their grip on Southeast Asia. The floors are dark varnished hardwood planks of uneven widths and the furniture is simple French colonial stock: heavy wood with aged red leatherette cushions. The woodwork is layered with chocolate enamel paint, high-lighting the tiny hairline cracks of age. "It's a tad creepy," said a Canadian guest, running her finger through the grime on a scalloped parchment lampshade.

The walls are covered with magazine clippings of articles and patchwork collages of photographs in large wooden frames: photographs of Madame Hang Nga -- born Dang Viêt Nga -- as one face in a children's classroom portrait; seated at a piano in a traditional Vietnamese ao doi;wearing a lacey white Bo Peep dress under a red parasol; and as an adolescent with her father and other famous politicians.

A faded Cosmopolitan clipping claims Hang Nga was bounced on the knees of Ho Chi Minh, Fidel Castro, and other famous revolutionaries. Born in 1940, she was probably too old for knee bouncing when she first met Uncle Ho and Fidel, but she knew them. As Ho Chi Minh's right-hand man and the first president of Vietnam after reunification, her father, Truong Chinh, was a revolutionary in his own right.

Children sometimes dream of becoming characters in fairy tales. Dang Viêt Nga made that dream and now lives in a concrete, revolutionary fairy tale -- she even made up a name for herself: Hang Nga (Sister of the Moon).

"My father is political man," she said, speaking slowly in English, "but he understands poetry and literature." After completing her primary education in China, Hang Nga eventually completed a PhD in architecture in Russia. "I like art and technique," she explained, "and architecture is art and technique together."

Like most Vietnamese professionals, she worked for the state. "I am very sad," she said, describing her relationship with the Da Lat People's Committee. "After working in government offices, I decide to do something for myself." That something was the Crazy House. "Now they see all the foreigners come here, and they ask: 'Why do all the foreigners come here? They are crazy. Madame Hang Nga is crazy.' But now some of them understand."

Beyond the curtain of shell necklaces covering the panes of the front window in Hang Nga's villa, a giant concrete "root" has grown up out of the porch. This is the beginning of one of the complex of "tree houses" she has sculpted in her garden. The tree to the East holds five rooms and seems to be complete. If anything here is complete. The entire complex is a work in progress, a cluttered tangle, remarkably organic in every sense.

In addition to stunningly executed spider-web skylights and sculpted doors, hallways and balconies, the Crazy House is spiced with garish decorative details such as the thin cotton curtains of pastel blue and pink, intended to imitate blue sky and clouds but utterly failing to do so. This is the kitsch that makes it so camp -- the sixties word that is rarely heard now. In addition to overnight guests, small busloads of visitors arrive at regular intervals allowing a tribe of varied ethnicity and nationality to spill out over the walkways between the trees and gawk. They are part of the kitsch.

Most foreigners adore Hang Nga and her Crazy House. A typed letter from France rants about fonctionnaires borné (narrow-minded bureaucrats) who claim that artists pervert society. "Quintessentially cosmic," wrote one fan from California. "I admire your ability to turn imagination into architecture" wrote another from New Zealand. "Very brave, brilliant," wrote a Singaporean guest. An Australian has sketched a portrait of Madame Hang Nga, looking like an impish pixie. Other guests have left pastel watercolours and hand-written music for the "Queen of the Moon."

Each of the five rooms, explains Hang Nga, has its own theme. The tiger room is for the Chinese. A large tiger with eyes burning bright with red Christmas tree lights, descends down the wall toward the fireplace. The Eagle Room, with a giant eagle's egg as a fireplace, is "big and strong" for the Americans. The Ant Room is for the Vietnamese. "They are always trying to do hard work," says Hang Nga, "and, like red ants, they can fight back."

The concrete tree to the west contains these three rooms. Its upper level has a framework of the slim tree trunks used in construction in most developing countries, draped with blue plastic sacking. Using the existing roofs of the Tiger Room, the Eagle Room, and the Ant Room for its foundations, this is where Hang Nga will build her dream room: the Bee Room. It will be a two-storey suite, with two bathrooms, a waterfall and a massage bathtub. "All countries have bees," Hang Nga explains. Bees have "unity." They are "organic" and have "technique character." "They," she searches for the English word, "collaborate." This room, with no more than a few branches in the skeleton of its walls, is mostly still in Hang Nga's imagination.

"You share with the world your love of the unconventional, no nationality," wrote one fan of unidentified nationality. "Hang Nga is blessed with a rare quality called belief," writes another guest from Israel, "believing in one's dreams."

The Vietnamese Tourist Administration describes Da Lat as Vietnam's most romantic destination, and Madame Hang Nga's guesthouse is very personalized: no Web site, no e-mail, but every cab driver in Da Lat knows where it is. Published rates of $29-$84 (U.S.) are often easy to negotiate. Buses go from Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), winding for hours up through the hills of coffee and tea plantations, or planes go once a day. Private cars can also be hired. Tel: 84-63-822-070; fax: 84-63-831-480.

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