Oldest Vietnamese community house in South Vietnam falls into oblivion

(No.5, Vol.3, June 2013 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

Inside Thong Tay Hoi Community House.

Hundreds of years ago, Vietnamese from the Central Region came to the lands of what is now Saigon in wooden boats. The central Vietnamese were accustomed to living together on elevated hills. In all of Saigon, there was only one area of land that was high, and lush with wild ironwood trees (Mesua Ferrea), so they gathered there to build a village and called it Go Vap, or the ‘Hills of Ironwood.’
One of the most important matters for the Vietnamese was to build a community house in which to worship tutelary spirits and protector deities. According to writer and researcher Son Nam, the Thong Tay Hoi is the oldest community house of the Vietnamese in Saigon. Sources say that the house was built in 1679. Nineteen years later, in 1698, the year in which he decided to found Saigon, the Nguyen Lord dispatched Nguyen Huu Canh on an inspection tour of the South to establish Gia Dinh Prefect and the districts Phuoc Long and Tan Binh. Since then, the South was annexed within Vietnam’s borders. The Thong Tay Hoi Community House constitutes a vivid landmark from the past that still exists.

According to Trinh Hoai Duc, at first the Thong Tay Hoi Community House was made of wood and foliage. It was not until its inhabitants started to flourish and craft trades took hold that the community house was finally roofed with tiles. Compared to structures of the Cham, Chinese, and Khmer, the community house exhibits unique characteristics. Although it does not make frequent use of bricks or enamel and its coloration is not bright, it still stands out, owing to its system of pillars, wooden rafters and exquisite engravings.
Whereas the majority of community houses in the South do not clearly record the names of their tutelary spirits, the Thong Tay Hoi Community House’s worship hall contains an ancestral tablet that clearly reads, ‘Huu Dong Chinh Duc Thanh Hoang Dai Vuong (The Village Tutelary Spirits and Great Princes of the Right Dong Chinh and Duc Thanh).’
Prince Dong Chinh and Prince Duc Thanh were sons of King Ly Thai To. After King Ly Thai To passed away, the two rose up in armed rebellion, but failed. Nevertheless, they were pardoned from death by King Ly Thai Tong and allowed to open up the southern frontier regions. They were consequently venerated as the patron saints of pioneering in the South. When they advanced into the South, migrants from the Central Region brought the ancestral tablets of the princes with them.

Inside Thong Tay Hoi Community House.

On the premises of Thong Tay Hoi Community House.
Photos: Tran Cao Bao Long, 2013

History has its fascinating ironies. King Ly Thai To relocated the capital to found the prosperous Thang Long Citadel, while his sons came to be worshiped as tutelary spirits in the Southern Region’s first village. It was precisely here where Saigon City was formed.
The first sensation I experienced when I visited the house was true bewilderment. Saigon is a first-rate developed city, one that possesses the Thu Thiem tunnel, the most modern in Southeast Asia, yet the oldest community house of Saigon’s Vietnamese is falling into dilapidation.
The gate to the house is made of iron in the Chinese style. However, whereas Chinese ceremonial halls are carefully attended with incense burning day and night, the gate of the Thong Tay Hoi Community House is locked from the inside and its doors are rusty. Strewn around within the community house are homeless people, addicts, and lottery ticket peddlers.
Beside of the community house’s premises is the modest casket shop of the custodian; on the other side is a police station. Behind the community house are several chicken coops, a tailor shop and almost a dozen sturdy houses that lack land ownership papers. The people on the community house’s management committee said to me, ‘The area of the community house is over 5,000 square metres, but in reality, we now only manage 1,500 square metres of it.’
Stepping into the main hall, I saw two halls connected together with 48 pillars divided into 8 rows. Owing to restoration, the current structure retains solid pillars. Although the main hall is vacant, occasionally some poor people enter, kneel down, and beg for winning lottery tickets. In the main hall, besides an altar for worshipping tutelary spirits and former and latter worthies, I even saw a votive altar Guan Yu, the deified warrior and historical figure from the Chinese novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which somebody took it upon himself to stick in there!

On the premises of Thong Tay Hoi Community House
Photos: Tran Cao Bao Long, 2013

The martial arts and song house, where traditional art activities are performed, has an area of 238 square metres, including seven old tiled halls with 52 successive wooden pillars. Today, four of the halls are in ruin.
The convention hall, where guests are received and votive offerings are prepared for worship in the main hall, was constructed with an area of 228 square metres, including three interconnected halls. The entire structure lies lower than the surface of the community house’s courtyard. One local resident said, ‘In the rainy season, water flows into the convention hall as if flowing into a pond.’
The custodian pointed to the rows of newly-added tiles with concern, saying ‘The tiles are damaged; the rafters are eaten by woodworms. We recently asked the community to make donations for temporary reinforcements. I don’t know how much longer these three houses will hold out.' The rows of vertical pillars in the convention hall have already been eaten away by woodworms.
The Temple of the Five Elements, shared by Vietnamese from the Central Region and the North, is in utter ruin.
In 2009, the people rebuilt the Temple of the Goddesses (referring to the Vietnamese Goddess cult), but the temple was virtually blocked off by a vocational school.
I saw that the precinct residents were gathered around, building walls. One of them said, ‘Uncouth characters freely climb in and make trouble. They even climb over the rooftop in order to steal statues. There was one addict who broke in and lay down to sleep, but rolled over and died on the spot.’Southern Vietnamese still consider the Thong Tay Hoi the cultural origin of their ethnicity. Formerly, during festivals, people would parade the ancestral tablets of village tutelary spirits from numerous places to the house. Mr Ty, who serves on the community house’s management committee, revealed, ‘Even during the propitiation ceremony, 74 community houses continue to come and participate in the ceremony.’
Faced with the degradation of the forefather of spirit community houses, the populace cannot avoid feeling downcast. However, ‘The amount of money needed to restore the community house exceeds the people’s ability to donate funds. We only have enough money to make small repairs. Moreover, the people only consider making donations once a project is finished,’ Mr Ty said. The people estimate that the money for repairing the old convention hall ‘will require more than several billion dongs.’ And that still does not account for the fact that over half of the community house has already been encroached upon.
Mr Nguyen Van Hung, the Deputy Chairman of the Fatherland Front of Precinct 11 in Go Vap District, said, ‘In 1978, the central government came to repair the roof and raise the foundation of the main hall so as to resist flooding. The next year, it conferred the community house the title of ‘national heritage site for architectural art and cultural history.’ From that time up until now, from the central government down to the city, absolutely no one has invested even a single dong.’
Thong Tay Hoi Community Hall is on Thong Nhat Street, Ward 11, Go Vap District, Ho Chi Minh City. It is five-minute walk northward from the crossroad of Thong Nhat and Nguyen Van Luong.

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