Marguerite Duras was a world-renowned French writer and activist. Although she’s known for her exceptional literary works and command of dialog, not many know that she was born and raised in Vietnam. Duras’ most famous work, L’Amant, is an embellished autobiography of her teenage years that took place in the straits of the Mekong River where she grew up. Her 1930s story narrates the love affair of a poor, nameless French girl and a wealthy, much older, Vietnamese-Chinese man.
While many stories come and go with little to be remembered by – apart from the accounts of those who lived them – a relic of this particular tale still stands today, almost a century later. The house of Duras’ lover remains as a window to the pair’s passionate love affair. Recognised as a national relic site in 2009, the Huỳnh Thủy Lê Ancient House attracts throngs of visitors every year.
Aboard Aqua Mekong, you can retrace the journey of these star-crossed lovers. Sail the same deltas they did when they first met while you’re on our 3-, 4-, and 7-night itineraries.
The Book Where it All Began
Duras’ novel-turned-film, L’Amant was the winner of the prestigious Prix Goncourt in 1984. While slightly fictionalized, the story mirrored her early years in many ways. Duras details the loss of her father, her mother’s depression, and her family’s financial struggles despite their high social status.
Things take a turn as she’s traveling back to her boarding school after spending the holidays on the Mekong Delta. She’s approached by a charming Chinese man, an heir to a great fortune, who offers her a cigarette and conversation. The pair find themselves in an intense love affair despite the plague of complications they faced.
Most blatantly, Duras is underaged, 12 years the lover’s junior. Beyond that, their differences in racial and socioeconomic status were insuperable at the time, and when their affair was inevitably discovered, both faced disapproval from their families, friends, and the general public.
Against all odds, the two continued their relationship, however it wasn’t meant to last forever. The lover’s father threatened to cut him off financially and arranged for him to marry a Chinese heiress instead. He tried to fight back but was shut down and told that Duras only wanted him from his money.
The heartbreaking cherry on top? The narrator realized Duras’ love for him only after spurning him, and she snuck into his wedding to see him one last time before leaving to start a new life.
An echo of a distant past
Those interested in a glimpse of the pair’s lives can still look forward to visiting the house of the lover built in 1895 – a moment of the past preserved in architecture. It’s now a popular house tour included in our Aqua Mekong itineraries.
Fun fact: Jean Mascolo, Duras’ only son, once stayed in the house to learn about his mother’s youth.
Inside the house, visitors will be able to see portraits of Duras, her rumored lover, and the actors who portrayed them in the film adaptation as well.
The three-room wooden house was built in 1895 by Huynh Cam Thuan and occupied 258-square meters at the time. After its renovation in 1917, the home was enhanced with colonial elements of design that blended eastern with western charm. The sophisticated decor within the house portrays the lifestyle in southern Vietnam during the 19th and 20th centuries.
The roof has yin-yang double-tiles in the style of Northern Vietnamese pagodas, but the French exteriors have Renaissance-style embossing. The classical domes above the doors, windows and gates point West, a counterpoint to the interior’s red and gold-trimmed Chinese carving and lacquering. It features dragons, birds and plants like orchids, apricots, bamboos and chrysanthemums, denoting wealth and rank.
The most distinctive piece of furniture in the house is a low lacquered table, again in the Chinese style, adorned with mother of pearl. The dominant pattern is that of a bat, a symbol of good luck in China.
An interesting feature in the house is that the floor slopes ever so slightly towards the middle of the house because according to feng shui, money – like water – tends to flow to the lowest point.
Join us on the Aqua Mekong for a taste of Mekong Delta to explore their love story and be treated to a vibrant Southeast Asian tapestry of Vietnamese history, architecture and culinary delights.