Text after: KTS Tran Binh; Pictures: Ngo Dinh Truc
Published in the magazine Nhà Đẹp Xuân Canh Dần - 02/2010
At cockcrow, on the Lunar New Year's Day, I am lying awake enjoying the early silent hours of the familial house on my bed by the yellow chrysanthemum daisies. In our dining room, my grandmother has already laid the table waiting for all her grandchildren to gather on this special day. This year, I didn’t choose apricot blossom or peach blossom for Tet decoration but colorful paper flowers. I do look at them as the most beautiful one because they’re not lying: at the very first glance, you can tell that they’re made of papers and not pretending otherwise. They are only sold for Tet, thus only made for this occasion, they have no perfume and cannot fade but they are vivid thanks to their bursting colors.
It seems that this Tet will be better for me as I’ve just opened a restaurant in “memory” of my grandmother’s stall. Small and not worth much it’s is almost down, we can’t give it a new roof as the frame is too decayed, so she’s mending it piece by piece to keep her protected from the sun and the rain… Through the time, it was always solid enough to help her raise us, accompanying us along our youth and learning times. Absorbed in my busy urban life, I only realize today its inestimable value: this stall is the only thing helping her step into her 90’s. This is the best New Year’s Day present that could have been given to me, quietly bustling with life.
After New Year’s Eve, she usually let kids be the first New Year’s caller. All her grandchildren bring money on their way back home, spontaneously without anyone asking for it. It was never planned but already turned out to be a family rule, as Tet is the only chance to get little presents. Under the sunlight coming through the leaves, under a light breeze, my grandmother is walking to the market; she doesn’t need to but it’s her way to exercise. During their free time, old ladies from the neighborhood come to her stall and spend their time chatting about grandchildren, love, offense, joy and sadness… any small things of their life in the village.
Cuc Gach Quan is the place where sincere, peaceful and quiet souvenirs can be created in a warm and cozy place, where the true values of a “countryman” are reigning under the motto “eat green, live healthy”, every action designed to demonstrate respect to our environment. Mixing the old and the new to comply to today’s convenient use. Imitating my grandmother, I put chopstick in a Lygo-milk old can for clients to pick them before eating; a natural gesture for them as if they were backing home. The glasses were made after duck eggs racks: I kept the global shape and transposed it in a new material changing a bit their size, giving them an odd but close look. When the weather was hot, I can remember my grandmother giving me rice and black beans infusion to drink. Natural and simple, they are considered now as the “drinks to have” following the general trend of a greener life, simple but sophisticated in their preparation process far from the 30-secs gesture of opening an already prepared bottle. Imitating my grandmother, my chef prepares home-made tofu, home-made pickles; she serves soya-sauce home-made by Ms. Ba & Ms. Bay for they don’t know how to add preservatives, green beans porridge without taking out beans shells as being afraid of denaturing the tastes; and she doesn’t sell fried-bananas for them to be incentives for clients underlining their “core value”.
My “countryside” restaurant is the very source of my inspiration for architecture. This place settled in a French colonial house is my way to keep a piece of Saigon past. My grandmother’s stall was re-created in the staff dining room, giving it a familial turn, switching the working atmosphere for a friendly and intimate one. The pond and the Tram trees set in construction pipes looking alike an oasis, giving the feeling to be lost in wild nature far from the city. A wide space. Imitating my grandmother, I only bought already-used wood when restoring the house as to save money. Taking out the nails, leveling each little wood fragment and putting them together were neither easy nor usual jobs. 4x8 wood pieces, with an average length of 1m, put alongside the central beams for dust not to fall from the ceiling; that is a trick I learnt from my workers, how many architects know it? The stairs are difficult to use, I admit my design being wrong something but I didn’t want to cut the wooden pillar so we had to get used to them; that would be my safest justification – a way to invite people to think twice before cutting deep in anything.
Nowadays this restaurant is the place where children can learn, a place for people sharing the same passion for life to meet. Here the grapefruit tree is not giving any fruit, no matter how much we take care of it; the best we could get was some small flowers. By a dark night without moon, I step by it and inspire their delicate perfume, kept quiet for a while and turned to my staff: See, everything cannot be found in the city.
Look at flowers as the emanation of beauty and purity!