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11/04/2018 - 07:50

Tranquil Go Cong

Perhaps, compared to other cities in South Vietnam I have been to, Go Cong with its rivers and sea bears the most resemblance to Hue. Since My Loi Bridge joined the two banks of the Vam Co River, travelling from Ho Chi Minh City to Go Cong has even been faster than to My Tho City.

In front of the statue of Truong Dinh

We picked this route for our trip, and after only an hour or so, the hustle and bustle of the big city gave way to a tranquil space. Houses were too scattered to fill the vacant land, including the new residential area near Hong Rang hamlet, which lay only a few miles from the toll station on My Loi bridge. From the bridge, the Vam Co river appeared peaceful unlike my expectations.

Streets in the town center were not so long, and the widest of those was probably the short and broad Truong Dinh Street. I stood there at an intersection, in the glaring light of a high noon, just to gaze at Truong Dinh statue casting a shadow on the steps where several children seemed to be playing hide-and-seek.

The warble of swiftlets from the house on the other side of the street made the surroundings seem more hectic but peaceful. This feeling was identical to the one I had when Mrs. Sau Huong in front of the old Go Cong market gave me my shopping bag of fruit and cried out to her neighbor, "Wow! This girl's all the way from Hue city. Here you are. I picked only sweet ones…”

The most beautiful street in Go Cong town

Wandering in Go Cong gave me a pleasant mood as there were not very many streets. The short streets, running in a chessboard pattern were initially established a long time ago, when Go Cong was still a province under the French colonialism. This explained why up to now, this place had more than half of the total 350 ancient-architect houses in Tien Giang province.

Similar to Hue’s ancient houses, the houses here were built with long roof systems and corridors. Their style was semicolonial, situated in the heart of open, familiar surroundings, but seemed more accessible and friendly. I somehow associated these features with the Southerner’s smile under the green trees shadowing the large gardens.

It seemed that the fast pace of urban life had not affected much of Go Cong’s, except a downside of the streets in the inner city having few to no trees at all. Luckily, the wind blown to the town from the sea seemed invigorating in the middle of the afternoon, cool enough for elderly men and women to sit together on stools, apparently watching cars and pedestrians passing by.

A marbled table - artifacts in the ancient villa of former governor Hai. Photo: Nghia Son

Perhaps the prime time of Go Cong was under the former governor Nguyen Van Hai’s (grandson-in-law of Truong Thi Sanh, first wife of Truong Dinh) with the addition of a Roman-style lobby, two square apartments for workers and a barn in the rear of No. 49 Hai Ba Trung Street, long-known as “The ancient villa of former governor Hai.”

This place is now an ancient monument under the management of the Cultural Center of Go Cong town. It was not the house’s open day for the public when I was there, yet I managed to enter the house thanks to my colleagues from a media company. Honestly, I was stunned by its elaborate wooden vent cover and frame designs as well as finely and intricately engraved furniture including nacred-inlay cabinets and chairs. This shows that the owner must have had such a delicate taste and the workers were exceptionally competent. 

I lingered very long where the big bed made of solid marble called That Bao was laid, not only because it was paved with six different-color marble slabs, but also because of the visible carvings of nacred-inlay leaves and flowers at the foot of the bed. The fact that these objects were still intact indicated that wars did not seem to touch this place.

If there is any research on the art of nacre, I believe this place is an address that should be included first in the vernacular category. In the locked glass cabinet in the left corner of the house, the two portraits of former governor Hai and his wife - Mrs. Huynh Thi Dieu were made by some craftsman using nacre. Never before had I seen such a beautiful and lifelike portrait of this material.

Supposedly, were this property properly invested and professionally operated both in preservation and display, the ancient villa of former governor Hai would certainly become a small museum of architecture and art, not just a tourist site open to public only during office hours - said Mr. Nam Minh who is in charge of this monument.

These restricted visit hours were also our deepest regret when we could not visit the Temple of Truong Dinh to offer him incense as the entrance was shut and locked.

On the late afternoon, I stood there alone for a long time under a tree after touching the old well, wondering if there was anything true in the story told by my tour guide. If yes, this must have been the place where Mrs. Pham Thi Hang (maiden name of Lady Tu Du) bent herself to the water bucket and disturbed the well’s calm and glassy water surface.

A corner of Go Cong market where the specialty of sour shrimp paste is sold

At lunch, I ordered some fried fish balls as there was no sour shrimp, although this specialty seemed widely up for sale in the new Go Cong market. But I was also curious to know if the fish in Go Cong was as delicious as in Hue, because this fish breed, the bronze featherback, was originally brought to the royal Hue city by Lady Tu Du herself. This fish has become a special cuisine in the delicacies of Hue’s gastronomy.

I ate this white piece of fish paste, coated with a thin layer of frying powder, unlike in Hue, where this fish was always plainly deep fried. The powder made the fish both crispy and fresh, especially with its accompanied slightly sweet fish sauce mixed with chopped chili. In fact, I savored not only the origin of the dish’s taste, but also the thought of Lady Tu Du reminiscing about her hometown when living in the ancient feudal capital.

 It was such a peaceful space that I hardly noticed we had made it to the suburbs of the town. And so Go Cong, with what I had known during my leisure time, was still scented with the fragrance of a sunny spring. 

Story and photos: Hoang Mai

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