An eclectic mix of fantasy, fairy-tale magic and surrealism come together in the southern Vietnamese city of Da Lat’s so-called “crazy house,” a baffling building that was designed by the daughter of a Communist bigwig with a self-professed admiration for Spanish modernist architect Antoni Gaudi.
Inspired by the shape of a large Banyan tree – also known as a strangler fig – the complex is filled with phantasmagoric grottoes, elaborate bridges, metallic spider webs, mysterious mushrooms and depictions of all sorts of animals.
The framed words of the house’s designer, Dang Viet Nga, greet visitors at the entrance: “With the voice of architecture I want to guide men to return to Nature, stay in touch with it and love it.”
Nga, 79, still lives in a section within the crazy house, where visitors catch a glimpse of her from time to time.
“She is old now and doesn’t go out much and is tired of giving interviews, but some days she comes out for a walk around the gardens,” said one of the ticket vendors working at the site.
Nga is the daughter of former Vietnamese president Truong Chinh (who died in 1988) and openly flaunts her admiration for Gaudi, considered one of the world’s most influential architects during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
She studied in Moscow, where she earned a PhD in architecture in 1968. Her lineage presaged a lifestyle in accordance with Communist orthodoxy, but she soon proved to be rebellious and moved to Da Lat, an old resort town far removed from the power centers of Hanoi she had known since childhood.
In one of her texts, Nga explained that she sought to break away from the normative style that was prevalent at the time by creating curved volumes and free structures that did not depend on the classical (Communist) aesthetic ideals of organizing masses through straight lines and square planes.
During the 1980s, this deviation from the norm led to the demolition of some of her creations for straying too far from Communist paradigms, but the "crazy house" – originally named Hang Nga in honor of the Chinese goddess of the Moon – was saved thanks to the intervention one of her father’s old comrades.
Some more conservative architects criticize her to this day, as they believe her creation is a stain on a city known as Vietnam’s “Little Paris” due to the dozens of colonial-era mansions that were built in the early 20th century under French rule.
“No architect would do something like this, but she was able to because she was a princess at that time, the daughter of the Communist Party’s secretary-general,” Tran Cong Hoan, Professor of Architecture at Da Lat’s Yersin University, told EFE.
“(The crazy house) attracts people because it’s different. I don’t think it’s true that it’s influenced by Gaudi, it is more inspired by nature,” he added.
The desire to imitate nature is expressed in the curved forms that define the building, although this effect is somewhat mitigated by the omnipresence of cement, with some unpainted walls that still reveal metal beams which tend to disrupt the place’s fairy-tale feel.
The misgivings of some locals have not affected the house’s popularity with tourists – it receives an average of 1,500 daily visitors – most of them foreigners who are attracted by reviews describing it as one of the planet’s most extravagant buildings.
“I’m very excited about visiting the crazy house. It’s a little scary and it also reminds me of ‘The Hobbit’ and the movies we’d watch as kids,” said Ye Chan, a young Canadian tourist.
Those who are most enthusiastic about the building can stay in one of its 10 available rooms. Each has an animal theme that, according to Nga, is adapted to the taste of each nationality: the tiger room is for the Chinese, the eagle room is for visitors from the United States, the kangaroo theme is for Australians and the bear is geared toward Russians.
The price to spend the night in this fantasy setting ranges between $44-$144, depending on the room's size and its perks. Most online reviews are positive, although some complain about having to share the space with daytime visitors.
The most obvious drawback is the constant noise caused by perennial construction works, although Nga insists they are necessary due to the organic nature of her creations, which she says will continue to evolve and grow for as long as she lives.