Recently making our way down the Mekong we visited the Lover’s House in Sa Dec and have been slightly intrigued with story ever since.

In 1929 Marguerite Duras, a 15 year old French girl, is living with her widowed school  teacher mother in Vietnam.  She  meets Huynh Thuy Le a 27 year old Chinese’s businessman whose  parents are wealthy, influential and have control over their son and so the doomed romance begins.

It has all the ingredients of a Romeo and Juliette story but with an ending that really doesn’t end for the audience.  We have to rely on Marguerite’s memory …she  was 70 years old when she put pen to paper to write this autobiographical novel.   Is it a factual recount of what happened or has it been embellished as years went by…. possibly a blend of memory and fiction.

Anyway,  off the boat we get at Sa Dec and walk through an authentic and rather busy  market…. hawkers selling their wares, motorbikes laden to the hilt, barrows being pushed  and people everywhere.    There is fresh food of all description…our eyes open wide at what we are seeing.   It is very important to the Vietnamese people to buy their food fresh so everything is still alive….fish are swimming, frogs are breathing, hens are resting, fruit is beautiful in both colour and flavour – you name it and it is there.

Once we have explored the market we walk to Nguyen Street and it is here where the story of the Lovers begins.   The house itself is Asian but the exterior in 1917 was brick-coated with a French influence and it is often said  ”Its ornate,  shadowy excess embodies the doomed days of French colonialism”.  The interior is Asian and its beautiful Altar is the centre piece of the house.  Red and gold trimmed Chinese carving and lacquering of dragons,  birds and plants adorn this area…. denoting wealth and rank.

And there we sit drinking tea and eating candied ginger while our guide/ story teller who is hugely enthusiastic and animated shares the story of the Lovers.  She tells us “Their eyes clashed near the steamy Mekong River and he offered her a ride in his limousine and soon they were meeting in his house at Nguyen Street.”

We sit  listening and looking at the photographs of the couple on the wall but not one of the two lovers together  but there are several of Huynh Thuy Le with his Chinese wife and children.   There is also photos of  Marguerite though her years….I couldn’t help but wonder at how much of this story was factual or had the story grown over the years or am I just being cynical?

Their love of course could not survive and the ending goes something like this.   His father felt the social class difference was unacceptable and gave the ultimatum that if he wants to inherit the family wealth then a traditional Chinese arranged marriage is a must.   Marguerites mother also would not countenance her marrying a Chinese man.  They both realise their love is doomed and she goes back to France as an 18 year old and begins her studies eventually marrying twice or thrice and becomes a novelist and film director and he enters his arranged marriage, has a family and gets on with life.

Marguerite memory recalls  that he contacted her once to declare that he was still in love with her and she admitted before she died that she too had always loved him.  Fact or fiction….only Le and Marguerite know.

By the way,  in 1984 (12 years after Le’s death)  she wrote this autobiographical  novel ‘The Lover (L’Amante) and won the Goncourt Award in Paris for the best-selling novel and most imaginative prose of work of the year.   It has been translated into 43 languages,  sold 2.4 million copies and was later made into a film.

Who would have ever thought traveling down the Mekong River we would be listening to Vietnam’s version of a Romeo and Juliet story.

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Judy McAuliffe is a writer, and publisher Essence Mid Canterbury. Her experience in media is extensive and includes approximately 15 years as Creative Director for The Radio Network, writing, and managing the writing of radio advertising, mainly in Invercargill and Greymouth. In the late 1990’s she transferred to Christchurch, moving into an Account Management role with 91ZM. In 2007 she and a business partner set up Essence Mid Canterbury, very quickly adapting her radio-writing skills to print media. Judy became sole owner of Essence Mid Canterbury in June 2014. Judy is a ‘people person’ and has found her niche writing feature stories about the community she lives in and the people who live there. She is also available for freelance writing assignments.