What a World

07.11.13

Book a Room at Vietnam’s ‘Crazy House’

On a quiet street in Dalat sits a zany, dream of a house. Nina Strochlic on one architect’s imaginative creation that is open for visitors.

The mountain resort town of Dalat fancies itself “The Paris of Vietnam,” complete with a replica Eiffel Tower in the center. But Barcelona is a more apt comparison, since both cities delight in abstract architectural sights. One of Dalat’s most absurd is a short walk from downtown, on an unsuspecting side street. Listed in guidebooks as Hang Nga Guesthouse, the compound has been given an auspicious nickname by visitors and locals—“The Crazy House.”

At first sight, it’s obvious why this house is a little … unusual. Flowers spill over the outside walls of the entryway, which morphs from stone walls into the intertwining branches of what’s meant to be a wild banyan tree, with limbs reaching high into the air. Double doors open into the part-dystopic, part–Alice in Wonderland interior, which is a playground of looming, ragged-edge structures. A massive giraffe overlooks the fantastical cluster of disparately shaped and designed buildings. In the garden, giant mushroom sculptures sprout from the ground and wire spider webs hang between trees. Visitors stroll over a bridge to cross “Paradise Lake.”

Inside the cavelike buildings, stairways weave up and down, revealing strange nooks and new rooms to explore at every turn. Outside the windows, slides and bridges that look like hollowed-out branches snake atop the buildings. The compound is all curves; there’s not a right angle in sight. Wander around Dalat’s Crazy House for a while and you’ll begin to wonder if you’ve stepped into an acid-fueled fairy tale—and if you’ll ever find your way out.

Opened in 1990, the structure is actually an operational guesthouse that rents out 10 rooms a night, some of which are themed for different animals meant to represent particular nations: the eagle for America, the tiger for China, the ant for Vietnam, and so on. Inside one, a giant kangaroo sculpture holds a fireplace in its belly.

The proprietor and architect of this local wonder is an eccentric Vietnamese woman named Dang Viet Nga, the daughter of Communist Party leader Truong Chinh, who briefly served as Vietnam’s president in the ’80s. Fading newspaper clippings about her family adorn the walls near her office in the entryway to the compound. Educated in China, Nga, who now goes by Hang Nga, got her Ph.D. in architecture from the University of Moscow. She drafted plans for state projects before casting off on her own with this ambitious complex. Hoping to meld art with nature, she drew out plans for the house in paintings, instead of the more traditional architectural blueprints, and left the construction in the hands of local workers.

The cost of building the avant-garde structure was massive, and Nga eventually decided to charge an entrance fee and outfit a few rooms in the house to rent to overnight visitors. For years, her passion project faced opposition by Dalat’s People’s Committee, who disapproved of the unconventional look. The committee later relented, declaring it a work of expressionism.

Nga’s guesthouse is the stuff of children’s dreams and CGI-animated fairytales—only this time, visitors can indulge in real-life, unstructured exploration. Beat that, Disneyland.