Prof Nguyen Van Huy, former director of the Viet Nam Museum of Ethnology, spoke with the publication Dai Doan Ket (Great Unity) about ways to enhance the value of the nations cultural heritage
The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism has recently recognised the Hoang Su Phi terraced fields as a national cultural heritage site, adding to an already extensive list. How should this affect people nationally and locally?
It is refreshing to see Hoang Su Phi recognised and join the Mu Cang Chai terraced fields (in northern mountainous Yen Bai Province) as a national cultural heritage site. It is good for Viet Nam as we are made aware of these existing pieces of heritage and can enjoy them and learn from them. Of course the local people benefit enormously as specific regulations supporting preservation will create more conditions for them to continue earning a living in the fields.
Shortcomings still exist when looking for a balance between the preservation and development of heritage sites. For example, the local people of Duong Lam Old Village on the outskirts of Ha Noi have been prohibited from repairing or building houses. They now want to return the site to the State and move elsewhere. We have to ask the question, can cultural heritage preservation align with the rights of the local people?
In my opinion we cannot be satisfied by preservation activities that mechanically follow regulations but do not consider local people who must still live their lives in the heritage site.
We have found a good balance in the case of the Hoang Su Phi terraced fields, where we want to help local people to grow suitable rice partly because it is the traditional cultivation techniques that add to the heritage there.
The story of Duong Lam proves that we lack experience in preserving old villages both generally and in the case of cultural heritage sites. No document exists instructing us how we can develop the daily life of the local people in a village while ensuring that the site is preserved. For a long time we have mainly focused our efforts on preserving temples and pagodas.
As a pioneer in the campaign to resurrect cultural value, could you share your own experiences of preserving and developing heritage?
I am interested in the relationships between culture, heritage and the community. The Viet Nam Museum of Ethnology researches, collects and displays cultural items as a way of connecting them with the community.
We want people to see pieces of culture and heritage that were once a key part of daily life. We hope that this will reinforce the notion that people have a duty to preserve these things. The community plays a key role in preserving and developing culture, both now and into the future. I believe that it is this method of education, and not inflexible regulations, that can help strike the balance between preservation and development.
There was a recent story about the 900-year-old Tram Gian Pagoda being destroyed by "restoration" work. Poor supervision by local authorities and a lack of awareness of correct management of national heritage were blamed for the situation. What do you think about it?
We really have learnt a big lesson from this story. The uncertainties in heritage law made things worse. There has been no feedback from the cities heritage management sector, and I think a workshop should be held to draw experiences from the case.
The Prime Minister has recently approved national targets considering the preservation of heritage sites from 2012-15. These prioritise the relics that are an intangible part of cultural heritage and need urgent restoration. Can we expect that this move will forbid a situation like Tram Gian Pagoda happening again?
The move is totally right, but I wonder how the programme will be run. There are many questions. For example, do we have enough scientific knowledge to restore the relics and customs of the Kinh Thien Palace or the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long? Excavations show that in many cases we only have the ruins, so restoration is not easy. There is also a very important distinction that must be made between restoring for preservation and restoring for tourism. It seems that we confuse the two concepts with each other. — VNS