by Cam Giang
|Once public: Vu Dao is Thai Cam Communal House's care-taker, the fifth generation of his family to do so. He has seen the buildings garden and courtyard swallowed up with makeshift homes and food stalls.
|White horse dream: Bach Ma Temple, one of the oldest in Ha Noi, was built nearly 1,000 years ago to honour the horse that galloped around the future walls of the city - in an emperor's dream.
|Crowded out: The courtyard of the Thanh Ha Temple is partly taken over by tea shops and food stalls.
|Signs of the times: A flag shop covers the front side of Vong Tien Temple. The temple's entrance is covered with a billboard that reads "Koto Hotel". The letters "Vong Tien Temple" are hardly seen below the billboard. — VNS Photos Doan Tung.
Despite recent work in restoring many temples, pagodas and traditional community halls (dinh) throughout the Old Quarter, many ancient structural buildings are still being invaded by tea shops, food stalls, living quarters, dogs, cats, motorbikes, and a pervading air of ‘private property'. In other words, keep out!
Visiting Thai Cam Communal House in Hang Bo Street, I am welcomed by several tea shop owners in the main entrance leading to the courtyard inside, where I find in a corner, statues of two big kylins (mythical beasts) lying close to a huge incense burner.
Next to them are several motorbikes, and local children playing tag. The courtyard is surrounded on three sides by a kindergarden and multi-storey houses. This makes Thai Cam Communal House similar to the average neighbourhood house, but one with distinctive cultural flourishes.
"Previously, the whole courtyard and garden belonged to the communal house. But nowadays, there is no place even for the kylin statues and the incense-burner. As you see, I have to put them in a corner, so that children and people's motorbikes don't fall into them," says Vu Dao, the communal house's care-taker. He is the fifth generation of his family to do the job.
Thai Cam Communal House was erected in 1822 and is devoted to three deities – To Lich, Bach Ma and Thiet Lam. Conserving many carved and written Han Nom (Sino-Vietnamese characters) documents, as well as an enormous number of relics, Thai Cam Communal House is a precious resource for understanding the cultural history of the capital.
Dao says, Thai Cam, like all of its kind, was a place for Kings and noblemen to stop over, for travellers to obtain a safe night's sleep, and for all sorts of public ceremonies that bound the community together.
Unfortunately, decades of struggle in the 20th century led many to decay and people started moving in to claim for themselves what once belonged to everyone.
Thai Cam Communal House does not suffer alone. Close by is the Thai Cam Pagoda which has also been invaded.
At its main entrance a sign honours the building as a National Architectural Relic. Nearby, iced tea and beer stalls are full of people eating and drinking.
To gain access to the once sacred grounds, there is a small gate on Hang Ga Street, but even there, rows of tables and cooking items have encroached upon the sidewalk.
Monk Thich Dam Son can be seen reciting Buddhist scriptures inside the main sanctuary, while adults and children gather, chatting and watching TV in the outside courtyard.
Ha Thi Van has lived near the Pagoda for more than half a century. She reveals that two households and a dozen residents live in the pagoda courtyard. A two-storey house has been built on the land, with some residents opening tea, coffee or beer stalls, causing the space to be crowded all day long.
The Thanh Ha Pagoda at 10 Ngo Gach Alley, Dong Xuan District is in the same condition. Its main gate attracts visitors with two big billboards: Indian Taro Noodle Soup For Sale! and Refreshing Ice Tea. Anti-sun accessories cover the National Architectural Relic sign, and the temple's yard is now being used as a parking lot.
Three families have been living within these grounds for 30 years, together with more than 10 new dwellers. As a result, the narrow and confusing space for living and trading has become somewhat indispensable!
"An inch of soil, an inch of gold"
Not only invaded by local people, hundred-year structural relics in the Old Quarter are also encroached on by public buildings.
If the Thai Cam Communal House has been invaded by a kindergarden, the Thanh Ha Temple is now the head office of Hang Bong Ward's Culture Club, located at 120C Hang Bong Street. The area of 240 sq. metres is divided into two parts: one for the club and the other for a family. The main sanctuary modestly takes up 10 sq,m behind the hall's cover. If you are not local, it's difficult to know where to worship in this temple.
Until June 2011, there were a total of 188 relics in Hoan Kiem District, of which 40 cultural relics have been ranked and another 44 historical relics have been recognised. Due to the shortcomings of historical situations, the management authorities and the city's overpopulation, the encroachment of local people has significantly increased and had a negative influence on the spiritual relics.
Statistically, there are 450 households, which equals 2,000 people living in relic areas, but only 120 of them have signed contracts with the land use agency, another 330 households are illegally using public land. Some downgraded or severely damaged relics have been listed, including the Dong Thuan Temple (in Hang Dao Ward), Phu Tu Temple (Hang Ma Ward), Tan Khai Temple (Hang Bo Ward), Truc Lam temple (Hang Trong Ward), Ham Long pagoda (in Phan Chu Trinh Street).
The hard way back
Preservation has been of special importance since the Old Quarter was recognised as a National Historical Heritage Site in 2004. In particular, from 2005 to 2011, the Hoan Kiem People's Committee spent millions of dong that was raised from national budgets and community contribution, on restoring 25 historical and cultural relics, including Bach Ma, Kim Ngan temples and Thien Phuc and Thien Tich pagodas.
The residents' movement has brought into focus the importance of historical relics, and the effects of restoring them to the cityscape. At the same time, this activity has helped localise the preservation zone, which means the re-encroaching and damaging of relics can be minimalised or avoided completely.
In total, 25 relics have been restored, and all squatters in these areas have moved out. Forty-four out of 54 historical relics have been ranked in order to make a legal framework to prevent them from being downgraded and damaged. There are several relics that have been renovated by the city and local authorities, for instance, Hoa Lo Prison and historical houses located at 48 Hang Ngang St, 5D Ham Long Street and 90 Tho Nhuom Street.
According to the plan approved by the Hoan Kiem authorities, from 2011 to 2016, a total of 45 relics are in need of restoration, along with the clearing of grounds that are currently home to a hundred families, three agencies, one school and one club. The estimated cost is VND394.5 billion.
However, the implementation process is always facing difficulties. The adjustments made to the detailed conservation plans are being established slowly, along with the promotion of the Old Quarter's historical values. More importantly, local residents have become attached to the Old Quarter for both home and work, so it's very difficult for them to move to another location.
The permanent vice chairman of the Ha Noi Old Quarter Management Board, Pham Tuan Long, says, "The District People's Committee has built up and implemented programmes and projects to enhance the sense of responsibility for local people, in reference to all social resources that are required to protect, preserve and promote cultural heritage values. To fulfil this mission, it is necessary to enhance the dissemination of information for public officers, and for local people to understand the guidelines and laws in the conservation of cultural heritage in the area. The overall plan is to restore and promote the relics and the social mobilisation in the work of renovation."
For those like Dao, whose family has lived in Thai Cam Communal House for five generations, his dream is simple: "I hope I am still allowed to be a care-taker of the communal house. I have heard about the plan to move Old Quarter residents out of our place. I am not sure if a new management board could take care of the communal house better than I do. You know, "cha chung khong ai khoc" (everybody's business is nobody's business). If I am forced to move out, I really worry for me, and for the fate of the communal house." — VNS