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Restoring ancient houses proves challenging

Update: January, 19/2014 - 18:15
This modern life: Duong Lam ancient village on the outskirts of Ha Noi has 956 ancient houses built as early as the 16th century, but many have degraded and the village now faces a "threat" from urbanisation. — VNA/VNS Photo Nhat Anh

Throughout Viet Nam, residents of ancient houses are watching them disintegrate due to a lack of funds for repairs. Can the ongoing efforts to restore these old homes succeed? Trung Hieu and Thuy Trinh report.

Luong Thanh Phong's wooden house in Phong Dien District of Thua Thien-Hue Province was built nearly 150 years ago. When his ancestors constructed the three-room house, it was quite grandiose. However, decades of rain and storms have taken their toll. The wood columns have rotted, the tiles are damaged and the roof might collapse at any moment.

These wooden houses, some of which are hundreds of years old, are the most unique feature of Phuoc Tich Village. However, like Phong's, many have seriously deteriorated. Since the residents lack money to repair them and don't know when help will come from the state budget, they are forced to use cement as a structural reinforcement.

"We have no money, so we can only repair the roof temporarily with fibre cement sheets," Phong said. "Recently I submitted a request to the local authorities to obtain support for restoration and protection of the house, but so far we have not received anything."

Nearby, in the ancient house of Le Trong Nam, a column recently broke and a purlin fell (Fortunately, there was no one in the house when the incident happened). Neighbour Le Trong Phu also had a purlin fall in his house and said many wood components had rotted.

 

Heart of the city: Many ancient houses on Bao Vinh, Chi Langand Bach Dang streets in Hue City (Thua Thien-Hue Province) are seriously degraded and could collapse at any moment. — VNA/VNS Photo Quoc Viet

Lack of money

Phong and other old house owners said it would cost about VND500 million (US$23,800) to repair a house following its original design.

Residents in the village are mainly old people who make a living from agriculture, in addition to a few younger people who are teachers and public servants, so they cannot accumulate such a large amount. Even restoration projects that offer financial aid still require the house owners to pay up to VND100-150 million.

The Director of Thua Thien - Hue Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism, Phan Tien Dung, said a group of experts recently surveyed the ancient houses in the village and decided to invest in a VND1.8 billion anti-termite project funded by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism.

"Many old houses in Hoi An and Ha Noi will also benefit from the project," he said.

According to Phuoc Tich Village's Relics Management Board, the village is home to 37 houses aged more than 100 years. While seven are seriously degraded, only a few have been restored. The house of Truong Duy Thanh was renovated in 2011 under a co-operation programme between the Belgium Institute of Heritage and the Viet Nam Institute of Culture and Arts in Hue, and the house of Luong Thanh Thi Hen was restored at a cost of VND400 million from the budget of the culture ministry.

 

Lack of funds: Most owners of ancient houses in Phuoc Tich Village in Phong Dien District (Thua Thien-Hue Province) cannot afford to restore their houses. — VNA/VNS Photo Nguyen Van Canh

Valuable heritage

Like temples, pagodas and tombs, these old houses are valuable heritage sites that should be preserved. Without laterite houses, there would be no Duong Lam ancient village on the outskirts of Ha Noi. Without old houses in gardens, the romantic Hue citadel would lose its special quality. And without the ancient wooden houses in its streets, Hoi An would not appear on the world heritage map.

Unfortunately, conservation projects for ancient buildings are only implemented in the few ancient villages and old streets classified as national monuments.

A typical example is Cu Da Village in Thanh Oai District of Ha Noi. Currently, two-thirds of the 100 ancient houses with ironwood columns have been replaced by concrete buildings.

Similarly, many years ago, Tho Ha Village in Viet Yen District of Bac Giang Province was famous for having more than 50 beautiful ancient houses. Today, only half remain.

When Duong Lam Village authorities were compiling a dossier to seek UNESCO recognition for the village as a world cultural heritage site, many households said they had no desire for the title of national monument. It sounds strange, but this painful truth stems from the fact that locals do not want to live in degraded houses while life in Viet Nam becomes more modern every day. Many houses in Ha Noi's Old Quarter are in the same situation.

If no large-scale conservation measures are implemented, most ancient houses in the country will disappear.

 

Walls of memory: Ancient houses are valuable heritage sites like temples, pagodas and tombs, but they are not always given the same treatment. — VNA/VNS Photo Duy Khuong

Growing ‘body'

Localities have now renewed their efforts to protect old buildings. Ha Noi plans to move some residents of the Old Quarter to new urban areas and resettle 30 households in Duong Lam Village. Bac Lieu Province is paying owners to preserve their houses. The culture ministry has spent hundreds of billions of dong towards this end.

However, these moves do not completely address the problem. A long-term conservation plan should aim "to preserve along with development," according to architect Hoang Dao Kinh.

"Ancient houses, old towns and ancient villages should not be regarded as relics, because relics are preserved exactly as they were created. Instead, they should be considered a growing "body" - we can renovate the interiors a little to suit modern life, but their shapes must remain unchanged," he said.

Associate Professor Dang Van Bai, vice chairman of the Viet Nam Association of Cultural Heritage, said that relevant offices should create an inventory of ancient houses, then meet with residents to persuade them to preserve their own houses.

"However, they must be able to tell residents what benefits they will receive and what their responsibilities will be if their houses are recognised as monuments," Bai said. "These residents' living quality should be improved, because they are the 'spirit' of the house."

Quang Nam authorities have given VND7.7 billion to residents in Hoi An City to upgrade ancient houses in danger of collapse. Currently, 14 house owners have registered for loans to carry out renovations.

This lesson can be applied to conservation work in other localities, Kinh said. Limited funding is a major obstacle when it comes to preserving ancient houses, so helping residents access preferential loans is a practical way to help them maintain the heritage sites.

The preservation of two monuments in Viet Nam has received awards for heritage conservation practice from UNESCO Asia-Pacific in Thailand.

The first award was given to a group of Japanese experts who preserved five ancient houses in Duong Lam. The other was given to a group who restored a bomb shelter at the Sofitel Metropole hotel in Ha Noi. Notably, these conservation projects were carried out by foreign organisations with help from Vietnamese researchers.

For people like Luong Thanh Phong, such projects offer the only hope for restoring their ancestral homes.

"We were afraid that the traditional house would collapse, so we had to borrow money to build a make-shift hut close to it and stay there. We are eager for our house to be restored like the house of our neighbour Truong Duy Thanh," he said with a smile. — VNS

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