The new boss of legacy preservation in Hue says work in the former capital is not progressing as fast as many would like because funds are not available, but at least it's being done properly and in line with priorities. Hong Van Minh report.
Phan Thanh Hai graduated from Hue University with a history thesis that won second prize in the Pham Than Duat contest, organised by the Vietnamese Association of Historical Sciences. Now director of the Hue Monuments Conservation Centre, he confirms that with the limited funds available, protection and restoration work is headed in the right direction.
Inner Sanctum: There is a rumour among your former classmates from Hue University. that you often borrowed a pile of books from the library and read them until 1-2am under a tree where there was a light. Is that true?
It was true that when I was a student I was passionate about different things and I tried my best to follow things I loved to the end.
I loved martial arts and I attended every single martial arts lesson during my five years at university, even if I had to miss breakfast. I started martial arts in the first year and by the fifth year I was the only student still following it.
I started learning foreign languages at the university, too. Learning Russian was a torture to many but it was my favourite subject. After three years studying, I could translate some Russian short stories into Vietnamese. It was similar with other foreign languages. I followed different things at the same time, so I often had to study when others were sleeping. Maybe that's why there was the rumour.
But the fact was that I didn't study all the time. I also enjoyed my life and played up. Later, when I worked as a teacher guiding student in their theses, I advised my students to spend their time learning and playing to the best of their ability. If they don't enjoy themselves, don't have passions and don't make an effort, it's difficult to complete anything successfully. That is my experience.
Inner Sanctum: Let's talk about your work. Although there are still shortcomings, Hue is now one of the few provinces in the country where the work of relic restoration and preservation is done the best. Do you think that's overstated?
It has been confirmed by specialists and researchers under the Cultural Heritage Council, by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, as well as by UNESCO and tourists to the province. We are proud of it and we also feel a great responsibility. Clearly, Hue has more advantages than other provinces regarding its dense relic and heritage complex, its well-preserved traditional lifestyle and culture and its crowded team of traditional artisans and craftsmen.
Besides, the care of local people towards the work of preservation is also an encouragement. The fact that Hue is the first world heritage recognised in Viet Nam creates a favorable condition for us. Regarding restoration and preservation work, Hue has established international co-operation with other countries, which is quick and effective, that's not to mention the whole-hearted attitude of people working in the field. However, we are never satisfied with what we have because in preservation technology we still lag behind many developed countries.
Inner Sanctum: As the head of the Hue Monuments Conservation Centre, you are shouldering the responsibility of preserving an enormous physical legacy. What is your biggest concern?
It is how to preserve effectively our heritage with the available resources. In the old days when the city was used as the feudal capital, the buildings and architecture could be kept in good condition because all the resources of the whole country concentrated here and could be used for that purpose. But now, finding enough resources for the maintenance and preservation is extremely difficult. The budget available to us can provide only enough for selected urgent repairs and maintenance. Thus preservation and enhancement of many other values have been ignored. We have precious values to keep and to build on but what we have done so far has been limited.
Preservation people have been struggling with multiple challenges. Limited public awareness is one. This is not uncommon in other areas and with other heritages.
Managing a heritage area with a big number of people living in it poses difficulties, both in terms of protecting its elements and relocating people when physical preservation and restoration projects require land acquisition.
Cumbersome public administrative system adds to the problem. People are talking a lot about public administration reform but we've hardly noticed a difference. Rapidly changing and unpredictable administrative regulations slow down and disturb many of our preservation projects.
Dr Tran Duc Anh Son, a culture researcher, once commented about the preservation works in Hue that people seemed to be more concerned about the obviously visible parts of heritage instead of the important core parts. He believed that important architecture, such as the main buildings, should be the prioritised investment, before we invest in repairing the auxiliary works, such as the walking paths connecting the buildings. But in reality it has been done the opposite way.
Inner Sanctum: Another expert in the field and a poet, Nguyen Khoa Diem, also said: "Nowadays a lot of spiritual activities are done under the rule of money and not the rules of culture or morality. That's why many cultural assets in Hue are not appropriately assessed, systematically managed, and utilized." What do you think of these remarks?
There are different opinions on this matter. As I said earlier, preservation people face multiple challenges, including limited resources. So pursuing large-scale, ambitious projects is very difficult.
On the other hand, our practical experience in the field and lessons learnt from international co-operation indicate that in Viet Nam, preservation should go from smaller projects and expand later when more resources and experience have been accumulated. Also, large projects require huge resources which are not always available.
Social conditions today are complicated, and there are always emerging problems when a project is realised. But I believe that our work of restoration and preservation in Hue is on the right path. — VNS