Viet Nam News
by Thu Trang
One of the most marked developments in the country as it hurtles towards modernisation has been a strong resurgence in the observance of religious traditions and rituals.
Nowhere is it more obvious than at festival time, especially major national ones like Tết, the Lunar New Year. This auspicious time of the year now sees hundreds of thousands of people flock to major holy spots, aka prominent pagodas.
Spring, the festival season, and there is a rush all over the country to pagodas, temples and communal houses. As in many other countries, many holy shrines are located at high altitudes. But this does not daunt thousands of pious Buddhists who see the trek as part of their prayers for good health, luck and prosperity.
Over the last few decades, the multitudes of pilgrims have been using some modern means such as cable cars and elevators to reach the high places
The controversy is understandable. These modern constructions irrevocably change the landscape of the holy spots, conceived and built originally as places for worship.
Increased interest from tourists has given both investors and local administrations added incentive to invest in modern conveniences, sometimes disregarding or underplaying their environmental impacts, not just from their construction, and the noise generated by their operations, but also from the increased influx of people who are likely to litter and do other things that harm the environment, not to mention undermine the solemnities at these places.
In fact, just about every highland administration has built or is planning to build cable cars and/or elevators to popular spots atop mountains, religious or other places, like Sa Pa in Lào Cai Province, the Ngũ Hành Sơn tourism site in the central city of Đà Nẵng and the cable car system at the Yên Tử mountain in the northern province of Quảng Ninh.
Nguyễn Sỹ Toản, head of the Cultural Heritage Faculty of the Hà Nội University of Culture, does not eye these modern facilities with favour. He feels the exploitation of natural and sacred places for commercial gains should not be allowed or encouraged.
He feels that new construction works also carry a high risk of vandalising the heritage value of sacred places.
Others find reasons to support such initiatives.
Lê Quang Tươi, director of the Ngũ Hành Sơn Tourism Site Management Board, says the elevators and cable cars aim to help old people, children and the disabled, giving them the opportunity to visit sites they would otherwise be unable to access.
Besides, he says, local managements are still giving people the choice of not using the modern facilities to reach the top.
He also says that these new facilities do not do much harm to the natural landscape, seeing them as part of growth, like resorts in places of scenic beauty.
Moreover, he adds, creeper are grown on the pillars supporting the system to make it “suitable” to the natural surroundings.
Nguyễn Thị Dung, 65, a Hanoian, avidly supports the modern conveniences. She has visited Đà Nẵng several times but had not been able to fulfil her dream of visiting pagodas and caves on the Ngũ Hành Sơn mountain range. Her age and health prevented her from climbing the hundreds of steps to reach the place.
Recently the Ngũ Hành Sơn tourism site management board set up a semicircle shaped elevator covered with glass so that visitors can see the surrounding landscape as it climbs up.
A visibly happy Dung said: “Thanks to the elevator, I can reach such pagodas. And I believe that other old people like me will prefer this. It’s a good idea.”
Antoine Tellier, 30, a French tourist who has been travelling for one month in Việt Nam, said he took the cable car in Hạ Long Bay.
“I think it’s really practical because we don’t need to take a taxi to go there. I can have a different view of the city and the Hạ Long Bay. It’s more beautiful than if you are going by just walk. We took very pretty pictures in the cabin.
“It’s also practical for older people. The elevator gives people a choice. If they want to walk until the top, they can go down in the cable car if they are tired,” he said.
Tellier believes that the cable car does not destroy the natural surroundings much, because it is not big and is quiet.
While I favour the idea of preserving the natural environment as well as the value of our heritage sites, and feel that people should challenge themselves and enjoy their accomplishment of reaching the top, I also see the merits “on the other side”.
I do not enjoy cable cars and elevators aesthetically spoiling the sights of traditional, sacred and solemn architecture works. They do look out of place and it is painful to see how many trees have to be cut to install these systems.
But I understand that religious sites in high places are also public property and should be open to everyone who wants to visit them, say their prayers and enjoy the beautiful views. Seeing the happy faces of old people and children is also a wonderful thing, and is something that we cannot argue against.
We need every visitor to be very environmentally and cultural conscious so that disruptions to the beauty, solemnity and sacredness of these sites are minimised to the maximum. VNS