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Dong Van's old quarter eyes preservation

Update: January, 31/2011 - 11:37

Back in time: Dong Van quarter is similar to areas in Hoi An and Ha Noi's Quarter. — VNS Photos Truong Vi
Double decker: An old, wooden-house. — VNS Photo Le Viet Dung
Memory lane: The historic street that has withstood the tests of time.
Deep in the lush mountains near the Chinese borders, a historic quarter is a sight to be seen, but how long will it stand if the community is not properly preserved, Le Viet Dung reports.

Located in the heart of Dong Van Rock Plateau, which was recognised as part of the Global Geo-Park Network last year, the Dong Van old quarter is home to age old and unique architecture near Ha Giang Province's border with China.

The quarter – built more than a century ago by ethnic Chinese migrants, is now home to historic houses and a commercial quarter. If we compare Dong Van old quarter's age with areas in Hoi An (in central Quang Nam Province), Ha Noi or Duong Lam Village (some 70km north west of Ha Noi), the Dong Van quarter is the youngest and smallest. But, it has something very special that others don't have. Stone slabs were used to construct the quarter's commercial buildings. Opposite to the market are homes that mimic the sky and its horizon on Dong Van plateau.

Other unique architectural features in the quarter include double walls and the yin and yang tiles that decorate the roofs of most of the buildings.

The Dong Van older quarter is in Dong Van in Ha Giang Province – some 146km from China. Previously, the town was part of Dong Quan District, Tuong Yen District Capital, Tuyen Quang Province, but the municipality was absorbed by Bao Lac District and was governed by a mandarin belonging to the Nong clan of the Tay ethnic group.

In 1887, when Ha Giang Province was occupied by the French colonialists, Dong Van was placed under French rule. It was divided into four zones and governed by four district chiefs.

A unique and indispensable cultural feature in Dong Van Plateau is the Kermis – a place for the locals, particularly the ethnic minorities, that doubles as a site to exchange goods and to socialise. On market days, young Mong and Pu Peo women dressed in their Sunday best, go to the market. Their colourful dresses make the market atmosphere cheerful.

Adding to the unique feature of the market is the hybrid of traditional Vietnamese culture and Chinese feng shui, which is reflected in the stone sculptures and engravings of the wind and water on columns in the market. These stone columns are big enough for three or four people to encircle.

Looking at the Dong Van old quarter from higher ground, one can see the distinct identities of the historic houses built by Chinese labourers from Sichuan Province. Some of the houses are more than 200 years old and the oldest has been standing for nearly 300 years. As time goes by, many of the house have begun to crumble and decay. Although they have been renovated several times, part of the structure's original parts have been lost. The only original, intact structures are the three step staircase, the stone paved yard, the stone columns and a collapsed wall at the back of the house.

"In recent years, several Vietnamese and foreign tourists came to visit Dong Van's ancient quarter," said Luong Trung Duc, a third generation resident. "On average, each year we receive about tens of thousands of visitors."

"My family has tried to keep the house as intact as possible for the next generation of the Luong clan and also for Dong Van's old quarter."

Another piece of renown cultural heritage in the old quarter is the "King of Mong ethnic group" Vuong Chi Sinh's residence. The residence's structure features popular architectural trends from China's Qing dynasty. It sits on an area of 1,120sq.m.

Old school: An historic house that has stood for hundreds of years. — VNS Photo
The structure was built on orders from Vuong Chinh Duc – once a servant of District Chief Hoang Tu Binh. As a man with a reputation in the region, Duc was promoted by French rulers to be the Canton Chief.

In the early 20th century when Hoang Tu Binh's health was deteriorating, Vuong Duc Chinh was promoted to become Hoang Tu Binh's Assistant District Chief. Chinh then decided to renovate his residence by using bluish lime stone, pine wood and burned clay tiles as the primary building materials. The mansion is divided into three blocs: Tien Dinh (houses in the front); Trung Dinh (houses in the middle) and Hau Dinh (houses at the back). All of the structures have two storeys. There are 64 rooms in the whole mansion. The houses looks like a terraced field. There is a rock wall surrounding the residence that is about 60-80cm thick and 2.5-3m tall. To enter the residence, visitors have to go through a beautifully carved 15 step - stone gate.

"The Vuong residence is a masterpiece created by Mong people who live on this rocky plateau and in the old quarter in Dong Van," said Secretary of Dong Van District Party Committee Sung Dai Hung. "The Vuong residence reflects the beautiful architectural work that embodies Chinese and Vietnamese architecture."

Hung said the Vuong residence has been recognised by the country's culture ministry as an architectural relic. A conservation plan is also in the pipeline, along with other cultural relics in Ha Giang, that will be preserved.

The serious degradation of buildings in Dong Van's old quarter is primarily caused by the harsh weather conditions on the rocky plateau. If no effective actions are taken, the precious value of the old quarter will continue to diminish. The harsh weather is a physical enemy to the structures' plaster, bricks, wooden columns and staircases.

Nguyen Trung Thuong, director of the Ha Giang Department of Culture, Tourism and Sport and vice chairman of the Conservation Board of the Dong Van Ancient Quarter, said, "The Ha Giang Provincial People's Committee has submitted a proposal to the Government asking for financial support to renovate the Dong Van old quarter. Before we break ground, we would like relevant authorities to organise training sessions for officers who will be actually taking part in supervising the work so that they know what must be done during the conservation project in order to maintain the precious values of these relics and not destroy them."

The official drew on Mac Citadel in Tuyen Quang Province in neighbouring Ha Giang, to support his argument.

"After the renovation project, the citadel looks like a ‘brick kiln on fire,'" said Thuong.

He said while renovating the citadel, the workers had no idea how to properly restore the structure.

"Many people complain about the Mac Citadel's ugly new look and several residents have been vocal that they wish the structure had not been renovated," said Thuong.

In Thuong's point of view, if the local cultural managers were equipped with knowledge about how to properly renovate historical relics, then the Mac Citadel would have been properly refurbished.

"We need to have strong relations between different stake holders, including the private sector," said Thuong.

"With proper actions, from both the authorities and the people, the Dong Van ancient quarter will be protected and conserved. With its unique identity, the old quarter will be an attractive destination for Vietnamese and foreign tourists." — VNS

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