Ho Citadel the site of a modern conflict

Update: June, 08/2014 - 17:47

Tunnel vision: The eastern gate of the Ho Citadel built almost seven centuries ago. The citadel was built with cubic stone blocks, but without any cohesive material. Nine hundred metres long and nearly 700 metres wide, the citadel is now witnessing a struggle between preserving a heritage and the need for local residents to make a living. — VNA Photo Anh Tuan

by Hong Thuy

A relic of the Ho dynasty (1400-1407), the Ho Citadel has been recognised as a World Culture Heritage site by UNESCO since 2011. Restoration of the relic, however, faces the dilemma of complying with the rules on protecting the heritage while meeting the demand for earning a livelihood by local people.

The citadel, mentioned in Dai Viet Su Ky Toan Thu (the Complete Annals of the Great Viet), was built during the reign of King Tran Thuan Tong (1379) by Prime Minister Ho Quy Ly, who acceded to the throne in 1400.

Covered over 155 hectares, the citadel composes of the Inner Citadel, the La Thanh outer wall and the Nam Giao Altar, which is surrounded by a buffer zone of 5,078 hectares pertaining to Vinh Loc District in the northern central province of Thanh Hoa.

Along with preparing documents to propose Ho citadel as the World Culture Heritage site, provincial authorities had issued a plan for the protection of the citadel from 2010 to 2040.

Though initial progression in protecting the site has been achieved in terms of preventing, uncovering and settling illegal exploitation of natural materials such as earth and lime rock in the protected area, difficulties and challenges in accomplishing the task remain ahead, said deputy director of the Centre for Conservation of Ho Dynasty Citadel World Heritage, Nguyen Xuan Toan.

The deputy director put forward the fact that some households living in the protected area are continuing to build houses and other civil works, while the Law on Cultural Heritage and the site's management regulations stipulate that the core area must be strictly protected.

This happened even when the centre, in collaboration with the Thanh Hoa Province People's Committee, has held meetings with local people to raise awareness and disseminate information about the forbiddance of encroachment on the site.

"As the households possess land use rights, they continue to build houses and other structures and that causes difficulties in protecting the citadel," Toan noted.

Although Toan's insistence of a need to ban housing projects in the protected area, his opinion is different from that of provincial authorities.

Rather than forbidding, Deputy Chairman of Thanh Hoa People's Committee Vuong Van Viet stated that local people living in the protected area can build houses as they have demand to divide their properties to live in privacy.

Yet, houses in the Inner Citadel must not be more than 7 metres in height. A higher measurement of 15 metres is applied with properties in area surrounding the Outer Wall of La Thanh.

"On the one hand, we must comply with the international convention on heritage protection. On the other hand, it is necessary to create favourable conditions for people living in the protected area to build and repair their houses," Viet said.

The deputy chairman also affirmed to gradually move 70 hectares of rice and cereal fields that 300 households in Vinh Tien and Vinh Long communes are cultivating out of the Inner Citadel, whereas deputy director Toan claimed that agricultural production in the area has negatively impacted on the archaeological structure of the citadel.

"Ploughing, raking and digging ditches to wet rice and cereal fields have exposed archaeological relics, severely impacting on the underground architecture at the site. We have reported the situation to relevant authorities on several occasions, but the situation has not yet improved," Toan said.

Though most households inside the Inner Citadel possess a little cultivation area here, each having at least one sao (360 square metres) and five sao at most, Vinh Tien commune People's Committee Chairman Nguyen Duc Ha said that the commune has not decided to retrieve land from the farmers.

Ha pointed out that the commune had heard from provincial authorities about a decision to compensate the households with arable land outside the citadel. But it is unlikely to be implemented because farmers prefer to be compensated in cash, and procedures to prepare land use certificates are costly and take time, he added.

"I personally think that it is unnecessary to use all arable land inside the Inner Citadel. Hence, farmers should be allowed to grow rice and cereal in areas that do not have an impact on excavation and research works in the citadel. In case the province wants to retrieve all arable land, they should do it after a scheduled plan," Ha said.

While local authorities are still busy with balancing the protection of the citadel and demand for earning a living among the locals, many farmers believe returning land to the citadel is not at all an issue.

Farmer Truong Trong Binh said that other households and his included had attended a meeting in which they were informed of a plan to receive compensation in arable land and that did not affect his agricultural production at all.

"I am content with the compensation as land is state property, so that they can take the land any time they want. What's more, I am proud of being able to live nearby the citadel," Binh noted.

Merely between 10 and 15 per cent out of 300 households will be worst affected because farming is their economic mainstay. The remaining people earn other incomes from doing services and working as hired workers, Ha said.

In an attempt to maintain stable income for affected people, Viet reported that favourable conditions will be made available to help some households sell souvenirs in the Inner Citadel.

This plan is workable if policies regarding community tourism development and economic structural changes are implemented effectively.

Yet, as Toan pointed out, loose coordination between relevant offices, lack of money and tools to implement the above-mentioned policies remain a major obstacle.

Under the management of the Thanh Hoa provincial Department for Culture, Sports and Tourism, the Centre for Conservation of Ho Dynasty Citadel World Heritage does not have the authority to mete out punishments on violators when they detect any infringement of the site.

"With due respect, we ask the provincial People's Committee to consider handing over the protected area of the Ho Citadel to the centre to manage and promote the value of the site," Toan added.

Considering this, a loose cooperation between the centre and relevant offices in solving issues in preserving and promoting heritage values remains a hurdle that needs to be curbed.

Management and preservation at the site will not improve unless the centre's power is enhanced, said Deputy Director of the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism's Cultural Heritage Department Nguyen Quoc Hung.

The Ho Dynasty Citadel was built using stone at the end of the fourteenth century. It is still perpetual with time and is considered an everlasting evidence of a majestic period in Viet Nam's history.

According to the feng shui principles, the citadel was sited in a landscape of great scenic beauty on an axis joining the Truong Son and Dong Son mountains in a plain between the Ma and Buoi rivers. The citadel buildings represent an outstanding example of a new style of Southeast Asian imperial city.

The Inner Citadel constructed of large limestone blocks represents a new development of architectural technology and adaptation of geomantic city planning in an Southeast Asian context.

It demonstrates the use of architectural elements in terms of space management and decoration designed for a centralised imperial city in order to show a concept of royal power, based on the adoption of the Confucian philosophy within a predominantly Buddhist culture.

Being the capital of Viet Nam from 1398 to 1407 and also the political, economic and cultural centre of north central Viet Nam from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, the citadel of Ho dynasty bears exceptional testimony to a critical period in Vietnamese and Southeast Asian history when traditional kingship and Buddhist values were giving way to new trends in technology, commerce and centralised administration. — VNS