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Heritage conservation a thorny issue

Update: May, 15/2012 - 16:27


Voyage into history: A restored Cham tower complex in the central province of Khanh Hoa. — VNA/VNS Photo Anh Tuan
Safety first: Phu An-Phu Xuan underground tunnels have been reinforced with concrete to ensure safety for visitors. VNS Photo
Change of shape: The restoration of Mac Citadel has been criticised as destroying its old features. — VNS Photo
Celebration time: People join the Hung Kings Festival in Phu Tho Province. It has been changed from a local to a national event. — VNA/VNS Photo Thanh Tung
Unskilled and unresearched restoration of buildings and the setting of performance records at cultural events is placing tangible and intangible heritage at risk. Preservation requires a scientific approach. Trung Hieu and Nguyen Trang report.

In recent years, authorities and the public have embraced the mission to conserve and restore degraded historic sites. However, for many different reasons, especially the lack of scientific methods for restoration, many pieces of architectural heritage have been distorted by these efforts.

The Cham civilisation's Ba Tower Complex in Khanh Hoa Province which dates to the 8th century, was rescued from its ruinous state by a restoration project that some say distorted the original appearance of the relic.

The restoration was performed by restorers from Thua Thien-Hue Province without the input of experts in Cham art and architecture, and many feel the tower has lost some of its artistic and religious value.

Tran Y Hoa, vice chairman of the association for the protection of tower complexes, says adding more bricks for reinforcement has changed the appearance of the Ong Tower.

The pinnacle, which imitated the sacred Cham symbol of the Linga, has been turned into "an onion-shaped tower, which looks like it wears a helmet", he says.

The use of cement to coat the niches in the walls of the tower, believed to be the homes of Hindu gods, has destroyed their religious significance, he says.

Phu An-Phu Xuan underground guerrilla warfare tunnels in the central province of Quang Nam are another example of controversial treatment of a historic site.

The tunnels were dug between 1965 and 1967 during the war against the US.

The 2,000m-long tunnel system, located deep underground, has 21 branches that snake beneath the bamboo, bushes, and houses in five villages of Dai Thang Commune in Dai Loc District. The tunnels have emergency shelters, food storage areas and meeting rooms.

In May 2010, the provincial Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism approved a project to restore the tunnels, at a total cost of VND2.3 billion (US$109,000).

Concrete domes were built to replace the former earth roof at depths below 3m.

Many local residents worried that "the use of concrete in the tunnels can easily cause the viewers to feel that the construction has been rebuilt and does not fit the historical character of the tunnels".

"The project has the Department of Culture, Sports and Information as its investor, so the design is also by the Department. We can only send a local official to monitor the quality of work," says commune chairman Ho Van Chin.

But director of the province's Centre for Conservation of Heritage and Relics Phan Van Cam says there are no specific regulations governing tunnel restoration.

"The restoration workers can't dig the tunnels precisely the same way they were created in the past. The best way to restore them is to reinforce the tunnel interior with concrete and use cement to ensure safety for visitors," he says.

Also in Quang Nam, many travelers are surprised by the number of features that have been completely rebuilt at the Khuong My Tower Complex, which was recognised as a national relic in 1989.

Khuong My comprises three tower clusters that were built in the late 9th and early 10th centuries; they are the only Cham buildings in central Viet Nam decorated with the Khmer artistic motif of leaves curving at the tips.

But these ancient buildings are being renovated by the provincial Centre for the Conservation of Heritage and Relics.

Previously, the gate of the tower was made of wood but it has been replaced by iron. The entrance of the tower, made of Cham brick, has been replaced with concrete and new bricks.

The restorers committed a graver offense when they installed decorative lighting in order "for the towers to be more beautiful". When the eletric wires were laid down next to the tower, many ancient bricks were thrown away.

This situation is not unusual. The restoration of the 418-year-old Mac Citadel in the northern province of Tuyen Quang was an expensive lesson in the pitfalls of cultural heritage preservation. The project cost tens of billions of dong and gave the citadel a whole new look, like a vast kiln.

This negligent restoration left many disgruntled and wondering how many times a lack of understanding would be allowed to destroy cultural and historical relics.

However, positive results have been achieved. The project to restore Chu Quyen Communal House won the highest award in heritage conservation at the Conference of the Union of International Architects for Asia - Pacific in 2010, and provides a good lesson for protecting the architectural heritage of Viet Nam.

This was the first time a restoration project in Viet Nam had won an international architecture award.

Chu Quyen Communal House in Chu Minh Commune, Ba Vi District, Ha Noi, dates to the end of the 17th century. It is not only a piece of unique architectural heritage but also a place to contemplate exquisite sculptures.

The project relied on thorough research, and construction was carried out using rigorous scientific processes. It was restored on the basis of modern techniques but with materials similar to the original elements, so it still has the beauty of an ancient house, says architect Le Thanh Vinh.

"Through the implementation of this project, the standards in conservation and restoration have been developed to apply to other relics, in order to improve the scientific quality and investment efficiency of conservation and restoration," he says.

Many localities seem to want to enlarge their monuments or turn the traditional cultural heritage into a stage for perfomances. This tendency has contributed to destroying and falsifying the nature of that legacy, especially when it comes to intangible heritage.

It is a sad reality that people often distort their heritage because they seek to put their own "creativity" into the work, causing a lot of public debate.

As a result, many heritage structures are losing their original character during the restoration process, while intangible heritage is being made theatrical and losing its authenticity.


The participation of government officials and the addition of artistic activities have changed the original appearances and structures of many festivals.

In addition, a "record syndrome" has contributed to the decline in the value of tangible and intangible heritage.

Any kind of cultural event is now an excuse to set a record, causing heritage to lose much of its traditional value.

Recently, more than 3,500 people in Bac Ninh Province joined forces to set a record for "the highest number of people wearing costumes and singing Quan ho folk songs".

"People like to go there to be immersed in the sweet feeling of love songs with singers in a traditional space, but now people have to witness a ‘choir' that sings like any other show", says folklorist Bui Trong Hien.

Hung Temple Festival, traditionally held by Vi, Treo and Co Tich villages, now has been turned into a national holiday.

This substitution has lead to a decline in the active participation of local communities to the festival in terms of organisation, implementation, management and renovation of the worship sites. Local people in the three villages are now only involved in the preparation of the festival following guidance from provincial officials. According to Nguyen Tien Khoi, former director of the Hung Temple Management Board, "People used to voluntarily join because there was a traditional movement. Now each village demands VND5 million ($250) for participation."

When the Giong Festival was recognised by UNESCO, it was not the customary time of year for the festival so participants were paid to "act".

According to folklorist Hien, paying people to "act" in festivals has created a "passive psychology of employment in contrast to the voluntary practices inherent in traditional festivals".

Nguyen Khac Khan from the Management Board of Phu Dong Historic Relic says: "Many people in the community now understand that the Giong Festival was recognised by UNESCO because it is a cultural legacy with a lot of value, and should be protected in order to raise public awareness about traditional heritage. The UN cultural agency just bestowed the honour – the conservation of that heritage is the responsibility of the Vietnamese. People find it valueable so we have to preserve, promote, maintain and transmit."

The Giong Festival is rated by UNESCO as a tradition with lasting vitality.

The main reason is that the festival remains a model of community management. It is organised annually by Phu Dong Commune, with the participation of the elders who are knowledgeable about traditional festivals.

This management model fosters the active participation of all members of the local community.

"Why does this festival survive? Because the community maintains it.

"People's active participation in and understanding of their heritage, as well as the effort to teach and protect it, are the keys for conservation in the midst of modernisation," says Nguyen Chi Ben, director of Viet Nam Culture and Art Institute. — VNS

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