Illustration by Trịnh Lập
By Phương Hà
Much debate ensued after a photo featuring an installation of a 'bamboo heart' on the bank of Hà Nội’s Hoàn Kiếm or Hồ Gươm (Returned Sword Lake) went viral recently.
Some argued that the 'heart' made of bamboo with some dry branches sticking out, was a strange installation, while others hilariously called it a “hairy heart”.
According to Ha Thanh on Facebook, the heart-shaped object would be more appropriately found in an amusement park or a resort where visitors can take check-in photos next to something a little odd.
But it’s completely unsuited to the special cultural and historical atmosphere surrounding Returned Sword Lake.
Tô Văn Động, director of the Hà Nội Department of Culture and Information, said that the wood and bamboo heart was the product of a craft village and was displayed just before the Festival of Folk Culture in Contemporary Life in the city in mid-December.
The image, he said, stirred up a range of opinions, with most being negative.
The department responded to the feedback and demanded that the heart be removed.
And then, as soon as it was removed, there were more issues. Some of the artisans involved were refusing to take part in the festival after hearing of the “controversy” and feeling slighted.
It’s difficult to imagine, though, that they didn’t expect such an installation would cause something of a stir. Many in the capital say the artisans are the latest victims of an overly-defensive reaction long found around town when anything artistic, architectural, or otherwise “dares” to encroach upon the “hallowed” area around the lake.
The first such reaction of note was in the 1990s, when it was announced that a six-storey building that quickly became known as 'Shark’s Jaw', because of its appearance, was to be built next to the lake.
A few years later, the announcement of another project, the Golden Hanoi Hotel, set for 10 stories, encountered such a negative response from architects and Hanoians alike that it was put on hold for many years and then underwent a design change to make it more suitable to its surroundings.
And on it went, with anything new near the lake attracting immediate criticism, be it public toilets, new stone footpaths, a planned metro station next to Ngọc Sơn Temple, and the suggestion of creating an 'avenue of fame' near Hòa Phong tower to honour those who contributed to Hà Nội’s development over the centuries. A lot of ideas, both good and bad, have been shelved after being tainted by the continued negative reaction from the public to anything involving the much-loved lake.
These also include lighting up Đông Kinh Nghĩa Thục Square, proposed in 2016, plans to erect a King Kong statue to mark the Hollywood blockbuster Kong: Skull Island (level of seriousness unconfirmed) in 2017, or the release of swans into the lake in 2018, to name just a few.
Most recently, in 2019, just before the 'hairy heart' controversy, an installation entitled “Tower” from artist Mai Thu Vân was also canned.
Though a high-quality artistic piece, the lack of proper consideration and introduction made many view the design as resembling a toilet.
The objections over the decades are really not that strange, though, as Hanoians are overly protective about parts of their city, especially a historical and sacred place like Sword Lake.
The nearby architecture has given the area a certain 'look' over the years, making it quite distinct and, for many, the actual 'heart of the capital'.
As a consequence, efforts to preserve Hà Nội’s culture in general have been met with debate at all times during its history.
Like the 'hairy heart', it’s not the idea that’s the problem but the location, as more appropriate places are easy to find and the associated 'controversy' would be extremely underwhelming.
But next to Returned Sword Lake? That’s a “NO” straight away. VNS