Category: News @ Hoi An.

FEATURE: Urbanisation threatens Viet Nam’s heritage

Dec 02, 2010 (Vietnam News – McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) — Hoi An (Viet Nam News/ANN) — I always feel like I’m at home in Hoi An. Whenever I consider places for a holiday, Hoi An usually comes to mind. It’s not because of the fame the old town in the central Quang Nam Province in Viet Nam receives, which attracts millions of visitors each year; it’s the relaxing ambience and the friendliness of local people.

During one of my early trips to Hoi An some years ago, I had my clothes made at a shop I found on Lea Loi Street. It became my favourite place to get clothes and dresses tailored because of the hospitality and friendliness of the owner. A native of the town, the owner made me feel at home each time I visited her shop, and she retained her credibility by successfully completing every order I made. To find a shop with similar care from the owner in Hoi An was not hard, especially at that time. In the early 1980s, Hoi An was known for exporting fabric made by its local people, which at that time was home to 700 weaving machines.

After a few years, I returned and the shop was no longer there. A cafe stood in its place. I noticed on each visit to the town that increasing numbers of coffee shops and bars were replacing the tailors’; despite fast tailored, trendy designs being one of the town’s main draws. Many of the cafe and bar owners are now outsiders, and the number of business owners from other areas seems to be on the rise.

I tried some other tailors in the town, but was never happy with either their tailoring or customer service. Many of the tailors in town are no longer real locals but migrants from other cities and provinces.

Hoi An’s old town was recognised as a World Heritage site in 1999 and in the past decade, the number of tourists has increased. The town is among the most attractive places, along with the former imperial capital of Hue and the Cham religious site at Myo Son Holy Land, on any tour of the central region. During peak tourist season, around 3,200 tourists visit Hoi An every day, of which 80 per cent are foreigners. Every year Hoi An contributes 28 billion dong (US$1.4 million), earned from tourism, to the Quang Nam Province’s budget. More than 65 per cent of Hoi An’s GDP comes from tourism, services and trade, according to chairman of the Hoi An People’s Committee, Le Vaen Giang.

The past decade has seen an influx of people coming to Hoi An to do business, taking advantage of the booming tourism sector. A large number of new services and trades have come to challenge the traditional professions and customs of Hoi An.

Urbanisation is seen as the biggest challenge to the preservation of the old town, where there is growing demand for more modern housing. Local residents have either renovated their houses or rented them out and moved to other areas.

“About 10 years back, a house could be bought for around one-tenth of what it costs today,” says Nguyen Dinh Lac, a Hoi An native who now lives in Dao Nang City.

Since 1999, according to the 2009 statistics released by the Hoi An Preservation Centre, around 180 houses have been rented to people migrating to the town, while 260 local people had moved out of town.

Local houses, especially the old ones in the preservation area, are being increasingly rented to outsiders, which is having a negative effect on preservation, says Japanese researcher Utsumi Sawako from Showa Women University. The increasingly commercial use of the old houses will result in the minimisation of the cultural activity in the centre as the new owners and hired workers, who are not locals, cannot connect with traditional Hoi An culture. They are not aware of the rules regarding the preservation of the old town, says Sawako, and therefore it will lead to a decline in collective responsibility for preservation work.

The research, by Sawako, included a study of 453 houses which used to function as shops on the four busiest streets of the town, including Tran Phu, Nguyen Thai Hoic, Nguyen Tho Minh Khai and Le Loi.

Besides a diverse cultural and architectural heritage, Hoi An has a rich intangible culture. The daily lives of people with traditional customs and spiritual activities are a living part of Hoi An’s heritage that also needs to be preserved.

The town’s administration has spent nearly 30 billion dong ($1.5 million) to renovate houses in the preservation area. The town contributes 75 per cent of the funding work to each house, with renovation work for each house costing around 1 billion dong ($500,000). “As society develops, people need better living standards,” said Lac who is a freelance photo-journalist.

“The old houses are deteriorating as time goes by, especially when taking into account the severe weather conditions central Viet Nam experiences every year due to floods and storms, it costs a lot to renovate and preserve them.” Lac said many Hoi An people, despite the financial support from the government and the town, cannot afford to preserve their houses, which can be rented out for large sums. The result is that many opt to move out in search of better living conditions.

The Hue Citadel, another World Heritage site in the country’s central region, is also grappling with the challenges of urbanisation.

Hue is planning to become the country’s fifth First-Rank City by 2020 while becoming an environmentally-friendly city focused on protecting its historic cultural values.

Apart from the citadel, which became the country’s first UNESCO-recognised heritage site in 1993, the city has a diverse intangible heritage of royal court music, traditional festivals and craft villages, and unique local cuisine.

The city, like Hoi An, however, is facing challenges caused by the country’s rapid development.

A detailed and scientific plan for the management, preservation and upholding of Hue’s heritage values has proved insufficient, said Phan Thanh Hai, deputy head of Hue Ancient City’s Heritage Preservation Centre.

Almost half the population of Hue, which is home to 1.2 million people, reside within the heritage site, and there is still no detailed roadmap and plan to help move the residents, according to Hai.

The rapid development of urban infrastructure, including hotels, offices and shopping malls along the southern side of the Hong River is threatening the older residential area on the other side, and the royal tombs and temples along both banks.

Researchers and the public have opposed a number of projects to build resorts, hotels and tourist sites which would damage the city’s cultural and architectural harmony, said Hai. UNESCO, in the last five years, has issued warnings to Hue over its poor management of urban infrastructure development and poor management of heritage sites.

“That is really a wake-up call in terms of the future of Hue’s heritage,” said Hai.

Worse to come? The conflict between preservation and development could become more serious, said Hai. “The need for rapid urban development will surely put pressure on the preservation of heritage and this could be even worse if the management of the sites remain poor.” There are lessons for Hue to learn about the successes and failures of preserving cultural heritage at many similar cities around the world, said Hai.

Hai said the final decision should be made by the local people, who best know which part of their city’s heritage is worth preserving.

In Hoi An, the local people should also play a central role in the preservation of the town.

Hoi An was praised for successfully going through urbanisation in the past without the widespread destruction of architecture and traditional life.

The protection of Hoi An’s old urban architecture and its tradition and customs are the key elements in the preservation of this world heritage site. To attain this goal the participation of local people is key.

Local people are seen as the owners of the heritage and it’s them who are best placed to ensure the preservation of traditions and architecture alike, said professor and architect Hoang Do Kinh.

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Category: News @ Hoi An