Heritage syndrome in Vietnam

VietNamNet Bridge – It is ridiculous that VND3 billion ($150,000) was spent to build a new Nam Giao worshipping platform in the Ho Dynasty Citadel for the UNESCO heritage certificate reception ceremony.

Ho Dynasty Citadel – Behind the Heritage

The real gate.

The fake gate.

On June 16, UNESCO presented the world cultural heritage certificate to the Ho Dynasty Citadel, in Thanh Hoa province. However, the ceremony was held inappropriately for a “world heritage.”

The most special character of the citadel is its walls and its arch gate, which are built by 10-20 ton rocks, without using any mortar.

However, at the ceremony, a fake arch gate was built on the stage, hiding the real gate of 600 years old. Worse, the fake gate was different from the real gate. A pair of fake stone-made dragons was also placed on the stage. They were also different from the true dragons, which were only several hundred meters away, in darkness. These fake things were honored on the stage, not the true things.

The fake dragon.

The ceremony attracted the participation of many international guests and it was broadcast widely on the media and the value of heritage was transmitted in a wrong way.

The local authorities also rebuilt the Nam Giao worshipping platform, a relic in the Ho Dynasty Citadel, to serve the ceremony. However, they did not build the platform based on historical and scientific evidences. This task cannot be called “preservation.”

Architect Le Thanh Vinh, director of the Relic Preservation Institute expressed his worry over local governments’ behavior to relics. Vinh said that because of shortage of preservation knowledge, many relics are harmed by preservation activities.

The expert said that it is very good that the Ho Dynasty Citadel was recognized as a world cultural heritage by the UNESCO, but the citadel’s cultural and historical values do not change. Titles are good for advertising and marketing for the relic but the real value of the heritage is only transmitted and maintained depending on the way the heritage is treated.

Vinh noted that Vietnam has to be very carefully in intervening into heritage sites because wrong preservation activities will harm the value of heritages and UNESCO can revoke the titles that it granted to heritages.

Architect Vinh said that many relics in Vietnam were restored not based on historical and scientific evidences. He cited Lam Kinh relic, also in Thanh Hoa province, as an example.

The rebuilt Nam Giao worshipping platform.

The remains of Nam Giao platform.

“The consulter offered three design solutions for the restoration of Lam Kinh. The offer showed that designs were not based on any historical and scientific foundation. Only the base of Lam Kinh palace was left today and the remains was not enough for restoring the entire work,” Vinh said.

Answering the question: without scientific evidences, should relics be left as ruins? Vinh said: “There are many ways to show viewers the real value of relics. Besides preserving original relics, relic management units can provide sufficient information about relics to viewer and exhibit objects related to the relics. I believe that once viewers have enough information about relics and have approach to the original remains, they can have the best understanding and feeling about relics.”

Vinh said that based on scientific evidences, relics can be restored partly or completely. However, restoration should be restricted because the restored works can look similar to the original works but they are still new works. Trying to restore relics without historical and scientific foundation is costly effort, which is even harmful for relics because it can make history wrong.

A relic in France, the Provincs residential area in Seine-et-Marne, was recognized as a world heritage by the UNESCO in 2001. However, UNESCO threatened to withdraw the title when the local authorities planed to rebuild part of the area.

Through the Ho Dynasty Citadel case, there are two things should be considered: firstly, the point of view on preservation in Vietnam, and secondly whether the world heritage title is more important than preserving the real value of relics?

The race for UNESCO world heritage title

The “new” gate.

There are other similar cases like the Ho Dynasty Citadel in Vietnam. This fact shows that cultural managers do not understand the real value of the UNESCO’s recognition while Vietnam keeps asking for UNESCO’s heritage title for other relics.

Vietnam has had seven tangible heritage sites, including two natural and five cultural heritages and nine cultural intangible heritages being recognized as world heritages by the UNESCO. However, when cultural preservation aims to get titles, preservation in Vietnam has unintentionally harmed relics or it has been implemented in a wrong way, against UNESCO’s principle of preservation.

Bac Ninh love duet is honored by the UNESCO as the Intangible Cultural Heritage of the Mankind. To celebrate the title and to “preserve” the ancient art, Bac Ninh authorities planned to make a record: 3,700 people sing love duets in chorus at the traditional Lim Festival 2012 in February. However, this idea was fiercely objected by experts and the media.

The tomb of Emperor Gia Long in May 2003.

The tomb today.

Many people raised their worry that this world-recognized traditional festival might become a game, which did not aim at quality and preservation, but “records”. If this year the record is 3,700 people who sing quan ho, the next year will be a new record, with 4,000 people singing quan ho? This is not culture. They also worried that the “syndrome of record” has began attacking Vietnam’s cultural life.

Nguyen Xuan Thang, Secretary General of the Union of International UNESCO Associations and Chairman of the Union of Vietnam UNESCO Associations, said that culture is by itself and it is not created by superficial things.

“This is another game of crowds. We cannot turn culture into a racing game. The value of Lim Festival is deep inside spiritual values, not records that are measures by numbers. The Lim Festival must be preserved as what it is,” Thang said.

The record at Lim Festival 2012 is only a variation of stories related to cultural heritages which are unexpectedly turned into games of crowds. After this festival, other festivals may also seek records. But be careful, festivals and cultural heritages may be destroyed by useless records.

After the Central Highlands gong cultural space was recognized as the world intangible cultural heritage, gongs have become the targets of antique collectors. The state had to cast new gongs to present to villages where locals had sold all ancient gongs to collectors. If gongs disappear, will the gong cultural space is preserved?

Minh An palace at Emperor Dong Khanh’s tomb in the past.

The house after being “restored”.

Nha nhac or Hue royal music and Phu Tho’s xoan singing were recognized as intangible cultural heritages in need of urgent protection. It means that the most important thing is preservation. But when the ancient melodies have not been restored yet, these ancient arts have been “renovated” by mixing them with other arts.

The state allocated VND570 billion (nearly $30 million) to restore over 100 construction works in the Hue ancient citadel, a world cultural heritage. Regrettably, ancient works have become new works after they are preserved. Old tile roofs are replaced by new materials. Old houses are painted colorfully. Patterns are changed.

The restoration of Nam Giao worshipping platform at the Ho Dynasty Citadel is the latest example of “renewing-style” of preservation in Vietnam.

UNESCO heritage title is a scientific activity based on the International convention on protecting cultural and natural heritages of the world in 1977. Over 150 countries have joined the convention. This convention does not aim to only give the world heritage title to nations but to urge member nations to bear a heavy responsibility: voluntarily investing money and brain in preserving relics in their countries, not for their nations but for the mankind. The vital principle of the convention is the honest and scientism in preservation, in which preserving the original values of relics is essential.

UNESCO heritage title is a scientific activity based on the International convention on protecting cultural and natural heritages of the world in 1977. This convention does not aim to only give the world heritage title to nations but to urge member nations to bear a heavy responsibility: voluntarily investing money and brain in preserving relics in their countries, not for their nations but for the mankind. The vital principle of the convention is the honest and scientism in preservation, in which preserving the original values of relics is essential.

In Vietnam, many heritage sites are not preserved under this principle. The world heritage title has become a vehicle to attract tourists. In preservation, culture and tourism are contrary. On one side, culture is preserved for the future while on the other side; culture and nature are exploited for money.

Not only Vietnam but other countries make mistake in combining culture with tourism. Some natural and cultural heritages in the world have lost UNESCO’s recognition for violating the principle of preservation. Dresden valley, Germany, lost the title after a four-lane bridge was built there.

UNESCO threatened to withdraw the world cultural heritage title of Ayutthaya city of Thailand when millions of visitors flocked to this city annually and relics there were encroached by urbanization.

A white oryx preservation zone in Oman lost the world natural heritage title after the number of oryxes fell from 450 in 1996 to 65 in 2007.

[Courtesy of Vietnam Net, http://english.vietnamnet.vn/en/special-report/24707/heritage-syndrome-in-vietnam.html]