Age-old problem poses costly conundrum

Glimpse of the past: The town of Dong Van in Ha Giang Province, located in a valley bellow a limestone mountain range, is home to 40 ancient houses, recognised as being National Heritage. Around full moon days, on the 14th, 15th and 16th of the month, red lanterns are lit along the houses, giving the neighbourhood a mystical atmosphere. — VNA/VNS Photo Nhat Anh

Glimpse of the past: The town of Dong Van in Ha Giang Province, located in a valley bellow a limestone mountain range, is home to 40 ancient houses, recognised as being National Heritage. Around full moon days, on the 14th, 15th and 16th of the month, red lanterns are lit along the houses, giving the neighbourhood a mystical atmosphere. — VNA/VNS Photo Nhat Anh

National Heritage houses are vital for attracting tourists and preserving traditional culture for future generations, but their inhabitants are bound by red tape and often forced to live in squalid conditions. Nguyen My Ha reports.

Ha Noi has a thousand years of history since it was first designated the capital of what was then a tiny country around the basin of the Red River Delta.

The Old Quarter is Ha Noi’s heart, though it does not sport spectacular architecture. It’s been strongly influenced by the French, particularly in Ta Hien Street, something Hanoians tend to be proud of.

But like other old quarters of cities around the country, such as Dong Van Ancient Quarter in Ha Giang Province, which are in danger of being lost in the rush for modernity, funding for preservation is slow in coming and residents of National Heritage houses, earmarked for restoration, are paying the price. They are not permitted to carry out even the most basic of repairs.

In Ha Noi’s Old Quarter you can meet people from Western Europe and from almost all countries of the former Eastern European block, such as Albania, Romania and Bulgaria, attracted to the “old world” atmosphere.

Mr Tran Mien has been living in his house on Ta Hien Street since 1955 when Ha Noi was freed from French occupation, said, “The tourists come here, they drink beer, eat snacks and talk and from their cheers and laughter you can tell they are having a great time.

“It has been a great effort to restore this segment of Ta Hien Street,” Mien says pointing to the newly stone-paved walking street and the shuttered French terrace houses, which have been given a facelift.

Tasty traditions: Snack stalls dot Ha Noi's Ta Hien Street, which has undergone a complete facelift to ensure houses have a similar facade. Tourists flock to this busy street which serves as the beating heart of the Old Quarter. — VNS Photo Truong Vi

Tasty traditions: Snack stalls dot Ha Noi's Ta Hien Street, which has undergone a complete facelift to ensure houses have a similar facade. Tourists flock to this busy street which serves as the beating heart of the Old Quarter. — VNS Photo Truong Vi

It was a joint project between the city of Ha Noi and the city of Tolouse, France, to restore the facade of the street. The houses remained intact but they were given new doors and windows and all painted in the same green colour as they would have been when they were new.

Home to some of the most notable dining addresses, this 52m street of about 20 households is busy far into the night, seven days a week. One restaurant serving Vietnamese food, Little Hanoi, stands next to an Indian restaurant called Taj Mahal.

“Dining out has made the Old Quarter stay alive,” Mien said. “There are five traditional theatres around this area, most notably the Chuong Vang or The Gold Bell on Hang Bac St.”

The area used to be a theatrical district and served the audience after shows. The theatres still operate, producing Vietnamese opera, musicals and plays.

Until now, three years after the restoration project was completed, opinions of the new status still vary. “It’s getting more complicated to live in our own house,” says a woman whose family owns the Little Hanoi. “We have to abide by so many rules and regulations.”

Growing old gracefully: The ancient banyan tree overshadowing the village gate of Duong Lam, a National Heritage site which showed signs of decaying. Motor vehicles were restricted from passing through the gate and the water under the roots had to be let out to save the tree. — VNA/VNS Anh Tuan

Growing old gracefully: The ancient banyan tree overshadowing the village gate of Duong Lam, a National Heritage site which showed signs of decaying. Motor vehicles were restricted from passing through the gate and the water under the roots had to be let out to save the tree. — VNA/VNS Anh Tuan

This is the problem which many people living in areas on the National Heritage list face. In fact, just last week it was revealed that residents of Ha Giang’s Dong Van Ancient Quarter said they wanted the National Heritage listing on their houses removed. Sung Dai Hung, Party Secretary of Dong Van District, says, “Ten households want the title of national heritage taken off their properties.

“Their houses have been deteriorating for years and they are not allowed to repair them without appropriate licences. They want to break free from the title to be able to improve their living conditions.”

Dong Van Ancient Quarter comprises 40 houses that are over 100 years old. They belong to people of the Mong, Tay and ethnic Chinese people. The houses are built of thick earthen walls and yin-yang interlocking roof tiles (of Chinese origin), each a collector’s item in its own right.

“As local government workers, we have tried to convince people to wait for a proposal from the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism to run its course,” Hung says.

“But it’s been a few years now and people think we are lying.”

Meanwhile, the provincial culture department director Hoang Van Kien was quoted as saying the resident had been surveyed and had not indicated any discontent.

But he agrees that due to a lack of funding, the restoration of the Dong Van Ancient Quarter has been delayed a long time.

Kien said the department had planned to carry out urgent restoration for 10 of the most dilapidated houses.

Spoilt for choice: Tourists from all over the world go to Ha Noi's Old Quarter to get lost in narrow streets full of colours and fragrance. — VNA/VNS Photo Nhat Anh

Spoilt for choice: Tourists from all over the world go to Ha Noi's Old Quarter to get lost in narrow streets full of colours and fragrance. — VNA/VNS Photo Nhat Anh

National Heritage was an honorary title but not many people were capable or willing to wear it. At first the title was awarded with lots of hope, expectations and fanfare but gradually, over time, the novelty wore off and people are looking for more practical approach.

Last month, villagers of ancient Duong Lam village in Son Tay met with the local commune authorities to request better living conditions in their old houses.

The local government offered a relocation plan that would move people to another location, far from the village and cultivating areas.

The plan was rejected by the residents who wanted their ancient houses to accommodate their growing families.

“We need electricity and water in our houses,” a resident was quoted as saying at a meeting.

In the ancient village, there were about 1000 houses which are not of significant cultural and architectural value, he said. Those houses could be upgraded to provide people with better conditions.

According to a recent working trip to Duong Lam, Ha Noi’s Party Secretary Pham Quang Nghi said that a sample design of the appropriate house should be approved so local residents could follow it when they rebuild their houses.

Deputy chairman of the Viet Nam Heritage Society Dang Van Bai said the protests of local residents needed to be addressed appropriately.

“In the early days, local people in Hoi An also disagreed with restoration efforts and plans.”

But that project was a great success and had brought thousands of tourists to the town.

“Local authorities needed to work more closely with the people to find out a feasible solution and then people will adhere to it.”

The National Heritage Committee chairman, Professor Luu Tran Tieu said, “I am with the people on the practical needs for their daily life but if we let them rebuild houses like those in big cities, no tourists will come to Duong Lam.”

Also, old quarters and ancient villages should be preserved not only for tourists but for generations of Vietnamese to come.

Back in Ha Noi’s Ta Hien Street, the retired editor of a publishing house, Tran Mien, said he enjoyed the bustling life on his street.

“Up until the early hour in the morning, you’ll see many tourists out and about. The Old Quarter has its own charm.”

Mien owns a popular art gallery named Art Salon in Ta Hien which sells souvenirs paintings.

“My son is a painter. We sell mostly souvenirs for tourists. Collectors do not buy their art here. But I have met many Western ladies in their 40s and 50s, mostly from France and the UK, who are very knowledgeable about art.

“I hope we can mobilise more funds to preserve the Old Quarter of Ha Noi for my grandchildren’s children.” — VNS

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