Hanoi's 1,000th anniversary has brought about a welcome awareness of the need to preserve the capital, says French artist
"Culture is what remains after all else has been forgotten," said French statesman and author Edouard Herriot.
One of his later day compatriots is worried that little of Hanoi's distinct culture will remain if the capital city continues to pursue a modernization path that is insensitive to its unique cultural heritage and apes other places that lost their identity long ago.
French artist Dominique de Miscault's concern is not that of a dispassionate, detached observer.
Over the last 18 years, she has visited the country 25 times, published a book called "Hanoi Nowadays" and held several dozen exhibitions of works in France and Vietnam relating to the capital city.
For her, Hanoi is a place that has helped heal deep psychological wounds including the loss of loved ones, and it hurts that such a magical place is disappearing rapidly in an orgy of destruction and construction.
"Previously, it was good to live in Hanoi and discover a different beauty hidden in every corner of the city, but now, Hanoi is no longer the same. It has become so bad that people find it difficult to breathe," Dominique said.
Hanoi was repeating what Ho Chi Minh City had done earlier, she said.
"I think 60 years ago, HCMC surely had its own characteristics that are almost lost now. Now, the city stretches to the horizon with millions of old and new houses, followed by several skyscrapers. Will Hanoi follow this?"
The artist said that particularly since 2000, "something crazy" was happening everyday in the capital. People were in a hurry to break down their houses and give space to those who pay high prices.
"What do Hanoians think of their capital? What about their dreams? Why have the responsible ones not yet genuinely appreciated their own city? Why don't they approach the city from afar to discover the mysteries of their home before it is destroyed by people's ignorance and arrogance?
"Most of the locals, I think, have not yet understood and studied their city well. It is time to change," said the artist, who is editor-in-chief of the Trien vong quan he Phap Viet (Perspective France Vietnam) published by the Vietnam-France Friendship Association.
But for all her despair at what is happening in Hanoi, she is not wallowing in despondency.
Her latest work, on 50 square meters of the "Ceramic Road" project that is being carried out to celebrate the capital city's 1,000th anniversary, gives her hope.
She thinks that the 1,000th year anniversary of Thang Long-Hanoi has brought out fresh energy to preserve the city's historical characteristics and its distinctive beauty. Though the poverty is still there, those living in ancient houses are paying more attention to keeping their name and identity. Construction projects are either being reviewed carefully or delayed.
The city and its residents are looking for ways to preserve their own image, yet establish a dynamic environment for business in a completely different atmosphere to HCMC, said Dominique.
The road ahead
In fact, the Ceramic Road is a project conceived by someone who knows how to "harmonize the meaning and elements of commerce," Dominique said.
The 7,000-square-meter project decorates the walls of a dyke road with ceramic creations of 15 foreign artists from Italy,
Argentina, New Zealand, the US and France, 20 local artists and contributions from several companies and organizations, 500 Vietnamese and foreign children and 100 artisans.
Dominique was the first one to participate in the project, which was initiated by journalist and artist Nguyen Thu Thuy. It is an "amazing" road that was completed on schedule because of the "courage and fresh intuition of Thu Thuy," said Dominique.
For her part, Thuy said that the French artist, together with 14 foreigners, was invited to the project not only because her style of art matched the poster-style paintings of ceramic, but also because of her deep and rich knowledge of Vietnam's history and culture.
Before she finished the 50 sq.m ceramic painting depicting the renowned legend De dat de nuoc (Giving birth to Earth and Water) of the Muong minority, Dominique was involved in translating and illustrating Vietnamese poems penned during the Ly and Tran dynasties (11th-13th century), and held exhibitions of sculptures inspired by Vietnamese 10th century poems, calligraphy, and photographs of different places in the country.
The French artist has asked the Vietnamese government for permission to create a depiction of Agent Orange victims on the Ceramic Road, and is awaiting a reply.
The artist, who was awarded a medal for services to Vietnam's newspaper industry in 2006 by the Association of Vietnam Journalists, said Vietnamese enterprises have played a part in changing the current situation and striving for a better future for the city.
But in general, money-making and profit dominate world thinking today, and this has to be fought because it is destructive by nature, she said.