'Cultural Heritage' not just a label, experts say

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Scholars and historians say Vietnam's heritages have not been properly respected

Composer Thao Giang says the true value of traditional culture lies in enjoying it, not in having it recognized by international organizations.

"After our hat xam campaign, many people began asking when we would submit it for recognition by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization)," Tuoi Tre newspaper quoted Giang as saying.

"But I told them the music's true value is only revealed when people enjoy it organically, not when some international organization 'honors' it."

Hat xam is a minimalistic style of Vietnamese singing, traditionally performed by the poor and the blind and especially wanderers, usually with only a simple dan nhi (two-string violin) or dan bau (single string zither) - a kind of Vietnamese blues from the 13th century.

In 2005, Giang had led a movement to preserve hat xam and promote awareness of the old art in Vietnamese communities. Funded by the Vietnam Music Art Development Center, of which Giang is the deputy director, he and a team of experts researched the music's history, held classes to teach a new generation to play it, and hosted performances throughout the country.

Preservation: blasphemy and done right

Another traditional Vietnamese music expert who wished to go unnamed said he was ashamed that so many people were racing fanatically to Vietnamese art forms recognized by UNESCO, without really caring about preserving and popularizing them at home, Tuoi Tre reported.

He said recording the history correctly and preserving the pure art forms should be the top priorities.

Many cultural scholars said they were hurt when nha nhac - Vietnamese Royal Court Music and a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage - was performed on the streets in Spain in 2006 as part of a cultural exchange program. Whereas hat xam and several other forms of Vietnamese music are free pretensions and can be played anywhere by anyone, historians and cultural experts said that the music of the former imperial courts in Hue should not be played outside of regal settings and should certainly not be played on the street.

Giang said a trip he and a troupe of Vietnamese performers took to showcase traditional music in Japan helped teach him that cultural heritage should be preserved in its original form, without the intrusion of contemporary modifications.

"Our Japan partners said they didn't want us to perform with an electric dan bau," he said. So they only used the acoustic instrument, and the music was heard the same way it sounded hundreds of years ago.

Giang and traditional singer Xuan Hoach have recently built a dan bau in the instrument's original form and now play it at the Dong Xuan night market in Hanoi. Giang also holds free hat xam classes every Thursday at a small temple near the Vietnam Institute for Musicology in the capital.

He said he had no plans yet to apply for hat xam to be recognized by UNESCO as a piece of intangible cultural heritage.

Bewitched by 'world heritage'

The local media has been enthralled by the UNESCO World Heritage program ever since the Complex of Hue Monuments was recognized in 1993 as Vietnam's first addition to the list.

Soon after local agencies submitted the Thang Long Royal Citadel to the UN agency for approval last September, several newspapers reported that it would be recognized immediately. But the citadel is still going through the approval process, which will likely last quite a while longer.

In June, the local media reported that quan ho had passed a significant appraisal step by UNESCO.

Quan ho is a type of folk music from the north that employs dual singing and call and response, usually accompanied by the dan bau and the sao truc (bamboo flute).

But none of this year's 111 submissions to UNESCO had been disqualified in the first phase, in which the agency only began to review relevant documents.

Exaggerated media reports have even fabricated UNESCO submissions from Vietnam. Local news outlets have reported that Vietnam submitted water-puppet shows, Thai dance and Tay Nguyen (Central Highlands) epic poetry for recognition. But none of these have been submitted to UNESCO yet.


But all that's not to say that UNESCO recognition is not beneficial.

After recognizing the Space for Gong Culture and nha nhac as cultural heritages in Vietnam, UNESCO handed over US$91,869 and $154,900 respectively to local agencies for preservation projects.

Local agencies are now preparing documents to submit the 82 stone steles at the Van Mieu (Temple of Literature) in Hanoi to UNESCO for recognition as a Memory-Of-TheWorld. The steles were carved between 1484 and 1880.

However, experts have said that the documents prepared so far do not reveal the site's true value.

At a conference on the issue in Hanoi last Saturday, professor Phan Huy Le, chairman of the Vietnamese History Association, said the documents had failed to explain the structures' feature and had neglected specific criteria requested by UNESCO.

Professor Trinh Khac Manh, director of the Han Nom Script Research Institute, said the document had failed to mention that 14 of the 82 steles had been re-carved during the Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1945) after they were originally built during the Later Le Dynasty (1428- 1788).

Agencies are also expediting work to submit document for the recognition of the Thang Long Royal Citadel before for the capital's millennial anniversary celebration next year.

But UNESCO has warned that the construction of a new parliament house on the site could affect the surroundings and reduce the chance of the citadel being recognized as a world heritage.


  • Intangible Cultural Heritage: Nha nhac - Vietnamese Court Music (2003), The Space of Gong Culture (2005).

  • Cultural: Complex of Hue Monuments (1993), Hoi An Ancient Town (1999), My Son Sanctuary (1999).

  • Natural: Ha Long Bay (1994), Phong Nha - Ke Bang National Park (2003).

Submitted heritage sites: Ba Be Lake (1997), The Area of Old Carved Stone in Sapa (1997), Huong Son Complex of Natural Beauty and Historical Monuments (1991), The Cultural Heritage Complex of Thang Long - Hanoi (2006), Cat Tien National Park (2006), Con Moong Cave (2006), Citadel of Ho Dynasty (2006).

Vietnam's UNESCO World Biosphere Reserves: Can Gio Mangrove (2000), Cat Tien (2001), Cat Ba (2004), Red River Delta (2004), Kien Giang (2006), Western Nghe An (2007), Mui Ca Mau (2009), Cu Lao Cham - Hoi An (2009).

Source: The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)

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