Dismantling history, brick by new brick

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The Son Tay Citadel is ill-fated.

It was built in 1822 during the reign of Emperor Minh Mang to thwart the French, but a year later, the defense was breached.

Now it is being destroyed anew by "restoration" work that proceeds without due sanction from authorities, indeed in defiance of government instruction to stop construction. This is the third restoration effort that the historic monument is being subjected to.

The first restoration took place in 1995, one year after it was recognized as a National Historic Relic by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism.

The north gate was the first victim. The gate was rebuilt with a completely new embossment and "beautified" with cannons as decorations.

The new gate looks ridiculous when compared to hundred-year-old walls made of old laterite and several centuries-old trees in the area. One beautiful banyan tree that stood in front of the gate was thoughtlessly cut down, with a complete absence of aesthetic sense.

In 2003, the relic suffered from yet another restoration project that cost the public VND48 billion (US$2.4 million).

A section of the 100-meter long wall with moss-covered laterite bricks that stood in the west of the citadel was modified with a five-meter wall made of new bricks.

The length of this new wall has now been extended to 654 meters, covering more than 50 percent of the site's outer borders after the third preservation effort that began in March 2010 and continues until today.

In the first days of this month, new bricks were transported from Thach That District to expand the wall.

It is said that after the third restoration is completed, the citadel, built according to the Vauban architectural style, named after the well-known French military engineer, will be transformed into a complete new building.

BULWARK

The Son Tay Citadel is a military rampart of the Nguyen Dynasty, built in Son Tay Town around 60km away from Hanoi, to fight against the French in the 1870s and 1880s. Most of the citadel was destroyed and lost to the French in 1883.

The square citadel comprised four main gates, an ancient flag tower, and laterite walls covering an area of 16 hectares. The citadel was surrounded by a 20- meter wide, three meters deep moat that was approximately 1792 meters long.

The site is considered one of the great symbols of Vietnam's cultural heritage together along with Co Loa ancient citadel, Hanoi citadel and Hue Imperial palace.

 

According to an official document released by the ministry on May 21, 2010 concerning the relic's restoration, the government has allowed restoration work only to maintain the integrity of the structure, to refit loose or fallen laterite bricks in their original positions, but not to construct new walls. The portion of walls that have completely collapsed and are impossible to restore are to be covered by rows of trees.

A written communication from Son Tay Town, sent to the Bureau of Cultural Heritage in October 2010 asking for permission to build a new 1.5m tall wall on the foundation of the 117.5-meter long old wall has received no response. However, the town authorities started construction on the new wall on their own and were only stopped after strong public criticism.

Later, on November 19, 2010, the bureau released an official document asking the town to stop the construction, but to continue exploration of the ancient wall's foundation.

The Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism then held a meeting on December 28 to present the government's official conclusion concerning the restoration project for Son Tay Citadel.

Accordingly, both the government and local scientists agreed that it was okay to pile up stones as a protective measure but construction of the new 1.5m tall must be stopped. Restoration must be carried out according to historical documents, they said, adding it was necessary to continue collecting more information including pictures, films and other materials about the site and the original structure.

However, authorities of the town seem impervious to instructions or suggestions about retaining the historic structure's authenticity. They are going ahead with the construction of another section of the 654m long wall with new bricks.

History is being dismantled, new brick by new brick.

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