Plan to restore 800 ancient houses in Hanoi not realistic: expert

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Hanoi has planned to restore 800 out of 4,000 houses in Hanoi's Old Quarter but the capital's former chief architect says the number may be too large to handle.  

"We can look to Italy's Genova for reference. The city and Hanoi are similar in terms of architecture and history among other things. But Genova chose only 40 ancient houses of the highest value for restoration," said Dao Ngoc Nghiem, former chief architect of Hanoi and former director of the municipal Department of Zoning and Architecture.

"In the Old Quarter, there are traditional Vietnamese houses and French, Chinese and Indian-style buildings. They are all different. Should we restore all of them?"

It was vital to re-identify Hanoi's premium assets before taking the necessary steps to restore them, he said.

Housed in Hanoi's Hoan Kiem District, the 1,000 year-old Old Quarter covers an area of around 100 hectares. It is famous for its 36 guild streets, with each street named after the traditional craft found there.

Hanoi has changed the number of houses and religious relics to be restored in the Old Quarter many times since 1995. Currently, 800 houses and 121 religious constructions are listed as "ancient".

Of the figure, only three houses have been renovated.

Nghiem said the Old Quarter management regulation, issued in 1999, should be amended, as many parts of it are not in keeping with the current law.

"The regulation should also point out what the government has the right to do and what residents are allowed to do [in terms of renovating and preserving the quarter]. It must show the benefits restoration gives residents.

"I have talked with many residents. They said they didn't care that their houses were listed as "ancient" because they didn't get anything from it."

"The regulation should also take commercial issues in the Old Quarter into account. For example, traditional Chinese medicine street will be allowed to sell traditional Chinese medicine only. The city must therefore think about the families living on the street who deal in other business," said Nghiem.

In a conference held in Hanoi on May 21 where representatives from Genova shared their experiences of restoring old towns, Giorgio Parodi, an architect and president of Genova Architect Association said there were two key parts to the restoration work: identifying the ancient constructions for restoration and seeking residents' support.

He said after the classification, Genova, an old seaport city in northern Italy, chose only 48 constructions to be restored. Others, depending on their architectural value, received varying degrees of financial support.

In some places, residents were happy to spend their own money to renovate under the supervision of the city's Architect Association, he said.

It took 20 years to restore Genova, said Parodi. Part of Genoa was inscribed on UNESCO World Heritage List in 2006.

Parodi also said Hanoi should make minor changes to beautify the Old Quarter immediately, like clearing the electric wires across O Quan Chuong, Hanoi's only remaining city gate.

In a move to preserve the Old Quarter, Hoan Kiem District's People's Committee has recently sent the Hanoi administration a proposal to relocate around 1,800 families from the quarter to the new urban area, Viet Hung, in Long Bien District.

According to a survey by Hoan Kiem authorities, the Old Quarter has one of the world's highest population densities at 84,000 people per square kilometer.

The resettlement plan is aimed at improving the living conditions of local residents and protecting and preserving the historical landmarks of the Old Quarter, according to Hoan Kiem authorities.

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