One man's passion for antiques opens up Hue's past by several millennia
Ho Tan Phan, 76, holds with care a pottery pot in his garden in Hue. Photos by Tuyet Khoa
Ho Tan Phan became a history and culture researcher almost by default, and an antique collector almost by accident.
He was a teacher in a primary school, and in 1977, when the school was planning to lay off people because of financial difficulties, he volunteered to resign.
This freed him up to devote considerable time to reading, something he liked to. He read many books, including old ones written in Chinese and Nôm a demotic script popular from 15th to 19th centuries which use the standard set of classical Chinese characters to represent Sino-Vietnamese vocabulary.
Phan got his hands on his first relics when his wife, then a midwife, was paid by some locals with pottery jars they'd found in the Huong (Perfume) River.
Today, Phan is the owner of an unprecedented collection of relics that experts believe will help write a much longer history of Vietnam's old feudal capital of Hue.
Ever since he started buying items fished from local rivers, he has piled up thousands of artifacts, including around a thousand items of up to 2,500 years old from the Sa Huynh culture, the dominant one in central Vietnam compared to Dong Son in the north and Oc Eo in the south.
Fortunately for Phan, the locals were digging up rivers to find scrap metal for resale. They had no interest in pottery and other items, and he became a regular customer of what they considered "ugly" and would otherwise have discarded without a second thought.
Now 76, Phan has never stopped spending his meager financial resources for around 40 years.
Phan says he bought many items from local sidewalks, and sometimes the fishermen sailed an entire boat of antiques to his house.
But, Phan says, the money gradually made them "smarter" and "raise their prices to the sky" and there have been many times when he had to struggle for several days to borrow money, constantly checking to see no one else bought the item he was seeking.
His wife, Nguyen Thi Tho, says he knows all fishing villages in town and he treats antiques like a lover. "Every day he spends a lot of time with them, sometimes he forgets to eat or sleep. When he does not have money to buy an item, he would be lovesick for days."
Phan says the items are rare and precious, because many of them have not been reported in previous excavations and researchers are still working on what to call them or finding out what they were used for.
He has put many items in his collection in the garden, and during the flooding season, used to stay up all night standing in the water to make sure they are not washed away. Now, he has figured out that he can fill them with sand and make them heavy enough to withstand the flooding.
Antiques make quite a sight at Phan's house. He prefers pottery to other kinds of antiques as they represent a normal life in the past
While most collectors in Hue pay attention to enamel products from the Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1945), the country's last ruling family based in the city, almost all of Phan's collection is comprised of pottery products.
"They are not so luxurious, but they are older and thus can tell more stories," he says in a Lao Dong report.
"There are cultural and historical mysteries that I did not find satisfactory answers to in books, so I had to look elsewhere. I chose to look into items that ancestors created to use in their daily lives, and pottery items were the most popular among them."
Phan says it had been a hard job studying the history of Hue due to the small number of books and relics available on the subject, but feels his collection could change that.
Many books have recorded Hue's history only from around seven centuries ago, starting in the early 14th century when many Vietnamese people moved to the central region from the north following Huyen Tran, a princess under the Tran Dynasty, who was married to a Champa king in 1306.
But there are no elaborate descriptions even for those times, as well as about the Champa Kingdom's reign that happened between the Sa Huynh period and the takeover by the Dai Viet.
Phan says Hue only started to be known as another site of the Sa Huynh culture, which flourished from around three thousand years ago to 200 AD, in the year 2000, when some artifacts were excavated from the ground.
"Together with those, items from the Huong River could show Hue's history must be extended back by several thousand years," he says in a Tuoi Tre report.
Many items in his collection were once displayed at Hue Festival of Traditional Crafts in 2009. "A river does not tell a story with normal language, but with real items. It carries the breath of people from thousands of years ago," Phan said when presenting his collection.
Earlier, the Sa Huynh culture was thought to have been focused in what is now Quang Ngai Province to the south of Hue, when some ancient tombs were unearthed in the early 20th century. Then more signs of the culture were also found in Quang Nam Province and Da Nang to the north of Quang Ngai and to the south of Hue during the late 20th century.
Nguyen Viet, an archaeologist, says Phan's collection proves that the Hai Van Pass between Hue and Da Nang, 500 meters high and 20 kilometers long, was no block to Sa Huynh culture.
Viet, who has been studying Phan's collection for several years, told Tuoi Tre the collection does not stop at 2,500 years ago. A clay artifact, whose usage is still unclear, and a ceramic pot, are both between 3,000 to 4,000 years old.
The items "prove that the upstream areas have home to civilizations from early times. They suggest that we might find some ancient tombs around here any time soon," he says.
He says while the Sa Huynh items help describe the start of Hue's culture, Phan's collection is especially rich and diverse in Cham relics.
"Many researchers and I have thought about making our students use these items for their graduate and postgraduate theses.
"That will help Phan organize his giant collection, given his poor health and financial situation, and meanwhile promote his efforts for social good."
Viet says the researches can prompt museums to pay attention to Phan and do something to pay back the love, labor and money he has spent on researching Hue's history.
Dr. Lam Thi My Dung, head of archaeology studies at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities of the National University in Hanoi, says Phan's collection reflects the start of civilizations around the Huong River, as well as the interaction between different groups of people including the Sa Huynh, the Cham and the Vietnamese people.
"It is opening many new matters to historians and culture experts," Dung says.
Nguyen Anh Thu, a heritage lecturer at Hanoi University of Culture, calls Phan's collection "Vietnam's largest private museum" that narrates a long history of what is now Vietnam's territory.
Phan has opened the collection at his house at 28/5 Cao Ba Quat Street, to anyone interested in studying them, and has attracted many researchers and students.
Journalists in the area consider him a walking encyclopedia, but he always tells them not to quote him, reminding them that "I'm just telling from books."
Many media reports about him and his collection have called Phan a researcher, but he has sought to underplay it.
"I'm just a person who loves reading book and has had the chance to read many books."
Historian or not, researcher or not, the retired teacher and accidental antique collector still has a big wish. He wants to be able to organize his collection of nearly 10,000 relics into a proper museum.
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