Vietnam historic sites at risk of burning down

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A temple, built in 1429, was majorly destroyed by a fire in the northern province of Thanh Hoa on December 1 / PHOTO COURTESY OF TUOI TRE

Fires have burned down many centuries-old relic site in Vietnam and are threatening to destroy more, mainly because local authorities are slow to take protective measures.

On December 1, a temple built in 1429 in the northern province of Thanh Hoa to worship Le Lai, a famous general who lived during the Lam Son Uprising (1418-1427) against the China's ruling Ming dynasty, was destroyed by a fire.

The incident, whose cause is still being investigated, took place a few months after the temple was recognized as a national site.

More than one month before, a century-old ethnic house believed to be the only one of its kind in Vietnam was burned down by tourists grilling fish in the northern province of Hoa Binh.

A recent report by Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper said that while the Department of Cultural Heritage does not compile statistics on fires at historic sites, at least eight big incidents have taken place across Vietnam since 2007.

Three of them happened this year alone, while another three occured last year.

Although Nguyen Huu Toan, deputy chief of the department, once said that fire prevention measures were applied strictly at felic sights, the report found that the measures are applied casually and lackadaisically in reality.

For instance, at Mot Cot (One Pillar Pagoda), a nearly 1,000-year-old pagoda in Hanoi, three fire extinguishers are hidden in between two altar cabinets. No warning signs against fires can be found in and around the site, Tuoi Tre reported.

But this is still better than the situation at other sites where there is no extinguisher at all.

At Kim Co Pagoda, which was built more than 200 years ago, and Hoa Than (Fire God) Temple built in 1838, no fire prevention measures can be found, even though both sites are surrounded by houses and electric wires in Hanoi's Old Quarter.

Nguyen The Chinh, director of Culture, Sports and Tourism in the northern province of Bac Giang, said in Voice of Vietnam Radio's online newspaper that the local relic management board cannot afford firefighting equipment, or to establish forces tasked with fighting fire.

In the meantime, local historic sites are mostly built from wood, which easily catches fire, he said.

The official also said that built long time ago, the structures were not equipped with lighting systems. So, to serve tourists, their managers installed electric systems but without strictly following safety rules, thus putting the sites at greater risk of explosions and fire.

Pham Thanh Nam, chief of the cultural heritage division with Ho Chi Minh City's Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism, also told Tuoi Tre that the city's heritage and relic sites were at serious risk of explosions and fires.

Some sites' are deteriorating and many are left unmanned, he said.

Nam said it was a pity that fire destroyed Hoi Son Pagoda in District 9 last year, saying that the pagoda was equipped with a security camera system, but not with devices that could automatically switch off the whole electric system when electric problems happened.

An electric leak sparked a fire that wounded up burning down the 300-year-old pagoda along with many old statues.

Speaking to Tuoi Tre, Prof. Tran Lam Bien, a cultural and religious researcher, said cultural authorities have talked about fire prevention at historic sites for years, but have yet applied measures because it is not clear who is in charge of managing the sites.

He said at many sites, management boards do not have as much authority as the monks or temple keepers who live inside them.

Architect Le Thanh Vinh with the Institute for Relic Preservation at the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism also said that although the prevention of fire at relic sights has been discussed a lot, there has been no progress in specific actions.

It takes a few years, or even tens of years, for a restoration project to get full funding, and during those awaiting years, historic sites' conditions get worse and face all kinds of risks like fire, Vinh said.

Risks

In Hue, Vietnam's former capital, fire prevention measures are apparently above average.

Nguyen Thanh Nam, who manages security guards of the Hue Monuments Conservation Center, said in Tuoi Tre that every year local firefighting police check the sites' fire prevention capacity, and evaluate security guards who attend related drills.

Moreover, the center has spent around VND1 billion ($47,000) on firefighting equipment over the past 20 years.

But, fires are a "common fear" of security guards, because fires still happen at forests inside or next to historic sites every year, he said.

People who live nearby often burn bee hives and garbage in the forests, posing risks to the relic sites which were mainly built with wood, he explained.

Meanwhile, Phan Thanh Hai, director of the center, said one of the common risks is tourists' smoking cigarettes.

He said that even though the center already established "no smoking" signs at all the sites, many tourists still do it.

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