Conservation of old-Hanoi needs community support

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A Japanese official in charge of a Hanoi preservation project says he needs the help of neighborhood residents

Preserving Hanoi's oldest and most historic streets will require the full-fledged participation of the local community, Ando Katsuhiro, senior project formulation adviser from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), told Thanh Nien Weekly. Katsuhiro is in charge of the JICA's tourism and street conservation projects in the capital.

Thanh Nien Weekly: What is the more valuable and unique characteristic of Hanoi's historic streets: their architecture or the lifestyles of the local residents?

Ando Katsuhiro: Hanoi's old quarter is a cultural asset. This section of town is referred to as the "36 Guild Streets," where particular trades have been plied on each of the 36 different streets for centuries. These crafts still define these streets today.

The 36 Guild Streets is chaotic and diverse, but the spirit of local people and their traditional craft still survives. Even now, when I stop in an alley, an interesting story and local smile always awaits.

Hanoi's government plans to relocate some of the old-quarter's residents to reduce population density in the area as a way to preserve them. What do you think about the measure? Will the removal kill the soul of the old streets? As you say, people's lives are a part of the streets...

I oppose this idea. As I said earlier, the charm of the 36 Guild Streets is the people's way of life and the vigor of activities there. The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Hoi An once considered the same idea in the past.

But Hoi An did not adopt the policy and they have chosen the concept "Heritage with Living." If they had adopted policies to reduce population density in Hoi An, the living town of Hoi An may have disappeared


Compared to Hoi An old town, Hanoi's 36 Guild Streets is much larger and urbanized. It is not realistic to say they are the same thing, but if we deprive people from the town that has been formed by the people, the town itself as we know it could disappear.

Houses in the old quarter are dilapidated and many local residents have bad living conditions. What should Vietnam do to preserve the heritage while improving people's living conditions?

In the course of conserving the townscape, care should be taken to raise the standard of natural lighting, ventilation and sanitary conditions, thus improving the living conditions of the local people. However, it is sometimes difficult to balance between the resident's needs and preservation regulations.

Similar problems are occurring with conservation work in Japan. Japan has developed a planning method that tries to harmonize modern facilities and traditional architectural structures in order to improve living conditions and maintain cultural values.

Authorities also need to provide a subsidy for restoration works [so poor people can fix their historic homes properly]. More skilled architects and appropriate regulations are needed in Vietnam.

The most important thing in conservation work is to balance the preservation of cultural value with regeneration of socioeconomic conditions and improvement of environmental conditions. Community participation on conservation work is essentially important to this.

Land prices in the old quarter are the highest in Hanoi, and each house can be an extremely valuable shop. Should Vietnam develop the streets into trade centers or tourism sites? If so, how?

Hanoi's old quarter already has a high concentration of trade and service activities. They are not only for tourists but also for local people. The town has thrived on local economic activities. If it became just a tourist spot, the unique charm would be gone. At the same time, the modernization of retail and distribution methods can be expected to have a considerable impact on the small traditional shops of the old town. To maintain the stability of trade and economic activities of community, careful provision should be made to ensure that problems are foreseen and change is effectively managed.

Many modern high-rise buildings have been constructed near the old streets. How will this affect the streets' image as well as their cultural value? And what should Vietnam do to ensure the development of a modern society and the preservation of traditional values?

Development of new high-rise buildings will have a negative impact on the urban landscape and environment of the old quarter. And the historical value of Hanoi as a city is not defined by the 36 Guild Streets alone, the royal Citadel and the French Quarter also merit recognition. The existence of these three districts of contrasting character gives Hanoi an extraordinarily rich historical environment. An effective conservation and urban development plan for all of Hanoi must take into account all three historic areas together in harmony.

Can you share some preservation experiences from your own country?

Of course, the socio-economic situation and policy framework of our two countries are different. But, it is always essential that community is a key actor and should play an active role in conservation work.

In Japan, community - based organizations are active in local conservation work and they communicate with government. One example: an association was established to preserve an ancient town 30 years ago. At that time, the town was in danger of rapid urbanization. The association prepared the documents to apply for recognition as a heritage site in need of zoning protection.

The association also mobilized people to come back and live in town and maintain the traditional way of life. The association contributed to the revival of the ancient town and is still active in connecting the government and local people in matters related to conservation.

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