Crumbling relics, twiddling thumbs

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To the letter: A little girl sits on one of 82 steles engraved with the names of ancient doctorate holders

Many of Vietnam's heritage sites are rapidly falling apart as authorities wring their hands about what to do to protect them.

These authorities are essentially caught between a rock and a hard place. Strictly enclosing the attractions may restrict visitor access and dissuade tourists. Allowing unrestricted access will translate to vandalism and rapid degradation.

Tong Trung Tin, head of the Vietnam Archaeology Association, worries about the ruination of ancient citadels such as Co Loa, Thang Long, and Hue, as some of the relics at these sites have disappeared altogether.

Olivier Tessier, a researcher from the French School of Asian Studies, has raised alarm bells about the state of the lauded Thang Long Citadel which has been worn down by rain, sunshine, and moisture since it was unearthed eight years ago.

Many bricks and pottery products are strewn about the grounds, carved patterns are wearing away, and moss abounds.

"If the situation continues through the next 10 to 15 years, the relic will be destroyed," said an archaeologist, who declined to be named.

A wide range of complex restoration procedures need to be employed if the stone, pottery, wood and metal relics found at these sites are to be preserved for future viewers. But Vietnam lacks the technology to carry them out, said Nguyen Van Son, director of the Center for Preservation of Co Loa-Hanoi's Ancient Citadel.

Tessier has also come forward and said that the country continues to face a shortage of restoration technicians capable of preserving and restoring archaeological relics in particular, and cultural relics in general.

"Archaeologists will not do it well if they do not undergo training in the field," Tessier said.

Vanishing degrees

Experts also worry about the preservation of 82 steles engraved with the names of ancient doctorate-holders. The official slabs, which date as far back as 1442, are being stored at Van Mieu Quoc Tu Giam (Hanoi's Temple of Literature and first National University).

Thousands of visitors run their hands over the ancient stone slabs every year to draw good luck during the Tet (Lunar New Year) festival and before annual university exams. In the meantime, the constant contact is smoothing out the engravings.

Last year the temple welcomed more than one million visitors.

More than 300,000 stopped in during last year's Tet holiday (Lunar New Year).

This year, the temple built an iron fence to prevent visitors from touching the stone tortoises and steles, but the relentless crowds broke the barriers.

Patronage is expected to spike following UNESCO's March decision to designate the steles as World Documentary Heritage.

The campaigns to preserve the ancient town of Hoi An and Hanoi's oldest and most historic streets have run into challenges posed by urban development. Local people in the areas are living in poor conditions.

Ando Katsuhiro, senior project adviser from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), said: "In the course of conserving the town, 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 find a balance between the resident's needs and preservation regulations," he said.

Numb fumbling

It is difficult to keep a relic intact once it's out of the ground, says Tessier of the French School of Asian Studies.

By extension, he says, it is impossible to protect all 48,000 square meters of the Thang Long Citadel from the effects of the sunshine, rain and moisture.

"I think the proposal from the Institute of Archaeology (of Vietnam), which suggest that part of the relic be used for sightseeing while the rest is re-buried to minimize the risk of being destroyed (by the severe weather) should be urgently implemented," Tessier said.

As for Van Mieu-Quoc Tu Giam, authorities from Hanoi are planning to build fences out of glass or wood to protect the 82 steles from the crowds, according to Dang Kim Ngoc, director of the school's Scientific and Cultural Activities Center.

At the moment, the steles are being temporarily protected with plastic ropes and fabric.

In the meantime, some worry that glass and wood fences may not suit the site's ancient look.

While considering the advantages or disadvantages of preservation measures, and waiting for an approval for a measure from relevant agencies, the ancient steles continue to be worn away by the fingers of visitors.

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