Hanoi reviewing illegal pagoda renovation, downplaying damages

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A new tower is being built in replacement of a 1,000-year-old structure at Tram Gian Pagoda, Hanoi

Authorities in Hanoi are reviewing a case in which a 1,000-year-old pagoda was allegedly destroyed by an unauthorized renovation, but at the same time downplaying the scale of the damage.

A report on Tuoi Tre Tuesday quoted authorities in Chuong My District, where the Quang Nghiem Pagoda, better known as Tram Gian (Hundreds of Rooms), is located. Officials said they were planning a meeting that same day to review the situation.

District authorities are supposed to submit a report on the case to Hanoi People's Committee as of September 15.

Speaking to the newspaper, Vu Van Dong, vice chairman of Chuong My People's Committee, said final conclusions on the case, however, would be made by inspectors from the Hanoi Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism.

Since last week, local media have reported that the renovation, initiated by local monks and residents a few months ago, had destroyed a hall, a tower and the front stairs of the pagoda, which was built in 1185.

These structures have been replaced with entirely new ones, the articles said.

The reports also noted that details on the interior of the building, such as bricks and altars, were improperly renovated as well.

The work was not detected by inspectors from the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism until August 24. The renovators told inspectors that some of the structures were too old and at risk of collapsing, so they renovated them in preparation for the upcoming rainy season.

Following exposure in the media, Hanoi authorities suspended the renovation and ordered the culture department to join hands with the district authorities to "quickly" make a plan to restore the destroyed structures.


Hanoi halts unauthorized restoration of thousand year-old pagoda

Meanwhile, media reports soon provoked outrage and concerns from the public who blamed local authorities for ignoring the site for years. They said a restoration plan was approved in 2010 but has yet to be launched, so locals had to take the matter into their own hands.

However, in response to the public outcry,  Pham Quang Long, director of Hanoi Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism, told a press conference on August 30 that because Tram Gian covered some three hectares with tens of structures, it was impossible to say that the whole pagoda was destroyed when "only" three structures were altered.

In his report to Hanoi authorities one day earlier, Long also said the unauthorized renovation's "damages were obvious. Although they were not serious, they caused bad affects on the community and hurt the relic site."

Le Thanh Vinh, chief of the ministry's Institute for Relics Conservation, also said comparisons between historical photos dated from the French occupation (1884-1945) and photos he took when visiting the site on August 29 showed that the pagoda was generally still the same.

"I think it is better to not exaggerate (the scale of the damage) because people who care about relic sites will feel heart-wrenched," Vinh said.

Meanwhile, vice director of the Hanoi culture department Nguyen Duc Hoa argued that although the pagoda was built some 1,000 years ago, its original wooden parts had already been changed in the past. He said the structure was already not as authentic as people thought

Vinh and other officials were optimistic when asked about restoring the damaged structures, saying that the restoration would be "not difficult" thanks to the available historical materials plus the remains of the old structures.

"Although it is impossible to restore 100 percent of the structures, the restoration of their architectural characteristics and maintaining several original factors is still convincible," Vinh said.

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