Progress is paving its way through Vietnam's ancient cities and no one knows what to save and what to toss.
After several debates regarding preservation efforts in Hanoi, the nation still lacks an agency capable of evaluating the historical significance of a given site. What's more, Vietnam needs technicians who know how to preserve the relics it wants to keep.
Olivier Tessier, researcher from the French School of Asian Studies (Ã‰cole FranÃ§aise d'Extrême-Orient, EFEO), sat down with Thanh Nien Weekly to discuss what Vietnam can do to hold on to its cultural heritage.
Thanh Nien Weekly: How do you assess the historical value of a place like the Thang Long Imperial Citadel?
Olivier Tessier: The imperial citadel has great historical and cultural value. It was the capital of the Ly, Tran and Le dynasties as well as a major center for cultural and economic exchange between Vietnam, China, Champa and other countries in Southeast Asia.
A section of Hoang Hoa Tham Street, thought to be part of the citadel, was recently excavated during the construction of an overpass. What are your thoughts on that?
- Cities run into this problem all over the world Rome, Paris, Athena, etc. We want to preserve our heritage as well as develop our cities. Meanwhile, cities can't develop if everything is preserved. Hanoi is a city with a long history. When you build roads, you're going to run into relics of the past as was the case in Hoang Hoa Tham Street.
So, what can Vietnam do in this case? If you ban all construction, you'll stymie socioeconomic development. Every year in France, some 700 square kilometers of land are set aside for the construction of roads, railways and private and public buildings. Underground relics are definitely destroyed during the construction. Inevitably this leads to disputes among politicians, scientists, residents and economic sectors. So, in 2002, the French National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP), was established to research the protection of archaeological relics.
While researching 20 percent of the 700 square kilometers, INRAP combs the project sites, work out their maps, and photograph them, before a decision on the use of the site is issued. Construction projects are seldom stopped. INRAP doesn't make the decision, politicians do, but only after considering our findings regarding the site's historial and cultural value. They weigh those findings against issues such as land planning, and the development demand of the surrounding community.
Such an agency can't make everyone happy, but it can cool down disputes by establishing a legal procedure for potential construction projects. Such an agency could help Vietnamese authorities make decisions in cases like Hoang Hoa Tham Street. Once again, however, you can't please everyone.
But, we should strive to maintain our cultural heritage for posterity...
- Right, you are right. Everyone agrees with you. But, you can't save everything. Hanoi might not have become the capital of Vietnam if construction had been banned, a thousand years ago, to maintain historical integrity.
There are a number of ways you can approach the preservation of a given site. You can preserve relics on-site. You can study relics and then remove them to museums. Additionally, you can bury them so that future generations, with more advanced technology, can study them further.
There are different methods (for preservation) but the goal is to maintain something that scientists can continue to study and preserve evidence of the past for future generations
What should we do about the Thang Long Imperial Citadel?
- The discovery of archaeological relics at the imperial citadel is of great significance to Vietnam's history. The relic site has two unique features. The first is that the site sits on top of five meters of sediment filled with objects that span 13 centuries (from the 8th-19th). The second is that the space above ground continues to be used.
There are older and better heritage sites in the country, but Thang Long is especially interesting because it contains a long-term history. It is here, in the space of a few hectares, that Vietnam's political center has been established over the course of a thousand years.
This historical gem sits in the middle of Hanoi, an expensive city that's rapidly modernizing. Moreover, it is in the center of Ba Dinh political area, adjacent to the National Assembly's building. For that reason, its development has been widely debated in recent years.
So, what's the best option in this case?
- Now, we must determine how to best preserve the site and develop a working plan for the project. Foreign and local experts agree that there's no single best recipe for handling this scenario. It's not like baking a cake.
Research proposals from the Institute of Archaeology (of Vietnam) have proposed that part of the site be left open for sightseeing, while the rest be covered with land and soil to protect it from the elements. This should be urgently implemented. In fact, the relic has been affected by rain, sunshine, and moisture since it was unearthed eight years ago.
Is there anything else Vietnam can do to preserve its cultural relics?
- I think Vietnam should train more experts in the technical aspects of preserving archaeological relics in particular, and cultural relics in general. Archaeologists cannot succeed without this technical understanding and capacity. This is a subject that is taught at many universities, especially in Europe.