Preservation of misery

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Cultural heritage titles bring tourism revenues to the government while making life difficult for the local people

A local man stands in front of a series of old homes in Hanoi's Duong Lam Commune. At least 250 residents have signed a petition calling for their village's national heritage title to be revoked, saying the recognition has caused them far more harm than benefit over the past eight years.

Kieu Van Hanh is frustrated because local authorities will not allow him to repair the toilet in his house, saying that doing so would diminish the image of his ancient village.

"Soon after a tricycle delivered a pile of sand to my house, six construction inspectors showed up," he said. "They then threatened to cut off the power and water supplies, call in the police, ban construction workers from coming, and even warned my neighbors not to supply us with water and electricity."

Like many residents in Duong Lam Commune in Hanoi's Son Tay Town, Hanh has been forbidden from making any renovations to his home since the commune received its national heritage title as an ancient village from the government in 2005.

On April 30, Hanh and 77 other Duong Lam residents signed a petition to have their village's national heritage title revoked, saying that it has not helped them at all over the past eight years, but has been an unbearable inconvenience that forces them to live in rundown houses.

The petition came into being soon after Son Tay Town authorities issued an order to tighten control over illegal construction projects in the village, which only increased residents' disdain for the title that outlaws them from upgrading their homes.

"We do not have the right to build, repair or extend houses on land that belongs to our family," reads the April 30 petition.

"For nearly ten years, local officials have stalked our houses day and night, and each time they see that a household has bought bricks or cement, they issue threats about cutting off the power and water, and destroying the construction projects that do not use wood and old tiles, which are as expensive as gold," it reads.

The petition's signatories said they "were very happy" upon hearing on the radio eight years ago that their commune had won the country's first ancient village title.

"We thought we would be looked after by our country. We were promised benefits from the waves of tourists that would come.

"But the truth is only eight families (who owned ancient wooden houses with tile roofs) received investments, while the remaining 400 got nothing. We have been unhappy for nearly ten years now and we cannot bear it any longer," they said.

"We want to return the title in order to regain peace and freedom."

As of press time, 250 Duong Lam residents had signed the petition.

On May 13, deputy minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism Nguyen Thi Bich Lien instructed the Cultural Heritage Department to issue a report on the Duong Lam situation which has been widely covered by the local media of late.

The department will consult the Hanoi municipal administration to solve the problems related to the Cultural Heritage Law so it will be more beneficial to involved residents, Lien said.

Local officials frustrated too

Local officials admitted that some residents have threatened to resume and complete renovations to their homes by any means necessary should the authorities halt their construction projects again.

Phan Van Hoa, vice chairman of Duong Lam Commune, told Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper he was among the angry residents, as the government did not even come up with a plan to develop the commune after bestowing it with the title, he said.

"There is no way out of this unhappiness. I continued to address this problem at meetings with higher authorities, but they keep telling us to stick to the responsibility of punishing what they call "˜illegal' constructions.

"They said there are no solutions," Hoa said.

He said it makes residents "miserable" to know they are not allowed to upgrade their own homes.

Commune officials' suggestion to build a two-story house that looks ancient from the outside with similarly tiled roofs was rejected by the agency which manages the national heritage title under the Son Tay Town's People's Committee, the local government.

Hoa said he would accept whatever punishment comes his way, but that he would not order the destruction of any more home renovation projects.

"This is their land, and if you intervene for tourism exploitation, you should either compensate them or leave them alone."

Hoa said the village has received thousands of visitors and the capital has earned a lot of money from selling tickets to the village, but the villagers themselves have "received almost no benefits."

Pham Hung Son, head of the Duong Lam Ancient Village Heritage Management, said the number of tourists to the village has increased from 3,000 tourists in 2008, to 4,500 in 2009 and 9,000 by 2012.

It is expected that 15,000 tourists will visit the village this year, he said, adding that the proportion of foreigners has increased from 10 percent in 2008 to 40 percent in 2012.

Giang Manh Hoang, chairman of the commune, said the village generates at least VND6 billion (US$287,000) a year from ticket sales but that most of the revenue goes to the heritage's management.

The commune government received VND10 million ($478) the first year, VND20 million the second year and VND30 million in each of the following years, to spend on various promotions including organizing festivals.

No plan for real preservation

Experts and insiders have criticized cultural authorities for granting national heritage titles and opening these areas to tourism without taking into account the lives of local residents or coming up with a plan for how to preserve such areas.

The inaction of relevant agencies prompted the Venerable Thich Tam Kien, head monk at the iconic Mot Cot (One-Pillared) Pagoda in Hanoi, to send an ultimatum to the local government, saying he would preserve the pagoda on his own, with the number one priority being repairing its tiles before the coming rainy season.

The monk's ultimatum came after five years of relentlessly asking the local government to make necessary repairs to the nine-century-old pagoda.

Kien said that within 30 days of May 3, if he still has not heard from the local government, he and others at the pagoda would go ahead with the repairs.

He said the pagoda's Buddha statues even have to be dressed in raincoats and hats, but that raindrops still seep in and cause damage.

Le Thanh Vinh, director of the Institute for Conservation of Monuments under the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism, said the benefits of residents of a heritage site should be prioritized.

"The life of the community is a part of the heritage site itself. The local people created the area's specific characteristics and are irreplaceable," Vinh was quoted by Tuoi Tre as saying.

He said sharing revenues from ticket sales with local residents alone is not sufficient, and that relevant authorities need to create new policies.

Nguyen Tuc, chairman of the socio-cultural consulting council at the Vietnam Fatherland Front, an umbrella group of the country's public organizations, said preservation of cultural heritage sites must include taking care of the residents who live there.

He said relevant governmental agencies did not fulfill their obligations regarding the Duong Lam and Mot Cot Pagoda situations.

"There should be policies which favor the residents, and they must be carried out thoroughly. Don't continue to give the residents the impression that they have received nothing but empty promises and are not being taken into account in the preservation process."

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