Preservation suffocation

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Red tape and a lack of funding have reduced Vietnam's first national heritage village to a decaying tourist trap while officials near Hue argue that stalled preservation plans should be abandoned in two villages


Harvest day in Duong Lam Village

Six years ago, the people of Duong Lam Village had the esteemed honor of becoming the first residents of a national heritage site.

When the government announced its new status, the residents of this ancient hamlet in Son Tay hoped it would bring in subsidies and tourist money.

Local officials set up parking lots at both ends of the village and charged visitors VND15,000 to enter the village. Motorbike drivers pay VND5,000 apiece to park here. Car drivers pay between VND15,000- 20,000.

Tourists began trickling in from nearby Hanoi, generating hundreds of millions of dong annually.

Today, villagers complain that the money has come to nothing and some wish the decision had never been made.

"We would like to return the ancient village title to the government," said one resident, who asked not to be named.

Authorities say that the money they take in from visitors is only enough to subsidize a handful of homes and cover the salaries of the gatekeepers and parking lot attendants.

Heritage headache

Since Duong Lam became a national heritage site in 2005, only eight households have received subsidies ranging between VND150,000 and 400,000 (US$7.70- 20.51) a month. The lucky recipients of these funds complain that the money they receive is barely enough to keep their houses clean and stocked with refreshments for visitors.

The hundreds of other families in Duong Lam receive nothing though they are now subject to stringent zoning restrictions.

Thanks to the historical designation they are now prohibited from modifying existing homes or building structures that do not meet a narrow set of aesthetic standards.

"We're even not allowed to build a proper house to live in," said one villager, who asked to remain anonymous.

Those living in two- or three-story homes now fear that the authorities plan to tear down everything but single-story wooden houses.

One local official, who asked not to be named, said that in 2007, an ordinance was passed requiring people to build houses using nothing but wood.

"These days, only billionaires dare invest in a wooden house," the official said.

Black market home improvements Ha Thi Khanh has become something of a local martyr.

The homeowner filed a number of official complaints after portions of her VND800 million ($41,000) house were demolished by preservation authorities.

Bricks and mortar were torn out of the home and her second floor was razed to the ground. The story has drawn the ire of the entire community.

Every time the villagers apply for building permits, local officials fail to respond.

Since the 2007 mandate was put into place, Duong Lam villagers have resigned themselves to demolishing, building and repairing their homes without official permission.

Many have come to view the officially sanctioned specifications as unsanitary, unsafe and altogether undesirable.

"One of the main reasons that many families tear down their ancient houses to build new ones is that the old houses, which are low and small, are impractical for three or four generations living together," Van Minh, another villager, wrote in a letter to Tuoi Tre earlier this month. "[The traditional homes] are very dirty because the wood often rots."

An ancient zoo

Duong Lam is one of two villages in the whole country to have been declared national heritage sites.

Kinh (ethnic Vietnamese) people have inhabited this Northern Delta town for over a thousand years. Since researchers first descended on the village in the 1990s, experts have pushed local residents and authorities to protect ancient houses, roads and trees, to no avail.

Rather than a living museum, the sleepy town has become something of a chaotic tourist trap. Priceless homes have been turned into pubs and restaurants to accommodate visitors. Business and toilet signs hang from the facades of the town's major attractions, like the communal house.

Meanwhile, outsiders, many of whom are rich Hanoians, have begun buying up land in the village for speculative purposes.

Duong Lam looks more like the site of a permanent country festival than a national heritage site.

Two towns in decline

Left to their own devices, other villages fare no better.

During the 18th and early 19th centuries, Bao Vinh and Gia Hoi were both busy commercial centers located near the Hue citadel.

The pair of towns in Thua ThienHue Province are crumbling to ruins despite the fact that preservation experts began drafting action plans for the sites seven years ago.

When the preservation plans were made in 2003, traditional architecture and tiled roofs could be found throughout the two towns.

According to statistics maintained by the local authorities, Bao Vinh had 39 ancient houses in the 1990s. Today, that number has fallen to just 15.

Many of the traditional homes have been replaced with tall, concrete "matchbox" houses.

The modern architectural style, which has become increasingly popular throughout Vietnam, allows the owners of narrow lots to accommodate large families by building up.

Over the years, the French government has donated a total of VND411 million ($21,000) in subsidies to restore three homes, according to Nguyen Van Bon, a commune official.

During the same period, he noted, the Vietnamese government hasn't spent a single dong on saving the Bao Vinh homes.

"Many houses are suffering from leaky roofs and could collapse in heavy rain," Bon said. "The residents asked permission to fix them but the commune wouldn't allow it, because the houses had been designated for preservation. The residents went ahead and did it anyway, and we couldn't do anything about it. [Conditions there] could have endangered their lives."

The situation is the same in Gia Hoi. Aside from the town's gate and pagoda entrance, nothing has been restored since an ambitious, town-wide restoration effort was announced.

Many residents now feel that they have nothing to gain and much to lose from being the owner of an ancient home.

Give up?

"Historical sites reflect history, so we cannot stop preserving ancient towns such as Gia Hoi and Bao Vinh," Nguyen Viet Tien, former director of Hue's Department of Construction. "However, we need to resolve the conflict between preservation and the livelihoods of the residents."

Commune official Bon, however, argues that it's better just to let the towns go.

"People have complained every year," he said. "The commune has asked higher authorities to cancel the preservation effort many times."

Nguyen Xuan Hoa, former director of Thua Thien-Hue Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism, was one of the people who helped draft the preservation plans.

Today, Hoa says that the village is not capable of implementing the broad restoration alone. He now believes that only critical portions of the town should be preserved.

Hoa suggested a similar approach should be taken by authorities in Gia Hoi.

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