Residents want to revoke heritage status as gov't destroys home additions in Vietnam

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Residents take cattle to graze in Hanoi's Duong Lam Village

An increasing number of Duong Lam village residents are adding their names to a petition that seeks to revoke their community's designation as an "Ancient Village" because the status prevents them from being able to repair their dilapidated homes.

They say the government has not only done little to help the situation but has in fact been destroying parts of people's homes that authorities say are not in line with the "Ancient Village" designation.

Five more people signed the petition saying they were unsatisfied because there was no solution agreed upon in a dialogue with local authorities on May 15.

Previously, there were already 250 petitioners.

Duong Lam Commune was recognized as Vietnam's first Ancient Village in 2006.

Since then, residents have not been allowed to build new houses and must maintain the traditional structure of their houses with only one storey, wooden pillars and tiled roofs.

Only eight of the village's nearly 400 households receive support from the Duong Lam Ancient Village Management Board as costs for cleaning their houses and serving tea to tourists. And they say even that support is meagre and insufficient.

Others said they get no benefit from the designation and are suffering as their multi-generational households grown more crowded and the old tiny homes less sufficient.

Many people said they signed the petition because local authorities have been destroying the parts of many houses built in violation of the zoning plan. Most of these structures were add-on rooms or floors that families built in their homes to accommodate more family members.

Many residents said they were disappointed after the May 15 dialogue resulted in deadlock.

"I am really unhappy with the dialogue. When will our sorrows be reduced?" said Pham Van Hung.

Phan Van Loi also said he was not satisfied because authorities did not have any specific answer to their questions.

Ha Ke Toan, an elder villager, said the government should allow local residents to open tourism services and collect taxes from them. And if provision of such services isn't open to all, there should be bidding and auctions to decide who gets to open such businesses, he said.

Many residents were frustrated that when people come to visit them from out of town, including families members, they have to buy tickets to enter the village, just like tourists.

After the dialogue ended, officials from Son Tay Town and Hanoi quickly left but many residents hung around, frustrated and commiserating.

They said only 23 of 250 petitioners were invited to the dialogue and there were no local officials.

"The hamlet and communal officials are those who understand residents' sorrows and what it means to  stay in dilapidated houses without being allowed to build new ones," said Ho Thi Khanh. She extended a second story to her house in February 2010 but it was destroyed by the government soon after.

Get the locals involved

Erica Avrami, research and education director at World Monuments Fund, an independent organization dedicated to saving the world's most treasured places, said the case of Duong Lam is not unique.

"There is a constant challenge in preserving historic vernacular architecture and also ensuring that communities can improve their quality of life and living environment," she told Thanh Nien.

The Old Towns of Djenne in Mali have confronted similar issues of a community seeking to modernize traditional earthen dwellings, but facing limitations due to its heritage status, or Desa Lingga village in northern Sumatra where many traditional structures have been lost and replaces with modern residences because of changing values within the community, she said.

Avrami said the case of Dresden Elbe Valley in Germany is an interesting one where the construction of a bridge which was planned to reduce traffic congestion in the city and thus improve quality of life threatened its World Heritage status.

"A poll was taken among residents, who favored losing World Heritage status over not constructing the bridge.  In the end, it was removed from the World Heritage List," she said.

Avrami stressed on the importance of getting residents involved in the conservation process.

"Participation of the community in decision-making about heritage conservation will help to ensure that all stakeholders and values are included in the preservation process. This in turn builds programs that meet multiple needs and helps to ensure long-term sustainability.

"This requires strong policy on the part of local governments to provide checks and balances for the tourism industry and to build capacities within communities."

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