Royals' house turns into a cafe

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The large poster that used to hang on the citadel's perimeter wall, bearing the words Tu phuong vo su café-giai khat have since been removed following strong public criticism.

The Lau tu phuong vo su (House of peace for all) was built nearly two hundred years ago as a place for members of the Nguyen Dynasty to study and reflect in the fresh air.

For the past two-hundred years, the pagoda-like building has sat in the courtyard of the Hue Imperial Citadel wrapped in a kind of dignified serenity.

But, on May 22, the house's peaceful atmosphere was disrupted by the noisy bustle of a tourist café.

The building's airy second floor and brick perimeter were filled with metal chairs and tables. Waiters clad in jeans and T-shirts began serving a chatty throng of tourists from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Now, a reception desk and refrigerator clutter the royal study space. An altar sits in the corner bearing offerings to the gods of earth and luck.

The second floor has been converted into a Japanese tea shop.

And people are already angry.

The string of colorful flags and large poster that used to hang on the citadel's perimeter wall, bearing the words Tu phuong vo su café-giai khat have since been removed following strong public criticism.

"I am really displeased that [The Hue Imperial Palace Management Board] let this happen," said Le Hong Anh Tuan, who has worked in tourism for years. "I don't know what the building was originally designed for but I'm pretty sure it wasn't a café."

Tourist Le Van Binh vowed never to return to the palace.

"The fact that people run it as a coffee shop alters the monument to the extent that I have no desire to visit it again," he said.

Riches to rags

The Lau tu phuong vo su was first built in 1804 by King Gia Long.

In 1923, Khai Dinh, Vietnam's penultimate emperor, ordered the building to be demolished and entirely rebuilt for his children who made use of it until the dynasty ended in 1945.

In 1968, as the Vietnam War raged on, the structure suffered serious damage and spent the next forty years collecting black mold.

It wasn't until 2008 that local officials decided to restore the building and spent US$450,000 on the effort. Today, the house remains under the care of the Hue Ancient Capital Relics Preservation Center (HACRPC).

This month, the center granted one of its employees a three year lease on the building for $30,000.

According to Ngo Hoa, permanent deputy chairman of Thua Thien-Hue's Province People's Committee, the government body approved the idea of transforming the relic into a café that would offer tourists a place to relax and have drinks after touring the citadel.

"It is not a coffee shop," Hoa argued, "It's a rest stop. You'll find the same sort of services provided at heritage sites in Korea, China or Europe. In addition, it's a way to preserve and enliven the relic."

Phung Phu, director of HACRPC, said that the new tea room and café is part of a larger plan to bring more life to the site.

The Provincial People's Committee has determined that the relic will serve as a cultural destination, Phu said, likening the ideal final result to a literary café where visitors could pore over research about the site.

Phu admitted that there are differences between the plan's goal and what's happening at Lau tu phuong vo su and that changes would have to be made. If the café destroys the environment or the relic itself, he said, it will be closed.

Not buying it

"The decision to turn the restored House of Peace into a rest stop strikes me as arbitrary; there are plenty of places [in the citadel] which would make ideal tourist stops," said Nguyen Xuan Hoa, former director of the province's Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism. "For example, Noi vu palace, which used to store the royals' belongings, now sits empty."

According to Hue researcher Ho Tan Phan, the building is a part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, therefore, the people should not commercialize any part of it.

"The meaning of restoration is to promote something's historical value, not to rent it out like this," said researcher Phan Thuan An, who recalled that the same problem had arisen 20 years ago, when the Citadel Management Board allowed a restaurant to open inside the palace.

The business quickly drew throngs of loud, drunken tourists who occasionally cursed and vomited on the palace grounds. Soon after it opened, the board closed it down, An recalled.

"They already have experience [with the folly of commercial establishments], how could they let it happen again?" he asked.

An suggested that an appropriate rest stop would discreetly conceal its refrigerators, cash registers and other equipment, rather than overwhelming the space.

Le Van Thuyen, vice-president of the province's Association of History and editor-in-chief of magazine Hue Xua & Nay (Hue of Yesterday and Today) acknowledged the wisdom of An's idea, but ultimately argued that no business should be opened on the restored site.

"Even a literary café could cause chaos," Thuyen said. "Not every visitor is a culture and book-lover. To properly promote the site, we must carefully consider the building's location and features."

Ngo Hoa of the Provincial People's Committee said they plan to collect ideas from the public.

Nevertheless, he says, the café will continue to operate inside the relic.

Source: Agencies

Lau tu phuong vo su (House of peace for all) is now occupied with a lot of people, tables and chairs

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