Vietnam warned again of UNESCO side effects

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Ethnic minority men play traditional gong music in Vietnam's Central Highlands. File photo

Countries tend to prioritize tourism revenues over preserving honored practices, experts say at an international conference on heritage recognition in Hoi An on Sunday (June 23).

The conference marked ten years of the UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, and was held during the fifth heritage festival of Quang Nam Province that includes Hoi An.

Jo Caust from the University of Melbourne questioned whether the recognition is helping or destroying world treasures.

Caust said rising incomes and the emergence of low-cost tours have caused the number of tourists to multiply, and that has negatively impacted both tangible and intangible heritages.

She said tourists bring money to the community, but also destroy some uniqueness and disturb the normal routine of the neighborhoods.

The expert said governments need to think about promoting "ethical tourism."

Intangible heritages are easily damaged as they need people to believe in them and practice them to keep them alive, she said.

Regarding the human impacts on intangible culture, Vietnamese professor Tran Quang Hai from the French National Center for Scientific Research said the governments need to make sure those who practice such heritages have "comfortable lives," so they can pass on the legacy to future generations.

Irina Bokova, general director of UNESCO, also said at a press briefing in Hanoi on June 20 that uncontrolled tourism is turning Vietnam into the victim of its own success, according to a The Thao & Van Hoa (Sports and Culture) report.

Bokova said Vietnam has been "very successful" in developing its cultural resources in winning the UNESCO recognition for a series of heritages over recent years.

But as is the case in several other developing countries, that success has come with a significant downside, she said.

She said once a heritage has won recognition, local people try to promote it the best they can for tourism, to create jobs and improve local livelihoods.

But a lack of proper planning and the balance between development and preservation has put the heritages on the verge of losing several of their distinctive features, such as the location where rituals were traditionally held and the creative participation of local communities in their practice, the UNESCO chief said.

Luu Tran Tieu, chairman of the National Cultural Heritage Council, also expressed concern about the alteration of a heritage in its practice.

"Take the buffalo stabbing festival for example. It's okay if the community practices it for spiritual purposes. But it has no meaning when practiced only to promote tourism," Tieu said at the Hoi An conference.

The buffalo festival, which has yet to be recognized by UNESCO, is traditionally practiced by ethnic minorities in Vietnam's Central Highlands region. It is held to make offerings to gods or those who establish a village, to celebrate a victory, good crops or other major events.

The question of how to best make use of UNESCO heritage titles has been raised frequently in Vietnam, as experts are concerned about the title winners being subject to both commercialization and unnecessary administrative control.

Vietnam has had seven intangible heritages win UNESCO titles since 2003, including three kinds of northern folk singing: "quan ho," "ca tru" and "xoan." Also honored have been the royal singing of ancient Hue, "nha nhac"; the Giong Festival, which honors the Vietnamese Mountain God; the worshipping rituals at the Death Anniversary Festival for Vietnam's founding fathers Hung Kings; and gong music from the Central Highlands.

But experts have pointed to the problems in the way the heritages are practiced nowadays.

"Quan ho" is a traditional form of antiphonal music indigenous to Bac Ninh Province, outside Hanoi, but it has been used in all kinds of festivals across the northern region, while old artists from other genres have been the only ones to keep it alive.

The Giong festival in Hanoi and the one dedicated to the Hung Kings in nearby Phu Tho Province, have deteriorated from community gatherings into administrative events with speeches by government leaders and authorities from other cities and provinces.

Oscar Salemink from the University of Copenhagen said at a Vietnam Studies conference in Hanoi last November that whatever prestige a UNESCO title bestows is outweighed by its negative impact.

He said the title turns a piece of local culture into a national or international asset and local communities are ripped off in the process.

He said the Central Highlands' gong music is supposed to be played only at traditional ceremonies held by ethnic minority communities, but since it was recognized by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2005, many tourism companies have added it to their itineraries.

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