Officials in Hanoi designated Thanh Nhan Pagoda on La Thanh Street in Hanoi a national historical site in 1990. Now, 22 private homes occupy its grounds, hampering any effort to actually restore the structure.
Monk Thich Dam Nguyen said 13 of the houses hug the damaged temple, forcing them to hold off restoration plans for fear that they'll damage the houses.
“For four years, we dared not open the door of the temple as it could lead to the collapse of the rotten brick roofing and wooden pillars,” he said. “When it rained, it becomes as wet inside as outside. I had to put a hat on the Buddha statue to protect it.”
The monk said that when he approached different government agencies to fix the situation, he only received a lot of promises.
Thousands of old, decaying structures in Vietnam have attained the status of "national heritages." But many concerned citizens say that government efforts stop with the designations, which often create more problems than they solve.
The status takes away locals’ rights and responsibilities over the relics, and when no government restoration follows the designation, most of the relics continue to degrade--so much so that one expert has called the government's neglect “abusive" of the very concept of historical preservation.
Professor Hoang Dao Kinh of the National Council of Cultural Heritage, who has conducted research on historical preservation for decades, says Vietnam has too many historical sites.
By 2013, he said, Vietnam had nearly 3,200 national heritage sites--to say nothing of lower historical designations.
“There’s a trend of upgrading heritages – from provincial to national, national to national treasure, and then there are a lot of efforts to make them international.”
“We’re pushing the ranking of heritage too far," he said.
Kinh said restoring 3,200 national heritages would cost at least VND32 trillion (US$1.5 billion)--a sum the government can't afford--and 30,000 cubic meters of precious wood that Vietnam no longer has.
“It’s time we stop upgrading our heritages and narrow the list down to those that are unique and have outstanding value only.”
Propped up temple, occupied citadel, rotting pagoda
A temple and a pagoda in the capital city of Hanoi, both of which are 500 years old, have been left to rot in spite of their status as "national treasures."
The mortar in the cracked walls of Da Chat temple in Phu Xuyen District has all but disappeared and the wood beams and pillars have all rotted to a spongy pulp.
Nguyen Ngoc Doan, a 75-year-old caretaker, said the temple would have collapsed several years ago, had it not been for donations raised by old folks in the area to buy new wooden beams to hold it up.
He tried to protect the interior by stretching a canvas tarp under the leaking roof, and waits to drain the water caught in the tarp after each rain.
The commune has been appealing for help from the district and the Hanoi government since at least 2010 but has yet to receive a specific restoration plan.
So Pagoda in Thanh Oai District is in the same shape. It has looked deserted for a long time and people stopped visiting as it fell into destitution.
The district authorities waited four years to issue a restoration decision in March 2014, but asked locals to fund the project with their donations.
The more than 2,000 year old Luy Lau citadel in nearby Bac Ninh Province achieved national status in 1964.
But little from its first days during the Chinese occupation remain.
The campus now host several private homes, a market and a cemetery containing hundreds of tombs. All of this takes up nearly 30,000 of its 104,000 square meter area.
Tran Ba Khuc, a commune official, said locals’ encroachment was out of their hands.
“It would be very hard to move hundreds of families away to restore the citadel to its original status.”
Khuc also said the commune has no budget to maintain relics.
He said it has made various proposals to the provincial government but “we have not received a reply from above.”
Dredgers, cows and farmers swoop in
Meanwhile, sand dredgers operating in the Cau River threaten to collapse two of the province's riverside temples, which won national recognition in 1980.
Nguyen Thi Tai, 78, the temple's self-appointed caretaker, said bamboo thickets used to protect the temples but they were swallowed by the river.
Tran Dinh Hoa, a local, said the temples needs a strong dyke.
He said locals are willing to build it for free if they are provided with materials to do so.
But commune official Nguyen Van Hung said the provincial government hasn't replied to their request for materials. Meanwhile, Hung said the commune doesn't have enough staff and equipment to stop the sand dredgers.
Dinh Huong shrine, built in 1727 to bury La Quy Hau who was a diplomatic mandarin active in Chinese relations during the later Le dynasty (1427-1789), is mostly rubble now.
For a long time, it had no visitors and weeds has grown tall enough to attract grazing cattle. Today, it stinks of animal waste.
The Duc Thang Commune government in Bac Giang Province has rented out the site of the shrine to locals to farm since 1997 for VND2 million (around $100) a year.
Nguyen Van Luong, one of the tenant farmers, said that when his first 10-year lease was about to expire in 2003, the commune needed more money so it extended his lease another ten years.
He's planted a lychee orchard around the shrine, raises chicken near the pond, and has a small aquatic pen for ducks and fish.
Pham Ngoc Ban, chairman of the commune, said the lease was mutually beneficial for the government and the locals as the famers have acted as guards, protecting the shrine.
Chau Sa, the only clay Cham citadel built during the 9th century in the central province of Quang Ngai, has no official protection, leaving locals to plant orchards on the site and dig up clay bricks for their own projects.
Researchers said the citadel was a trade port and a defensive fort for two Champa kingdoms at the time.
Archeologists have unearthed valuable antiques at the site, including kilns.
Bon Tan, a 70-year-old local, said local activities have badly distorted the citadel; noting that residents had widened all four gates.
“And no government agencies have stepped in,” he said.
The commune and provincial authorities have been passing the buck to each other for years.
Higher officials say the commune is directly responsible for the state of its historical sites while the latter says they have received no permission or instructions on which to act.
Until it collapses
When the Royal Phu Van Lau Pavilion partially collapsed in the town of Hue due to massive termite damage, it reminded people that many wood relics in the former capital are under the same threat while many of its temples have been damaged beyond repair.
The wooden frames of relics near the pavilion are now hollow and their roofs leak.
Phan Thanh Hai, director of Hue Relic Preservation Center, said that local relics have deteriorated beyond their capacity to repair them and that the culture ministry needs to invest further to help mitigate these problems.
“The number of endangered relics in Hue is rather high. Most now require grand restorations… It’s a hard problem to solve as we lack the necessary funds.”
The government raised nearly VND90 billion for preservation from the state budget and entrance tickets a year, but Hai called the sum “salt in the sea” compared to the amount of work that needs to be done.
Local architects said that less than half of the temples’ wood can be reused if they are to be rebuilt.
The caretakers assigned to at some of the dilapidated temples say there’s nothing they can do to stop them from collapsing.
Local donations only meet one hundredth of the estimated construction cost, while the provincial authorities have turned a blind eye to the issue.
“Our village has called on the culture department many times but we’ve seen no restoration work started,” Tran Cong Ly, who manages An Cu temple, said.
The unique Hoang Son temple, which many consider the most beautiful in flood-prone central Vietnam, has also been left to face the weather by itself, although it became a national heritage in 1984 and was included in a 2007 restoration plan.
The temple was built in Nghe An Province in 1764 to worship a son of King Ly Thai To who ended one thousand years of Chinese occupation.
When government support is worse
Residents in Hanoi’s ancient village of Duong Lam have condemned the VND1 billion restoration projects for each of their houses on the grounds that the money was not properly used.
Ten local houses received government restoration funds, only to watch their interior beams replaced with poor quality wood.
A village road was recently ripped up to be paved with bricks; not long after VND5 billion was purportedly spent on pasting the soil with tar.
Locals called it a wasteful joke.
Kinh, the culture academic, simly said: “Restoration that does nothing to maintain the original value means nothing.”
The projects have claimed many old trees and the bamboo thickets that once bore the hallmark of the village.
Certain portions of the road now sit 50 to 70 centimeters above the floors of the surrounding homes--leaving them heavily flooded by rain.
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