Relegated relic

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The oldest temple in Ho Chi Minh City has been all but forgotten as it slides into disrepair and obscurity

The 333-year-old Thong Tay Hoi Temple keeper Nguyen Van Phep stands in front of the temple's guest house, the foundation of which is a meter lower than the yard. Behind him, an old xe om driver sleeps on a bench under the shade of a banian tree.
Photo: Priscilla Aquila.

Thong Tay Hoi Temple keeper Nguyen Van Phep smiles wryly as he explains his plea to obtain the preferential water and electricity prices that all buildings of official historical or cultural significance have a right to.

"We've been asking the government for a preferential water meter for two years already, but it is an impossible mission, and I don't expect it will be easier when it comes to the issue of electricity," says Phep, 62, who is the third generation in his family to care for the place.

However, special prices are the least of Phep's worries as the 333-year-old temple, the oldest in HCMC, Go Vap District is falling apart due to the ravages of time and human neglect.

Built in 1679 in an original area of 5,188 square meters between Thong Tay and An Nhon districts, which is Go Vap today, the temple recognized as an official National Historical-Cultural Relic by the government in 1998 is now but a shadow of it's former self, occupying less than a third of the original land it was built on. Walking around the temple's crumbling corridors and empty halls, it seems the place has been abandoned.

Some 1,500 square meters is all that's left, including the site's two original prayer and worship buildings, which are also used to receive guests and host traditional music performances.

The original site has been illegally occupied by surrounding households, and a local school and even a police office have been built on the original site. What's left has been covered up by several hen-houses and Phep's coffin workshop, which he uses to make extra money in his free time.

The regular "visitors" to the temple, which is dedicated to the two sons of Emperor Ly Thai To (974-1028) Dong Chinh Vuong and Duc Thanh Vuong, who were exiled to reclaim the southern region as punishment for their plot to dethrone their older brother, Emperor Ly Thai Tong are not local pilgrims, but lottery ticket sellers and xe om (motobike taxi) drivers, who come to nap on benches during off hours.

"The management board, including me and 14 other locals, is just a title only," says Phep. "Temples manage themselves and in the past functioned primarily as cultural and political centers and they have no similar organization like the Buddhist Sangha of Vietnam, which administers pagodas," says Phep.

In Vietnam, pagodas refer to Buddhist religious buildings used to practice Buddhism and worship Buddha, whereas temples are used to worship the dead.

The Thong Tay Hoi Temple is located at 107/1 Nguyen Van Luong Street, Ward 11, Go Vap District, HCMC.

The temple is the host of the annual Ky Yen Festival, held on the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month, with the participation of 74 other temples from around the country.

"Our gate has no door, and we dare not prevent people from lying down inside this national relic site," says Phep, pointing at an old sleeping xe om driver on a bench under the shade of a banian tree.

The scene is sometimes more chaotic as local residents use the area as a kind of recreation space. Mothers are often seen chasing after their babies to feed them as if the temple were their own back yard. Phep is also using the grounds to host the death anniversary party for a member of his family.

But the place still looks a bit sad as its foundation has sunk and the guest facilities are lower than the rest of the structures.

According to a 2009 report by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Toursim, after seven years of implementing the Culture and Heritage Law, the Thong Tay Hoi Temple is still one of 18 among 55 national historical sites in the city that has been severely damaged.

Nguyen Van Hung, vice chairman of Ward 11's Vietnam Fatherland Front, was quoted by Tien Phong newspaper as saying, apart from a restoration project in 2008 that cost around VND2 billion (US$100,000) to raise the temple's foundation and restore several artifacts, and a government grant of VND1.6 million (US$75) per month used for everyday things at the temple, both the central government and the city have no other plan to protect the relic site.

"They [cultural experts and staff from the city's Department of Culture, Sports, and Tourism] come to take measurements and leave, but nothing happens after such visits," said the keeper.

The Thong Tay Hoi Temple's architecture is distinguished and unique thanks to its brown tiles and enamel of dark colors, and the hundreds of wooden pillars engraved with Chinese characters. Other local Cham, Khmer and Chinese sites look completely different.

After more than three centuries, many of the structure's original pillars are still in good condition; however the building's wooden frame, especially that of the guest house, is rotten and hollow due to weather and termites.

"Nobody knows when the building will collapse," said Phep.

"In the rainy season, the house floods like a small pond thanks to its foundation," said a local.

Phep summed it all up aptly: "Disappointed! What else can I say?"

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