Postcards from Central Vietnam

Old Town, Hoi An

Old Town, Hoi An, Vietnam

I took a weekend trip to central Vietnam a few weeks ago. We arrived in Da Nang and took a taxi south to Hoi An. Hoi An seems to be known for 2 things: beach resorts and its Old Town designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999. Maybe I was tired after spending the previous 2 weeks charretting on the project I am currently working on, but I was a bit disappointed by what I saw. The architecture was nice, but it seems like one big souvenir shop. Every building was selling some kind of “cultural artifact”. Is this what happens when a place gets designated a Heritage site?

Talking this weekend to Michael Waibel, a prominent socio-geographer who has been working in Vietnam for over 10 years, he told me that before it had the designation, it was just another disintegrating town, and at least now the locals have an income and finances to restore and revitalize the area. However I begin to wonder what is it we are preserving? What is the point of preservation?

This is what UNESCO has to say about the matter in its Historic Districts for All: a Social and Human Approach for Sustainable Revitalization, a manual for revitalizing historic districts:

Cultural urban heritage related the history of the city, its inhabitants, religions and social and cultural transformations. This heritage is deeply anchored in the spatial and economic structure of the cities, their buildings and monuments. The people living and working in the city identify with it. Today, historic districts are symbols of the city’s image; above and beyond their own cultural value they fulfill an important mission in modern urban development: they create the identity and the city’s image and are key geographic factors for the local and regional economy.

Old Town, Hoi An
My Son

So the “why” in historic district preservation and revitalization seems to be rooted in a sense of identity for the local inhabitants. But the over-commercialization and the sales of mass-produced cultural artifacts you can now find homogeneously across Vietnam seems to go counter to that sense of local identity. Local crafts traditions are lost in place of what tourist will want buy. Is there a way to balance local identity with its economic sustainability? I had more questions than answers, and felt a little robbed.

Next day was My Son My son is Hindu temple complex constructed by the Champa civilization between 7th and 14th centuries, then abandoned and lost for centuries and only rediscovered by the French army in the late 19th century.

My Son is also a UNESCO Heritage site, but in stark contrast to Hoi An, My Son was relatively deeserted. The guide told me that in peak season, they get as many as a thousand visitor a day. That doesn’t seem a lot. In a well-rehearsed guide talk, he showed us on a map all the regions destroyed by US bombing during the Vietnam War. Apparently about 80% of the existing complex were lost during the carpet bombing raids.

Marble Mountain, Da Nang
Marble Mountain, Da Nang

On the way to Hu?, we stopped by the Marble Mountain in Da Nang. Don’t believe the guide when he tells you there’s only a hundred some steps to the summit. After we reached what perceived to be the top with nice temples, but he lead us rock climbing through naturally formed caves to the actual top. Ok for me but not ok for my boss who is fit for his age but close to 70. Nice view at the summit, but not worth the extreme physical effort for the benefit of our sadistic guide. What was more impressive was the huge natural caves that were used as a Viet Cong as a hospital until it was bombed. But it’s hard to know what to believe without the facts.

There are 2 way to get to Hu? from Da Nang. Through or boring tunnel or over the scenic Hai Van Pass. Our driver asked us what we wanted to do. Not having researched this fact, we elected thankfully for the Pass. Only tourists and joyriders seem to take the pass – everyone else takes the tunnel. Joyriders here are usually kids on motorcycles. We witnessed one accident where 2 kids on a motorcycles took a turn too fast and skidded out of control. Bike was damaged but the riders seemed ok.

Citadel, Hue

Citadel, Hu?, Vietnam

Hu? was the imperial capital of Vietnam during the Nguy?n Dynasty between 1802 and 1945.

Royal Tombs, Hue
Royal Tombs, Hue

It wasn’t intended that way, but we ended up doing all three UNESCO Heritage site in Central Vietnam, the Citadel in Hu? being the last one. The Citadel is a sizable complex apparently modeled in part after the Forbidden City in Beijing, but only a scaled-down version, a fraction of its size.

We took a trip down the Perfume River to visit a few of the Imperial tombs. The most interesting of which was the tomb of the short-lived Emperor Kh?i ??nh (1885-1925). His was built of cement that had weathered pretty badly, now almost dark grey or black in some places. He was a francophile and the interior was constructed from a mosaic of broken French ceramics, and took 17 years to construct. Sadly for him, it was not completed before his death.

At this point, I was so exhausted that I stopped registering any new information and just mechanically took photographs. Still some came out pretty nicely. Check out the rest of the Da Nang, Hoi An, Hue Flickr photos set.