Vietnam's most treasured heritages are being lost to greed

By Ngo Viet Nam Son   March 2, 2020 | 06:18 pm PT
If they have just a few billion dong, anyone can build houses, hotels and restaurants on mountains and in forests, places we're supposed to preserve.
Ngo Viet Nam Son

Ngo Viet Nam Son

On a flight from San Francisco to Vietnam, I sat with an elderly couple from America. They enthusiastically told me about how it was their first trip to Vietnam and they would be visiting some of its most famous sites like Ha Long Bay, Sa Pa, Da Lat, Phu Quoc, and Con Dao.

They told me they hoped to experience nature in its truest state before it is ruined by human activity. It was a bit exaggerated, I thought at the time. But today their words never sound truer.

I've been to many places: Sa Pa, Lao Cai, Da Lat... I’ve seen them all, multiple times even. I remember a work trip to Sa Pa once, where I learned to appreciate its misty, dreamy beauty, and told myself that one day I would visit it again. It’s a shame because the Sa Pa I saw back then no longer exists. It’s been replaced by a jumbled, incoherent mess that’s always too crowded, too chaotic. All in a span of less than 10 years.

The cultural and natural attractions that once attracted millions of visitors every year are now being chipped away by a profit-driven mindset and weak management. No longer are traditional local values preserved, causing visitors to turn away unhappily.

Anyone with a little money can build hotels and restaurants atop mountains and in forests, the very places we’re supposed to preserve. 

It is happening everywhere now, on lands where native and indigenous people have lived and died for generations, where they built their own culture, society and way of life. Day by day, those values are being lost as we treat such places as mere tourist destinations to earn cash, not as the cultural and natural heritage they are.

The Panorama hotel situated in the Ma Pi Leng Pass, Ha Giang Province. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy.

A hotel built in the Ma Pi Leng Pass, Ha Giang Province, northern Vietnam, October 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy.

It is not difficult for an average Hanoian to buy thousands of square meters of land in some idyllic, dreamy mountain province. Just look at Sa Pa! The sight of fancy restaurants, hostels and other manmade structures marring its natural landscapes is everywhere. 

The same goes for so many other destinations in Vietnam, where local communities cultivated such rich and wonderful cultures and traditions and where mountains and valleys and rivers are supposed to remain undisturbed. 

Look at Tam Dao, Moc Chau, Da Lat, Lung Cu, Phu Yen, or Mu Cang Chai. What made them beautiful, original and exotic in the first place is now slowly fading away.

And the rot goes deeper. Communities are trying to "keep up" with the "changing" times. Tourists these days are no longer surprised to see ethnic people speak English like natives and use smartphones like millennials. Some officials call this the "result of investments" and of "economic growth." I see it as a perversion of the natural order.

To help preserve local values, we need to look at a few things. First is construction licensing. Situations where buildings are erected without permission are no longer unique to cities and the urban environment; they are also seen in the most remote villages and communes. If so many unlicensed structures are still allowed right here in the capital, what is the guarantee that construction on mountains and other less accessible areas are being monitored properly?

Second, we need to change our administrative mindset. It would be great if investors and project managers were willing to sacrifice personal interests to preserve the culture and nature of whatever place they want to change. It is a shame to see cultural and natural heritage not being appreciated by authorities, even by their own local governments.

How many old buildings have been demolished, how many trees have been cut down in the name of infrastructure upgrade? How is that logical when our cities barely have trees in the first place? Authorities therefore need to do a better job at managing and preserving architectural and natural heritages before approving urban development projects.

Third, legal loopholes need to be plugged if the previous two goals are to be achieved. Our Law on Cultural Heritage only focuses on protecting heritages though they only constitute a small part of what needs to be protected. 

We also lack the legal foundation to preserve other architectural works that do not qualify as heritage structures. That is why tens of thousands of heritage sites in Vietnam, while recognized by the people, are not protected under the Law on Cultural Heritage.

Finally, preserving the heritage must go hand in hand with sustainable development. The fact that authorities are not prioritizing this issue should be considered a national problem. Ministries and departments need to work together to devise policies and action plans to address this. Or else, as we barrel ahead toward the future, what more from our past will we have to lose?

*Ngo Viet Nam Son is an architect. The opinions expressed are his own.

The opinions expressed here are personal and do not necessarily match VnExpress's viewpoints. Send your opinions here.
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