Tran Huu Phuc Tien is a former writer for Tuoi Tre newspaper and Saigon Times magazine. He is currently the General Manager of Vietnam Centre Point — a language and overseas education consultation center. Tien is a regular contributor to Nguoi Do Thi magazine writing about heritage issues. His two books, Sai Gon Khong Phai Ngay Hom Qua (“Saigon Is Not Yesterday” — 2016) and Sai Gon Hai Dau The Ky (“Sai Gon Then and Now” — 2017), both pay homage to Saigon’s history.
Tien believes that there is an ocean of intriguing facts about architecture and heritage spaces that will take a lifetime to discover, no matter our background or year of birth, simply because there is so much we don’t know. We had a chance to sit down with Tien to hear his message to Vietnam’s youth.
1. There are always new things to be found in familiar places. Observe with fresh eyes.
As a World Cultural Heritage Site and a tourist magnet, the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long is a familiar presence in Hanoi. So familiar, in fact, that few stop to look closely at the intricate details that make it an architectural masterpiece. Like the motifs of sacred fig leaves from the Bodhi tree in India adorning the walls of the citadel, for example.
Vietnam’s culture has always been an amalgamation of influences from regions as diverse as East Asia (China), South Asia (India) and Europe (France). This feature is manifested vividly in historical sites that were constructed hundreds or thousands years ago.
In Hanoi, French architectural style dominates St. Joseph's Cathedral and Tonkin Palace, whereas National Museum of History, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs office, Cua Bac Church and Institut Pasteur are known as the masterpieces of Indochine style — a heady mixture of Vietnam, Europe and Southeast Asia.
In central Vietnam, an equally unique fusion of styles can be found in the Museum of Cham Sculpture in Danang and Hoian’s ancient houses featuring both Japanese and Chinese influences. In Saigon, Parisian touches can be found in many famous landmarks such as the Notre Dame Cathedral, Ho Chi Minh City Hall and the Central Post Office.
Even the ancient Roman (Italian) culture found its way to Vietnam and left its mark on local architecture. In fact, Roman coins, introduced during the third century BC, were found at Funan’s archaeological site in Ba The mountain (An Giang).
In the 16th century, missionaries from Europe came to Dang Trong and Dang Ngoai (in the south and north of Vietnam, respectively) to introduce Christianity. They stayed here for many years recording Vietnam’s history, promoting European literature and bringing knowledge to the community.
Nowadays, Italian touches in Vietnam’s architecture can be found mostly in Catholic churches and monasteries.
Next time you happen to pass by these familiar landmarks, take a moment to stop and look. Once you’ve discovered a new angle, even the most mundane things can surprise you.
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2. Vietnam is not a monotype country
Even without the influence of external factors, Vietnam still remains a country of great diversity thanks to its natural riches. It’s blessed with a climate that is tropical in the south with two seasons (dry and wet) and monsoonal with four distinct seasons in the north and center. Landscape-wise, the contrasts are truly magnificent: mountains and paddy fields, highlands and valleys, rivers and the ocean, the mainland and the islands.
All these national treasures have always coexisted in harmony. And in order to develop the country sustainably, their vibrancy and diversity must be maintained at all costs. Imagine how soulless Vietnam would be if there were nothing but modern skyscrapers everywhere.
It is the calm and soothing beauty of ancient Hue and Hoi An, the chilling breeze from Sapa or Dalat, the emerald hues of Halong Bay’s isles, the mystic yet tempting call of majestic caves in Phong Nha and Son Doong that balance out urban modernity.
There’s no better way to see these riches than by hitting the road and doing it your own way. Let your curiosity lead you to the parts of the country that are still unknown to you. You never know what natural (or manmade) wonders wait around the corner.
3. Embrace the power of real-life experience
Technology has taken the world by storm. Thanks to tech’s convenience and ingenuity, we are able to experience multidimensional spaces from the comfort of our homes, with art galleries and museums around the world now allowing audiences to view artworks digitally.
Although the convenience of being able to experience the world from your couch is undeniable, the power of real-life experience is irreplaceable. By touching with your own hands and seeing with your own eyes, you are free to explore, to feel and to shape your mind unrestrainedly. Technology definitely has its strength, but it’s no match for what the reality can offer you.
4. Have you noticed that altars have been shrinking in size?
In order to adapt to this modern lifestyle, there are traditions that need to be modernized. Or abandoned.
Altars, traditionally placed in the most prominent part of the house, keep getting smaller in order to fit into our cramped urban living spaces. As a result, the ritual of praying (and the beliefs at its core) are slowly fading into the background in most young nuclear families. Not only that, but cooking and serving lavish family meals has become a rarity in our busy lives. Some of us are not able to see our loved ones and relatives as frequently as we used to, maybe just once a year during Tet.
Letting go of old habits is natural. It’s how we adapt to the hectic yet exciting modern ways of living. But you never know what you’ve got until it’s gone.
Have you ever wondered what values newness has brought to our culture? What does it have to do with our future? And what (or who) will be replaced next?
5. At the end of the day, there is no place like home
With cultures freely mixing in today’s “borderless” world of frequent travel and the internet, we are constantly exposed to the world’s cultural diversity. And oftentimes, this pull of the foreign on the youngsters is so strong that they end up turning their backs on the essence of their origins and their own culture.
But if one ever feels lost in this world, memories will guide them home, where they always belong. How could you forget your “firsts”: the smell of your first notebook, your first birthday gift, and your first crush (of course), or the soft pillows and teddy bear that you once hugged in bed everyday? No matter how old you get, those memories are never too far from your heart.
We will all end up with what we’re familiar with somehow. Because there’s no place like home. And no matter how far you travel, home is where you can finally feel safe and allow yourself to grow.
This English edition is adapted by L A M.
When we asked Phuc Tien about thoughts on the Italian Design Day 2019 that he attended as a speaker and that was organized by SCE Project Asia and co-hosted by the Consulate General of Italy, he described the event as “solemn”.
At the 2019 event, experts in urban planning, architecture, culture, and economy from a number of European countries brought together a wealth of information. They shared their experiences and stressed the urgency of preserving the UNESCO heritage sites. Above all, they offered solutions to protect and promote heritage sites through better urban governance, economic development and financing.
In addition, one Italian company has shown satellite images of buildings and landscapes in Ho Chi Minh City to demonstrate the risks posed by climate change and their impact on the city.
Besides conferences and webinars, last year’s activities included a design and renovation contest focused on preserving the cultural heritage of Ho Chi Minh City. The contest was held for architecture students under the guidance of Italian professors.
This year, due to COVID-19, the panel discussions will be held online. But Phuc Tien is confident that in this new format the event will still preserve its capacity for sharing interesting content, as well as creating a great impact on society.