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Quang Ninh province is among the first in Vietnam to digitize its many historical and cultural treasures.

By GRANT RILEY on July 10,2019 10:38 AM

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PHOTOS GRANT RILEY

In developed countries it’s taken for granted that a nation’s cultural heritage is secure. Long-standing museums are filled with antiquities and artifacts and are the backbone of any civilization. Sites of historic interest and treasures from our collective pasts remain well protected, as they have been for time immemorial. Yet for developing countries, especially those that have been blighted by conflict and other instabilities, preserving heritage has had a lower priority given the day-to-day preoccupation with survival.

Museums in Vietnam are few and slight compared to the scale and grandeur (and at times controversy) found at Western institutions. However, much of this country’s cultural heritage remains in situ. Temples, pagodas, and private collections host a wealth of history and intrigue. Beyond the centralization or gathering of these at museums or libraries, one new project is set to digitize Vietnam’s cultural heritage. The first project of its kind has begun in northern Quang Ninh province, at www.disanquangninh.lifetek.vn.

The project is utilizing all the latest digital technologies, from digital SLR and 3D to drone videos, photography, LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging), and audio archiving.

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Accumulating a database for just one of Vietnam’s provinces and uploading all the information onto one website is a gargantuan task. There are thought to be at least 700 sites of historical and cultural interest in Quang Ninh province alone. Potentially, each site has an unknown number of surprises, and while it may not quite be Indiana Jones or Tomb Raider level there are undoubtedly hidden gems within these locations, perhaps behind a cupboard or stored in some old box somewhere.

In developing a fully-detailed archive of the country’s history and culture, easier access will not only please academics and those with a specific interest but can also be utilized by schools and universities, by families and generations with an interest in their own histories, and even potentially by foreign visitors seeking information or even inspiration from Vietnam’s lengthy past. The website intends to be multilingual in the near future.

Until recently, the management of Vietnam’s culture and art has been generally overlooked, socially and politically and particularly in the context of its contribution to enhancing tourism. A recent study has shown that Vietnam’s cultural industry will contribute 3 per cent to GDP by 2020, with that figure rising to 7 per cent by 2030. It has also been recognized that supporting arts and culture is a great means of job creation.

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Obviously, there is an intensely rich cultural tradition in Vietnam, much of which can be observed in daily life. At times, certain aspects of communal life appear not to have changed for millennia. This is part of the great attraction of the country, especially for foreign visitors like myself. Of course, Vietnam boasts world heritage sites, extensive cultural legacies, and an abundant natural history. However, some days it is just the odd glimpse of its past that captures the imagination of a passer-by. Maybe it’s a short waft of incense when an elder is seen bowing repeatedly in front of a temple, or a family member carrying fruit up to the ancestor’s alter, or perhaps a curious and unexplained piece architecture seen as one cycles past. Vietnam is drenched in cultural heritage.

In 2017, out of all ASEAN countries, Vietnam had the highest number of heritage sites, including eight world heritage sites, 12 sites of intangible cultural heritage (a practice, representation, expression, knowledge, or skill, as well as instruments, objects, artifacts, and cultural spaces considered by UNESCO to be part of a place’s cultural heritage), two world documentary heritages (for UNESCO, a document is “that which records something with a deliberate intellectual purpose”), nine world biosphere reserves, and one global geographical park. On top of this globally-recognized legacy, Vietnam also hosts nearly 10,000 cultural festivals each year celebrated by its 54 ethnic groups. Social and cultural diversity is alive and well in the country and, of course, there is an abundance of variable customs and cuisines within these cultures.

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Back to the Quang Ninh digitization project, there is a wealth of information to be gathered and collated. Not only is the province home to the world heritage site of Ha Long Bay but also other lesser-known treasures such as Cam Pha, Cai Rong, Mong Cai, and Ngoa Van Pagoda. Its cultural diversity extends from a great mountainous pagoda dating back to the 13th century during the Tran Dynasty and home to Buddhist emperor-monk Tran Nhan Tong, who was said to have attained Nirvana here, to more modern sites of interest, such as the Dan Cao military post, which is a heavily fortified bunker left after French colonization. The latter site gained recognition as a national heritage site in 2007.

Local authorities have mobilized resources to invest in remodeling and enhancing its historical and cultural assets. Statues and monuments have been spruced up and some long and almost forgotten sites of interest have had new life breathed into them. There has also been restoration of many of the province’s traditional festivals. The region is also home to the San Chi, Tay, and Dao ethnic groups. All of this investment improves the attractiveness of the province for tourism.

Preserving, protecting, and documenting cultural heritage is a must for any society. The preservation of its history, to be kept and handed down through the generations, is essential. Through the power of modern technologies these strategies are vastly improving. Not only will a historical item be recorded but also be a significant boost to the cultural identity.

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