Written by: Rebecca K. Jones

Like other parts of Southeast Asia, Vietnam has a long cultural history with innumerable archaeological and heritage sites. They span from Palaeolithic rock shelters to open-air settlements, with early evidence of agriculture and domesticated animals; from Bronze and Iron Age period sites, to 19th century colonial architecture. The proximity of northern Vietnam to China results in a shared, complex history of cultural interaction, with numerous Chinese regimes in Vietnam throughout the past two thousand years. Additionally, the remains of French colonialism in the 19th and 20th centuries is still apparent, especially in the grand buildings in the Old Quarter of Hanoi.

Vietnam is also home to 54 different ethnic groups with their own languages, lifestyles, and cultural heritage. The largest ethnic group is the Viet (Kinh), who make up 87% of Vietnam’s population. The complexity of the history and cultural heritage in Vietnam makes the country’s national and postcolonial identity complicated, as is how people perceive their heritage.

One of the most well-known sites in Vietnam is the temple complex My Son, which dates to the 4th–13th centuries AD. The sanctuary represents the height of the Champa Kingdom and the period of Indianisation that saw a spread of Hinduism across Southeast Asia. From the 7th–10th centuries the Cham controlled the spice and silk trade between China, Southeast Asia, and India. Notable related sites to My Son include Angkor Wat in Cambodia and Bagan in Myanmar.

My Son archaeological site. © Vincent Ko Hon Chiu, via UNESCO

My Son archaeological site. © Vincent Ko Hon Chiu, via UNESCO

Conservation of the monuments began in the early 20th century. The buildings were damaged during WWII, the First Indo-China War, and especially during the Vietnam/American War. However, many of the buildings have been well-maintained and the site was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999.

Currently, My Son is at risk from climatic and environmental change, as well as the damage that flooding and high humidity cause. Luckily, clearance of surrounding vegetation and widening of stream has minimised these impacts. This is because increased tourism has put pressure on site maintenance.

Vietnam also has thousands of kilometres of coastline with abundant shipwrecks, as it was centrally located on the ‘Maritime Silk’ route between China and Southeast Asia. The coastline has an extensive history of seafaring trade and activity. However, little is known about the extent of the shipwrecks or any other underwater cultural heritage sites, and there are limited funds to properly invest in the necessary preliminary archaeological surveys. Additionally, there has been limited work done to curtail “treasure hunters” from looting shipwrecks. For example, a 14th century shipwreck was recently found in Quang Ngai province, but unfortunately experts were unable to excavate the ship before many artifacts were looted, due to a lack of proper equipment and human resources. The government responded by excavating the wreck in 2013 with the intent to sell most of the artifacts in auctions and keep important pieces in the local museum. To protect the security of the artifacts, the shipwreck was safeguarded by police 24/7.

As stated, many of the archaeological sites and areas of potential cultural significance are yet to be surveyed or properly documented, and are thus vulnerable to development, looting, and illegal sale. However, these issues largely remain under-reported in Southeast Asia.

The demand for Southeast Asian antiquities began in the 1990s and flourished during the 2000s, as tourism increased and the effects of the Vietnam/American War had waned. Today, in the tourist centres of Ho Chi Minh, Hanoi, and Hoi An, antiquity shops are ubiquitous. Most of the objects sold in these shops are 20th century relics from the Vietnam/American War (both real and fake), old family collections, or replicas of historic-period Chinese ceramics. This highlights one of the problems with attempting to determine the authenticity of objects, as shop owners often get a bulk shipment with antiquities and replicas intermixed, and provenance information is usually vague.

During the early 2000s there was a massive increase in antiquities looting at shipwrecks along Vietnam’s coast. The government responded by tightening laws, as items from sunken ships without provenance data belong to the state. Along the main antiquities street, Le Cong Kieu near Ben Thanh Market in central Ho Chi Minh, approximately 80% of the items are reproductions. Many traders are honest about the sale of replicas, but many others frequently sell replicas as real artifacts. This dishonesty bleeds into the international art and antiquity market.

Vietnamese Law on Cultural Heritage (No. 28/2001/QH10 of June 29, 2001) stipulates that any authentic, valuable object older than 100 years cannot not be sold, and antiquities are banned from export. However, enforcing these laws has proven to be difficult and the vague definition of what constitutes an ‘artifact’ or ‘antiquity’ can be problematic. For instance, the law stipulates antiquities are “objects with typically historical, cultural and/or scientific value”, but defining ‘value’ may be subjective.  Furthermore, the Vietnamese government is often involved in the sale of artifacts and antiquities for ‘revenue raising.’ The problem with the government selling artifacts is that it places a market value on them, which provides an incentive to loot artifacts and sell them before the government can. Impoverished communities and individuals sometimes feel a right to profit from the sale of these artifacts, rather than see that economic potential fall into government control where it will not necessarily benefit their community. The problem is compounded by the fact that many international governments and organisations also contribute to the problem by buying antiquities sold through either the Vietnamese government or international antiquities auctions.

Archaeology, anthropology, and cultural heritage studies are rarely taught at Vietnamese schools and universities. This is particularly problematic for underwater archaeological sites, which require costly, and specialised skills and resources. To help address these issues, the Underwater Cultural Heritage Project in Vietnam was initiated in November of 2012 to increase local and national awareness about Vietnam’s underwater and maritime heritage. This international project is aimed towards preserving and protecting sites through crowd funding and engaging the local community. The project is based on the recognition that all members of a community, rather than just the experts, have the right to be associated with the rights and responsibilities of conserving archaeological sites. Collaborative research has been conducted in three provinces (Quang Ninh, Nghe An, and Quang Nam) since 2012. In Quang Ninh province, the Bach Dang River has been surveyed and excavated at the significant battlefield site on Von Don, where the Chinese emperor Kublai Khan was defeated in 1288 AD. Local residents were employed to work on the surveys and excavations to help engage the community and provide jobs. However, the archaeologists also discovered that the farmers were a valuable asset due to their excellent knowledge of the local geology and stratigraphy. As a result, there is now a long-standing dialogue between the local community and the research team. One of the highly significant outcomes of this project was that in 2012 the Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung issued Decision No. 1491/QD-TT, which protected the site as a Special National Relic.

Police protecting the shipwreck in Quang Ngai province 24/7 during excavations in 2013.

Police protecting the shipwreck in Quang Ngai province 24/7 during excavations in 2013.

Large well-known sites, such as My Son, are protected by the Cultural Heritage Law and UNESCO. But, the everyday responsibilities of site maintenance fall to the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism. Further, during the Vietnam/American War in 1969, the Viet Cong took shelter at My Son, and the US responded by heavily bombing the area. As a result, only 18 of the 70 restructures originally recorded by French archaeologists remain. Although Vietnamese authorities have deactivated unexploded mines at the four main monuments, progress has been slow and much more demining work needs to be carried out. Visitors are warned not to stray too far from well-worn paths.

Despite these issues, My Son and many other significant heritage sites are well-maintained. Today, most artifacts have been removed from sites and stored in museum collections. In Vietnam, the primary concern is the protection of sites that are yet to be discovered, excavated, or properly documented. These are at risk of being damaged or destroyed due to modern development. Continuing heritage education and raising awareness of issues surrounding the illegal antiquities trade to both the general public and government officials are necessary to safeguard the future of heritage in Vietnam. For more information about the issues surrounding the antiquities trade in Vietnam see Damien Huffer’s field report.

My Son UNESCO page: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/949

Underwater archaeology and shipwrecks:

Mark Staniforth 08.11.2012 “First wrecked, now pillaged: Vietnams underwater treasure” The Conversation

Antiquities, heritage, archaeology:

Charles Higham 2014 “Early Mainland Southeast Asia: From First Humans to Angkor” River Books, Bangkok.

Damien Huffer 02.06.2010 “Field report: Vietnam – another source country?” Saving Antiquities (SAFE).

Nam C. Kim 22.07.2016 “Matters of the past mattering today.”

Lan 25.09.2012 “Overseas auctions of Vietnam’s antiquities: good and bad” Vietnam Net.

Thao Vi 22.07.2015 “Treasure hunting in Saigon’s antique market” Thanh Nien News.