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Restoring French villas – keeping Hà Nội’s cultural heritage



By Lê Hương

The new paint of a villa dating to the French colonial era at 49 Trần Hưng Đạo Street in downtown Hà Nội has been a burning issue for the public and particularly heritage lovers. People have argued about the striking new colours of the building.

The renovation is great news for Hà Nội,” Martin Rama, a consultant to the President of the World Bank, who had spent many years living in Hà Nội, told Việt Nam News.

“Not that the building is extraordinary from an architectural point of view, but there are not so many of these villas left in the city, around 1,000 of them. And they are being demolished. They are crumbling. They’re falling apart. They’re being replaced by new buildings, and that’s bad for the visual aspect of Hà Nội.

“An extraordinary mix of different traditions, cultural, architectural, tree-lined streets. Keeping these buildings is very valuable for the city.”

But there has been debate on the bold new colours. Many feel the building no longer fits with the aesthetics of the street.

“People may have a point. We all like the more romantic looks of the villas in yellow tones with the vegetation growing on them,” Rama said.

“But anyway, with the weather of Hà Nội we know what will happen. It will look like a normal Hà Nội building in a matter of years. The debate itself is very good as it shows that people now care about the preservation of the architectural heritage of the city. A few years ago, I would say very few people cared.”

WEAR AND TEAR: Villa 49 Trần Hưng Đạo Street before renovation. VNS Photo Trương Vị

The two-storey villa, a government property on the area of 990sq.m, was almost abandoned for many years. The renovation project was planned in 2016, but it actually started in April 2022 at a cost of VNĐ14.7 billion (US$630,000) by Hoàn Kiếm District authorities and experts from Paris. It is almost complete.

According to architect Emmanuel Cerise, who is responsible for the project, they had very few materials and images of the building to work with.

“It’s courageous and interesting to present an example of this type of restoration with gentle colours and faux bricks,” he said.

“We tend to think that French-era villas have pale colours because those are colours that have been weathered through time and lost their vibrancy. But the truth is that the colours are not pale.”

Historian Dương Trung Quốc showed sympathy for the restorers. He said the experts must have done serious research on the villa’s materials and designs before making any final decisions. 

The new look of villa 49 Trần Hưng Đạo Street. VNS Photo Trương Vị

The capital has a huge architectural heritage, besides big villas used as State offices, there are private villas, and even entire streets of villas.

Quốc complained that bad urban management in certain periods had resulted in the disappearance of many French-era buildings.

He also said Hà Nội authorities had paid much attention to this through serious research and surveys as well as policies.

“We have well-used many buildings like today’s Central Library, the Presidential Palace, Albert Sarraut Lyceé, and Government Guest House, and the People’s High Court of Justice,” he said.  

Quốc said 49 Trần Hưng Đạo was formerly a private villa with almost no materials or images of it recorded.

According to the Hà Nội City’s Construction Department, there are over 1,200 villas from the French era, of which 367 were managed by the State, 372 others by both individuals and State, and 117 possessed entirely by private individuals.

The buildings have been listed in various groups: 222 in Group 1 that need restoring following the original design; 356 in Group 2 needing to keep the external design; and 638 in Group 3, which can be demolished in case their conditions further deteriorate.

Adaptive restoration

Many experts have proposed adaptive restoration for French villas in Hà Nội.

Architect Trương Ngọc Lân, deputy head of the Architecture and Urban Planning Faculty under the Hà Nội University of Civil Engineering, appreciated the architectural heritage of the French era. 

COFFEE AND CULTURE: A French colonial villa’s front part has been changed into a cafe. VNS Photo Trương Vị

“In terms of the professional architecture factor, buildings by the French built before 1954 have various values in terms of history, society and art,” he said.

“The appearance of French buildings has created a new type of living style. Before, Vietnamese people lived in attached houses built in a rural style. Since the French arrived, they built houses in the Western style, with multi-functions. The French buildings marked the development of Vietnamese society from tradition to modernity.”

Lân emphasised the change of art concepts and the way of thinking about beauty.

“Before we had the traditional style of art, yet the next generations accepted a fresh western stream of art, which has turned out to be an essential part of Vietnamese people’s artistic life,” he said.

Lân also mentioned the values in terms of the technology of French architects who skilfully combined the existing spaces with western design and eastern sloped roofs, local decorative patterns, and various adaptive solutions to the Hà Nội tropical weather.

Lân said the French houses in Hà Nội were a valuable architectural heritage, forming the identity of the city. But he was worried that the restoration of villas in the city had not been carried out properly.

“Many buildings have been possessed by different individuals and organizations who are not fully aware of the heritage’s values,” he said. “Many villas have not been classified yet. Over time, such houses are sold and demolished for other modern buildings.”

Lân said such restorations, like the building on Trần Hưng Đạo Street, had been regularly conducted but due to limited budgets, there were only a few buildings restored this way.

A French-era villa is now shared by dozens of families. VNS Photo Trương Vị

“We should learn the adaptive restoration from well-developed countries where people understand the value of heritage, know the benefits of doing good restoration and are bound by detailed and clarified laws” he said.

“Residents still can exploit the economic effectiveness of the buildings while keeping the core designs.”

Architect Trần Quốc Bảo, from the same faculty, supported this idea.

“We should let residents know that they benefit from restoration like in other countries. They have strict regulations that people living inside heritage buildings who want to upgrade must submit plans to concerned agencies,” he said.

“Most will upgrade the house while keeping the external appearance. They may make some changes like replacing wooden windows with metal frames, but they keep the original form. And the city spares a certain budget to support the renovation while keeping the appearance of historical buildings.” 

Lân and Bảo both emphasised that authorities should have proper policies and budget to restore the French villas together with private owners.

“Otherwise, we have to accept the fact that occasionally, French-era buildings may disappear and be replaced by other buildings like the house owned by Dr Trần Duy Hưng, the first mayor of Hà Nội since 1954, in Lý Thái Tổ Street,” Bảo said. “This is a real regret.”

Quốc said if the city found a proper way to renovate old buildings, the old architecture of the city could be restored and the beauty of Hà Nội would be much enhanced. 

MAJESTIC: The People’s High Court of Justice’s main building has been kept almost intact. VNS Photo Trương Vị

He mentioned the headquarters of the People’s High Court of Justice, where the central building has been kept and surrounding buildings have been newly built, as well as Hàng Trống Police Station as examples of successful adaptive restoration.  

“I think the renovation process is on the right track,” he said.

“This is a positive trend and we should support it. This does not mean one-way support. Citizens have the right to supervise restoration. But they should supervise it based on goodwill and affection. They should do their research and share their knowledge with concerned agencies. This will bring great benefits to the community in our capital.” VNS 

(with additional interview by Nhật Hồng)

PICTURESQUE: A villa on Phan Đình Phùng Street. VNS Photo Trương Vị


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Yoga Song Khoe partners with Kamal Mana Academy to train yoga teachers



HÀ NỘI — Indian Kamal Mana Academy has signed a memorandum of understanding with Việt Nam-based Yoga Song Khoa Academy to share knowledge and experience to bring yoga closer to yoga lovers all over the world.

The document was signed by Vũ Hồng Yến, President of Yoga Song Khoe, and Dr. Kamal (Suresh Kamal Srinivash), General Director of Kaya Mana Academy.

The two academies will join forces to give student professional yoga training.

“We hope Yoga Song Khoe and Kaya Mana will together reach new development targets at the international level and bring wonderful experiences to learners in Việt Nam and all over the world,” Yến said. “Above all, we hope to help more people explore the strength and happiness of yoga.”

Dr Kamall (first right) and Vũ Hồng Yến (second from left) at the signing ceremony. The cooperation between the two academies will bring professional training courses to international yoga learners. — VNS Photo Huy Khôi

Dr. Kamall is a yoga master from India who won the Yoga Brahma Prize in 2015 at the 15th International Ayurveda Conference in the US. He has acted as an advisor of Yoga Alliance International and is an advisor on Ayurveda in Kerala Ayurveda in the US.

Being one of the eight greatest Indian yoga masters in the world, Dr. Kamal started practising yoga at five years old. He has created his own style of yoga called Kryoga, or lessons of yoga Kamal.

He will join a mass yoga performance of 500 people on June 3 and 4 at Vinhomes Ocean Park, Hà Nội, which will be hosted by Yoga Song Khoe Academy to celebrate International Yoga Day on June 21. — VNS


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Nature’s bounty: ginseng farm aims to go global



By Công Thành

PLANTING FOR THE FUTURE: Nguyễn Hữu Quý Khang (right) introduces ginseng saplings at the mountainous Ngọc Linh ginseng farm in Quảng Nam Province’s Nam Trà My District. VNS Photo Công Thành

In the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic, Nguyễn Hữu Quý Khang, 31, a construction engineer, found himself unable to return to his work in Japan, and instead found a temporary job at a Ngọc Linh ginseng farm in Nam Trà My District of Quảng Nam.

He soon fell in love with work on the mountainous ginseng farm, tending and nurturing the ancient medicinal herb believed by some to have almost magical qualities.

Khang’s new role saw him explore the natural conservation of Vietnamese ginseng (Panax vietnamensis), growing strongly and sustainably in the primary forest.

At first he found being away from Japan difficult, but the work on the Sâm Sâm Company ginseng farm soon grabbed all his attention.

“It’s a turning point. I thought I would just be working on the farm while waiting for Japan-Việt Nam air services to resume after the pandemic. However, the wild nature of my homeland soon fascinated me,” Khang said.

“I restarted as a beginner in farming. It was quite different to engineering work that I had experienced in Japan. I loved exploring the co-existence of the flora habitat and ginseng. It was like caring for a newborn baby.”

HERBAL LIFE: A worker checks the quality of ginseng saplings at the Sâm Sâm Company’s farm in Quảng Nam Province. Photo courtesy of Sâm Sâm Company 

Khang said he spent most of his time on the farm observing ginseng seeds sprouting. Saplings are very sensitive to any small temperature changes in the foggy mountain air, where sunlight hits for just a few hours each day.

“We built up a scrutiny process to watch the saplings at every moment in the forest canopy farms, while arranging long-term nutrition and pest protection. Ginseng sprouts die if they suffer from plant fungus at any time. Rodents are also a threat,” he said.

As a technical manager of the farm, he also trains local workers on how to develop ginseng as a sustainable crop for the community, rather than lazily making money from illegal logging and hunting.

Khang said the farm had developed on one-hectare pilot plot before expanding as a high-yield business and community joint-venture farm.

Hồ Văn Khuyết, 40, a member of the Xơ Đăng ethnic group in Trà Linh Village, said he was trained in sustainable agricultural practice at the farm for two years.

“Most local villagers lived by exploiting forest products including animal hunting for food in the jungle, but the strict rules of forest protection stopped us from living this life,” Khuyết said.

“We had to do odd jobs in urban areas instead. However, we struggled with poor education and skills in urban and industrial parks. Our forest-based experience was always our best skill.”

He said the ginseng farming project offered an opportunity for ethnic communities to improve their income with their traditional forest knowledge.

BOTTLING IT: A female expert introduces a ginseng sampling produced in-vitro at Sâm Sâm company’s R&D centre. About 5 million of saplings will be produced by the company in the near future.  VNS Photo Công Thành 

“It took me one year to complete training in ginseng farming. We can earn well from working on the ginseng farm, while protecting the forest, our spiritual ‘home’, for future generations,” he said.

Global value

In building a national high-quality ginseng brand, Sâm Sâm has grown 500,000 ginseng plants on a 200ha farm in Trà Linh mountainous village.

The company has put into operation the first Ngọc Linh ginseng production facility – a major high-tech processing factory combined with a nursery and research centre – at Tam Thăng Industrial Park in Tam Kỳ City, producing 200,000 capsules and 5 million Ngọc Linh ginseng saplings by in-vitro every year.

GREEN GOLD: Ngọc Linh ginseng blossoms at a farm in Nam Trà My District of Quảng Nam Province. Photo courtesy of Xuân Thọ 

The sustainable ginseng farm has been listed as one of 20 safe and one of eight Asian projects jointly assessed and financially supported by the World Wild Fund for Nature (WWF) and the Dutch Fund for Climate and Development (DFCD).

Experts from the DFCD and WWF-Vietnam recently paid a field trip to inspect technical and financial support for the project. The DFCD has approved a support grant for Sâm Sâm, seeking to scale up its production in one of the country’s poorest regions. The money will help the company to acquire seedlings, seeds, earthworm compost and land for expansion.

The project is aided by the World Wide Fund for Nature Netherlands together with SNV Netherlands Development Organisation to nurture new projects for the investment fund. With the approval of the grant, the WWF plans to sign a 275,000-euro grant agreement with Sâm Sâm.

Huib Jan de Ruijter, senior expert from the Dutch Entrepreneurial Development Ban (DEDB), said the project developed by Sâm Sâm offered benefits to the local community, particularly in terms of protecting the forest and mitigating climate change.

Aart Jan Mulder, portfolio manager from DEDB Bank, said the ginseng project was unique in the well-protected primary forest as it helped conserve nature, while creating benefits for both business and the indigenous community while reducing the damage caused by climate change.

WINDOW TO SUSTAINABILITY: A check-in spot in Ngọc Linh ginseng farm in Trà Lĩnh Village. The forest canopy ginseng farm expects to promote eco-tour service in the province. VNS Photo Công Thành 

Stuart Beavis, regional lead at WWF Asia said: “Sâm Sâm has the potential to be an amazing project. It grows ginseng under the now protected canopy of the forest and works closely with the locals, adding to their skill set and income. The company is also perfectly aligned with the national government’s vision for this commodity.”

The chairman of the company, Nguyễn Đức Lực, said the combined investment of farm-production plant R&D and the in-vitro centre would help build global production chains for the national brand and boost sustainable development of the Ngọc Linh ginseng not only for Quảng Nam, but nationally.

“We have been building a long-term strategy for a national brand of high-quality Ngọc Linh ginseng production from seed selection, planting and harvest, to storage and processing,” Lực said.

He said at least 80 per cent of natural forests were well protected by local farmers who joined the ginseng farm as the plant could only develop well under forest canopy from 1,400m to 2,500m above sea level,” Lực said.

“As ginseng can die by chemical fertiliser, the ginseng farm is fertilised by organic earthworms. The farm will help contribute to Việt Nam’s zero carbon targets.”

The ginseng farm will also be recruiting and training manpower from the Xơ Đăng, Ca Dong and M’ Nông ethnic communities across several local villages, hoping to develop more medicinal herb farms. — VNS


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Nursing homes more than a question of cost



Illustration by Trịnh Lập

by Nguyễn Mỹ Hà

Việt Nam has one of the fastest growing ageing populations in the world. In 2019, those above 60 made up 11.9 per cent of the country’s population. This number shall rise to more than 25 per cent in 2050.

According to the United Nations Population Fund, from 2036 Việt Nam shall be classified as an ageing society, where the elderly make up a large and influential part of society.

This is the result of the country’s successful drive to lower birth mortality rates dozens of years ago and the consistent decline in the birth rate. 

In about a dozen years, Vietnamese society will have all the issues of an elderly population: lack of a working age population leading to the extension of the retirement age and the needs for healthcare for people of advanced years. More nursing homes are likely to be built.

The longevity of the elderly can be a wonderful blessing for an extended family, where the younger children and grandchildren can take care of their clan’s eldest. 

“My grandmother is 104 now,” says Đặng Thắm, a mother of two teenagers. “She’s in great health and as much as I love her, I cannot visit her as much as I could. Once a month is ideal, but I still can’t make it sometimes.”

But her grandmother lives happily at her son’s home, with his family and the adult son’s family, which means the great-grandmother is being taken care of by six other people, including grand children. 

A popular Vietnamese saying goes, “A mother can raise 10 children, but 10 children cannot take care of one mother!” At times, this is painstakingly true.

In a recent debate, popular film director Lê Hoàng and actor Quyền Linh spoke on TV about how to take good care of one’s ageing parents. 

Quyền Linh prefers the Vietnamese way of taking care of elderly parents at home, living in the love of their children and grandchildren. He feels strongly about taking good care of one’s mother and believes a family shall be cursed if children do not show filial piety to their parents, one of the cornerstone of Vietnamese desired qualities of being a righteous man/woman.

 “No, you cannot send your parents to a nursing home if you have a home!” he said.

Lê Hoàng opposed the idea of keeping grandparents at home to stay with their children and grandchildren.

“The elderly must have their own life, their own joys and happiness. Their joys need to go beyond that of their children! If you can afford it, sending your parents to nursing homes can be a relief for both the parents and children,” he said.

The fight can go on forever, as each side has their own reasons and arguments. One can never give a proper answer.

“My mother suffered from Alzheimer’s for more than 10 years,” a friend and middle-aged mother of two told me recently. “She started to have symptoms, and we took her to doctors for help quite early on.”

She had her mother living with their nuclear family for 10 years, having domestic helper at the time, until it became too exhausting for both sides, as the mother did not recognise anyone, nor was she aware of what she was doing.

She resorted to sending her mother to an expensive nursing home, where she was quite well taken care of until she fell and broke her hip. 

It was a long, painful journey for the woman, who kept wishing her mother could recognise her again, even just once. The memory-losing mother also kept telling her husband, “Who are you? Why are you so kind to me?”

Many of the elderly say they rather stay home to see their children and grandchildren every day. But some disagree and say they would feel like a burden if they sold their home and moved in with one of their children.

Taking care of ageing parents needs not only love, but also understanding, knowledge about elderly health concerns as well as untiring efforts.

“Having just finished one’s meal, they then say their children didn’t feed them,” is a Vietnamese saying about the decline or loss of short-term memory in the aged. Anyone with elderly parents must bear this in mind. It is important to be patient and loving.

If you are in your 50s and 60s taking care of your parents, it’s already a stretch because you’re still working. If you’re in your seventies taking care of centenarian parents, then it’s a blessing for you. Though in your seventies, you may have more time, your health may not be up to the task. 

In a packed room on a busy main road at a small home appliance business, I recently heard a busy woman telling her mother (or in-law) sitting in a wheelchair to move over as she did not have enough room. The house was literally packed up to the ceiling, and the lady in the wheelchair couldn’t move anywhere else. There was a room upstairs, but she wanted to stay downstairs, so she could see other people.

Anyone managing that little space, balancing her business and family while taking care of an elderly person, could lose control and end up being less than exceptionally polite, even to their own mother.

Many would say, send her to a nursing home, where she can be taken care of, meet friends her age and get a health check every day. Children could come and visit when they have time.

If the family can afford nursing home costs, they may choose to do so. The parent may be in better physical health, but not getting to see familiar faces may eventually lead to emotional health issues. 

An elderly woman, Thu Phan gave her thoughts about the matter online: “I’m 69 years old now, and I took care of my grandchildren when I retired at 55. When they were little, I took care of them, and when they went to school, I would help them with their homework at night. For me, I feel happy because I have not wasted my life. I feel happy, healthy and useful. But later on, when I get older and need help, whether I’ll get help depends on each person’s blessing.”

Even for the very elderly, a home can have its benefits. They will need to push themselves every day, which will not deteriorate their health but, on the contrary, give more strength, not only to cope with everyday life, but also to strengthen them generally, as long as they are willing to try. 

And for us children, we only wish we can do our best to earn enough money to have our parents living with us when they want to, and also be able to afford a nursing home for them if they want it.

Đức Dũng, a middle-aged man, added to the online discussion, saying. “I’ve been assisting my elder sister to take care of our mother, who has had Alzheimer’s for 14 years and has been bedridden for seven. It is my wish to take care of my mother and be by her side when she leaves us. But my wife and I have been saving so that later, we can both go to a nursing home because we don’t want our two daughters to suffer taking care of us. 

“Then if they insist, we would be thankful to God and to our children. It would be wonderful if they can manage their own families and us. But as our grandparents said, ‘Each tree bears its own flower, each family has its own issue’.” VNS


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