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Without the community sense, villages will break

(No.5, Vol.7,Oct-Nov 2017 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)


Poitrait by Do Hoang Tuong


A boat races on Hoai river at Hoi An ancient town is organized annually
in August as part a Vietnam-Japan cultural exchange program.
Photo: Thai Quan Chung. 2012


Hoi An, 2014.
Photo: Le Trong Khang

Global integration is happening hourly, daily throughout history in old villages, connecting and binding countryside and cities in blood and flesh. That’s what made Hoi An one of the nine most romantic towns in the world, according to India Times. The man who embodies the spirit of the village, the one who for decades has been helping it withstand the shattering waves of modernization which threaten to devastate the social fabric and ecosystems, is none other than the town’s Party Chief Nguyen Su.
The whirlpool of unrestrained urbanization has eroded villages all over the country. How did those in Hoi An manage to survive in harmony with city lifestyle through a century of French rule, 30 years of brutal wars and 40 years of building. while continuing to be a melting pot of many different cultures?
How does Hoi An, an open port with an open economy since the 11th century, where city lifestyle and international trade began so early, manage to preserve its villages? From its early days when the mainstream ideology valued agriculture and despised trade, Hoi An already had a much more advanced economical model, with robust domestic and international trade. For centuries, Hoi An developed in this direction. In the process of vibrant trading, cultural exchange and integration, not only did the village features not diminish but even thrived. Those are the features of traditions and the sense of village community, fresh and mature, flourishing in urban settings.
There are many peculiar aspects to it, but perhaps the most important factor is that Hoi An makes no distance between townspeople and country folks. Townspeople are at home in the countryside, and country folks are confident and well-connected in the streets. The sense of community is very strong and widespread. News quickly spreads far and wide. When a person dies in the evening, the next morning, people come from the whole area to the family to burn incense and pay respect. It’s the community sense that sustains the village culture.
What’s the difference in village features of Hoi An and those elsewhere? What’s the effect of time on the village culture’s evolution?
Urban culture here simply means streamlining village lifestyle, encasing it in street structure, and the village engraves its features on the streets. That’s why Hoi An is so open to the outside world and so easily remains itself. Development is not destructive, and conservation doesn’t deter evolution. This helps communities to be balanced, moving forward without blurring or distorting their sense of self. History does not repeat itself, but its lessons help new cultural elements coming from outside simmer gently and subsequently diversify and contribute to the cultural landscape of Hoi An. There is no assimilation. The same village culture at Hoi An only peacefully expands, enriching itself, growing beyond itself while remaining easily recognizable. Being a village is no reason for being left behind.
Why, while villages in other regions suffer cultural shocks and social disintegration, Hoi An remains cool and calm in modernization?
Formulized culture is dead culture. Culture is a living organism with past, present and future without interruption. The past enables cultures to distill themselves. Being in lasting peace with the past helps us live with the present, and smoothly move into the future. This natural process, unstrained, shouldn’t be beyond anyone’s utmost efforts.
To retain villagers and village culture for Tra Que, Kim Bong and Thanh Ha what policies did Hoi An issue? Were they challenged by the reality of naked lust for material gain and money fever?
All Hoi An villages have their own trade, their own community center and tutelary god. People connect their lives, understand each others’ and build their community, all through the profession they share. To preserve Tra Que, Kim Bong and Thanh Ha, their trade must be promoted not for show, but to support real life of real people. We are overly fed up with fake trade villages where the trade is only performed for tourist entertainment. Most importantly, villagers must be proud of their ancestral trade, able to connect their present with the past, and able to earn a living by professing their trade at home.
Each villager, literate or not, has put into their products the culture and essence of the land and the people here, adding to the unique trademark only Hoi An has. To retain villagers means to protect their interests. It’s not possible to force them to preserve their trade if it doesn’t earn them money. Tra Que can survive not by selling vegetables to Tra Que villagers, but by promoting its trademark and tourist services related to the vegetable trade. They must develop their services, engage tourists in growing vegetables, and make them cultural ambassadors who will promote Tra Que. On the government’s side, to prevent farmers from using plantation land for housing needs, I took the initiative of granting each household 200m2 of land on the village’s outskirts for housing while keeping their gardens, and a certain amount of money for construction. The government also contacts tour organizers to extend the duration of Hoi An tours.Today, Tra Que is a favorite of tourists; villagers are attached to their homes, and nobody uses farmland for housing anymore...
Is granting land to over 2000 households a sacrifice of the State?
A wrong land policy is the worst thing that can happen to a village. It’s the biggest problem of Hoi An. I only cared about the long-term welfare of the village, not the 200m2 of land. It’s all about people’s lives, their village and their culture. This is not too big of an investment. No vegetables, no Tra Que. Tra Que vegetables are a trademark of Hoi An. When the government behaves decently towards the people, they will have a decent life. Today, Tra Que vegetables have attracted attention from all five continents. The villagers are even proposing to develop on Tra Que Lagoon. This vibrancy can be boosted not by imposing sheer voluntarism and fake trading, but by caring about the people’s welfare.
Regarding street protection, you had to face a lot of cursing and swearing by the folks, didn’t you?
When starting to restore urban order, by our lack of management experience we failed to adequately inform and convince the people, to establish fairness and to fight the ‘no one mourns the common father’ psychology. But what we did was for common good, and so although it took some time for the people to realize it, we eventually got their complete support.
Just a matter of who can peddle on the sidewalks and who cannot, was already a big issue. At first, our decision to let poor folks who live deep in tiny alleys to peddle snacks on the sidewalks made those whose shop opens to the street furious. But gradually, mutual sympathy began to build up between them. Bigger traders started to share space with smaller, less privileged ones. Street peddlers learned to follow rules, not to inconvenience the shops’ business. Little by little they became one community. My idea of lining the sidewalk to make space for bike parking also caused heated disputes. Good habits don’t come easily. They are made by rules. Good rules will become traditions, and violations will be condemned by the community.
In the years 1995 and 1996, I was young and was considered for many of my actions a ‘young goat itched in the horn’, and my wife was even pin-pricked by unknown folks. It was a hustle as I moved street vendors into the market, because everybody demanded a place on the main aisle. I fixed the rent prices, but waived the fee for elderly people because they are the soul of the market. Some of them are just trying to earn a modest living so that they don’t have to ask their descendants for money. Rules must be strict and tolerant at the same time. That’s the principle I always keep in mind.
Do you worry about the waves of investors that change ownership of the front houses and push the real Hoi An people into the back alleys? Does this affect the authenticity of Hoi An?
Some big families have to sell their house to divide the inheritance among their many children. That’s a normal thing to do. There are many kinds of buyers. They may buy a house for the love of Hoi An, or as an antique collector, or as a real estate investor, or to open a shop. There is a Swedish-Vietnamese couple living behind my house. They came here, bought a house, had kids and became Hoi An residents. They go to pagodas, drink rice wine, celebrate Lunar New Year and call me their neighbour. New people diversify Hoi An. In the past they may have come as a whole village, with all the relationships intact. I don’t think newcomers will change Hoi An’s blood. Nobody is assimilated here, people simply come to join the community and make it richer. I only have a little reservation about those who rent a house to open a shop for a few years. They only look for short term gain and usually care little about the house they rent and the spirit of Hoi An.
What are your most vivid memories about your home, your village?
I was born in Cam Thanh, a special village which was an island separated from others. Before bridges were built, people came and went by boat. All kids knew how to swim. My village’s temple was very beautiful. Every spring and autumn celebration, the whole village gathered together. Each person found something to do, and the happiness was shared so warmly. I most remember the times I followed my mom wading in low water season to catch juvenile carp. In good times and bad, I always held tight in the village, never left. There are so many cherished mementos with the bamboo hedges, the river, about sling shooting poon seeds, and falling asleep in the breeze brought from the river by the bamboo. I remember everyone’s face, every household’s situation. Those emotions nurtured my person, and I believe in the spirit of every Vietnamese, that whoever has ever lived in a village, then wherever they may go later, those memories, merry or sad, will keep them awake and never confused.
What qualities do you think a mayor should have?
To me it’s simple. Nothing is given for free in life, so do the best you can and live with self esteem, and that’s good enough. If you can’t help people, at least don’t harm anyone. Nobody is born readily a chairman or a party chief, but that’s how an ordinary person should live, or shame will gnaw one’s life. The leader is very important for the future of a city. He must have a lot of knowledge and a clear vision that connects the past and the future. My tenure was only a bridge, so to speak. In today’s context, urbanization is a matter of course, undeterrable. But the way this process goes in our country, giving birth without pregnancy, urbanizing with no plan, just by displacing people and violating tutelary gods, within 10 years the whole social ecosystem, which is built on the village structure, will be destroyed. More than anyone else, the mayor must see the strength of the village. Without the community sense, villages will break, the country will be in turmoil, and the nation demoralized.
Do you worry that, as you no longer lead the city, ancient villages won’t be able to withstand the teeth and claws of savage greed?
No, I don’t. I absolutely trust the generations after me. They are well educated, well trained, and strongly attached to Hoi An. They will do better and have bolder ideas than I did. Real life experience will guide them to the best route. It’s crucial to have courage to face oneself, to do the right thing without hesitation and to overcome oneself when wrong. The leader must have the courage not to give up, because that will result in grave consequences, not only for himself but also for great many others.

This article was printed in Vietnamese on The Gioi Tiep Thi Weekly in 2014.
(In June 2015, Mr Nguyen Su resigned from the position of Party Chief of Hoi An City. He said: " If I remain in the position of Party Chief like an old tree, my shade would be too big, taking away light and view from any talented successors. When people hesitate to bring up new things, the chances for brave new ideas for Hoi An's development also diminish" - Ed)



Text by Kim Yen Translation by Le Hoai Nam
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