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The hero who saved Vietnam s heritage twice

(No.10, Vol.3, Nov 2013 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)


Late General Vo Nguyen Giap,
middle, and Mr Ho Nghinh, right.
Photo provided by Le Phi.

Without Mr Ho Nghinh (1913 – 2007) Hoi An and My Son might have not been able to survive as cultural heritage.
Mr Bui Van Tieng, the chairman of the Historical Science Society of Danang, commented: ‘Mr Ho Nghinh was the leader whose foremost merit was to conserve the current two world cultural heritage sites, which are the ancient town of Hoi An and My Son Sanctuary.’
When the Vietnam War ended in 1975, the two regions of Vietnam were united under the leadership of the Vietnamese Communist Party and the movement to eliminate the vestiges of the old regimes and develop a new culture and a new kind of socialist human being spread quickly across the country. The party branch and the government of Hoi An began to do away with the old landmarks and erect new structures, which would be ‘more decent and beautiful’. This included the physical destruction of old temples, shrines and pagodas. This task was assigned to the local government agencies and unions. Minh An Ward, which was home to many temples, shrines and pagodas, was chosen for the pilot reconstruction program.
Vo Phung, the director of the Culture and Sports Centre of Hoi An, recalled: ‘After the war, many people believed that temples, shrines and pagodas were places of superstition. Many agreed to put religious sites such as the Confucius Shrine, Phuc Kien Pagoda (Fujian Pagoda) and Ong Bon Pagoda (Mr Bon pagoda) on the destruction list.’
But Mr Ho Nghinh, who was then the chief of the communist party branch of Quang Nam - Danang Province (which later was split into Quang Nam province and Danang city), timely intervened to stop the destruction of Hoi An Ancient Town.
Mr Ha Phuoc Mai, an ex-officer of Hoi An, said: ‘One afternoon in 1976, standing in front of the headquarters of the Vietnam Fatherland Front of Hoi An City were more than 500 people with sledgehammers, crowbars and picks, accompanied by security personnel, who all were about to go to each temple, pagoda and shrine to destroy the so-called superstition-spreading places. They believed that revolution meant destroying the old vestiges and making totally new innovations. Everyone shouted, ‘be resolved’.
At this time, Mr Ho Nghinh arrived and asked at once: ‘Are you about to do the revolution to our culture?’ Everyone was silent. Mr Nghinh said: ‘You should remember that just a few months after the success of the August Revolution [in 1945], Uncle Ho issued a decree to preserve all of relics across Vietnam. He required preserving the temples, shrines, documentations and inscriptions left by our predecessors. You are mobilizing hundreds of people with such a burning mettle, there will be nothing left of Hoi An after just a few days of under their hands.’
Mr Ho Nghinh predicted: ‘Do you know that, later, when our country is developed and opened to trade with the world, foreign tourists will come here and these temples, shrines and mystically ancient houses will be exotic and attractive places to them? It will be a source of profit for the people of Hoi An.’
‘At the end of the meeting, every one was enlightened about how wrong they were. If he had been late, Hoi An would have been smashed into pieces,’ said Mr Ha Phuoc Mai.
The Pagoda of Ong Bon was a clan house of the Chinese from Chaozhou city of Guangdong province in China. In 1979, Chinese troops invaded Vietnam. The women’s union of Hoi An signed a letter requiring the statue of Ma Vien (Ma Yuan) to be smashed and the pagoda to be closed. Ma Vien was the general who brought troops to invade Vietnam in 42 AD, which started the 500 years of Vietnamese slavery under the Chinese yoke). Their reason was because Ma Vien was a big criminal to the nation, so there would not be any reason for him to be worshiped in Hoi An.
‘The letter was signed by thousands of members of the union,’ Mr Ha Phuoc Mai recalled.


Ong Bon Pagoda, Hoi An.
Photo: Huynh Ha.

In the morning, the People’s Committee of Hoi An sent a letter to Mr Ho Nghinh. That afternoon, they saw him there. Standing in front of thousands of people, Mr Nghinh dissuaded them: ‘Temples, communal houses or pagodas are spiritual places, which our people built for worshipping. Moreover, this is a clan house of the Chinese people. China is doing unjust acts when they bring their troops to invade our country, but more than ever, we must enlist the Chinese people here to stand by our side. Ong Bon pagoda is used to worship not only Ma Vien, but also other good and famous deities. In my opinion, we should persuade the people to take away the altar of Ma Vien only.’ ‘After that, the people calmed down and were no longer determined to demolish the pagoda.’
My Son Sanctuary is well known for Cham tower temples. The Champa Kings previously selected My Son to build their capital and a religious centre.


Phuc Kien Pagoda, Hoi An. Photo: Nguyen Ba Ngoc.

Mr Ho Nghinh’s hometown was in Duy Xuyen District and My Son Sanctuary is in this district.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, many areas in Quang Nam could not be cultivated, which placed the people in hardship and misery. To escape from poverty, irrigation had to be carried out, and building dams and lakes was a priority task. The communist party branch of Duy Xuyen District held a meeting to implement the project of blocking the flow and constructing water reservoirs at Khe The. If the committee had allowed the dam construction at Khe The, the entire sanctuary of My Son would have been sunk beneath the lake. The district leaders divided into two groups: those approving of and those disapproving of the project.


My Son Sanctuary, Quang Nam Province. Photo: Huynh Van Nam

The disapproving group was against the project because they did not want to wipe out the evidence of war crimes, due to the fact that a number of tower temples in My Son were damaged by bombs during the Vietnam War. Still, the approving group won; My Son was in danger of being destroyed.
No sooner had Mr Ho Nghinh heard the news than he went to his home village.
According to Mr Doan Van Loc, former chairman of Duy Xuyen District, ‘When the district leaders proposed the project, Mr Nghinh fiercely opposed it. He studied the project carefully and dismissed immediately the Khe The dam plan. If he had not had such a foresight, My Son Sanctuary would be now submerged in the lakebed. Quang Nam would no longer have this treasure.’
Mr Dinh Hai, director of the Culture, Sports and Tourism Department of Quang Nam province, said: ‘Mr Ho Nghinh played a very important role to Hoi An and My Son. Without his insight, Quang Nam would not have two world cultural heritage sites as it does today.’


By Le Phi
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