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Tuesday,  Apr 24,2018,17:37 (GMT+7)

Conflict of symbols

Son Nguyen
Friday,  Feb 9,2018,21:10 (GMT+7)
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Conflict of symbols

Son Nguyen

Many Hanoians had a chance to admire a flock of 12 beautiful swans roaming on Hoan Kiem Lake, also known as the Sword Lake, in the capital city early this week. Now, however, all the birds are no longer there, as the tentative plan to beautify the scenery has been shelved due to strong criticism.

The beauty – at least for the majority of spectators – has been rejected for many reasons, including regulatory ones, but primarily, as seen in local media, it is the conflict of symbols, so to say.

The controversy flared up soon after the birds were introduced to the lake by Hanoi Water Drainage Company this Monday.

Many Hanoi residents ran into rupture at the sight of the fowls on the lake, bursting into joyful exclamations when seeing the swans there. “I’ve never seen swans on Hoan Kiem Lake. It’s magnificent to watch the birds and take pictures with them,” news site Vnexpress quotes a young resident there as saying.

Similarly, another resident identified as Nguyen Quang Hoa says he is fully supportive of the idea to have swans in the lake. “This has never been seen in the Sword Lake; hopefully it will add to the scenery, making the Sword Lake more appealing to residents and tourists,” he is quoted by Nguoi Lao Dong newspaper. 

But, many elderly people, according to Vnexpress, brush aside the idea, saying it is not suitable to have swans in the lake. They say the Sword Lake is a sacred venue associated with the Great Tortoise, and allowing swans there will spoil the image.

The controversy has soon amounted to a war of words, not only among residents, but also involving learned people and politicians as well.

Vo Tien Hung, general director of Hanoi Water Drainage Company, says on news website Dan Tri that after cleaning the lake, his company brought the swans there on a trial basis to make the venue more beautiful, and also to fathom the public reaction. As objections have been strong, he has decided to move the birds to Thien Quang Lake. “We won’t consider bringing the birds back to Hoan Kiem Lake,” he asserts.

Tran Nhu Giap, the owner of Vuon Chim Viet in Hanoi who donated the swans, complaints in the news site that before raising the swans on Hoan Kiem Lake, “we have consulted biologists who all supported the idea. We simply want to make Hoan Kiem Lake more beautiful.”

Many people from all walks of life have thrown their backing behind the tentative scheme.

Nguyen Lan Dung, a biology professor who used to serve as a National Assembly deputy, says in Lao Dong newspaper that the swan is a symbol of love, peace and tranquility. “Introducing swans in the heart of the capital city is suitable as such birds only enrich the space there,” he is quoted as saying.

Writer Nguyen Van Tho, meanwhile, says in Tuoi Tre that “raising swans in Hoan Kiem Lake is just normal. The presence of such birds will simply make the lake more graceful.”

Public support for the scheme is also overwhelming.

In a quick survey on Dan Tri, of nearly 8,000 readers polled by the news site as of February 8 afternoon, up to 74.33% say the swan is suitable for the natural and cultural settings at Hoan Kiem Lake, while only 25.67% reject the idea.

Despite such widespread support, voices against the scheme are still quite vocal.

In a commentary, the Vietnam News Agency says Hoan Kiem Lake is a gem that needs to be respected and protected. “Although the swan is beautiful, it is still an alien creature which is unsuitable to the lake’s spiritual merits,” says the news agency.

Historian Duong Trung Quoc, in the same chorus, says that although the swan is beautiful, “it is not suitable for the Sword Lake, which is not only a beauty spot but also a spiritual venue associated the Great Tortoise.”

Ha Dinh Duc, who has spent many years studying tortoises at Hoan Kiem Lake, shows a harsh objection. On news site Mot The Gioi, the researcher likens the lake to “a mirror reflecting the soul of Hanoi. Allowing swans in the lake will damage the national spiritual identity.”

According to Duc, the Sword Lake has for centuries been known to the Hanoians as the lake of the Great Tortoise, which is a sacred symbol. Raising swans in the lake is unacceptable for those people who have nurtured a deep love for the lake, while for visitors with little knowledge of the historical and spiritual merits of the lake, they would think it to be the Lake of Swans, he says in the news site. “It will be humorous to see hundreds of swans there,” he says.

As the swans have now been moved to another lake, it can be seen that in the conflict of symbols, those upholding the old symbol have triumphed.

However, behind the conflict lies a greater issue that has been skipped by Hanoi Water Drainage Co. when bringing the swans to the lake. It is the regulatory approval required for such a plan.

Mai Dinh Yen, a professor specializing in ecological and environmental issues, says in Lao Dong that the plan to allow swans into the lake should have been appraised by authorities in terms of impacts on the environment.

In news site Nguoi Dua Tin, lawyer Vu Quang Ba with the Hanoi-based law firm Khai Hung stresses that Hoan Kiem Lake was recognized as a special national heritage site in 2013, and under prevailing laws, any changes to the heritage site must be thoroughly appraised by competent agencies.

Truong Minh Tien, deputy director of Hanoi City’s Department of Culture and Sports, asserts that all activities related to Hoan Kiem Lake must conform to the Law on Cultural Heritage, but the department as the competent authority in the capital city had not received any application for the introduction of the swans to Hoan Kiem Lake.

Such assertions by experts show that Hanoi Water Drainage Co. has been impulsive in executing a plan without abiding by regulatory steps, especially when such a plan may have impacts on a cultural heritage site like Hoan Kiem Lake. However, a major lesson drawn from this controversy is that even if all legal steps are taken, the conflict of symbols – and conflict of values to a larger extent – must be prudently fathomed, even for a goodwill plan to benefit the public.

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