As a rule we don’t repeat articles. If we’ve already covered something, then unless there’s a different angle to be found, we leave the story as it is — covered, finished, caput.
That was what ran through my mind one Saturday morning as I drove the short dusty journey from Central Hanoi to Co Loa, a citadel founded by An Duong Vuong in 275 BCE after he defeated the Hung Kings. Rather than travelling for a journalistic purpose I was on an excursion, looking to discover something different. It was a journey back into Vietnamese history, a well-needed day trip away from the heat and humidity of the capital. Unfortunately as I passed through Long Bien, crossed over Cau Duong Bridge and turned left towards Co Loa, the humidity refused to dissipate. Instead it got mixed in with all the dust and debris left behind by the trucks, cars and motorbikes hurtling along Highway 3.
For a moment I considered turning back.
Land and Water
Our previous article had talked extensively about the lack of citadel remnants at Co Loa. Yes, the outlines of the walls and former city ramparts still remain, and archaeological findings have revealed five major periods of construction at this site that was once the capital of Au Lac. But everything else has long been bitten by the dust of time.
Instead the focus was on the connections between myth, history and Vietnamese people. As our writer, Douglas Pyper, explained, “Within the walls is a town, but a town that is inseparable from the fields. Lakes and wells take on almost holy significance, and fields of rice or vegetables, each one thick with tombstones, come to within a foot of the benches where modern lovers sit to kiss. Scattered around are a number of revered temples and pagodas for princesses, kings and Buddha. Within each are the recurring motifs of tortoise, stork, egret, Buddhas, crossbows and kings which represent folk stories, myths, history, culture and religion intertwined.”
For me, just the pleasure of wandering through near-deserted temples and sitting by the lake was enough. Despite my previous on-the-journey misgivings and the relentless heat, being surrounded by both history and beauty was enough to make the trip worthwhile.
A Surprising Find
As I made to leave, the area took on a new dimension. Interested to see if there was any more to Co Loa than meets the eye, I twisted and turned down some back streets and then a red-earthed path before ending up round the back of a deserted building. Although I’d noticed it before — it stands opposite the main entrance to the citadel — I’d identified it as one of those ugly, municipally-built buildings that was the kind of place to avoid. I hadn’t noticed that it stood in ruin.
Driving into the grounds I got off my bike and started staring upwards. Surrounded by trees, the architecture seemed like a mish-mash of styles — anything from Art Deco to French colonialism to something equating to modernism. It was both an eyesore yet attractive.
“Could it be a school?” I asked myself. It certainly had that look about it. Yet old schools in Vietnam tend to be functional, especially outside of the main city. This place had too many embellishments.
Inside I walked up the crumbling stairs, along open-air terraces and into empty rooms. Mould crept down the walls, era tiles lined the floors and a coat of dust had formed over every surface. The windows were glassless, and yet vegetation had yet to creep its way into the complex. The place was truly abandoned, not with the abandonment of decades, but years. It seemed it had only recently been in use. But what was it?
The Vietnamese Film Industry
A later online search revealed a surprising answer. Could it be Co Loa Studios? Built in 1959, the studios were once the home of the Vietnamese film industry. As the economy collapsed after the end of the American War, in 1980 the site was abandoned and fell into ruin.
With Hanoi’s 1,000-year anniversary celebrations coming up, in 2008 VND108 billion was invested into renovating both the building and the surrounding land. According to Vietnam News, the “plans [included] the construction of five more interior studios, 5ha of outdoor studios and a special water tank for shooting underwater scenes. The new outdoor areas [would be able] to pass for battlefields during wartime, streets in large contemporary cities, and some of Viet Nam’s jungle. It is hoped that by 2015 the studios will produce 30 celluloid films per year and that by 2030 Viet Nam will rank in the 30 top film producing countries in the world.”
Yet, without good support services, prop hire and set facilities, as well as high service fees, by 2013 the studio was already being described as a “wasteland”. According to an article on the website, english.vietnamnet.vn, “Co Loa Studios was put in use in early 2012. It was expected to become Vietnam’s cinema capital. However, now the facility is largely unable to find production companies willing to film there, and now faces the risk of becoming irrelevant. According to those in the industry this is a result of the lack of stable infrastructure at the studios.”
Another issue was location. Although only 15km out of Hanoi, the studios were just too far away.
Reclaiming the Past
No-one quite knows what to do with old abandoned buildings in Vietnam, especially if they are left stagnating in an area where land is not at a premium. Many have been knocked down, less have been restored, others have been repurposed.
The restoration of Co Loa Studios was a grand, well-intentioned project. Unfortunately it failed.
Saving this country’s heritage, be it ancient or more recent, is vital to keeping hold of Vietnam’s soul. Yet sometimes there are buildings that have just run their course. Could this be one of them?
Take either Chuong Duong or Long Bien Bridges over the Red River and follow the road until you go over Cau Duong Bridge. Turn left onto Highway 3 and follow the road 7km until you see signs for Co Loa.