The restorers – ancient Vietnamese manuscripts behind locked doors

Before the French created the romanized Vietnamese phonetic alphabet, before Chinese influence had Vietnamese elite communicating with variations of Chinese characters, the Vietnamese had their own phonetic writing system. Thousands of years ago, the alphabet called Văn Khoa Đầu – literally “tadpole script” was widespread among educated Vietnamese. Chinese invasion saw an end to the use of this writing system, as books, documents and other artifacts were destroyed.

Fortunately, some items remained – some buried or otherwise hidden to preserve the culture of the time. I had the good fortune to see some of these documents and the ancient script up close in real life when I was given access to a restricted area where Vietnamese experts painstakingly and meticulously restore documents from Vietnam’s history – a period of a few thousand years.

Restorer 1

In a corner of the General Science Library of Ho Chi Minh City is a small government department dedicated to preserving Vietnam’s historical documents. Due to the historical value and also political sensitivity of some of these documents, access is normally restricted to a small group of authorized personnel. After weeks of negotiation with numerous government officials, Oi magazine’s intrepid reporter DK managed to get access for herself and I, along with permission for me to photograph what we saw (at least SOME of what we saw).

For me, the most fascinating part was actually seeing the original indigenous Vietnamese script in real life, as I’d actually never seen it anywhere before. It bore some similarities to Thai or Cambodian writing, but was still quite distinctive in its appearance.

Text 3

Text 7

Text 5

What came as somewhat of a shock to me, however, was the way the workers were so meticulous and careful as they preserved each millimetre of each document, yet so careless in other ways. For one, I was expecting to see the restorers to wear white gloves when they handled these precious documents – some of which are older than Christianity – yet they touched the manuscripts with their bare hands. I wondered about the effects of the oil from their fingertips on these ancient texts.

Restorer 6

Restorer 2

Also, I observed the ID card one of the workers wore around his neck dragging across the surface of the manuscript as he leaned over to restore the top edge of the document.

Restorer 7

Restorer 8

While I was slightly taken aback by this, I figured that if these documents had survived such a long time without people taking such care with them, then perhaps they would not fare so badly at the hands of the restorers who at least were doing something to preserve them. At least that’s what I told myself to make myself feel better.

Besides the ancient texts, the department restores all manner of historic documents. I saw wartime maps (one of the document types I was not permitted to photograph) and post-war newspapers all being pieced back together and scanned.

Restorer 12

Restorer 10

The ancient manuscripts were also being scanned to create files that would remain for future generations even if the documents themselves did not survive into the future.

Restorer 11

I spent most of my time watching the experts restoring the ancient texts. I wondered if the mini-iron one of them was using on the manuscript he was working on was specially-made for this kind of work, or if there’s some miniature race of dry cleaners in this part of the world that sold him one of their irons.

Restorer 18

That was the younger of the two restorers at work. The older guy was more old-school.

Restorer 19

You can read details about the restoration work done by this department in the February issue of Oi.


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