HANOI : Vietnam plans to restore the ruins of an ancient imperial city in central Hanoi dating back to the seventh century with help from Japan and the UN cultural organisation, heritage officials say.
Work is expected to start next year to preserve the old citadel ahead of the capital's 1,000th birthday in 2010 and would strengthen Hanoi's chances of having its historic cultural heart declared a World Heritage site in future.
The remains of the ancient citadel and relics from five feudal dynasties were first discovered in 2002 during excavation work to build a new national assembly in the centre of the capital, putting construction on hold.
Archeologists discovered millions of priceless artefacts from the city once known as Thang Long (Ascending Dragon), including terracotta figures of dragons and phoenix heads, ceramics, canons, swords and coins.
The find started a dispute between heritage and development forces over what to do with the ruins located in what has been Vietnam's centre of political power for most of its history, from ancient times until today.
The 20,000-square-metre (200,000 square-foot) dig shares a city block with the existing Ba Dinh national assembly and is located near the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam's revolutionary leader and first president.
At one stage, Vietnam's government considered moving the legislature to the outskirts of Hanoi, but it has now decided to build the new assembly on the site of the existing Ba Dinh hall, adjacent to the ancient city ruins.
Authorities have put on display 17 design models for the new assembly. The exact size of the new building remains unclear, but officials say the development will allow for the adjacent ruins to be saved.
"The government has decided to preserve the area, not to build a national assembly building here," said Bui Minh Tri, secretary of the Thang Long Imperial Citadel site project and deputy director of Vietnam's Institute of Archeology. "We will build a museum or a historical park."
Workers are now excavating palace structures and artefacts in the area, which is shielded by a large plastic roof and closed to the general public, but work is set to be stepped up under the new project.
Japan has offered to provide financial and technical aid to protect and restore the citadel via a Japan-UNESCO (UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) fund, the state-run An Ninh Thu Do newspaper reported.
"Our goal is to preserve this historical site for the long term, not only for the celebrations of the 1,000th anniversary of Thang Long-Hanoi," said Tran Quang Dung, deputy chief for the National Steering Committee for 1,000 Years of Thang Long-Hanoi, according to the report.
"It's good news, we are very enthusiastic about this," said Edle Tenden, UNESCO's Vietnam culture programme coordinator.
"It's very timely and very strategic and we hope we can assist Hanoi in exploring different options for protecting what is a very important site with a surrounding area of urban heritage that is also very significant in Asia."
Hanoi became the capital of Vietnam in 1010 under the Ly dynasty. The name Thang Long, or Ascending Dragon, symbolised the desire for independence after a thousand years of Chinese domination, historians say.
The dig has unearthed ancient palace foundations and the remains of the central forbidden city, with ruins dating back 1,300 years to the Chinese Tang dynasty and then the Vietnamese dynasties of Ly, Tran, Le and Nguyen.
"The remains tell the story of Hanoi," said Tenden. "As long as we don't know the full story, it's a great idea to preserve the entire site."
Vietnam seeks to have the areas of the former forbidden city and central axis of the old citadel, the four sacred temples north, south, east and west of the citadel, and the ancient Temple of Literature recognised as a World Heritage site under a proposal it has submitted to UNESCO.