Ha Long Bay (1994)
It’s not long after spending some time researching or living abroad that the subject of UNESCO’s World Heritage sites comes up. Vietnam UNESCO sites are special and unique.

First of all, what are they, really? And what is ‘UNESCO’? It sounds like a food supplier for prisons.

Hoi An Ancient Town (1999)

UNESCO stands for the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. In 1972, they approved and launched the most universally recognized international convention in history – the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage. It covers many different types of sites around the globe (currently 981 sites (check out that cool interactive map!) – mountains, lakes, monuments, buildings, cities, complexes, and natural features are all treated with universal recognition).

Time to fire up the travel bucket list generator and see what my future plans will include…

Citadel of the Ho Dynasty (2011)

According to the UNESCO site, the convention aims to preserve “our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations.” It’s intended to be a uniting factor in our common humanity. They preserve that which has shaped us and our world, and that which we’ve shaped in turn. The program is exceptional because “World Heritage sites belong to all the peoples of the world, irrespective of the territory on which they are located.” Sites as diverse as the Great Barrier Reef, Angkor Wat, the Great Smokey Mountains, and the University of Virginia are all designated as vital either culturally, naturally, or both.

And what makes a site so culturally or physically significant that we’ve deemed it part of humanity’s common heritage?
Central Sector of the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long – Hanoi (2010)

Here’s the criteria applied to determine cultural and natural sites. Note that an interesting feature of the Heritage program is that it links cultural and natural sites, recognizing the intertwined natures of us animal humans in our habitats:

Cultural criteria

  • “represents a masterpiece of human creative genius”
  • “exhibits an important interchange of human values, over a span of time, or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town-planning, or landscape design”
  • “to bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared”
  • “is an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural, or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates a significant stage in human history”
  • “is an outstanding example of a traditional human settlement, land-use, or sea-use which is representative of a culture, or human interaction with the environment especially when it has become vulnerable under the impact of irreversible change”
  • “is directly or tangibly associated with events or living traditions, with ideas, or with beliefs, with artistic and literary works of outstanding universal significance”
Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park (2003)

Natural criteria

  • “contains superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance”
  • “is an outstanding example representing major stages of Earth’s history, including the record of life, significant on-going geological processes in the development of landforms, or significant geomorphic or physiographic features”
  • “is an outstanding example representing significant on-going ecological and biological processes in the evolution and development of terrestrial, fresh water, coastal and marine ecosystems, and communities of plants and animals”
  • “contains the most important and significant natural habitats for in-situ conservation of biological diversity, including those containing threatened species of outstanding universal value from the point of view of science or conservation”
Complex of Hué Monuments (1993)

There are currently seven World Heritage Sites in Vietnam. State Parties pledge to protect and maintain sites, and are entrusted with the preservation of whatever makes the site special.

This is undeniably a noble calling, and one that my empathetic and altruistic instincts naturally gravitate towards – when I was touring Angkor Wat, I had a two-day fantasy about becoming a preservation artist/archaeologist/master of rebuilding history, which is a nice fantasy, but seriously, how tedious and painstaking would that job be? No thanks.

The most famous are Hoi An (Ancient Town) and Ha Long Bay. Before being inducted into the upper echelon, sites must be placed on a tentative list. Currently, Vietnam has an additional 7 sites awaiting an influx of international tourists:

My Son Sanctuary (1999)

In my time here, I know I’ll at least get to a majority, and hopefully all, of them – I shouldn’t miss this opportunity to immerse myself in the past of this intriguing and wonderful country. I’m curious to see what makes these places so special to Vietnam and, by extension, to all of humanity. That, and I just love taking pictures of trees and pretty rocks!

After all, as a citizen of Earth, a minuscule slice of each site already belongs to me – time to go check out what we’ll be responsible for some day! Expect updates as I tick them off the list…