When Tran Thi Diu and her fellow passengers file off the bus, it is as if they were stepping back in time. As their eyes adjust to the unusually bright Ha Noi sunshine, they slowly become aware of the incongruous sight of soldiers from the country’s Feudal Age standing solemnly in two neat lines, their spears pointed skywards.
Diu and her group are among the first visitors to the newly refurbished Co Loa Studios, which have just reopened for business following years in the wilderness. The studios were the first to be built in the country and were at the forefront of the domestic film industry for many years. Now they have been renovated to both service tourism and once again provide backdrops for the nation’s films.
A guide, dressed as a feudal mandarin, warmly receives the guests at the gate and introduces them to the studio and its prestigious history. He then takes his audience to watch a screening of excerpts from the most recent films shot on the site, including Thien Menh Anh Hung (Blood Lettter) and rather less exciting sounding Thai Su Tran Thu Do (Great Tutor Tran Thu Do).
The studio predominantly provides the scenery for historical epics, with a particular focus on royal interiors. Thus, the guests are treated to a battle recreation performed by the soldiers, with some utilising a repertoire of traditional martial arts manoeuvres, before being led inside into the “palace”.
The onlookers are then given a chance to get involved in the action themselves. They enter one studio and are taken into the heart of a royal party, complete with dancers and singers, before being given a choice of roles to adopt; King, Queen, royal mandarin, servant or soldier.
Photo opportunities abound as Diu and her group parade around the hall in their costumes, enjoying the royal festivities.
“Having a chance to do some acting is so interesting,” Diu says. “It has allowed me to relate to history much more closely. I’ll bring my children here when I have time, as it is a really fun way to educate them.”
Co Loa Studios, nearly 20km north of Ha Noi’s centre, were built in 1960 and quickly became the home of Vietnamese cinema, through both times of peace and war.
Eventually the studio complex was abandoned in 1980 due to the national economic crisis hitting the country at the time. The plot then stood abandoned until 2008, when the culture ministry decided to renovate the site with VND108 billion (US$54 million) of state funding. After a five-year rebuilding project, the studio is now once again open for business.
The main interior studio has been comprehensively upgraded and now comes complete with state-of-the-art light, sound and recording facilities. There is also an accompanying hotel complex with 30 rooms available for filmmakers and tourists.
“We have now finished the initial stage of development,” confirms Phan Van Hoa, director of the studio, excitedly. “However, there is lots of work still to do. We now want to develop longer tours and packaged wedding services with a royal theme. Then, we want to build a new function room, more parking facilities, a health care centre, a cinema…”
Currently the studios are only serving tour groups of up to 100 at a time, but it is hoped that in the near future they will be capable of hosting between three and four tours at weekends, with as many as 600 visitors.
Any development of tourism will have to take place parallel to the shooting schedules of filmmakers using the studios. Deputy director Pham Quoc Khanh told Viet Nam News that investment is in place to expand the studios so that they can offer more scope to movie directors and attract more productions to Co Loa.
These plans include the construction of five more interior studios, 5ha of outdoor studios and a special water tank for shooting underwater scenes.
The new outdoor areas will be bale 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.
Co Loa seems a suitable place to have a historical film studio and tourist attraction as the area itself is rooted in history. In the third century BC, Co Loa was the heart of the country of Au Lac, under the reign of King An Duong Vuong. After victory over northern invaders on the Bach Dang River in 938, ending centuries of Chinese domination, the victorious ruler Ngo Quyen chose to build his capital in Co Loa.
Subsequent excavations in the area have unveiled the remnants of a vast spiralling citadel complex from that era, including unique architecture and art.
Three walls widely circle around each other surrounded by water moats forming a network leading to the Hoang River. The mazy structure of the walls would have been useful for both defence and attack.
Last year, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung approved a master plan to build the 860ha Park of History, Culture and Ecology around the citadel relic, incorporating several ancient communes.
The plan will be implemented in the next 10 years, and alongside the expanded Co Loa Studios will turn the area into one of the capital’s key tourism hubs.