World recognition is being sought for a vast archive of administrative documents, many of them signed by the Nguyen kings from 1802 to 1945. Some of them record Vietnam's ownership of islands in the East Sea.

The papers, stored at National Archives Centre I in Hanoi, are an invaluable source for studying the history and culture of the feudal court's activities as well as Vietnam society in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Eighteen of the documents record the Nguyen dynasty's sovereignty over the Hoang Sa (Paracel) Archipelago. They reveal that teams would draw maps of the areas and marked the boundary pillars.

A document dated on June 21, 1838, (19th year of King Minh Menh reign) mentions an exploration team sent to Hoang Sa. It was led by Do Mau Thuong and supported by Le Trong Ba. The team examined 25 islands in the archipelago and completed four maps.

A scientific dossier of the documents has been submitted to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) for classification under its Memory of the World Programme.

"The documents are distinguished," said Professor Phan Huy Le, Chairman of the Vietnam History Science Association. "First of all, they contains official documents signed by the kings using royal seals.

"Secondly, the archives contain reports from localities seeking the king's intervention or ruling on various problems. These clarify many historic situations.”

Professor Le strongly believes the records will be accepted by UNESCO.

The documents also reflect issues ranging from minor local agricultural matters such as market prices and important matters like trading activities at the country's sea ports - as well as the diplomatic ties between Vietnam and other Indochinese countries, China and France.

According to the head of the National Archive Department, Vu Thi Minh Huong, before being sent to the centre for preservation, the documents were moved from place to place.

"That's why they have been seriously damaged," she said. "The centre's staff have organised the documents into books with an overall summary and lists of contents to make studying easier."

To date, not many scholars have seen the originals. Dao Hai Yen, an employee at the centre in Hanoi, said staff had suggested more exhibitions be held to make more people know they existed.

Phan Thanh Hai, Director of Hue Monuments Conservation Centre, said it would be more meaningful and useful if the documents were kept in Hue, where they were signed.

"In the documents, there must be details on royal rituals, architecture and music that we should know to re-organise the rituals, restore architecture and music," he said.

Several times, the Hue centre has co-ordinated with the national archive centre in Hanoi to host exhibitions on the Nguyen royal documents in Hue's former imperial palace.

"The exhibitions are active preparation for returning the documents to their original home," Hai said.

UNESCO has already recognised three documentary collections from Vietnam. These are printing blocks kept at National Archives Centre IV in the central city of Da Lat, Buddhist printing blocks kept at Vinh Nghiem Pagoda in Ho Chi Minh City, and 82 stone stele records of royal examinations from the Le and Mac dynasties (1442-1779) at the Literature Temple in Hanoi.-VNA