A thousand years of Vietnam's cultural heritage is in danger of being lost forever. Nom, the nation's classical handwritten script, faces extinction, with fewer than 100 scholars worldwide able to understand the characters. But a cash-strapped band of Nom preservationists won't let the script succumb without a fight and are using computers to translate and record the ancient writing system. Nom's unique characters are being standardised using the multilingual Unicode system, translation software has been devised, and academics aim to post a broad range of Nom texts on the internet for posterity. 'There's no preservation without modern technology,' says Ngo Thanh Nhan, vice-president of the US-based Vietnamese Nom Preservation Foundation. 'We're racing against time.' It's been a fast decline for a writing system that first evolved about 1,000 years ago. Using modified Chinese characters to express the native Vietnamese tongue, Nom was the national script, used in literature as well as in official state documents. But another writing system, Quoc ngu, was devised by Portuguese missionaries in the 17th century. It was based on the Roman alphabet, and as such was preferred by the French colonial powers in the 19th century. As a result, Nom finally gave way to Quoc ngu in the early 1900s. Now, there are more Vietnamese who can read Chinese than their own traditional version of it. Many of the old Nom documents deemed to have the greatest historical value have been translated into modern Vietnamese. But many more have not. And Nhan says it's not enough to allow what he calls Vietnam's monumental historical heritage to languish in the obscurity of museum archives. 'Preserving the knowledge in those artefacts is the most challenging and time-consuming thing,' he says. 'It's part of the wisdom of humanity. That's why the internet is the most appropriate tool for international preservation efforts.' Tens of thousands of ancient writings and wooden engravings in Nom are kept at two sites in Hanoi, the National Library and the Institute of Han-Nom Studies. But access to the archives is strictly controlled to slow the effects of time on the old works. Institute director Trinh Khac Manh says the key to preserving more than just the physical artefacts, along with technological means, is to teach Nom to the younger generation. But there isn't enough funding for the research that would give students an incentive to learn it. As a result, most of Vietnam's 30 or so Nom students give up after two years of study. Manh says it takes about 10 years to master Nom. That leaves most of the translation and technological work to a small, financially challenged group of academics. 'We lack staff,' Manh says. 'We have to do things bit by bit.' But there are signs that the preservation battle is gaining momentum. About two-thirds of the Nom characters have been standardised in Unicode and the first international conference on Nom preservation in Hanoi last November attracted about 200 international scholars, raising the profile of the project to digitise the ancient script. Now, it's a matter of attracting funding to accelerate the work.