The Clandestine History of Vietnam: Interview with Historian Tim Doling

Hue history then and now grit tour

Vietnam’s History

I first came across Tim Doling in 2014 when I discovered the facebook group ‘Saïgon Chợ Lớn Then & Now’. As well as one of the groups founders, Tim frequently contributes to the history group which now boasts more than 6,000 members. He has also started other ‘Then & Now’’ groups for different cities in Vietnam. The groups’ popularity stems from their broad appeal. light in text and grand in photography. The images submitted as ‘present day’ try to replicate the frame of the image that accompanies them from the past. where everything is moving at breakneck speeds, It’s hard to grasp the rate of development in a country like Vietnam but ‘Then & Now’ act as worthy records. Members only need a slight interest in the concept of change to find submissions fascinating.

Where Tim’s facebook groups lack written context, his publications excel in narratives of Vietnamese history. The Railways and Tramways of Việt Nam (2012) and Exploring Hồ Chí Minh City (2014) are two of Tim’s books that sought light on information previously unavailable to the western public. His writing is academic, yet engaging and digestible. Tim’s work provides a bridge for non-native readers to learn about Vietnam’s history in a country that still has so much to uncover for itself.

As a resident of Hue, I was extremely excited to find out that Tim had completed and published Exploring Hue in spring 2018. I bought a copy as soon as I could and was impressed about how much I learnt in the first 100 pages compared to the first 7 years of actually living in Vietnam. I got in touch with Tim to talk more about his new book, the fascinating history of the imperial city, Vietnam’s clandestine relationship with it’s past and what the future holds for one of the world’s fastest developing countries.

Hue history

Exploring Hue: Interview with Tim Doling

What gave you the inspiration to write Exploring Hue?Huế was high on my list of places to write about, because although it’s a major tourist destination, I felt that most visitors only see a tiny fraction of what is there and go away without a real understanding of the city’s history. I already had lots of notes from all of my previous trips to Huế, and people kept asking me if they could borrow them, so I thought that I should publish a full book.How long did it take to complete Exploring Hue?I have visited Huế many times since 1989 (when cattle still roamed the grounds of the Imperial City), but the actual process of writing this book took exactly two years, 2015-2017. Most of the writing was done from my home in Saigon, but the process involved several extended research trips to Huế. In between times I was carrying out extensive research of local and international sources, I also benefited from the generous cooperation of the Huế Department of Culture and Tourism, which supplied me with a lot of Vietnamese documentation and introduced me to key local experts who were all extremely helpful with their time and knowledge. I was also lucky that one of the department’s staff, Mr Trần Văn Dũng, is an expert on Huế and spent much time advising me and assisting me with the text.Every research trip made during this period had to be extensively preplanned, so that I knew exactly what I had to go and do in advance of my arrival. Each trip involved very intensive travel around the province, with write-up sessions each evening on return to Huế.Personally, I’ve taken particular interest in the histories of Thanh Thai and the Hac Bao fighting unit when reading Exploring Hue. Are there any particular characters or buildings that have further sought your interest?That’s a very difficult question to answer as there are so many fascinating stories surrounding so many Huế personalities and heritage sites. Yes the Thành Thái story is fascinating, particularly as only now is the real history beginning to emerge from behind the myths which have for so long been accepted blindly. The story of Thành Thái’s father Dục Đức and his two equally unfortunate successors is also fascinating, that too is only now coming to light, having been shrouded for years beneath the “official history” of the years 1883-1885. I’d love to do more research on some of the great mandarin families of the late 19th century, but sadly will probably never have the time as I must move on to other areas.If there are three locations or artifacts in Hue that you would consider solid evidence for any tourist to visit the city, what would they be?My two favourite areas which are largely overlooked at present are the North of the Citadel where visitors can learn about the history of the Ngự Hà Canal, and the Gia Hội quarter which contains numerous Chinese assembly halls and princely residences. But I also love the royal tomb circuits – my personal favourite is the one which leads to the Gia Long Mausoleum and also incorporates numerous other Nguyễn lords’ and queens’ tombs. Stunning scenery and fascinating history.In your book, you’ve mentioned how many historical sites, such as the tombs built before 1802 and some French colonial buildings, are not protected by UNESCO and are thus being lost through decay and demolition. It felt like you resisted writing emotionally about the loss of these landmarks. Do you think there will be any change in the future regarding Huế’s or UNESCOS policy and these buildings will be saved?Where pre-1802 structures are concerned, I think we have to be realistic, Huế Monuments Conservation Centre already has a massive and very costly task just maintaining the key heritage sites inscribed on the UNESCO list, it does its best with limited funds, and at present a more general programme of restoration involving all of the pre-1802 relics is beyond its capacity. It is lucky that the Nguyễn Family Council is there to provide some basic maintenance of the other sites, but I hope that by finally putting these sites firmly on the tourist map it will help draw attention to the need for additional funds to preserve and interpret them properly.There is however a real problem concerning the lack of recognition and protection of Huế’s colonial and post-colonial buildings – just as in Saigon, many important structures have already been lost and the destruction is still ongoing. The demolition of the old colonial villa in its front yard by the “Heritage Hotel” a few years back is a case in point.My chapter on the city centre tries to introduce what’s survived in the hope that the authorities will recognize its potential value and prevent further destruction.I was very pleased to read a recent Vietnamese article talking about some colonial era buildings which are now being considered for listing as heritage sites, including La Residence Hotel, so maybe things are starting to change.Huế recently received it’s first Vincom Centre. Regarding other cities and their socio-economic developments, how will this affect Huế’s socio-cultural history and do you think there will be any difference in how Huế responds to development in the future compared to other cities in the county?I’m sure that the Vincom Centre will be a very useful addition to the city. No-one ever suggested that Huế should not develop as a modern and prosperous city, and modern shopping centres and commercial developments are part of that. The problems start when these new commercial developments begin to spring up in the historic core at the expense of important heritage structures, which is precisely what’s been going on in Saigon. Once built heritage has gone, it’s gone forever, and the visitors who came here hoping to see it will not return.
tim doling exploring hue

Working with Vietnamese History

It would appear you rediscovered your passion with history while based in Vietnam. What took you away from history to more cultural-based projects and what brought you back to it while in Vietnam?Unless you are a teacher/academic or author, being a historian is not really a viable career. I had a long and enjoyable career in theatre and the arts, and now I’m retired I am lucky enough to be able to go back to being a historian again, by researching and writing about the place I live in. What makes it so rewarding here is that Việt Nam is only now beginning to rediscover aspects of its history which for years have been lost.On an international level, there are several leading academics doing pioneering work on the history of Việt Nam, but much of that material never reaches a general audience.Meanwhile, here in Việt Nam there are also many specialized historians working at both a national and local level, unearthing important details about the history of the country on a daily basis, but comparatively little of the valuable work they do ever gets translated into English.Having been involved in tourism in Việt Nam since the 1990s, I can see that there is a big gap between the needs of the sophisticated modern cultural tourist and the “tourist experience” currently on offer. And one of the most obvious inadequacies is history. So I suppose I see my task as that of a facilitator, bringing the best of both international and local scholarship together in the form of English language guidebooks. Given the number of places I would still like to research and write about, it looks like I have a job to keep me busy for many years!Knowing each culture has its own relationship with its history, how do you feel Vietnamese history differs from other countries and cultures you’ve worked with? Also, how do you feel about the writing process in this regard? Did you have approach writing Exploring Hue differently?Of course every culture has its own unique history, the big difference here is that for a number of reasons Vietnamese history not being transmitted effectively through the medium of English to the many visitors who are keen to learn about it.By trying to fill a gap in the provision of information, I hope I can help in some small way to encourage understanding and appreciation of Vietnamese history and most important remind the authorities of the potential value of Vietnamese heritage as a tourism and general economic resource.Exploring Huế was intended from the outset to be both a general introduction to the Nguyễn dynasty (which has hitherto been poorly documented) and a more detailed overview of the incredible built heritage of Huế (of which most visitors only see a fraction).
Khai Dinh Tomb Exploring Hue

Vietnam and It’s History

How would you describe your perception of Vietnamese history and that of the board of tourism in Vietnam? Would you say there are any disparities?

Like a number of local historians, I feel that the Vietnamese tourism industry currently fails to meet the expectations of the sophisticated modern tourist when it comes to the provision of historical information, and particularly the interpretation of the natural and built environment.

When I first came to Việt Nam in 1989-1990, the tour guides were working with the very restricted historical information which was deemed acceptable at that time, and as western tourists began to arrive in the 1990s they began to improvise as best they could, trying to make things more interesting. This is when the various myths began to appear which have since become accepted as truth on Wikipedia and elsewhere – like Eiffel designing and building the Long Biên and Trường Tiên bridges in Hà Nội and Huế and the Post Office in Saigon, like the servants who carried the emperors’ bodies to the mausoleums all being killed to ensure secrecy, etc etc.

I feel that the tourist authorities fail to understand that fascinating stories can be woven around much of Việt Nam’s built heritage (including colonial and post-colonial structures) and that these can be used to develop attractive cultural tourism products, yet the history syllabus of the tourism schools does not touch on this. Meanwhile the authorities everywhere are giving the green light to developers to destroy the very thing many high-paying cultural tourists come here to see. I often quote the deputy manager of a big hotel in Saigon who told me back in 2014 “The problem with Saigon is that there’s nothing to see.”

I have had the pleasure of working with some excellent tour guides in Việt Nam, but where history and heritage is concerned, they have all had to supplement their skills through self-study. Sadly, many others leave tourist school woefully under-equipped to interpret the fascinating story of their country to foreign visitors.

With Huế in particular, I also feel that its geography and topography is ideal for the development of independent travel, but I am aware that there’s still a certain amount of resistance to letting foreign travellers access certain heritage sites without a licensed guide. This is an issue all over Việt Nam, not just in Huế. The logic seems to be that a guidebook like mine, packed with historical data and with GPS coordinates and instructions on how to get to each site, is a potential threat to the livelihood of local tour guides, but I believe that there is room for both guided and independent travel.

What inspired you to begin the facebook group Saigon and Cholon Then and Now? Are you surprised by it’s popularity? Have there been any difficulties with the facebook group?

I started Saigon-Chợ Lớn Then & Now back in 2014 together with Brian Letwin of Saigoneer, mainly with the aim of encouraging interest in local history and highlighting the rapid pace of change in the built environment, particularly the ongoing loss of built heritage. Today it’s run by myself and Tom Hricko and we have not encountered any difficulties.

It’s great to see how it has become so popular, obviously Tom and I always try to ensure that it remains a non-political space. The same applies to the Đài Quan sát Di sản Sài Gòn – Saigon Heritage Observatory group, of which I was also one of the founders.

Another point about Saigon-Chợ Lớn Then & Now is that, compared to the availability of other old photographs, there is a disproportionately large resource of old images taken by US military personnel in the 1960s and early 1970s, so we always try to ensure that there is balance in the type of historical images used.

Interview Hue Grit Tour

Tim and His Plans for the Future

I lived in HCMC from 1995-1997 (after marrying my wife Nhung, a former classical ballet dancer whom I had met while her company was performing in Thailand), then after a few years in the UK we came back and lived in Hà Nội from 1999-2004 (where my daughter was born). We returned again in 2010, and have been here in HCMC ever since.I love the optimism and friendliness here, and my research gives me many opportunities to get to know so many people all around the country from all walks of life. Perhaps that’s what I enjoy most about the whole process of researching and writing books.I read that you’re planning to do an Exploring Danang and Hoi An for your next publication, what other projects do you have in mind or are currently working on?I am currently two thirds of the way through “Exploring Đà Nẵng and Hội An,” but it has been on hold for a year or so due to other work. At present I am completely rewriting Exploring Hồ Chí Minh City, which will be republished later this year in larger format and with much more information, including a new chapter on Biên Hòa. I also plan to write a guidebook on the Mekong Delta provinces, hope to begin the research this Summer.

A big thanks to Tim for taking the time to answer our questions. His new book ‘Exploring Hue’ can be found at stores around Vietnam.

Huế Then & Now Facebook group.

Saïgon Chợ Lớn Then & Now Facebook group.

Saigon Heritage Observatory Facebook group.

Tim’s website Historic Vietnam.

Tim works with tour guides on occasion to which you can get more information from here.

Hue Grit Tour

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Hue Food: 10 Local Dishes You Must Try When You’re in Hue, Vietnam

Dessert Vietnamese Hue

10 Hue Foods You Must Try

Regional specialty dishes are often overlooked by visitors travelling Vietnam. While pho and banh mi are world-renowned as Vietnamese food, there are some less-discovered creations awaiting your enjoyment in every province of the country. This is especially true for local Hue food. The city’s cultural heritage and long-standing affluence has produced foods that solely belong to the area yet celebrated around Vietnam. To spare you the search and mind-boggling google translations, here is a guide of 10 local Hue foods you have to try. Although the majority include meat, There are vegan options available around the city. If you want to pack as much in as possible during your time in Hue, why not take a deepdive into the food scene with a Hue Grit Food Tour? We not only show you where Hue’s best local food is but tell you how to eat it and the social-historical context of each dish. Check out our tripadvisor if to see we’re the best Hue food tour the city has to offer!

The Noodles, the Rice & the Meat

1. Bun Bo Hue: Hearty Noodle Meat Feast

noodles hue vietnam bun bo hue best food
/>If pho vacates it’s title of ‘most famous Vietnamese noodle dish’, I’m sure that bun bo hue would be next in line. A direct translation would be ‘beef (bo) vermicelli noodles (bun) from Hue’. Bun Bo Hue is a meat feast. It’s primary ingredients, beef brisket, oxtail, pig knuckles and congealed pig’s blood are stewed in a huge pot along with lemongrass and some chili then served with veggies and leafy greens. It might seem too much for one dish but foodies find themselves ordering more. Best eaten on colder days for central heating at the back of a packed hole in the wall.

2. Com Hen / Bun Hen: Majestic and Appetizing

Com Hen Hue Grit Tour Local Food
One of the more gracious entries to the local Hue food list. Com hen translates into baby mussels (hen) and rice (com). The dish’s supporting cast include fresh produce (starfruit, green mango, banana leaf,variety of herbs) and fried treats (pork rind, peanuts). Com hen can be served dry or wet depending on your preference. Chili relish, shrimp paste and fish sauce are the usual sauces to accompany com hen. vermicelli noodles (bun hen) is also an optional substitute for rice. One serving is usually too small for a whole meal, be ready to order more. Com hen has a unique spot in the culinary history of Vietnam. Read our article about the dish and it’s relationship with the city here. Can be eaten at any time of the day and any time of the year but best on a warm day with a cooling lemon juice.

3. Bun Thit Nuong Hue: Sassy Tropical Tongue-Melter

Bun Thut Nuong Hue Food Tour
Another tasty Hue noodle dish. Unlike bun bo hue, bun thit nuong is a food served dry and cool. When hot soup-based noodle dishes don’t work in sweltering heat, bun thit nuong is the answer. Grilled pork and vermicelli noodles topped with papaya, scallions, leafy greens, herbs and crushed peanuts. An optional tablespoon or two of fish sauce. The result is an explosion of flavors perfect for a light meal. Best eaten on a scorching summer day.

4. Nem Lui: Aromatic Grilled Beef Spring Rolls

pork skewers best food Hue Grit Tour

Grilled ground pork skewers are nothing new but when those skewers are made from lemongrass, nem lui holds itself up pretty well. Another Hue food now found nationwide. As with all Vietnamese street foods, Nem Lui isn’t a one-trick pony. Straight from the grill, you should take the meat off the skewer, wrap it in rice paper with greens (to make something akin to a spring roll) and dunk into it’s accompanying sauce before taking a bite. Only after taking these steps, you’ve reached Nem Lui nirvana. Best to eat as an evening snack, street food straight from the BBQ. Nem Lui can be found with the sense of smell, most BBQs selling Nem Lui waft the aromatic combination of lemongrass and grilled eat through the street. We can’t find a vegetarian Nem Lui in Hue but Lien Hoa has mecan on bamboo which is mildly similar and damn tasty.

The Banhs (savoury cakes)!

5. Banh Khoai: the Hue Pancake

Banh Khoai Vietnam Hue pancake
If you’ve tried banh xeo and loved it, banh khoai is it’s local hue food cousin and you don’t want to miss it. A rice-flour savoury pancake filled with pork, shrimp and beansprouts. Sometimes with quail eggs too! Served sizzling hot from the frying pan with a side of starfruit and local herbs. A spoonful of peanut sauce on top of the banh khoai adds the 4th dimension to the flavour-packed dish. Experiment with the quantities of the condiments to get the balance right. Unlike banh xeo, these aren’t rolled up. Eat them straight from the bowl. It’s a greasy affair so roll up your sleeves. Best eaten as a sundowner/evening snack.

6. Banh Beo Chen: Your Edible Beer Buddy

Hue Grit Tour Banh Beo Chen
Banh beo is quite simply a jelly-like savoury cake consisting of rice flour and tapioca. Topped with pork rind, grated shrimp and finely chopped onions. Servings usually come in batches meaning it’s best shared with a friend or two. When eating banh beo, drip some onion oil on top then dig it out from it’s dish with a spoon. Best eaten as a snack any time of the day. Always great with a shared conversation and a beer to compliment the spice.

7. Banh Ram It Hue: Devils’ Delight

Banh Ram It Hue Grit Tour
This one is a personal favourite. Banh ram it is a triple-layered circular stack of varying textures. At the cake’s base is a crispy, deep-fried rice cracker. Sitting above is a rice dumpling stuffed with pork and shrimp. Topped with scallions and minced shrimp. Not so different from banh beo chen but more filling, more crisp. All in bitesize pieces, that’s if you have a big mouth like me. Best eaten as a snack at any time of the year.

8. Banh Trang and Banh Ep: Vietnamese Pizza

Vietnamese Pizza Hue Grit Tour
Two local hue foods that are highly popular with students are banh ep and banh trang. Banh ep is a soft thin pancake with vegetables and spicy condiments to be rolled up into a spring roll and eaten fresh off the smoker. Banh Trang is a fried rice cracker topped with herbs luminous sauces and meat. People refer to this as Vietnamese pizza but prepared to be heart broken because this thing doesn’t include a doughy base or elaborate cheeses. The best street-food stalls selling banh ep and banh trang are usually sat beside student dormitories and open until very late at night. Although Hue claims it as it’s own, banh ep actually comes from nearby Thuan An beach.

The Sweet and Fruity

9. Va Tron: Exclusive Local Fruit

Vietnamese salad Hue Grit Tour
There aren’t many fruits and vegetables on this list of Hue foods but this entry makes up for it. Trai va (fig) is particularly special because it only grows in Hue and rarely outside of the region. It’s an unusual fruit since it doesn’t has the properties you would associate more with a vegetable. It’s freshy and savoury. Sometimes brown and sometimes pink. It is used in local salads, soups and even as a meat alternative. Lots of restaurants with larger menus have Va Tron. If you’re feeling unsure, go to the vegetarian address below. I dare you, carnivore.

10. Che & Chè Bột Lọc Thịt Heo Quay: Sweet Dessert for All the Family

che hue grit tour best local food in hue

The only Vietnamese pudding on this list. Che is not only a popular Vietnamese dessert but all over South East Asia. While Che comes in plenty of varieties, Hue has it’s own take on the regional favourite. Chè bột lọc thịt heo quay is a sweet flour dumpling topped with ginger and a porky surprise within! Certainly one of Hue’s stranger local foods. Nevertheless, if you’re not keen on the meaty addition to your dessert, try another of the many che varieties on offer. Some stands boast more than 20 varieties. If you’re a sweet-toothed kind of human being, challenge yourself to try them all. Me? I would rather take a cigarette to conclude a food gorge. Excuse the cough.

What Other Local Food is Out There?

Finding Hue restaurants is only half the challenge. Knowing how to eat them can be just as difficult! Want a guided culinary adventure? Join us on the Hue Grit Tour! We’re more than happy to show you around and how these foods are eaten!
These aren’t the only dishes available in Hue. In fact, this is just a cornerstone of the Hue culinary experience. If you’re an adventurer. Get out to the streets of Hue and dive deep into the endless amounts of restaurants and street food available.

Looking for a homely lunch? Check out Nha Cafe.

More inclined to some buddhist-leaning vegetarian food? Visit our list of best vegetarian restaurants in Hue.
There are also plenty of fantastic seafood restaurants. Others also serve some very bizarre dishes. Both of these will be covered in future articles.

Have you visited Hue already? Which foods did you try? Which dishes were unforgettable? Are there any you’re trying to forget? Comment below.

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Want to know more? Check out the itinerary.
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Photos by Ana Fortuna.