The Clandestine History of Vietnam: Interview with Historian Tim Doling

Vietnam’s History

Hue Grit History Tour
Thanh Toan Bridge. Image taken from Hue Then and Now Facebook group.

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.

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the former Council of Ministers building that is now the Huế Monuments Conservation Centre. Image taken from Hue Then and Now Facebook group.

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.

Hue History Grit Tour
Tran Huong Dao, formerally Rue Paul Bert under the French Administration. Taken from the Hue Then & Now facebook group.

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).

Hue History Grit Tour
Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church on Nguyen Hue Street. Image taken from Hue Then and Now facebook group.

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.

Tim and His Plans for the Future

Hue History Grit TourWhere have you lived in Vietnam and What do you love about living here?

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.

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Hue History Grit Tour
New book Exploring Hue by Tim Doling.

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.

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